September 1, 2014

Major League Baseball….in Altoona?

June 6, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Altoona, Pennsylvania is the kind of place Bruce Springsteen sings about – a cold, gray blight, best experienced through the rear-view mirror at about 80 miles-an-hour.  When the Pennsylvania Railroad crumbled after World War II, Altoona crashed down right along with it.  Today, the garish lights of its endless chain restaurants and strip malls are cheap pancake makeup on a wrinkly old hag.

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 somewhere better.  Ambitious young men piled into town to work in the railroad shops and fulfill the promise of the American Dream.   And it was in 1884 when, for 46 days, Altoona legitimately could call itself a major league city.

The Union Association was the 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.   Only after a failed eleventh-hour appeal to Hartford did he turn to Altoona, which officially became an association member on February 20, less than two months before the season opener.

Manager Ed Curtis hustled to patch together a team (referred to as the Altoona Mountain City in the history books, but more often nicknamed the Browns or the Unions in contemporary newspaper accounts).  Holdovers from Altoona’s 1883 Inter-State Association champions 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.  For the most part, these were decent, mid-level minor league players masquerading as big leaguers, like little boys parading around in their fathers’ suits.  They 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 Lucas’ 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 1,000 or fewer.   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 for.  Indeed, the books told as grim a financial story as anyone could have imagined.  The franchise was broke; players weren’t being paid.   Furthermore, the scorekeeper’s numbers were little better than the accountant’s.   With St. Louis off to bully someone else, Altoona finally was able to win a few games, including three straight over Washington.  But it clearly was 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, although Manlove and Brown enjoyed cups of coffee with the National League’s New York Gothams later that summer, while Smith was destined for a lengthy and distinguished career in the American Association and National League.

The Union Association barely limped through the 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.

It has 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 boundless, and all things possible.

James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010

Comments

2 Responses to “Major League Baseball….in Altoona?”
  1. Dave Silverman says:

    great article you wrote… I am SABR member. i googled Altoona to verify that the 1884 Union Association team was in PA. Always thought it was PA but was shocked to see Western Baseball exhibit in museum under St.Louis Arch 3 weeks ago that listed team as Altoona, Iowa! (a suburb of Des Moines). Your article confirmed that exhibit is wrong.

  2. James says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. Yes, definitely Altoona, PA (not IA).

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