With the arrival of spring, thoughts turn to the start of baseball season. One hundred years ago it was the Allentown Peanuts and the Reading Coal-Heavers who were the Lehigh Valley's "boys of summer." Today the IronPigs at Coca-Cola Park are the hometown heroes.
But from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, local baseball fans turned their eyes and thoughts to Breadon Field, home of the Allentown Cardinals. And Lee Butz, long-time CEO of Alvin H. Butz Construction and lover of the "great American pastime," was present at its creation.
Although it was 69 years ago, and he was only 9-years-old Butz, remembers almost every detail of July 13, 1943, when he was attending the All Star Game in Philadelphia. He was there with his father, Alvin Butz, as the guest of Sam Breadon, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I remember Breadon well," Butz says. "He was a tall, very distinguished man who looked like what people in those days thought the owner of a professional baseball team should look like."
But beneath the courtly appearance Breadon was known for his hard bargaining and tenacious style. He had grown up in the streets of New York and as young man gone out west to make his fortune in St. Louis, which he did by owning a number of luxury Pierce Arrow car dealerships.
What Breadon wanted was Butz's father to sell his share of the Allentown Wings, a Cardinals farm team, the elder Butz had a working interest in. Butz and Breadon were about $1000 apart on a price. Finally Breadon said, "Let's let Lee decide."
Breadon said he would flip a coin. If Lee guessed correctly, "heads or tails" he would meet Butz's price. If Lee guessed incorrectly Butz would accept Breadon's offer.
One of the few things Lee Butz does not remember about that day was on which side Breadon's flipped coin ended. "All I can remember is I ended up costing my father $1000 that day, which I never heard the end of," says Butz, laughing. Newspapers reported the next day that the Allentown Wings had been purchased by Breadon for $15,000.
In 1946 Breadon announced the creation of a baseball field in the vicinity of what is now Route 22 and MacArthur Road, approximately where the Lehigh Valley Mall is today. Breadon Field was the name given to the 5000 seat, $425,000 ballpark that opened on August 6, 1948.
Although gravely ill from cancer Breadon overruled the advice of his doctors and flew to Allentown for the event. "I am happy to be in Allentown," he told the press. "I am always happy to be in Allentown."
In an official ceremony Mayor Donald Hock dedicated the ball field, "now and forevermore" Breadon Field. Breadon's visit to Allentown turned out to be his last public appearance. He died on May 10, 1949.
The combination of publicity and love of the sport brought both baseball fans and the curious to what was then called the 7th Street Pike to see baseball. It was estimated by the newspapers that over 120,000 fans jammed the ballpark in the 1949 season. And there were expectations that 1950 would be that big or bigger.
But to the surprise of everyone, only 50,000 fans showed up in 1950 to watch the Allentown Cardinals. Although not a bad turnout, it immediately led to second guessing. Most of that focused on the popularity of TV broadcasts of professional baseball games. More and more people were willing to sit home with a beer in their hand and their feet up and stare at the little box with the black and white images rather than venture out to see minor league ball in a ballpark, it was said.
The Cardinals turned the task of running Breadon Filed over to the late Don Dix, a former minor league player in the Cardinals organization. Dix seemed to understand that the world of minor league baseball was changing. He created a number of promotions, most notably a Miss Allentown Cardinals beauty contest, and also advertised heavily. This led to an increase to 70,000 fans in the 1951 season.
But a combination of bad weather, TV baseball and the collapse of the Inter- State League, of which the Allentown Cardinals were a part, led the Cardinals organization to close Breadon Field for 1953.
The sale of the St. Louis Cardinals that year to the Augustus "Gussie" Busch of the brewing family breathed new life into the Allentown Cardinals. Dix recalled 1954 to 1956 as very good years. Among those who attended was Busch, arriving in his private railroad car.
But the St Louis Cardinals had already decided, Dix said, to "get out of the real estate business." In August of 1957 they sold Breadon Field to investors that included Lehigh County District attorney Paul A. McGinley and Brass Rail Restaurant owner Philip Sorrentino, for $180,000.
The new team was the Allentown Red Sox, a farm team of the Boston Red Sox. Everything appeared to be going well until 1960 when stunned baseball fans learned that the Breadon Field had been sold for $300,000 to department store owner Max Hess Jr.
Speculation as to why Hess, who had never had much interest in baseball, would want the ballpark, remains. In fact baseball was never played at Breadon Field again. He claimed no team wanted to play unless guaranteed at least a 50,000 a season attendance. In 1964 Hess decided to demolish the ball park, now known as Max Hess Stadium.
Despite this in 1994 Don Dix predicted baseball could still work in the Lehigh Valley. "If I was 10 years younger I'd be up there supporting it. I think its time has come again," he said. The success of the Iron Pigs shows how right he was.
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