The year is 1967. Lyndon B. Johnson was President, the #1 song in the US was the Monkees' hit "I'm a Believer." A gallon of milk costs $1.03, gas costs $0.33 a gallon, and eggs were $0.49 a dozen. In sports, the Green Bay Packers won the first Super Bowl, the St. Louis Cardinals take the World Series, and the Philadelphia Phillies Double-A affiliate spent their first season in Reading, Pa. 1967 was also the year Neale Bechtel became an employee of the Reading Phillies organization, where he still works to this day.
Baseball was back in Reading after the Indians pulled out of the city following the 1965 season, leaving no team for '66. Mr. Bechtel, who started working at the stadium in 1963 with the Red Sox organization, would pick up right where he left off when the Philadelphia Phillies Double-A team came to Reading in '67, selling hot dogs and tapping sodas in the concourse concession stands.
According to Bechtel, times were much simpler back then. He remembers a manual scoreboard out in center field, metal folding chairs in the grandstand area that they considered box seats. On a normal day around 800 fans would fill the stands at Reading Municipal Memorial Stadium.
"We were happy with 800 fans in the stadium. It was a great day if we reached 1,000," Bechtel said as he reminisced on the younger years.
The parking lots and surrounding roads of the stadium had yet to be paved, and he could clearly recall the amount of dust that filled the air on a game day.
"The dust and gravel was so bad, when you left the game your car needed to be washed!" he stated as he snickered at the image that appeared in his head.
Bechtel had moved from life behind the concession stands to vending out in the crowd. He sold everything from hot dogs, popcorn and soda to memorabilia and programs. The programs were also a sort of promotion back in these years. If you bought a $0.10 program you had a chance to win a prize. If your program had a lucky sticker on one of the inside pages, you would win a Lebanon Bologna.
"That was the extent of the action off the field," Bechtel stated. "At one time it was just a baseball game."
Bechtel clearly remembered vending cigars throughout the stands as part of his game day routine. Fans were also allowed to carry in their own coolers filled with beer, and would sit at the top two rows of the main grandstand. There they would drink and smoke while enjoying an afternoon of baseball.
This went on until the historic 1974 season rolled around. The stadium received their liquor license, and started to sell beer. Bechtel would become a beer vendor now, walking through the stands selling 12oz cans of Schmidt's and Reading Premium.
"Fifty cents bought you an ice cold beer," Bechtel stated as he recollected. "I remember the first night we sold beer. It was raining. Our first 'Wet Night' was actually a wet night," he laughed.
The vending did not last much longer, for caring two cases of beverages (one beer, one half soda half water) took a toll on his legs. The organization accommodated to the needs of their tenured employee, and shifted him to being an usher. Bechtel was still able to interact with the fans, who he learned to know throughout his many years of service.
Bechtel watched as many players walked through the hallways of 'America's Classic Ballpark.' Players like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa. He remembers passing players through the years, and always being friendly with a quick hello and good luck. On top of players, Bechtel recalled seeing world famous promotions come through the ballpark. Max Patkin, the Baseball Clown, was a favorite of Bechtel.
"The stadium was packed to see Patkin," Bechtel said. "They lined up at the gates just like they do now for the bobbleheads and other fancy giveaways now-a-days."
As the years went on, Bechtel's health could not bear the long hours of standing, so once again the organization worked with him, and changed his position from usher to ticket taker, the job he currently holds today. Bechtel makes the most of what he does, and his goal is to make every person who walks through his gate smile.
"Welcome aboard!" Bechtel proclaims as he points to a crack in the cement that crosses the front gate. "This is where the fun starts, come on in!"
Just like the many changes in his roll at the ballpark, Bechtel has seen quite a few changes in the Phillies Double-A Affiliate team. From players, to ownership, stadium renovations and a re-branding.
"The name change, definitely," Bechtel answered when asked what the biggest change he has seen in his almost 50-year career. "It doesn't bother me at all. It still says Reading and it still says Phillies."
As for the live ostriches?
"It's for the kids. It's about all growing fans at a young age. The kids are the next generation, and the next generation wants fun," Bechtel said with a smile on his face.
Two things that have been constant throughout his career, he explained, is baseball and the fans.
"The main thing is that there is still baseball," he said. "That's the main thing that matters."
As for the fans, Bechtel has become close to them. Seeing familiar faces in the stands from season to season makes him feel as if they are his summertime family. He feels a connection to them.
When attending a game today aside from seeing Mr. Bechtel at the front gate, fans are serenaded by him during the 7th Inning Stretch. He is wheeled in on a tricycle Chariot by none other than the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. During this time, Bechtel takes the opportunity to thank the fans for attending the game, and remind them how important their attendance is. He then leads them in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
"The fans are my friends," Bechtel stated with a warm smile on his face. "I'm a part of them, and they are a part of me."
Mr. Bechtel has seen it all throughout his career. He has witnessed the up seasons and the down seasons, new names and new faces. Renovations and even ostriches living in center field. Through this ever changing game, three things will always remain the same for Bechtel: his love for baseball, his love for the organization, and his love for the fans.