My Kingdom for a Pony: The Era of ‘Pony Nights’ In Reading Baseball

This article was written by Brian Engelhardt

This article was published in The National Pastime: Major Research on the Minor Leagues (2022)

Since the 1967 season Reading, Pennsylvania, has been the home of the AA minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.1 Now entering its 55th year, this affiliation between the major league Phillies and the “Reading Phillies” or “R-Phils” (changed a few years ago to the “Reading Fightin’ Phils,” but now commonly referred to as either one) has the distinction of being one of the two longest affiliations between a major league team and a minor league affiliate.2 Generations of Reading fans have grown up with summers at the R-Phils being a vital component of the local community. The franchise has enjoyed immense success at the gate—finishing either first or second in league attendance 34 times over that time, annual attendance having exceeded 400,000 20 times and not having gone below 200,000 since 1989.3

It wasn’t always that way.

Between 1883 and 1941 Reading was the home of several minor league teams, most of which played there for only a few years. Some of the teams folded on their own, often mid-season, while others were casualties of their entire league folding—also frequently mid-season. The teams which managed to survive economically often departed for greener pastures in some other city. The longest tenure was that of the Reading franchise in the International League that limped through 13.5 seasons and 4 names before leaving for Albany, New York, in 1932. In mid-season. On top of this revolving door of teams, the ballpark in which most of these teams played was demolished in 1943.4


Despite this dismal history and with no team in residence, in 1951 the city of Reading built a stadium. The dilemma of what to do with a ballpark but no team was resolved when, prior to the 1952 season, Cleveland moved its team in the then Class A Eastern League to Reading from Wilkes-Barre.5 Things began well: in their first seven years, the Reading Indians won two pennants and never finished out of the first division. The teams over that period featured several future major league stars including Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, and Roger Maris.6 Their success on the field was matched at the gate, with Reading’s attendance leading the Eastern League in three of those seasons, and being second-best twice. Two years the gate topped 100,000, and only dropped below 95,000 twice.7

But things changed.


A Pony Night in Reading (Author's collection)



From 1958 through 1960, annual attendance for the Reading Indians ranged between 70,772 and 81,311— far below the early numbers. In 1961 the team finished in last place with a dismal attendance of 53,283, second-worst in the league.8 Despite its early success, the Reading franchise had fallen prey to the disease at the turnstile that afflicted most minor league teams 1952-62, which the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball calls “The Second Decline.”9 Among the contributing factors to “The Second Decline” were the growth of the popularity of television, the poor condition of most minor league ballparks, the growth of popularity of other sports, and the failure of major league teams to adequately fund minor league operations. The net result was that over that decade, the number of minor leagues shrank from 43 to 20, with dozens of teams vanishing along with the leagues.10

Like other minor league teams, Reading offered promotions to generate crowds, often sponsored by local businesses or organizations. Among the memorable ones from the era:

  • Traffic Club Night11
  • Industry Night12
  • Food Fair Night13 (sponsored by a local grocery chain)
  • Keystone Stores Night14 (sponsored by another local grocery chain)
  • Big Indian Little Indian Night15 (where children accompanied by their parents got in for half price)
  • Booster Night16
  • Pee Wee Booster Night17

Although these nights did draw bigger-than-usual crowds, the overall attendance continued to wane. Annual visits for exhibition games by the parent Cleveland Indians team stopped when the gate declined from a robust 6,390 in 1952—the top crowd that year18—to a comparatively paltry 3,734 in 1955.19 Both Industry Night (3,93420) and Big Fellow Little Fellow Night (6,46021) outdrew them. And this was the year after Cleveland won the pennant with a 111-43 record and a record-setting .721 winning average!22

The “Kids Night” promotion of August 22, 1960, featured prizes to be awarded to holders of winning tickets, including the main prize of a Shetland pony. The “Kids Night” crowd of 5,449 would be the top gate of the year.23 This number was well above the opening night crowd (3,09924) or even Booster Night (4,38525). Without being designated as such, “Pony Night” had come to Reading.

