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Minor league park was a major hit
In the late 1950s, pitcher Bob Heffner was working his way through the Boston Red Sox farm system on a road that would ultimately take him to the major leagues.
Playing from the East Coast to the West, the 1957 Allentown High School graduate saw the insides of many minor league ballparks.
"More than I would have liked," he joked.
Few, he said, were better than the one only a few miles from his front door.
"That field was right up there with any in the country, probably one of the two or three best minor league parks I ever played in," Heffner said of Max Hess Stadium, the home of professional baseball in Allentown through the 1950s.
Many of the same adjectives and phrases being used by Lehigh Valley IronPigs officials to describe the new Coca-Cola Park -- such as "state of the art" and "best ballpark in the country" -- were also used to describe 5,000-seat Max Hess Stadium. It stood in what was then sparsely populated Whitehall Township near what is now the main entrance to the Lehigh Valley Mall on MacArthur Road.
Built in 1948 by the St. Louis Cardinals and originally christened in honor of Cards owner Sam Breadon, the concrete-and-steel stadium housed, with the exception of a 1 1/2-year gap, a minor league team through the 1960 season.
Heffner called the park home for the final month of the 1959 Eastern League season and all of the 1960 campaign, when he led the league with 16 wins as a member of the last affiliated team to represent the city, the Class A Allentown Red Sox (or A-Sox, as the locals called them).
"It was a beautiful park," said Heffner, now 69 and living in Allentown. "When I was a kid, my buddies and I used to go out and watch the Cardinals; we'd jump the fence, and if they caught us, they kicked us out. But if we were able to get in, we'd scatter and they didn't bother looking for us."
Two teams, one clubhouse
Pitcher Tracy Stallard was a member of the 1959 and 1960 Allentown teams.
"I played in the Midwest League, then Raleigh and Allentown and Minneapolis, and I think Allentown was the best park I played in," said Stallard, who also pitched in the major leagues. "It was really a great park."
The park, surrounded by open fields, featured a concrete grandstand around the infield, with a separate bleacher section down the right-field line. A roof covered half the grandstand, with the press box perched high behind home plate.
A clubhouse behind first base served both teams. Heffner, who later played five years in the majors, said that aspect of the park wasn't much different than many of the others.
"Like most parks, if you had two or three working showers, it was good. And if you got in the shower late, chances are you didn't have much hot water," he recalled with a laugh.
'The people were just fantastic'
Stallard, a Virginia native who later gained baseball fame by surrendering Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st home run in 1961, came to Allentown to begin his fourth pro season.
The city, he said, made a lasting impression on him.
"We stayed in a private home, and [future big-league catcher] Bob Tillman and I roomed together," said Stallard, who returned for part of the 1960 season. "We paid room and board, and we had a nice place to stay and good meals fixed for us. And a couple guys could pick up some clothing by modeling for Hess.
"It doesn't take much to satisfy a 21-year-old, but I think Allentown was the best minor league city I played in," added Stallard, now 70 and living in Wise, Va. "It had a nice ballpark, the bus rides weren't that bad, and the people were just fantastic. I got called up to [Triple-A] Minneapolis late in the season, and I'd have just as soon finished the year in Allentown."
Dorney on an off day
Both Stallard and Heffner said they didn't have much free time to enjoy the city.
"I knew how to get around, obviously, and if we had an off day I'd take the guys to Dorney Park," said Heffner, who was married and had a home in the city.
"Most likely you'd eat a little in the afternoon, maybe catch a movie, and by 4 o'clock you were at the park. Then, after the game, if the manager was in a good mood, maybe he'd give you two hours or so to get a beer or two."
Ace of the staff
Heffner opened the 1959 season, his third in pro ball, with Corning of the Class D New York-Pennsylvania League, but was sent home in midseason to recover from a sore shoulder. When he did recover in early August, Boston told him to stay in Allentown, where he went 3-0 in three starts down the stretch to help the A-Sox finish second, 3 1/2 games behind a Springfield Giants team that featured Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers.
Heffner also got a start against Williamsport in the league playoff semifinals but dropped a 4-2 decision in the second game of what turned out to be a three-game sweep by the Phillies farm team.
A year later, in 1960, Heffner was the ace of the A-Sox with a 16-9 record, finishing second in the league in innings (206) and third in ERA (3.23) and strikeouts (160).
8,000 saw Curt Simmons
Stallard remembers strong support in 1959, when the Red Sox drew more than 84,000 fans, third-most among the eight Eastern League teams.
That included the largest crowd in the park's history, on Aug. 2 when nearly 8,000 jammed inside to watch Whitehall High grad Curt Simmons pitch for Williamsport on what's now called a "rehab" assignment.
"They had people up on the roof, and on the roof of the clubhouse, and then finally the fire marshal said, 'That's enough, you can't let any more in,' " said Simmons, a Phillies favorite through the 1950s. "[Allentown owner] Joe Buzas kept thanking me, and wanted to get me a watch, and I said, 'That's OK, the Phillies are paying me.' "
A year later, however, when the team missed the playoffs on the last day of the season, attendance dropped to 51,654, lowest in the six-team circuit.
"If they had 100, 200 people on some nights, that was a lot," Heffner said of the final season. "A lot of them came from places like Coplay, Northampton, Nazareth, little towns that loved their baseball. As nice as the park was, it was tough to get people in the city to come out."
Pinching the dollars
The attendance drop led Buzas to seek greener pastures and, in December, he announced the team was moving to Johnstown. But after just one year there, he shifted the franchise again, to York. Eventually, it wound up in Bristol, Conn., and then to nearby New Britain, where it still operates.
"Joe knew how to pinch the dollars," Heffner said with a laugh. "He would send some of his staff into the parking lot or the stands to retrieve foul balls so he could use them again.
"And he wasn't known for getting the best buses for us," Heffner continued. "One time, we were going to Williamsport and the bus just wasn't going to make it up this one hill with everyone on it. So we had to get off, hike up the hill, and then get back on the bus."
However, Heffner said the IronPigs will have something those teams never had -- corporate backing.
"Back then, the crowds were full of the working man," Heffner said. "You didn't have all the sponsors they have today. That helps right off the top.
"I wish them a lot of luck," Heffner added. "I hope it catches on."