Field of (Past) Dreams

By on July 12, 2017

Residents recall good times and great baseball in Schoeneck

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The glory days of Schoeneck baseball ended more than 60 years ago, but some locals still remember the crowds that visited the Usner farm to watch league teams slug it out, in the days when playing at the Schoeneck field could bring you toward the majors.

Drive past the Usner farm today, and what you’ll see is a cultivated field just like so many others around the county — but during the 1920s and for many years afterward crowds sat in a set of wooden grandstands to watch full nine-inning games. League scores would be reported in the local newspapers.

“We played there until ‘53 or ‘54,” Harlan Shirk told The Ephrata Review on July 4, reminiscing about the days when local business owners or random strangers would recognize him as a member of the Schoeneck team.

For Shirk, Schoeneck baseball was a family tradition; his father played third base in 1930.

Shirk himself played left field in the later years, after the local Lancaster-Lebanon league added some Berks towns, and eventually became the “Eastern County League.” In that time, Shirk said, Schoeneck’s field was a popular place to watch a game and it had more going for it than just its neatly manicured grass.

Schoeneck’s field, Shirk said, was the only local field to have lights, years before electric lines were brought out to the town itself. As a worker for the Denver and Ephrata electric company, Shirk remembers working on some of those lines — he also remembers the many years when Schoeneck field’s 300-watt lights were powered by a gasoline generator. It wasn’t until 1948, he said, that the farm got electrical power. Sometimes games would be shut down after the sixth inning in order to refuel the generator.

Friday and Saturday nights would often see a crowd of hundreds packed into the stands, and sometimes the league would hold games on a Sunday. In 1929, admission was one quarter.

Players got paid, Shirk said, and paid well.

“Sometimes they’d get $25 to $30 per game,” Shirk said. “That was good stuff in those days.”

There was also the chance for advancement. Shirk remembers one player from Reading who went from batting against Terre Hill and other local teams, to eventually join the roster of the Boston Red Sox.

“I remember playing left field,” Shirk said, “and when he would hit one, I would keep looking up…”

Two other local league players, David and Dick Ricketts, ended up with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Donald Netcley is another Schoeneck resident who remembers how it was in the old days. As he sits in Shirk’s living room on a hot Fourth of July afternoon, Netcley remembered the days when he would earn 50 cents to go after foul balls.

“They were either in the pig pen or the cow pasture,” Netcley said. “There was no other place for the ball to go.”

Netcley’s father also played in the league in the early days, and his old uniform is still in the family, a wooly shirt with felt letters sewed across the front.

As for the host, Ralph Usner, he never played. But he certainly had quite a baseball legacy as the owner of the field.

“He was so baseball-minded,” Shirk said. “He was Mr. Baseball.”

Eventually, the league’s local attraction began to peter out. The first World Series was televised in 1951, and television began to compete for the fans’ attention. In 1954, after Hurricane Hazel came through, the baseball diamond was plowed up.

But those many years of long-ago baseball games still hold a place in local memory — for those like Elaine Bowman, who attended games as a child and shared her memories by phone right before the holiday, it’s mainly the impressions of the games: the cheers of the crowd, and drinking Coca-Cola from the concession stand out of glass bottles.

Walt Hackman is another Schoeneck resident with vivid memories; he was around in the old league days, and owns a few pieces of memorabilia, including a framed poster advertising a game.

Standing in that calm field in front of the old Usner barn on the fourth, with the sun slowly descending behind him, Hackman described driving down Schoeneck’s South King Street, down the hill, toward the area traditionally known as the ‘Schoeneck flats.’

“As you get to the ball field,” Hackman said, “If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can still hear the umpire call: ‘Play ball!’ … you can hear the crack of the bat, and the roar of the crowd.”

The glory days are long gone — but not forgotten.

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