Termed by one newspaper as “Baseball’s top promotion,” through the 1960s and 1970s, “Pony Nights” were held at minor league ballparks, across the country, large and small.26 Pony Nights occurred in just about every minor league ballpark, from Modesto, California, where the Modesto Reds drew a crowd of about 1,000 against the San Jose Bees in a California League game, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Pony Night promotion by the Pittsfield-Berkshire Red Sox of the Eastern League against the York White Roses drew 8,233 fans, the largest crowd in the history of baseball in Pittsfield, to Buffalo, New York where 18,655 jammed into War Memorial Stadium for an August 30 game between the Bisons and the Rochester Red Wings- double the size of the Pony Night promotion the year before.272829 At the major league level, Charles O. Finley even held a Pony Night to fight sagging attendance for the Kansas City A’s.30

The formula for a Pony Night promotion was simple. A lucky fan with a winning ticket would— obviously—win a pony. Other prizes such as bicycles and cameras were also generally available. (Parents were usually rooting for their child to win the latter prizes. More on that below.) The business logistics underlying the surface of Pony Night varied, but generally did not have the complexity of a leveraged buyout.

John W. Smith, the Reading Eagle beat writer for the greater part of the time that such nights were part of the Reading baseball scene, explained that regardless of whether the team was the Indians, Red Sox, or Phillies, it would sell three tickets for each dollar paid by local businesses, which would in turn distribute the tickets to their customers (and their customers’ hopeful youngsters) all resulting in the magic of Pony Night.31 This seemed to be the most popular formula employed by teams that disclosed the method of financing the promotion, although some teams simply directly sold the lucky tickets for children at discounted prices in advance.32

Notably, Pony Nights were not just restricted to baseball parks. They were regular features of the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League, and the Hull-Ottawa Canadians of the Eastern Professional Hockey League.33,34 Even the attendance-starved Philadelphia Ramblers of the Eastern Hockey League held a Pony Night in 1961 (which drew a season-high crowd of 3,049 that evening).35

After holding the Pony Night in 1960 without labeling it as such, the management of the Reading Indians got it right the following season and advertised a “Pony Night” on August 27, 1961, which drew a season- high crowd of 4,159.36 It was the only gate to exceed 3,000 that season, with only one other night in which crowd exceeded 2,000.37 Losses arising from the poor attendance, juxtaposed with a dispute with the city of Reading over a stadium use fee as well as a tax on ticket sales, resulted in the Cleveland Indians announcing in December that the team was moving to Charleston, West Virginia.38 Not even two Pony Nights were able to stop Reading from being without a team for the 1962 season.

Professional baseball—as well as Pony Night—was back when Joe Buzas, who would be eventually referred to on his memorial plaque at First Energy Stadium in Reading as “The King of Minor League Baseball,” came to town.39 The owner of the York Red Sox of the Eastern League (newly elevated to AA status40), he agreed to transfer that team to Reading for the 1963 season. Reading would be the team’s fourth location in four years, as Buzas had moved the team from Allentown to Johnstown, then to York.41 Buzas was familiar with Pony Nights, having held one in York in 1962 which drew 6,528 fans—more than ten per cent of the 57,173 total attendance the White Roses would draw that year.42

A Pony Night on July 8 in Reading drew a crowd of 5,848, who witnessed the Reading Red Sox get shellacked by the Springfield Giants, 13-2.43 It would be the largest crowd of the season, with the next largest being 1,889.44 Although the team finished in last place in the league standings, the fine showing on Pony Night in all likelihood saved the Red Sox from also finishing last in league attendance. Their total attendance figure of 46,541 was only 3,714 greater than that of the York White Roses.

1964 was a more favorable year for the Red Sox. The team featured several future members of the Boston Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team, including Mike Andrews, Reggie Smith, Joe Foy, and Mike Ryan. Reading finished in second place, with attendance increasing to 51,200—third in the league.45 A Pony Night held on September 1 drew a crowd of 6,657, representing the largest of the season46—slightly larger than the crowd at an exhibition game played in Reading on April 12 between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, which drew 5,780.47 Pony Night out- drew a game between two major league teams.

