Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jack Nabors: the anti-Clayton Kershaw

Last season, when I came up with my first Kyle Davies and Dan Meyer Award winners for 2013, a comment accused me of focusing too much on the negative. It was a fair enough comment since the awards go to the worst players in a particular baseball season. There is just something that fascinates me about players that do not succeed in such a spectacular fashion. The world focuses so much on success, that perhaps I am drawn to the opposite. Poor Jack Nabors pitched for three years in Major League Baseball. He was about as much on the opposite side of success as you can get. He was the anti-Clayton Kershaw.
For example, Nabors, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1915 to April of 1917, pitched on the worst teams in MLB history. The team he joined in 1915 were just a season away from losing the 1914 World Series and had won it three times in the four years prior to that. But Connie Mack had a problem. The team was going broke despite the success and the purging of his best players would not be repeated until the Florida Marlins did the same thing after their World Series win. He got rid of everybody.
Thus, when Jack Nabors showed up in 1915, the A's were the fourteenth worst team in baseball history with a 43-109 record. Then Jack Nabors played his only full season in the NaborsMajors in 1916 on THE worst team in baseball history. The 1916 Athletics won only 36 games and had 117 losses. That .235 team winning percentage was the worst ever in the modern era of baseball. Even the 1962 Mets were better.
The 1916 Athletics came in dead last in OPS by the batters and dead last in ERA from the pitching. They also made over 300 errors and came in dead last in fielding percentage. They were a really bad team. Connie Mack's team went 11-32 in one-run games and were blown out in 39 of their games. In the two full months of June and July, the team won five games. Not five games in each month--five games total.
Into this atmosphere walked one Herman Jackson Nabors. Some scout must have found him in an obscure D League called the Georgia - Alabama League that had only begun a couple of years earlier where Jack Nabors was twirling at the age of 27 against much younger players. He was 12-1 for the Talladega Tigers and Newnan Cowetas when Mack paid Newnan $500 to purchase Nabors.
According to Baseball-reference.com, 1915 was Nabors' first minor league year. Research has shown that not to be the case. A guy doesn't usually show up at the age of 27 in the minors. The trouble is, the trail is cold. The 1910 U.S. Census shows Herman Nabors living with his father, James Crow Nabors (I know, right?), a farmer in Montevallo, Alabama. Next to Herman (Jack) was his information including his occupation and that was listed as a baseball pitcher with his employer being listed as the Southern League.
The Southern League wasn't called that back then. It was then called the Southern Association and I looked at the rosters of all the teams in that league from 1909 - 1914 and did not find any pitcher with a name anywhere close to Nabors. Often times, players used aliases so as to get their pay and not have to worry about taxes. It was a very common practice. If you look at many names from any minor league team from that time period and you find no birthplace, no birthdate and a question mark in B-R's database on even the player's name.
Anyway, you can get the idea that from his census record, he was pitching for a living somewhere until he shows up on the 1915 D-League under his own name. In other words, my research could not find him anywhere.
That research fail happens often when looking for Herman Jackson Nabors. We know his birthdate as November 19, 1887 and we know he died on October 29, 1923 at the age of 35. We even have his tombstone shown below.
Nabors ts
But that tombstone leads to another question. He is listed as Sergeant Jack Nabors and that he served in World War 1 and perhaps that led to his early death. But I could not find an enlistment record or any military record for Herman Jackson Nabors or Jack Nabors or Herman Nabors or H.J. Nabors. Tombstones don't lie though.
The Nabors family can trace their roots back to an interesting guy named Abraham Neighbours who settled in Pennsylvania prior to 1690. According to the story, he was a French Huguenot. He was among many who were driven out of his adopted Pennsylvania home by Indians and fled south to Virginia. Virginia was not keen on Huguenots either so he kept going further south. According to research found, the man lived until he was 114 years old and his wife was still alive at 105 and they were married for over 80 years!
One record said that Abraham served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, but that has to be impossible as he would have been in his 90s! That perhaps was his son, Abraham Jr.
Anyway, forgive my little side trip, I get lost in these details. Back to 1915 and Jack Nabors.
Nabors made his MLB debut on August 9, 1915 against the Chicago White Sox at Shibe Park. He pitched a complete game even though he allowed twenty base runners. But only five of his eight runs allowed were earned. He lost the game. He started five days later against the Yankees and got clobbered and did not make it to the end of the fifth inning and lost again.
He didn't pitch again for ten days and then it was in relief and he did not pitch well there either. He was better in his next start against the St. Louis Browns, but he still lost a 5-3 game in a complete game effort. You can see where this is going.
Nabors pitched six more times that season including three more starts. He lost twice more and finished his first season at 0-5. That was just a prelude to 1916, where it would get worse.
To get an indication of how bad the 1916 Athletics were, Jack Nabors was their opening day starter. His mound opponent was another Herman--George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Nabors would pitch four innings without giving up a run. He was relieved by Bullet Joe Bush who gave up two unearned runs and lost the game, 2-1. Babe Ruth got the first of his 23 wins in 1916 and Bush (un)earned his first loss in a 24-loss season. The A's season was off to a resounding thud.
Nabors would lose his next start against the Yankees for his sixth straight MLB loss even though he pitched reasonably well. The final score was 4-2. But then a strange thing happened!
On April 22, 1916, Jack Nabors beat the Boston Red Sox in a complete game gem that his team won, 6-2. Both runs were unearned. His fielders were awful. Jack Nabors was 1-1 for 1916 with a 1.42 ERA! It was the pinnacle of his career. It was all downhill from there.
After that win, Jack Nabors toiled the entire rest of the season and never won another game. In fact, he lost nineteen games in a row, to this day a single season record. But just so you don't think it was all his fault, check out the losses:
7-6, 16-2 (okay, those two were clunkers), 3-1, 4-3, 3-2, 5-0, 6-4, 3-2, 7-3, 7-2, 3-2, 3-0, 9-0, 4-3, 3-1, 2-0, 2-0, 9-1 and 4-1. If I have done my math correctly, his team scored 32 runs in those 19 straight losses, were shut out five times and scored two runs or less in 14 of the 19 losses.
Nabors' final record that season of 1-20 and  with its .048 winning percentage is the single worst winning percentage for any pitcher in a season with more than 20 starts. Nabors 3.47 ERA was not all that bad (82 ERA+) when you consider that 28 of the 110 runs he allowed that season were unearned. He finished eleven of his 30 starts.
Nabors would pitch twice more for the A's in relief in 1917 until he was traded on April 29 to Indianapolis of the American Association along with $5,000 for the 37 year old Cy Falkenberg. That was a heck of a deal for Indianapolis as it was Falkenberg's last year in the Majors.
Nabors would pitch dutifully for the Indians in 1917 and also that same year with the Denver Bears in the Western League. He would go 9-18 for those two clubs so things did not improve much for him. He would pitch three more starts for the Sioux City Indians in 1918 and lost all three before hanging it up for good or until the war came along.
Jack Nabors made 37 starts in the Major Leagues to go with fifteen relief appearances. His overall record of 1-25 complete record sets the standard for all pitchers with at least 20 starts in a career with his .038 winning percentage. Only Joe Harris (1905-1907) and Mike Thompson (1971-1975) come close. Joe Harris had a 3-30 record in his career. He could commiserate.
Nabors had an unfortunate career, but he did pitch in the Major Leagues against the likes of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. He would die way too young, but his spectacular lack of success in Major League Baseball will live on forever.

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