There’s a 2,375-foot stretch of railroad tracks in central Pennsylvania that spins trains 180 degrees in a hairpin turn on their way over and across the Allegheny mountains. The so-called Horseshoe Curve, built from 1851 to 1854, is the tightest train track turn in the country. It’s been traveled by presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Because of its importance as an access point to the heartland of the country, it was one of a handful of strategic sites targeted by Nazi saboteurs during the failed Operation Pastorius in World War II.
In its heyday in the 1940s, the Horseshoe Curve saw 50 passenger trains a day. The track is still in use today for freight rather than people, but human visitors can still explore the area at the Railroaders Memorial Museum.
The Horseshoe Curve’s importance to the area is reflected in another cultural institution: It’s the namesake of the Eastern League’s Altoona Curve, Double-A affiliate of the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1998, when the new team held a vote to decide on a name, fans were given five options to choose from—and Curve was not one of them.
“Interestingly enough, it was a write-in candidate that came in with the Altoona Curve,” said Rob Egan, the team’s general manager. “It so perfectly fit with both the Horseshoe Curve and the curve ball in baseball, the double meaning, that was the one we selected…. It’s one of those names where it came up and you’re like, of course, that makes so much sense.”
When the team debuted its first logo featuring a baseball train zooming through the Allegheny mountains, it became part of what seems to be something of a tradition for Pennsylvania minor league baseball teams. The Reading Phillies, Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders, and State College Spikes have all included railroad themes or imagery in their identities.
“The rail history in our state is so huge that all of us have little hints of that in our franchises,” Egan said. “Certainly, Altoona and Reading, because we’ve been in the same league, and they’ve had such a long history with the Phillies, we’ve had such a long history with the Pirates, it kind of ties that Major League rivalry into a minor league rivalry.”
The ties between the area and the railroad industry are so strong that when the Curve rebranded in 2011, they unveiled their new look, designed by Brandiose, at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona.
“When we did the rebrand, it was very important to us to be as authentic as we could be to our name and to the history of the area,” Egan said. “We used rail type colors with the reds and the bronzes, things like that in our new logo, because we felt that was really important.”
As Brandiose’s Jason Klein puts it, “They were red and green, and we felt that the brick red was more railroady, and copper for the rails.”
The new look features an engineer (“We thought that might be appealing to younger fans,” Egan said), a railroad track C, and another hallmark of Pennsylvania sports identities, a keystone. (Pennsylvania’s nickname is the Keystone State, as it was in the middle of the 13 original colonies, and, according to the state song, it is the “birthplace of a mighty nation, Keystone of the land.” Tying the Keystone state and trains together, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which built the Horseshoe Curve, features a keystone in its logo.)
But perhaps the biggest innovation introduced by Brandiose is the Curve’s specially designed reversible rally cap. The hat, which features a lining designed to look like Curve mascot Al Tuna (get it?) is believed, according to MiLB.com, “to be the first in Minor League Baseball to feature a specially-designed, rally cap lining.”
According to Klein, the idea came from a game that he and his Brandiose partner Casey White attended in Altoona, in which Al Tuna appeared and “did a crazy dance” when the home team scored. They first noticed a special edge to the crowd when the Curve got a runner to third base, and fans and players alike turned their caps inside out in the rally cap tradition.
“We started thinking about the rally cap concept, where players were sort of summoning Al the Tuna,” Klein said. “We called up New Era, and it had never been done before, and it took a lot of wrangling, but we said, ‘We want to create the first on-field rally cap design in the history of baseball.'”
The rally caps generated a lot of publicity, but more importantly, they create a scenario at Peoples Natural Gas Field (which, much to the delight of the seventh-graders in all of us, is the actual name of the stadium where the Curve play), in which fans and players alike become part of a sea of tuna fish eyes whenever the Curve threaten to score. (The Altoona Curve’s identity dates back to a technological marvel from the 1850s, so it stands to reason that the tradition of engineering innovation would continue to this day with the very hats players and fans wear at the ballpark.)
The significance behind the Curve’s name takes a little digging to understand if you’re not from the area, but once you learn how important the Horseshoe Curve was—and is—not only to central Pennsylvania but to the nation, it makes perfect sense, and it seems like one of the better nicknames in all of the minors.