Following the 1964 season, Buzas relocated the team to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, having received an offer for a more favorable financial arrangement.48 Happily, Reading would not be without a team for 1965, as Cleveland’s experience in Charleston was so miserable that after the 1964 season the team abandoned that location without an alternative site, leading to an agreement reached in January for the Indians to return to Reading.49

That is where just about anything happy about the story ends.

The consensus of the local writers at the time was that the 1965 Reading Indians had a roster that was overmatched by the veteran talent of other teams in the AA Eastern League. “Whitey didn’t have the horses,” wrote local sportswriter Paul Lucas of Reading manager Whitey Kurowski, in a piece in which Lucas said that both Kurowski and the local fans deserved better than a team composed predominantly of players right out of high school.50

The player on the team with the most promising future, catcher Ray Fosse, was only 18 years old and in need of seasoning before facing the pitching at AA. The Indians finished in last place, 91⁄2 games behind the fifth-place Springfield Giants. Matching the performance of the team on the field, total attendance was also last in the league at 40,594—13,000 fewer than the York White Roses, who had the next worst gate.51

One of the few bright spots of the 1965 season was—you guessed it—the July 19 Pony Night, which drew 7,943.52 This was far more than the next best crowd—2,265 on Dairy Night. Crowds exceeded 1,000 on only two other nights. The gate the night before Pony Night was 166—the smallest of the year. Rocco Santilli, who headed the local group who ran the attendance-starved franchise, said in the immediate wake of the comparatively huge gate, “There should be two Pony Nights.”53 (Just one year before, Joe Buzas, a veteran of such affairs, had declared to a reporter, “One Pony Night a year is enough.”54)

After that disastrous season at the turnstile, the Indians left Reading for a second time—this time moving to Pawtucket, Rhode Island.55 Between the end of the 1961 season and the end of the 1965 season Reading experienced its local team leaving town three times within a four-year period. It was truly the dark ages in Reading from a baseball standpoint. However, the dark ages ended when, in 1966, the Philadelphia Phillies agreed to transfer its AA team from Macon, Georgia, for the 1967 season. Thus began the relationship between Reading and the Phillies that continues to profit both parties today.


The happy winner of a 1965 Pony Night on his prize. (Author's collection)

The happy winner of a 1965 Pony Night on his prize. (Author’s collection)



Pony Night continued with the new Reading Phillies team, initially drawing the top crowd for the season except on those nights when the parent Phillies would appear for an annual exhibition game. Interesting situations arose, such as in 1972 when the first two numbers drawn as winners went unclaimed, with a winning ticket not being claimed until the third number was drawn, with the ultimate winner having a rural address.56 As to the holders of the two unclaimed winning tickets, one can only imagine two individual cars full of children each making its way home from the Stadium that night either driven by a parent dealing with the wailing and cries of offspring despairing from being deprived of the pony they won fair and square—or a parent who held in his pocket or her purse a deep secret that would never be revealed.

Pony Night in 1973 was a disappointment, drawing only 3,700 fans when 5,000 were anticipated. By the time the drawing occurred at the end of the evening, most of the crowd had left. Much to the relief of R-Phils General Manager Steve Daly, the holder of the winning ticket was still around to claim the pony and take it away. Daly speculated, “Maybe the pony isn’t as attractive as it used to be.”57

The issue of what to do with the pony became a problem on several occasions, not only in Reading but elsewhere. When the Philadelphia Ramblers awarded the winning pony, the winner’s response was, “I don’t want the horse. What can I get for it?” Larry Merchant wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News that the winner no doubt had “a 10,000 acre ranch at 25th and Lehigh,” in North Philadelphia.58 Aside from a number of winners not wanting to have a horse (nearly all the winners of the pony drawings in Reading had rural addresses), there have been occasional concerns expressed by groups relating to the welfare of the animal. In one instance the Humane Society of Indianapolis raised a public protest.59

