This article was written by Brian Engelhardt
The brief major-league career of Reading, Pennsylvania, native Franklin “Heck” Heifer consisted of 17 appearances (15 as a position player and 2 as a pitcher) with the 1875 Boston Red Stockings of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. After his time with Boston, Heifer’s professional career consisted of playing for a number of minor-league teams over the course of the next 12 years, several of which were in Reading. During that time he was among the prominent figures on the Reading baseball scene, not only because of his skill on the field but also because he was the second native of Reading to play in the major leagues.
Described as being “very fond of athletic sports and particularly baseball”1 during his childhood, Heifer was born in Reading on January 18, 1854, and was the only boy of the four children of Daniel and Elizabeth Heifer.2 By the time he was 20, Heifer had developed his talents on the diamond to the extent that during the 1874 season he was a member of the starting lineup of the Active Baseball Club of Reading, the top team in the area, which played as the Actives. Significantly, in that season the Actives changed their schedule from competing against only Reading area teams to playing teams from outside the area as well. With the expanded range of opponents, the team achieved a great degree of success3 against such Pennsylvania opponents as the Centennials of Lebanon, the Modoc and Alpha clubs of Philadelphia, the Resolute club of Renovo, the Morgan club of Lancaster, the Expert club of Harrisburg, the Antelopes of Allentown, and the Lewisburg club.
Playing primarily in the outfield, but also occasionally filling in at shortstop and pitcher, Heifer established himself as the most talented member of the Actives, and was said to have the attitude of a player who “always played to win.”4 Exact statistics as to the Actives’ record in 1874 are not available, but their success is evident from their having begun their season with a June 6 game against Lebanon and, while playing a few games a week, not suffering their first defeat until nearly two months later, on August 3, an 11-6 loss on to the Easton Baseball Club before a crowd of about 4,000, the largest crowd ever to witness a baseball game in Reading up to then.5
According to the Reading Eagle, the Easton Club was “regarded by knowing professional players to be the very best club in the country not on the professional lists.” Coincidentally, a major factor in the success of the Easton team was its pitcher, Reading native George Washington Bradley, who was a year away from starring for the St. Louis Brown Stockings of the National Association.6
The Eagle described Easton’s victory as “one of the most closely contested (games) that either club has ever played,” with Bradley’s pitches, coming in “very swiftly and during the first part of the game … not hit.”7 However, with the score tied at 4-4, Easton broke the game open with five runs in the eighth inning. (The game account in the Reading Times attributed the rally to Easton’s “doing some heavy batting,” while the Eagle blamed Easton’s runs to be the product of “bad luck, overthrows and a general demoralization” on the part of the home team.)8 Playing in the outfield that day for the Actives, Heifer scored a run but was otherwise not mentioned in the game accounts in either the Times or the Eagle – probably a good thing, since those accounts focused for the most part on various errors by the Actives.
Heifer’s two hits and “several admirable catches”9 in the outfield were among the few bright spots for the Actives in a 31-12 loss to Easton a week and a half later that was described by the Eagle as “the worst game of base ball ever played.”10 While the Actives’ bats were for the most part again held in check by Bradley (eight of their runs were scored in the ninth inning when the team was already down by 19 runs), their play in the field was characterized as being full of “inglorious muffs and wild overthrows … (making it) startling the score against them was not nearer one hundred.”11
On September 26, 1874, the Actives invited the Philadelphia Whites (Pearls) of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players to play an exhibition game and help the Actives dedicate their new “ball grounds” at 19th and Perkiomen Avenues in Reading. In the first game played in Reading by a major-league team (the National Association being the major league at that time), the Actives lost, 15-0. Managed by Bill Crane (three years before his banishment from baseball for throwing games), the Whites rode the pitching of future Hall of Famer Candy Cummings, who “delivered a … curve ball which is very deceptive.”12 The Whites were declared to have “Chicagoed” the Actives – the slang term at that time for a shutout.13 Heifer provided the offensive highlights for the home team, being the sole Active to get as far as third base.14
A week later, on October 1, the Actives hosted another National Association team, the Chicago White Stockings (referred to by both the Eagle and the Times as the “Giants”). With White Stockings pitcher George “Charmer” Zettlein holding the Actives’ bats in check, the White Stockings won, 13-5.15 Notably, this time the Actives avoided being Chicagoed by a major-league team, as Heifer led their offensive attack with two hits and two runs batted in.
The next time a National Association team played an exhibition in Reading was the afternoon of May 21, 1875, when the Boston Red Stockings played the Actives, who by that time were captained by Heifer. Whatever drama Heifer experienced over the course of his brief major-league career later that season, it was less than the drama surrounding the events that led to his signing by the Red Stockings that day.
