1 year, 98 errors: Meet the worst player ever

That's what Google says

February 27th, 2022
Art by Tom Forget

A version of this story was originally published in January 2021.

Growing up in Altoona, Pa., John Gochnaur always wanted to be a professional baseball player. More specifically, he wanted to be a shortstop.

He idolized Altoona Mountain City's Germany Smith -- a slick-fielding shortstop who played in the Union Association and National League from 1884-98. Smith led the league in assists and fielding percentage in various years and was a constant stolen-base threat. A solid ballplayer.

That's likely all Gochnaur needed.

He didn't have to be great or famous -- just someone who played baseball and played it well enough. Unfortunately, that's not how he's remembered. At least, that's not how Google remembers him.

Go ahead and try it. Ask Google: "Who's the worst baseball player ever?"

The name John Gochnaur, and only the name John Gochnaur, comes up.

No list of players with the worst numbers.

No Top 10 article like Google shows you when you search, "Who are the best baseball players ever?"

Nope. Just poor old Gochnaur and his lowly stats.

But is it actually true? I mean, yes, Gochnaur was not great.

In 264 Major League games from 1901-03, he slashed at an abysmal .187/.258/.240 clip with zero home runs. He has the record for most at-bats (908) without a homer for a player who batted below .200. His OPS+ was a dismal 45. He was even more miserable on defense -- making an almost impossible 146 errors in those 264 games. He made 98 miscues in 1903 alone, making him the last fielder to commit 90 or more in a single season. That's an error every 1.3 games. He made 48 in 1902, including five in one doubleheader.

As BaseballGuru.com's Mike Attiyeh wrote back in 2003, "Few have been worse than Gochnaur with the bat, and fewer still might have been worse than Gochnaur in the field, but none combined the two-way futility quite the way Gochnaur did."

A century later, a Congressman compared what he thought was an inept bill to Gochnaur. Even a 2010 episode of "Bones" -- a series about crime and murder -- referenced Gochnaur as the worst all time.

HODGINS: How's it going?

ARASTOO: Dr. Brennan's waiting for cause of death. At this rate, I'm gonna be John Gochnaur.

ANGELA: Okay, boys, I'll bite. Who is John Gochnaur?

ARASTOO: Worst Major League Baseball player ever.

HODGINS: Cleveland Indians. .187 batting average. Zero home runs and 146 errors.

ANGELA: Well, is that bad?

HODGINS: Yeah. It's incomprehensibly bad.

But Gochnaur did have some positive moments.

In his first season with Brooklyn (three games, but still), Gochnaur had four hits in 11 at-bats. He scored a run, stole a base and committed zero errors. Before that, playing on various Minor League and independent league teams, Gochnaur found some success. According to SABR, he once hit .278 for Dayton in the Class B Interstate League, he was actually -- at times -- known for his range in the infield and he even made a fence-scaling catch and double play while playing outfield in the Class B New England League. He became a fan favorite.

But playing for Cleveland in 1902-03, things just fell apart.

He had back injuries, his career batting average dipped below .200 and his midseason .860 fielding percentage in '03 was the worst in the league. He tried anything -- desperately switching to lefty at the plate. It didn't work. Fans and the media said he was out of shape. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote in '03, "success was too much for him ... his fielding fell till" and "was on par with his hitting, which was never anything to brag about."

Gochnaur was released after the '03 season and tried his luck in the Pacific Coast League. That also didn't go well. He hit .172 in three seasons -- including a ridiculous .156 average over 215 games with the San Francisco Seals. He joined the Class A Western League in '07 and hit over .250 that year, but made a league-leading 72 errors.

Goch eventually gave up after that and became an umpire. He later moved back to Altoona to work as a policeman and bartender.

So, is he the worst MLB player of all time? Maybe. But it's hard to whittle down that distinction to just one person of the nearly 20,000 who've graced a big league diamond. There are players who have been bad for longer. The one big thing going against Gochnaur? Google. The world's go-to answer machine has deemed him the guy.

Hey, you know what they say: Better to be remembered as the worst baseball player ever than to not be remembered at all.