For six weeks in 1884, the Altoona Unions/Mountain Citys/Altoonas were the most unlikely major league team in baseball history. With an 1880 population of 19,710, Altoona, Pennsylvania is the smallest city to field a major league squad. Altoona was the last club to join the ranks of the Union Association (UA), gaining official membership in the 8-team league on February 20, 1884. This gave them just under two months to form a major league club. It is little wonder that the club opened the the Union Association season with 11 straight losses (including 8 straight to the eventual UA pennant-winning St. Louis Maroons).
With middling crowds, except for a couple of Sunday games that drew upwards of 3000 fans (big gates for the time), the Altoonas were in financial trouble. By the end of May, the Altoonas were a dismal 6-17, despite playing their last 18 games at home.
Union Association commissioner and Maroons owner, Henry V. Lucas, was the benefactor/propper up of many struggling UA clubs, but he saw the writing on the wall for the Altoonas. Rather than paying more money to help the struggling club keep going, Lucas had sought out investors in Kansas City, Missouri to replace Altoona. Four Altoona players, Taylor Shafer, Joe Connors, Cleary Cross, and Charlie Berry were enlisted to join the Kansas City Cowboys as they compiled a ramshackle squad that was scheduled to begin play on June 7.
Altoona’s stint as a major league city ended with a whimper, as the Altoona’s lost 5-3 to the Baltimore Unions on May 31.
The club lasted only 6 weeks and only 18 men (including the recently discovered Frank Schiffhauer) can proudly claim to be Altoona Unions. But despite this, there is still a former Altoona player represented in the N172 Old Judge set.
That man would be lifelong Altoona resident George J. “Germany” Smith. In 1884, Smith was a 25 year old rookie shortstop. He would be the only man to play in all 25 Altoona games, and established himself as the club’s best player and one of only two players to post positive WAR for the ill-fated club. He hit .315/.321/.407 with a 142 OPS+. When the Altoona Unions folded, Smith was one of the first players to find work elsewhere, joining the National League Cleveland Blues.
Smith would enjoy a 15-year career, best known as a light-hitting defensive wizard for the pennant-winning Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1889-90. While 19th-century defensive WAR should be taken with a grain of salt, Smith led the league in defensive WAR four times and assists five times. His 22.8 dWAR is still good for 29th all time (and it is the highest total of any player who played solely in the 19th century). To put it his defensive prowess in perspective, he hit just .191 with a 43 OPS+ and -0.6 offensive WAR for the pennant-winning Bridegrooms in 1890, yet he put up 2.0 defensive WAR and kept his starting job.
Smith’s major league career ended at the age of 39 after hitting just .159 for the 1898 St. Louis Browns. He died at age 64 in Altoona, his legacy as the Altoona Unions greatest player still intact.
Germany Smith about to make rare contact circa 1887 with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Smith has five poses in the Old Judge set, all dated 1887.