I had arrived at Altoona’s Fairview Cemetery to remember two local baseball players who rest within the sacred grounds. On this journey I had been joined by Zech and Jen as we explored the region. We had parked at the top of the hillside, in the shadow of the Civil War memorial, and remembered the life of John Gochnaur, one of the two baseball players resting here. Note: More about Gochnaur’s baseball career can her found here: John Gochnaur.
Leaving Gochnaur’s grave, we followed the paved roadway around the Soldier’s Plot to the western side of it. We knew the young baseball player was resting just off the edge of the roadway, but we were not sure if we would be able to find his grave as the stones in this part of the cemetery had either fallen over or were badly weathered. We respectively approached the stones in an attempt to discover where the young man was buried.
“This one was a Ritz,” Zech called out as he studied two stone memorials standing not too far from the roadway. “So’s the one next to it.” Carefully crossing the uneven ground, we joined him to study the weathered memorials. After examining the two stones, we were able to determine one of the faded stones had a name which started with a “J” and knew we had found the resting place of Altoona native James Ritz, who had a very brief career in the Majors.
James S. “Jimmy” Ritz was born on September 27, 1874 in Hollidaysburg. It is known that his father was William, a local druggist who helped coach local baseball teams, which may have been the beginning of Ritz’s love of the game. Note: Baseball references state he was born in Altoona, but his death notice states he was born in Hollidaysburg.
After high school, Ritz attended Media College and upon graduating three years later, he continued pursuing a career in professional baseball. At the age of twenty, he joined the roster of the Toledo White Stockings of the Western League for the 1894 season. Note: every mention of James Ritz in the baseball references state he played for the Toledo White Stockings during the 1894 season. However, his death notice in the November 11, 1896 edition of the Altoona Mirror (Altoona, Pa) makes no mention of the Toledo team. It does say that he played for baseball teams at Tarentum and Oil City that season.
That same year he made a single appearance in the Majors with Pittsburgh, playing third base as a try-out. His one appearance on June 20, 1894 was unremarkable – in five plate appearances he managed one hit and had a stolen base.
In 1895, Ritz was sent to the Nashville Seraphs of the Southern Association, followed by the Washington Little Senators (Pennsylvania) of the Interstate League for the 1896 season. Little is known about his batting and fielding while playing for these leagues, but it is known he played second and third base, along with shortstop.
Near the end of October 1896, Ritz complained to his father, who was now a druggist in Pittsburgh, he was not feeling well. His father recognized the symptoms as typhoid fever and had James admitted to Mercy Hospital. Unfortunately, Ritz’s condition worsened and on the evening of November 10, 1896, the young man took his last breath. Had he not suddenly passed, Ritz was to be the player-manager of the Washington Little Senators for their 1897 season.
Ritz’s body was returned to Altoona, accompanied by his mother. After a service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, he was placed to rest at the top of the hill overlooking his boyhood home. The young man was barely twenty-two at the time of his passing. While his legacy was not multiple seasons in the Major Leagues, he did make an appearance which placed him in the baseball history books.
A cool breeze blew among the stones of Fairview Cemetery, pulling our attention away from the resting place of the young baseball player. We finished paying our respects to the young man and left him to rest on the hilltop overlooking Altoona.