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Mountain Citys, ‘Germany’ Smith big part of Altoona baseball lore

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.

Did you know, way back 138 years ago in 1884, that Altoona was home to a major league baseball team?

Not minor league. Not independent. A real-life, recognized major league team — the Altoona Mountain Citys.

That’s right, little old Altoona once had its own major league club, albeit a very short-lived club. Oh, and one that, according to some baseball historians, really should not count as a major league team, even though it is recognized as such in baseball statistical lore.

As an added bonus, this story comes with the fascinating tale of a guy who was the best ballplayer on that Mountain Citys team way back in 1884. He was a fella named Germany Smith, who has his own interesting baseball story and who died in Altoona in 1927 after being hit by an automobile.

I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of both the Mountain Citys and Germany Smith, and have tried to find the right time to write about them here in the Mirror. Alas, the opportunity finally arrived, because starting today and continuing each Thursday throughout the season, the Curve will honor the 1884 club by wearing Altoona Mountain Citys jerseys during home games at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

So, when you head out to the ballpark this evening — or any Thursday this season — this is the reason why the Curve are wearing those jerseys.

The Mountain Citys

Professional baseball was a hodgepodge of teams and leagues around the country in the late 1800s. Leagues popped up all over the place, with varying degrees of talent, then disappeared pretty quickly or were absorbed into other leagues.

In 1884, a new league called the Union Association was formed. It featured 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, located near Sixth Street, Fourth Avenue and Mill Run Road.

Following is an excerpt on the Mountain Citys written by Tim Hagerty at www.sabr.org:

The Central Pennsylvania railroad city of Altoona was not originally in the Union Association’s plans. League President Henry Lucas spent months lining up clubs in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington. For travel convenience, Lucas desperately wanted to add a franchise in Pittsburgh, midway between the Eastern and the Western teams.

Lucas’ Pittsburgh pursuit fell through, but a minor-league club 100 miles away in Altoona was seeking a new league and offered similar geographic benefits. Altoona heard about Lucas’ interest, applied for admission into the Union Association on February 11, 1884, and received a telegram nine days later confirming its acceptance.

From a baseball standpoint, the Mountain Citys were, in a word, awful. The team played only 25 games, its record was a dismal 6-19, and the club played its final game on May 31, 1884.

From a business standpoint, the Mountain Citys were, essentially, a mistake.

The league didn’t really want a team in a small city such as Altoona. It had another location ready to welcome a club, and so the Altoona Mountain Citys were relocated to Kansas City.

This is from the Altoona Times newspaper in 1884, via the Hagerty article at www.sabr.org:

“The truth is Altoona hasn’t got the population to support such an organization. (The) Altoona team was, from the start, a disjointed combination, lacking confidence in themselves and in the management.”

Was it major league?

The Union Association itself folded after the 1884 season, so it only lasted one year. The St. Louis club was loaded with major league caliber players and dominated, posting a 94-19 record. The Altoona team that finished up the season in Kansas City went 16-63 and finished 61 games behind St. Louis in the standings.

Clearly, the talent differential between clubs in the Union Association was enormous. Some teams had several outstanding players, while other teams clearly lacked in talent to a major degree.

It’s because of this giant discrepancy in talent that some baseball historians have challenged the Union Association’s historical distinction of being a true major league organization.

Well-known historian Bill James, for one, has written that the Union Association should not be considered a major league. One note that can be found on the internet showed that 39 percent of the players in the Union Association from 1884 did not play in any other major league during their careers.

So, were these guys really major leaguers? Including all the Altoona Mountain Citys players?

The answer, as it currently stands, is yes. In the annals of baseball history, when you look up statistics for players who played in the major leagues, the Mountain Citys players and all of those from the Union Association are indeed included.

Might that change at some point in the future, after further analysis by baseball historians? Yes, simply because there were a whole bunch of players in the Union Association who apparently were not major league caliber.

But as for now, the Mountain Citys do have the distinction of being a major league team, albeit a really bad one.

Germany Smith

The best player on that 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 folded in 1884, he finished the season with the Cleveland Blues in the National League and batted .254 for that club.

Smith went on to play 15 years in the major leagues and compiled 1,597 hits, 47 home runs and 800 RBIs while batting .243. He also was an outstanding defensive shortstop.

Except on one day in particular.

That day was June 17, 1885, when he played 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 who bragged that he could win without the help of his teammates because he was such an outstanding pitcher.

To get back at the egotistical pitcher, the Brooklyn defenders reportedly committed 14 errors on purpose in an 18-5 loss. Germany Smith committed seven errors at shortstop, cementing his own legacy with the worst fielding day ever by a major league player.

Germany Smith was a good baseball player for a long time, and enjoyed the best career of anybody from the Mountain Citys team. Smith then played his final two seasons for the independent Altoona Mountaineers in 1904 and ’05.

It’s believed that Smith lived out his life in Altoona, although I’ve never been able to track down any of his descendants over the years. He was 64 when he died in Altoona and was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery.

I’ve always thought Smith’s case is interesting when it comes to whether he deserves to be enshrined into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame, based on his Mountain Citys ties, his lengthy major league career and the fact that he lived here prior to his death.

Here’s what Neil Rudel, president of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame, said about Smith’s candidacy:

“Germany Smith would have lived here because he played for the Altoona professional baseball team in the late 1880s, so he technically fits the Hall of Fame criteria.

“Obviously, he has credentials with 1,500 hits in the major leagues.

But it’s a gray area with athletes who were only here because their team was. For example, since Altoona was considered a major league team in the 1880s, all of those players would technically qualify since they lived here. But in many instances, it was just a short time and with no emotional connection.

“As a Hall of Fame, we’ve focused on the athletes who were not only born here but raised here and can point to Altoona and Blair County — its coaches, its athletic organization, its community support — as instrumental in their success.

“The Hall of Fame has generally meant a great deal to those honored. What would it mean to descendants, if you could even find them, of Germany Smith and teammates from the Altoona team of 1884? Would local Hall of Fame supporters want to see Germany honored at the expense of someone who played high school sports here and made a mark at the next level?”

Neil makes a lot of good points. Still, even if Germany Smith is never honored locally, it doesn’t change the fact that he and his Mountain Citys teammates hold a truly unique spot in Altoona sports history.

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