Noting that the Red Stockings “had not lost a game to any of their professional brethren this season,” (their league record at that point was 19-0), the Reading Eagle contrasted the Actives and the Red Stockings “as being like a cooking stove compared with an iron furnace.”16 Reporting on the arrival of the Red Stockings in Reading for the game, the Eagle mentioned that the Red Stockings had “vanquished the Philadelphia (Whites)” the day before in a league game by an 8-6 score17 and predicted that the Boston team would “walk away with everything during 1875.”18 (The Eagle’s prediction proved correct, as the Red Stockings went on to win the Association championship with a sterling 71-8 record in what would be the league’s last season.)
The Red Stockings’ manager, future Hall of Famer Harry Wright, watched the Actives go through their pregame warmups, focusing his attention on Heifer. Wright’s scouting of Heifer was rewarded; Heifer made “some wonderful catches in left field.”19 Wright continued to focus on Heifer during the game, noting his “nerve, coolness, and steady play.”20
As for the game itself, in front of a crowd of 1,000 the Red Stockings won, 27-11. It was only the Actives’ second game of the season, and they demonstrated some rust as they made an unspecified number of errors in the first two innings and spotted the visitors to a 13-0 lead.
Whatever drama existed in the events of Heifer’s brief career with the Red Stockings, it did not match the drama in the circumstances that led to his signing. Heifer’s play throughout the game involved anything but rust as he “batted the Boston pitchers with great ease,” getting four hits including a double, driving in two runs and scoring two. He also pitched part of the game, then moved to the outfield, where he made a “thrilling one handed catch that startled (Wright).”21
Aside from what Heifer had shown in the game of his power, fielding, speed, and great arm, what no doubt excited Wright even further was that at 5-feet-10 and 175 pounds, Heifer was a big man for the times. All of these factors led Wright to sign Heifer to a contract immediately after the game as a means of strengthening the Red Stockings’ bench in preparation for a trip to St. Louis.
During his first few weeks with the Red Stockings, Heifer’s activities were limited to practices and pregame drills on the road trip to St. Louis. Heifer some years later said that “those Boston men fired balls (at me) as a caution” as “they were testing (my) ability as a (first) baseman.”22 This process in the days before fielder’s gloves left Heifer with a pair of sore hands, but his performance in the drills evidently satisfied Harry Wright, and on June 3 in the sixth inning of Boston’s 10-5 victory over the host St. Louis Red Stockings, Heifer, who had started the game in right field, was moved to first base when catcher Deacon White injured his thumb. White moved to right field and first baseman Cal McVey replaced him behind the plate. In its account of the game, the Boston Globe said that Heifer “played very acceptably,” although the paper referred to him throughout as “Franklin.”23
Two days later, in a June 5 game against the other St. Louis team, the Brown Stockings, Heifer was again in the starting lineup, playing first base and facing fellow Reading native George Washington Bradley, who had made his debut with the Brown Stockings on May 4. Earlier that week, Boston had handed Bradley his first loss of the season, 10-3. On June 5, Bradley avenged his first loss by pitching the Brown Stockings to a narrow 5-4 victory, the Boston team’s first loss of the season. The Boston Globe wrote that Bradley and “the ‘Brown Sox’ were carried off the field on the shoulders of their friends.” Playing first base, Heifer was credited with seven putouts but got no hits and wasn’t mentioned by the Globe. (Two days later, with Heifer not in the lineup and with St. Louis fans alive with Brown Stocking fever, a crowd described by the Globe as “the largest ever seen on a ball field in this city, about 8,000” saw the Red Stockings pound Bradley for 24 base hits on the way to a 15-2 victory. Bradley was said to be suffering from an attack of vertigo that day.)
Heifer played in 15 more games for the Red Stockings that season, until he was released in mid-September. He played nine games at first base and six in the outfield, and pitched in two games. In 50 at-bats he had 14 hits for a .280 batting average of .280 with three triples and five RBIs. In Heifer’s final game with Boston, a 10-4 Red Stockings victory over the Brooklyn Atlantics on September 9, he hit a single scored twice and was credited with 14 putouts at first base.24 Despite his solid batting statistics, Heifer’s release was attributed to a decision by Red Stockings directors to cut payroll, “with Heifer being dropped because the other but inferior players had more local influence with directors.”25
Heifer had earned Wright’s respect as a player; the manager called him “a ballplayer that could be depended upon every time.”26 The respect grew into a friendship between the two; indeed, at any game where Wright was managing and knew Heifer was in attendance, he would invite Heifer to sit with him on the bench with the players.27
Back in town “for a visit” (according to the Eagle’s game account), Heifer was inserted back in the Actives lineup for an October 8 game in Reading against the Burlington Club of New Jersey. The Actives won, 15-3. According to the game account, Heifer, who was in town “for a visit,” played second base for “his old and first love club … and filled that position very creditably.”28 “(H)e has improved wonderfully in appearance, and his style of play has greatly changed for the better,” the Reading Eagle gushed.29
With the Actives for the entire 1876 season, Heifer was playing a prominent role in a highly successful campaign during which the team barnstormed on a Western trip, playing semipro or professional teams in Harrisburg, Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Johnstown, Pittsburgh, and New Castle, Pennsylvania; Mansfield, Columbus, and Cincinnati, Ohio; Wheeling, West Virginia; and Covington and Louisville, Kentucky.30 Named captain of the Actives early in May before the team embarked on the trip, Heifer played shortstop for most of the games, filled in from time to time in the outfield, and pitched on occasion. Several game accounts in the Eagle over the course of the Western tour singled him out as a leader of the club, usually writing something like “Heifer played a good game,” with little elaboration. (Individual Actives statistics do not appear to ever have been published.)
