For baseball aficionados, nothing says spring as much as the words “Play Ball!” Reading, Pennsylvania has a long history in baseball, dating back to 1875 when the Reading Actives organized one of the first professional minor league teams. Playing the game at what is now 17th and Perkiomen Avenue, players wore no gloves or other protective equipment.
Over the decades there were changes in both teams and leagues beginning in 1890. The names of the teams included the Coal Heavers, the Pretzels, the Coal Barons, the Marines, the Aces, the Keystones, the Chicks, Brooks the Indians and the Red Sox. The various leagues Reading teams played in included the Atlantic, the Tri-state, Middle States League, Union Association, International, New York-Pennsylvania, Inter-State, and Eastern.
From 1907 until 1941, Reading professional teams played at Lauer’s Park Stadium at 3rd and Elm Streets. 1919 to 1932 were great years for the International League- but not for the Reading team, which only posted winning records in two seasons during that time, before the team moved to Albany. During the 1922 season the Reading Aces, later called the Keystones, were managed by Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and is credited with inventing the slider. In 1929, George Quellich, playing for the Keystones, set a professional baseball record that still stands: 15 hits in 15 consecutive at bats.
Poor attendance caused teams to leave Reading, on a number of occasions. Following the departure of the Brooks at the end of the 1941 season, and the demolition of Lauer’s Park in 1943, Reading was without a team or stadium until construction of a new stadium- Reading Municipal Stadium (now First Energy Stadium)- was completed in 1951. The first ball was tossed out in the new park on the date of its dedication, July 15, 1951, for a game between two local American Legion teams. Professional baseball did not come to the stadium until the Reading Indians of the Eastern League began play there for the 1952 season. In 1957 the Indians were league champs. Notable Reading Indians players included Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, and Roger Maris.
Concession stand items from the 1955 Reading Indians:
- Hot Dogs .20
- Coca-Cola .10
- Cracker Jack .15
- Y-B Cigars .10 + .25
- Cushions .25 (Rented only)
The Indians left town after the 1961 season and were replaced during the 1963 and 11964 seasons by a Red Sox farm team. When the Red Sox left town after the 1964 season, the Indians returned for the 1965 season, but left town after the season ended. The revolving door was a result of low attendance at most games with only a few hundred fans.
The Philadelphia Phillies then moved their AA franchise to Reading, beginning play in the 1967 season as the Reading Phillies. The relationship with the Philadelphia Phillies has continued for more than 50 seasons, even after the Reading team changed its name to the “Fightins” a few years ago. Among the notable future major leaguers whose names appeared on Reading’s roster are Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Greg Luzinski, Willie Hernandez, Ryne Sandberg, George Bell and Marlon Byrd.
The state’s approval in July 1973 of the sale of beer at the stadium helped turn things around financially for the franchise, along with the Phillies. Crowds increasing dramatically as improvements and repairs throughout the stadium were made, including construction of a roof over the grandstand, installation of individual seats which replaced wooden benches, a beer garden, several picnic and buffet areas, a swimming pool, and a new video scoreboard. The team was purchased by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, and is the oldest team in the Eastern League to play in their original city with the most seasons under their original name. Reading and Philadelphia Phillies are tied for the longest affiliation in minor league baseball.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Tales from Baseballtown: Vignettes from the Storied History of Baseball in Reading, Pennsylvania and Baseball in Reading: Images of Baseball (Arcadia Publishing, 2003) both by Charlie Adams
- Reading’s Big League Exhibition Games (Arcadia Publishing, 2015) by Brian Engelhardt
- “Early Baseball in Reading,” by Bruce K. Gerhart, The Historical Review of Berks County 8, no. 4, 1943.
- “Berks Players in Major League Baseball, Part I,” by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County, vol. 31, no. 4, 1966.
- “Berks Players in Major League Baseball, Part II,” by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County, vol. 32, no. 2, 1967.
- “A Reach Too Far- Reading’s Colorful Adventures In the International League,” by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County, Vol. . 63, Issue 3 (1998)“The League that Failed,” by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County,64, Issue 2 (1999)
- “Broadway Charlie Wagner’s Magnificent Obsessions.” by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 64, Issue 3, (1999)
- “Randy Gumpert’s Baseball Odyssey,”by David Q. Voigt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 70, Issue 3, (2005)\
- “The Reading International League Baseball Team — 1919 to 1962,” by Jack Linton, The Historical Review of Berks County, vol. 55, no. 3, 1990.
- “Reading’s First Two Pennants — Outlaw and Otherwise,” by Kevin Tully and Brian Engelhardt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 80, no. 4, 2015.
- “The 1926 Reading Keystones: A Season of Shame,” Charles J. Adams III, The Historical Review of Berks County, 68, Issue 3, (2003)
- “And in the Beginning of Baseballtown….” Charles J. Adams III, The Historical Review of Berks County, 77, Issue 3, (2012)
- “Before Screwball, Before Bucky, Before Quak, Before Blooper, and Even Before the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor and Ruth & Judy, There Was Silly Phillie,” Charles J. Adams III, The Historical Review of Berks County, 80, Issue 3, (2015)
- “The World Heavyweight Chapmpion…At First Base in Reading?” Charles J. Adams III, The Historical Review of Berks County, 81, Issue 3, (2016)
- “The Night the Lights Were Lit at Lauers Park.” Charles J. Adams III, The Historical Review of Berks County, 82, Issue 3, (2017)
- “The Ever So Brief Reign in Baseballtown of the First Clown Prince of Baseball,” Brian C. Engelhardt The Historical Review of Berks County, 82, Issue 3, (2017)
- “Baseballtown’s Time of Troubles: When Reading Lost Three Teams in Five Years.” Brian C. Engelhardt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 78, Issue 2, (2013)
- “The Days of Grin and Heck.” Brian C. Engelhardt The Historical Review of Berks County, 79, Issue 3, (2014)
- “When the Big Leagues Came to Reading.” Brian C. Engelhardt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 77, Issue 3, (2012)
- “July 5, 1898: Miss Arlington Twirls for the Reading Coal Heavers,” Brian C. Engelhardt The Historical Review of Berks County, 76, Issue 4, (2011)
- “Grand Dames of Berks County Softball,” Brian C. Engelhardt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 72, Issue 2, (2007)
- “Anything But a Bonehead: Fred Merkle’s Adventures with the 1927 Reading Keys,” Brian C. Engelhardt, The Historical Review of Berks County, 71, Issue 2, (2006)
Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia. Thank you to Brian Engelhardt for providing additional research and information for this article.