In 1977, Joe Buzas returned as owner of the Phillies, but discontinued Pony Nights after several years. According to Francis “Ducky” Turner, head of the Reading Stadium Commission at the time, “After a while Joe got tired of having the winners not want the horse, and having to get rid of it after he had bought it. He said they were more trouble than they were worth.”60 In 1986 Buzas, who passed away in 2003, sold the franchise to Craig Stein, who brought in Chuck Domino as general manager. Improvements were made to the stadium including the addition of picnic areas, a swimming pool, a beer garden, and a food court. Beyond the attraction of the ballpark being markedly enhanced, marketing practices changed, placing emphasis on marketing to groups. Several years ago Stein sold the majority interest in the franchise to the Phillies, but has retained a minority interest in the franchise. Suffice it to say, the franchise has developed and flourished— without Pony Nights.61

When asked about Pony Nights, Domino said they had been discontinued before his time in Reading began, but added, “All I know about Pony Nights is that someone went home with a pony at the end of the game. However, back when I used to hear about them, it was as if they were almost mythical.”62

BRIAN C. ENGELHARDT is a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, where he resides with his wife, Suzanne, a good sport about any number of things. Their three daughters, now grown, continue to be Phillies fans (although the daughter in Pittsburgh seems to have a picture of Bill Mazeroski in her family room). The author of Reading’s Big League Exhibition Games, Brian has written several SABR biographies together with articles appearing in other SABR publications. He is also a regular contributor to The Historical Review Berks County with his subjects covering various local matters of historical note, including baseball.



1. “Baseballtown History Book; A History of Professional Baseball in Reading,” 2, The Official Site of the Reading Fightin’ Phils, accessed March 5, 2020,

2. “Baseballtown History Book.” The other major-minor affiliation of equal longevity is between Detroit and their Lakeland (Florida) affiliate. See also J.J. Cooper, “Happy Together: Longest Active MiLB, MLB Affiliations,” Baseball America, May 9, 2019,

3. “Reading Phillies All Time Attendance,” accessed March 5, 2020, Also, Lloyd Johnson, Miles Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball-2nd Edition (Durham: Baseball America, Inc., 1997) Annual attendance figures for each Eastern League season between 1967 and 1985. Also, for other teams, see figures listed for each season, “Minor League Attendance,” The Baseball Cube, accessed March 5, 2020,

4. “Baseballtown History Book.”

5. “Baseballtown History Book.”

6. Source: various rosters of the Reading Indians under for those seasons,

7. See sources under Note 3.

8. See sources under Note 3.

9. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 411.

10. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 411.

11. Paul Lukas, “Indians Treat Seasons Top Crowd to 9-5 Win,” Reading Eagle, August 10, 1956, 10.

12. “Nance, Minnick Pitch Against Johnstown Here Tonight,” Reading Eagle, August 15, 1955, 12.

13. Joe Much, “Improved Indians Ready for Binghamton,” Reading Eagle, June 24, 1955, 18.

14. Joe Much, “Indians in Third Place, Trail Blue Jays by Three Games,” Reading Eagle, September 1, 1956, 6.

15. Joe Much, “7,954 Fans See Reading Beat Binghamton,” Reading Eagle, June 8, 1957, 6.

16. “Reading Seeks to Even Series with Grays Here,” Reading Eagle, August 28, 1959, 16.

17. “5,051 Fans See Reading Lose Doubleheader,” Reading Eagle, July 9, 1959, 16.

18. “Indians Take on Elmira in Two Games Tonight,” Reading Eagle, June 10, 1952, 22.

19. Joe Much, “Indians Call on Law Against Elmira Tonight,” Reading Eagle, June 21, 1955, 18.

20. “Indians Battle Johnnies Last Time Tonight,” Reading Eagle, August 25, 1955, 16.

21. “Indians Defeat Schenectady 4-2 Before 6,460 Fans,” Reading Eagle, August 16, 1955, 18.

22. “The Best Season in Every Club’s History,”, accessed March 6, 2022,’54%20Indians%20hold%20the,winning%20103%20games%20behind%20them.

23. “Grays Lead Eastern League by 9 ½ Games,” Reading Eagle, August 23, 1960, 18.

