The years have not been particularly kind to Altoona, Pennsylvania. When the Pennsylvania Railroad crumbled after World War II, Altoona crashed down right along with it. The smokestacks and hulking railroad shops are almost all gone now, replaced by the garish lights of the chain restaurants and strip malls that seem to stretch into infinity.
It used to be different, though. In 1884, Altoona was a city on the make, not just a whistle-stop you zipped through on the way to someplace better. Ambitious young men piled into town to work in the shops and fulfill the promise of the American Dream. And it was in 1884 when, for 46 days, Altoona could legitimately call itself a major league city.
The Altoona Unions (referred to as the Altoona Mountain City by many historians, but more often nicknamed the Browns or the Unions in contemporary newspaper accounts) competed in the Union Association, a creation of Henry Lucas, the go-getting 26-year-old son of a well-heeled St. Louis attorney and banker. Lucas had grandiose visions of raiding the National League and American Association for frustrated veterans chained to their teams by the reserve clause. Locating a franchise in Altoona was not Lucas’ first choice. In fact, it was quite literally his last. For weeks he had been scrambling to find an eighth team to round out his league. Detroit said no, and Pittsburgh wouldn’t bite, either. It was only after a failed eleventh-hour appeal to Hartford that he turned to Altoona, which officially became an association member on February 20, less than two months before the season opener.
Although this was a marriage of convenience, Lucas’ decision was at least somewhat rooted in logic; he didn’t just pick Altoona out of a hat. The city was geographically accessible, a railroad hub that connected the league’s western franchises–St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago–with those in the east. Furthermore, the place was baseball nuts. During the previous season the Altoona franchise drew 1,600 fans per game on its march to the Inter-State Association title. An August 1883 exhibition game against the New York Giants was like a civic holiday. The railroad shops shut down, businesses closed at noon, and newspapers put the crowd at between 4,000 and 5,000–as much as one-quarter of the town’s population.
To compete in the big time, though, the franchise needed to raise money, and fast. Management hastily reorganized as the Altoona Base Ball Association, Limited, and began seeking investors. Lucas pledged $2,500 of his own money and offered to help sweet-talk local businesses, including the Pennsylvania Railroad. By mid-March, the club had more than $5,000 in the bank and seemed to be on solid financial ground.
Meanwhile, manager Ed Curtis hustled to patch together a team. Holdovers from Altoona’s Inter-State Association champs comprised much of the roster. Curtis quickly locked down that club’s star, 21-year-old shortstop Germany Smith, and its stalwart pitcher, Jim Brown. Reliable catcher Charlie Manlove was reluctant to leave his job with the railroad, but in the end Curtis won him over. Ed Sullivan, who was blind in one eye and sported an eye patch, might have returned, but before he could sign he was run over by a freight train. As one might infer from the near-signing of a half-blind man, the talent in Altoona was somewhat lacking. With a couple of exceptions, these were decent, mid-level minor league players masquerading as big leaguers, like little boys parading around in their fathers’ shirts.
But at least they looked the part. When it came to the wardrobe, money was no object. The team boarded the train west for the season opener in Cincinnati decked out in expensive brown dress suits ($35 apiece) with matching derby hats ($8 each). Their uniforms (two per player at $18 apiece) were white with red trim with a large letter “A” inside a shield stitched onto the front. They couldn’t play without caps, of course ($10 each). And if they got chilly on the bench, they could slip into a fancy silk cardigan sweater. “They will look like dudes,” crowed a writer from the Altoona Tribune.
Despite their sartorial splendor, the poor guys never had a chance, and Lucas surely didn’t do them any favors. He fixed the schedule so that Altoona played eight of its first 11 games against his own St. Louis Maroons, a club stacked with the best players in the league. Not surprisingly, St. Louis swept those games by a combined score of 92-19, and sent Altoona to an 0-11 start.
Altoonans were wild about their club at first, until they realized the hopelessness of it all. Crazed rooters jonesing for updates overran the telegraph office at the Logan House hotel during the season-opening road trip. But there is something demoralizing about seeing your team ritualistically disemboweled on a daily basis. Altoona played 18 home games at Columbia Park and at least half the time, estimated attendance was under a thousand. After a 13-3 pasting from the Washington Nationals dropped Altoona to 2-16, the Altoona Times sighed, “The local team has received a succession of drubbings ever since the season opened, and such announcements now occasion no surprise, but are received as a matter of course.”
Lucas’ surprising and unexplained appearance in Altoona on May 29 gave credence to rumors around town that the team was all but done. Indeed, the books told as grim a financial story as anyone could have imagined. The franchise was broke; players weren’t being paid. And the numbers in the scorebook were little better than those in the ledger. With St. Louis off to bully someone else, Altoona finally was able to win a few games, including three straight over Washington. But it was clearly a bad club, one that had been abruptly forsaken by its hometown fans. Lucas alighted from his train in time to watch Baltimore clobber Altoona 13-0 in front of a lonely crowd of about 200.
Two days later, Altoona barely got a team on the field after three players went on strike, demanding their money. The hour had arrived. Following a 5-3 defeat that afternoon, Lucas mercifully pulled the plug. Altoona lost 19 of its 25 games as ownership took a $12,000 bath. An Altoona Times writer conceded a point that should have been evident from the start–even under ideal circumstances, Altoona simply lacked the population base to support major league baseball.
Most Altoona players immediately evaporated into baseball obscurity, but not Germany Smith. The National League’s Cleveland Blues signed him for the balance of the season, and then sold him to the Brooklyn Grays of the American Association. Smith spent 15 years in the majors, and although he never hit much, he was one of the slickest shortstops around. In 1901 Smith returned to Altoona, took a job as a railroad watchman, and starred for the local Juniata Shops’ ballclub.
The Union Association barely limped through the 1884 season. St. Louis was so dominant and the pennant race so lopsided that fan interest petered out everywhere. The league crowned its champion and then promptly folded, somewhere between $50,000 and $250,000 in the red.
Although Altoona’s major league days were over, it did get a small taste of the big time again more than a century later when the Pittsburgh Pirates chose the city as the home of their new double-A minor league affiliate. The Altoona Curve debuted in 1999 and captured their first Eastern League championship in 2010.
It’s been said that Americans love an underdog, but we love underdogs most when they win. When they are battered senseless in the first round, or are blown out by 50 points, or go bust in six weeks after losing three-quarters of their games, they become objects of scorn and ridicule. Nonetheless, a town of 20,000 people that has the audacity to believe it can share a stage with Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia deserves a little admiration. If we dig deeply, perhaps we can unearth a similarly bold spirit within ourselves, a relic from a time when we were young, our worlds were boundless, and all things were possible.
August 27, 2011
Nemec, David, The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, New York: David I. Fine Books, 1997.
Pietrusza, David, Major Leagues: The Formation, Sometimes Absorption, and Mostly Inevitable Decline of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.
Wright, Jerry Jay, “The 1884 Altoona Unions,” The National Pastime, No. 13, Summer 1993, pp. 53-56.