That season the Actives also played two exhibition games in Reading against teams in the newly formed National League. Heifer played in both. The first was a 9-2 loss to the Chicago White Stockings on June 9. The White Stockings arrived in Reading with a league record of 17-3, and went on to win the first National League pennant with a record of 52-14. Heifer was familiar with a number of the White Stockings, who were his former teammates on the Red Stockings, most notably manager-pitcher Al Spalding, who held the Actives to six hits. In its headline the Reading Times termed the game an Honorable Defeat.”31 The Actives stayed close until Chicago scored five runs in the ninth. The Eagle described Heifer as having “showed himself to good advantage” playing second base, where he was involved in turning a double play.
The other National League team the Actives faced in 1876 was the Cincinnati Reds, and in this game, played on September 1, the Actives won, 8-4. A notable contrast to the White Stockings, the Reds arrived in Reading with a league record of 7-45, on their way to a 9-56 final record (proof that teams didn’t have to be good to barnstorm).32 Although Heifer made an error in the course of the victory, his “fine playing in the entire game made up for (his) few slip ups.”33 The visitors were said to have commented that “they had never met a finer amateur club of ball players.”34
On July 3 the Actives played the St. Louis Red Stockings, an independent team comprised mostly of former St. Louis Browns who did not sign with any National League team, the most notable being 19-year-old future Hall of Famer James “Pud” Galvin, the team’s primary pitcher. Galvin, who eventually won 365 major-league games, was not at his best against the Actives, giving up nine hits in a 5-0 loss. Heifer led the Actives’ attack with three hits. The Eagle said, “The visitors seemed astounded at the terrific batting and the sharp fielding of the home champions,” adding, “The home team has not played a better game this season and the fielding of … Heifer … (and several other Actives) was the most brilliant ever to be seen” at the Actives’ field.35 The Actives’ Len Lovett allowed only five hits to the visitors. (Presumably smarting from the beating by the Actives, Galvin took the mound again the next day and threw a no hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics.)36
Heifer began the 1877 season with the Actives until economic hard times forced the team to disband in July. After this, he began a baseball odyssey in which he played for 10 teams over 11 seasons, with his first stop being with Erie of the League Alliance. In August, Erie disbanded, and Heifer signed with another League Alliance team, Buffalo. It is likely that one of Heifer’s Buffalo teammates was 17-year-old infielder John Montgomery Ward, who was at the beginning of a Hall of Fame career.
With no team in Reading, Heifer began the 1878 season with the Binghamton Crickets of the International Association, but the team disbanded on July 19 after playing 12 games. Heifer moved to the Syracuse Stars in the same league, the league’s eventual second-place finisher with a record of 26-10.
After beginning the 1879 season with Worcester Grays of the National Association, Heifer retired because of issues with rheumatism after playing in only 11 games. In 1884 he returned to the game to manage the Actives, now playing in the Eastern League, but the team disbanded on August 4 after going 28-27. Heifer played in 23 games, batting .307 and playing several positons.
In 1886 and 1887, Heifer played for three teams that didn’t finish their seasons. He began the 1886 season with the Providence Grays of the Eastern league, appearing in eight games, until the Grays disbanded on June 2 after compiling a 7-14 record. At the outset of the 1887 season he played for the Oswego Starch Boxes of the International Association, but the team disbanded on May 31 after compiling a 3-23 record. Heifer then joined the rejuvenated Reading Actives in the Pennsylvania State Association, but the Actives were not rejuvenated for very long; the entire league disbanded on July 20, with the Actives having a final record of 20-23.
That 1887 season was Heifer’s last year playing or managing baseball. He entered the contracting business, performing excavation as well as hauling of heavy materials for the Reading Traction Company. His business was an apparent success; according to the Eagle, it involved “many wagons, carts and horses.”37 His success was relatively short-lived. On August 28, 1893, Heifer died of typhoid fever contracted after he had been suffering from malaria.