24. George Ege, “Shaky Hurling Dooms Indians in Opener, 5-4,” Reading Eagle, April 23, 1960, 8.

25. “Jones’ 4-Run Homer Aids Reading Win, 9-2,” Reading Eagle, August 2, 1960, 18.

26. Harold Harris, “Baseball Brass Invited to Opener,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 26, 1967, 34.

27. Harold Geren, “‘Reno Silver Sox Down Reds,” Modesto Bee, August 17, 1973, 12.

28. Roger O’Gara, “Pony Night Admissions Total 8,233, Largest in City’s History,” Berkshire Eagle, August 2, 1966, 20.

29. “International Items,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1966, 36.

30. Bill Osthoff, “A’s Finley May Go Long Hair For Mop UP Via Beatle Route,” Fresno Bee, August 9, 1964, 60.

31. John W. Smith, Individual interview by Brian Engelhardt, January 20, 2013.

32. Greg Haney, “Despite Empty Seats McCarver Expansion Seen As Right Move,” The Commercial Appeal, September 4, 1980, 31.

33. “Becerra, Ortiz Retain Titles- Barons vs. Mercs Here Saturday,” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News, February 5, 1960, 20.

34. “ ‘Pony Night’ Feature of SIHL Game in Hull,” The Ottawa Citizen, 13 December, 1960, 14.

35. Larry Merchant, “A Struggle for Existence,” Philadelphia Daily News, February 2, 1961, 44.

36. “Indians Bow to J-Sox, Face Triplets Tonight,” Reading Eagle, August 28, 1961, 12.

37. Of great assistance in preparing this article was the use of a compilation of various statistics of the Reading Indians and Red Sox, including attendance figures, which was prepared by SABR member Dennis Dillon and shared with the Reading Phillies. The Reading Phillies generously shared it with the author. It was of great help in determining attendance figures.

38. “Paul Makes It Official-Indians Dead Here,” Reading Eagle, December 18, 1961, 28.

39. Historical Marker Database,,

40. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 480.

41. See the rich chronology and geographic scope of Buzas’ minor league career in his SABR Biography at

42. “Roses Throttle Elmira Club, 6-1,” The Gazette and Daily, May 29, 1962, 22. As to the total attendance of York that season, see, Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 474.

43. “Giants Feast on Sox Hurling for 13-2 Win,” Reading Eagle, July 9, 1963, 18.

44. See Note 37 as to the information used on this point.

45. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 480.

46. Paul Lukas, “Reading Wins, Trails Elmira by Three Games,” Reading Eagle, September 2, 1964, 52.

47. Duke DeLuca, “Banks Comeback-Money in Bank for Cubs,” Reading Eagle, April 13, 1964, 16.

48. Paul J. Lukas, “Red Sox Go to Pittsfield,” Reading Eagle, December 30, 1.

49. “Tale of Six Cities Ends: Reading Gets an AA Farm Club,” The Morning Herald, January 27, 1965, 14.

50. Paul J. Lukas, “Whitey Deserved Better, Reading Eagle, September 5, 37.

51. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 488.

52. Paul J. Lukas, “Pony Night Draws Top Crowd of 7,943,” Reading Eagle, July 20, 1965, 16.

53. Paul J. Lukas, “Sports Fanfare,” Reading Eagle, July 20, 1965, 16.

54. Paul J. Lukas, “Sports Fanfare,” Reading Eagle, September 2, 1964, 54

55. “Cleveland Drops Reading Second Time,” Reading Eagle, September 27, 1965, 16

56. Duke DeLuca, “Phillies Scratch and Win,” Reading Eagle, August 19, 1972, 6.

57. Duke DeLuca, “Off the Cuff,” Reading Eagle, August 7, 1973, 19.

58. Merchant, “A Struggle for Existence.”

59. David Mannweiler, “Pony Night Often Fright,” The Indianapolis News, April 26, 1977, 3.

60. Francis “Ducky” Turner, Interview with Author, February 12, 2020.

61. “Baseballtown History Book.”

62. Chuck Domino, Email message to author, February 10, 2020.