Let me tell you the most amazing story in Altoona baseball history. And it has nothing to do with Adam Hyzdu or Brad Eldred, nothing to do with the Curve or Rail Kings.
138 years ago, in 1884, did you know that Altoona was home to a major league baseball team?
Not minor league. Not independent. A true, recognized major league team – the Altoona Mountain Citys.
That’s right, little ol’ Altoona once had its own major league club, albeit a very short lived one. Oh, and one that, according to some baseball historians, really shouldn’t be considered a major league team, even though it’s recognized as such in baseball statistics.
As an added bonus, this story includes the fascinating story of a man who was the top ballplayer on the Mountain Citys team way back in 1884. He was a guy named Germany Smith who has his own interesting baseball history and died in Altoona in 1927 after a car accident.
I have long been fascinated by the stories of both the Mountain Citys and Deutschland Smith and have been trying to find the right time to write about them here in the Mirror. Unfortunately, the opportunity finally came because starting today and every Thursday throughout the season, the Curve will honor the 1884 Club by wearing Altoona Mountain Citys jerseys to home games at the Peoples Natural Gas Field.
So if you’re headed to the ballpark tonight — or every Thursday this season — that’s why the Curve is wearing these jerseys.
The mountain towns
Professional baseball was a hodgepodge of teams and leagues across the country in the late 18th century. Leagues of varying talent popped up everywhere, then pretty quickly disappeared or were taken over by other leagues.
In 1884 a new league called the Union Association was formed. It consisted of teams in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia, among others.
One of the others, believe it or not, was Altoona.
The Mountain Citys were owned by two guys named Arthur Dively and William Ritz. The team played its home games at Columbia Park near Sixth Street, Fourth Avenue and Mill Run Road.
The following is an excerpt from the Mountain Cities, written by Tim Hagerty at www.sabr.org:
The railroad town of Altoona, in Central Pennsylvania, was not originally included in the Union Association’s plans. League President Henry Lucas spent months fielding clubs in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington. For ease of travel, Lucas was keen to add a franchise in Pittsburgh, halfway between the East and West teams.
Lucas’s pursuit in Pittsburgh failed, but a minor-league club in Altoona, 100 miles away, was looking for a new league and offered similar geographic advantages. Altoona heard of Lucas’s interest, applied for admission to the Union Association on February 11, 1884, and nine days later received a telegram confirming his acceptance.
From a baseball perspective, the Mountain Citys were, in a word, terrible. The team played just 25 games, their record a dismal 6–19, and the club played their last game on May 31, 1884.
From a business standpoint, the Mountain Citys were essentially a failure.
The league didn’t really want a team in a small town like Altoona. It had another location ready to accommodate a club, so the Altoona Mountain Citys were moved to Kansas City.
This is from the 1884 Altoona Times newspaper about Hagerty’s article on www.sabr.org:
“The truth is that Altoona did not persuade the population to support such an organization.[The]Altoona team was a disjointed combination from the start with a lack of confidence in themselves and in management.”
Was it premier league?
The Union Association itself was dissolved after the 1884 season, so it lasted only one year. Packed with major-league-caliber players, the St. Louis club dominated with a 94-19 record. The Altoona team, which ended the season in Kansas City, went 16-63 and finished 61 games behind St. Louis overall.
The talent gap between Union Association clubs was clearly huge. Some teams had several standout players, while other teams were clearly lacking in talent.
Because of this huge disparity in talent, some baseball historians have questioned the Union Association’s historic distinction as a true major league organization.
Noted historian Bill James, for example, wrote that the Union Association should not be considered a major league. A note found on the internet shows that 39 per cent of Union Association players from 1884 onwards have not played in any other major league during their career.
So, were these guys really major leagues? Including all Altoona Mountain Citys players?
As of now, the answer is yes. If you look up statistics for players who played in the major leagues in the annals of baseball history, the players from Mountain Citys and all from the Union Association are actually included.
After further analysis by baseball historians, could that change sometime in the future? Yes, simply because there were quite a few players in the Union association who didn’t seem to be of major league caliber.
But for now, the Mountain Citys have the distinction of being a major league team, albeit a really bad one.
The best player on the Mountain Citys team was shortstop George “Germany” Smith, a 21-year-old rookie from Pittsburgh. He played in all 25 games for the Altoona Club and batted .315. When the Mountain Citys collapsed in 1884, he finished the season with the Cleveland Blues in the National League battling with a .254 for that club.
Smith played in the major leagues for 15 years and amassed 1,597 hits, 47 homers and 800 RBIs while batting .243. He was also an excellent defensive shortstop.
Except on a specific day.
That day was June 17, 1885, when he was playing for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in the American Association. The team had signed a new pitcher named Phenomenal Smith, who gave himself his own nickname and boasted that because he was such an excellent pitcher, he could win without the help of his teammates.
To get back at the selfish pitcher, Brooklyn defenders reportedly made 14 intentional errors in an 18-5 loss. Germany Smith had seven penalties at shortstop, cementing his own legacy with worst field day ever by a major league player.
Germany Smith was a long-time baseball player and had the best career of any member of the Mountain Citys team. Smith then played his last two seasons for the independent Altoona Mountaineers in 1904 and ’05.
Smith is believed to have spent his life in Altoona, although I have never been able to locate any of his descendants over the years. He died in Altoona at the age of 64 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery.
I’ve always found Smith’s case interesting when it comes to whether he deserves induction into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame based on his ties to Mountain Citys, his long major league career and the fact that he lived here before his time death.
Blair County Sports Hall of Fame President Neil Rudel said of Smith’s candidacy:
“Deutschland Smith would have lived here because he played for the Altoona professional baseball team in the late 1880s, so technically he meets Hall of Fame criteria.
“Obviously he has credentials with 1,500 goals in the big leagues.
But it’s a gray area with athletes who were only here because their team was there. For example, since Altoona was considered a major league team in the 1880s, all of these players were technically skilled because they lived here. But in many cases it was only for a short time and without any emotional connection.
“As a Hall of Famer, we’ve focused on the athletes who weren’t just born here, they grew up here, and recognize that Altoona and Blair County — their coaches, their athletic organization, their community support — have been instrumental in their success have contributed.
“The Hall of Fame has generally meant a lot to honorees. What would it mean for descendants of Deutschland Smith and teammates from the 1884 Altoona team, if you could even find them? Would local Hall of Famer supporters want Germany to be honored at the expense of someone who played high school sports here and made a name for himself at the next level?”
Neil makes a lot of good points. While Germany Smith is never honored on-site, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he and his Mountain Citys teammates hold a truly unique place in Altoona’s sporting history.