History's Headlines: Limeport still plays ball

 

A lot has changed in the world since 1933, for the better and for the worse. But there is a little corner of Limeport, Pennsylvania where one of those good things remains. It is a baseball stadium. There it sits in an era of domed arenas and AstroTurf, real grass where the local boys of summer still play the game once known as "the national pastime."

This is not to say that absolutely nothing has changed at the Limeport stadium since FDR sat in the White House and a loaf of bread was a nickel. Lights were added for night games in 1984. The original locust pine fence was replaced with pressure treated wood in 1993. The original iron flooring was also replaced. Limeport stadium is owned and maintained by members of Limeport Stadium Incorporated (LSI), a non-profit organization of over fifty volunteers who took over the stadium in 1989. It has made over $100,000 worth of improvements and renovations as a result of fundraising and donation efforts. But with all those changes, chances are good that if Howard Fegely, the driving force behind the stadium's creation 86 years ago, could come back he would be pleased and proud that those who came after him have cherished his legacy.

It was in 1983 at the stadium's 50th anniversary that his son, the late Homer Fegely, gave some interesting insights into his father and the baseball world into which the stadium was born. He noted at first that his father, the owner and operator of a local dairy that he founded in 1911, loved to talk baseball. "Any time you wanted to talk about sports he would turn the subject to baseball," his son recalled. Like many of his generation, "Lefty" Fegely believed there was nothing hard work could not solve. And the baseball diamond was a metaphor for his life as a self-made man. It was a symbol for Fegely of how an ordinary man could excel, compete and win. Recalling his father and other men of his generation, Homer Fegely noted, "They were tremendous competitors. They hated to lose."

Limeport stadium was not "Lefty" Fegely's first venture into baseball. From roughly 1916 to the 1920s, he managed the Allentown Professionals. They started out playing at the Allentown Fairgrounds but the Sunday baseball closing laws in the city forced them to move to Dorney Park. It was on April 25, 1933, at Allentown's Germania Hotel that Fegely called together the owners of local baseball clubs. Among them were Oliver "Ollie" Schelly, East Greenville silk maker and owner of the Nazareth team, and Charles D. Wagner, manager of the Easton club. Out of this meeting came the Eastern Pennsylvania Baseball League, better known as the East Penn League. Over the next 18 years the teams would vary based on their ability to attract players. But they would all play at one time or another at Limeport stadium, the "house that "Lefty" Fegely built." It was located just behind Fegely's house and across the street from his dairy. As there was not a lot of other things to do, as Homer Fegely recalled, it soon became the focal point of social life for Limeport and the surrounding communities.

Since it was the Great Depression there were many unemployed skilled masons and other craftsmen seeking work at the stadium site. The Fegely family was deeply involved in the construction and no one was more intense than "Lefty." Homer recalled that his father spent any time not working at the dairy overseeing the stadium. The newspapers would later say it cost $22,000 to build it. Homer estimated at closer to $60,000 and today the LSI website puts it at $75,000. "When my father built something, he built it to last," Homer said. "He was very particular." He watched as concrete was poured, brick was laid, and the seats were installed. An attempt to do anything other than a perfect job quickly came to his attention. Signs were installed on the backs of the seats stating, "Kindly Report Anyone Putting Feet on Chairs or Backs or Otherwise Willfully Destroying Same." Even the grounds were closely supervised. "If one blade of grass was out of place, he would let you know about it," said Homer, who recalled several blasts of parental temper that landed in his direction.

Opening day was July 30, 1933. Late the night before Homer and brother Russell worked screwing in the seats. Rising early that morning, their sisters, as they would before all the games, cleaned and dusted every corner. It would be fair to say that the opening day was the biggest thing Limeport had ever seen. A crowd of 5,000+ overflowed the seats in the grandstand and into the bleachers. The best seats were going for 40 cents as Homer Fegely remembered it. On hand to open the stadium were Allentown mayor Fred Lewis and Congressman Francis E. "Tad" Walter. Walter as a young man already had a made a name for himself as a baseball player. He would retain his seat in Congress until his death in 1963.

With the East Greenville Band escorting them, William O' Donnell of Lansdale and Rev. Leo G. Letterhouse of East Greenville, president and vice president of the East Penn League. marched out to the flagpole. As the 48-star American flag was raised the band played the national anthem. It was not recorded if anyone then shouted "play ball" at its close but that is exactly what happened. It was the Limeport Milkmen that took on the East Greenville team.

It would be nice to record that the Milkmen, among whose team members were Homer and Russell Fegely, won a smashing victory. Apparently East Greenville ran circles around the home team. The Milkmen lost by a score of 9-1. "Limeport couldn't do a thing with the pitching of (East Greenville's) Shcheetz," recorded the Philadelphia Public Ledger, "who kept eight hits well scattered." Apparently, no one recorded what Fegely's reaction was to this first game lost in his stadium by his team. Chances are good the Milkmen remembered it for a long time.

Throughout the next several years Limeport continued to attract large crowds. But World War II's outbreak sent many of its players off to the world's battlefronts. The return of their sons in the late 1940s revived Limeport stadium for a time. But by the 1950s, more and more people were looking at little black and white fuzzy pictures on black boxes of Major League Baseball coming in from New York or Philadelphia. Crowds at the Limeport Stadium were getting smaller and smaller. Being a realist, Howard Fegely decided he was fighting a losing battle. He dissolved the East Penn League.

Fegely died in 1959. But people still talk about the slope in center field that marks a boulder that could not be moved. And if it is true that Howard's favorite beagle is buried under third base. It is all part of the legend of Limeport Stadium, 86 years old and still playing the great American game.