After his death an unnamed former teammate told the Reading Eagle, “Of all the old Active club players no one on the nine ever inspire more confidence than did ‘Heck’ Heifer. He had an encouraging smile and words of advice for all, (with) a great deal of the teamwork of the Active club (being) due to his points and suggestions.”38 The teammate recalled Heifer as having a “good keen eye. With bat well raised in motion he waited for a high ball over the plate, and the ball generally went safe into the field.” He described Heifer as hitting generally to straightaway center field, but “then again he excelled in right-field hitting.”39
The teammate most fondly remembered Heifer for the intangibles he brought to his teams, describing him as a “great leader” and “a man of few words while on the ball ground … never known to question (the) umpire’s decision. … He would simply say ‘that settles it’ and there was no more said.”40 The former teammate concluded, “It would be well for the younger generation of ball players to take a pattern of this modest excellent young man and follow in his footsteps. He was kind, modest, quiet, quick to hear and slow to speak; never used profane language; never (indulged) in coarse talk; never insulted anyone, but was a gentleman at all times and under all circumstances and a novel man in every respect.”41
Heifer was survived by his wife, Esther, and a son, Frank. Heifer’s great-grandson Frank Heifer, until his retirement in 2000, was superintendent of the Pottstown, Pennsylvania, School District. A picture of Heifer, a former volunteer fireman, hangs in the Reading Firemen’s Museum.
This biography is included in “Boston’s First Nine: The 1871-75 Boston Red Stockings” (SABR, 2016), edited by Bob LeMoine and Bill Nowlin.
The author would like to thank Frank Heifer, Heifer’s great-grandson, and Andrew Heifer, Heifer’s great-great-grandson, for taking part in interviews that assisted in the preparation of this article.
Also thanks to the Reading Fireman’s Museum for allowing the use of Heifer’s picture.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Heifer’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the following sites:
SABR Bioproject: sabr.org/bioproject/.
Much of the material in this article, as well as the sources, were also used were used in “Days of Grin and Heck: Berks County’s First Two Major Leaguers,” which appeared in The Historical Review of Berks County, Summer 2014, Volume 79, Number 5.
1 Reading Eagle, “Obituary,” August 29, 1893: 1.
3 Bruce K. Gehret, “Early Baseball in Reading,” Historical Review of Berks County, July 1943, 105.
4 Reading Eagle, “The Actives at Easton Yesterday,” August 14, 1874: 1.
6 Bradley debuted with the Browns on May 4, 1875, less than a month before Heifer’s debut, making Heifer the second native of Reading to play in the major leagues.
7 Reading Eagle, “The Actives First Defeat.”
8 Ibid.; “Baseball: An Exciting Game Yesterday,” ReadingTimes, August 4, 1974: 2. No statistics were provided, nor have any been found as to the Actives’ record that season or at that point in the season.
9 Reading Eagle, “The Actives at Easton Yesterday.”
12 Reading Eagle, “The Visit of the Philadelphia Club,” September 28, 1874: 1.
13 Reading Times, “Baseball: Philadelphia vs. Actives.” September 28, 1874: 11.
15 Reading Eagle, “A Brilliant Game of Baseball Yesterday,” October 1, 1874: 1.
16 Reading Eagle, “The Champion Ball Team in Reading,” May 21, 1875: 1.
19 Reading Eagle, “Heifer as a Ball Player,” September 10, 1893: 1.
23 Boston Globe, “The Bostons Again Victorious in the West,” June 4, 1875.
24 Boston Globe, “The Bostons Defeat the Atlantics,” September 10, 1875.
25 Reading Eagle, “Heifer as a Ball Player.”
28 Reading Eagle, “Actives Defeat the New Jersey Champions,” October 9, 1875: 1.
30 Charles J. Adams III, “The 1876 Reading Actives Kicked Off the Great American Pastime in Berks,” Historical Review of Berks County, Summer 2012, Vol. 77, No. 3, 39.
31 Reading Times, “Actives Sustain Honorable Defeat,” June 10, 1876: 1.
32 The game account did not include a box score, nor even any of the names of those who played for the visiting Reds, who were managed by Charles Gould. It is likely that Dory Dean pitched for the Reds, who would finish the season with a 4-26 record and a .133 winning percentage, which, according to David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, is the worst winning percentage of any pitcher with at least 20 decisions. (Joe Harris of the Boston Americans claimed the distinction, come the twentieth century.) Dean took over as the team’s primary pitcher when Cherokee Fischer, who held that role at the beginning of the season, was released in July due to repeated incidents involving drunkenness.
33 Reading Eagle, “The Boys Stock Up Again,” September 2, 1876: 1.
35 Reading Eagle, “Actives Very Best Game,” July 4, 1876: 1.
36 Charles Hausberg, Pud Galvin, SABR Bioproject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/38c553ff.
37 Reading Eagle, “Obituary.”
38 Reading Eagle, “Heifer as a Ball Player.”