Johnny U To Jay Z
Sixteen-year-old Ernie Accorsi – Hershey native and fervent football fan – yelled at the coach and slammed his program on the Hershey Park Stadium bleachers in frustration. After playing just one quarter, the Baltimore Colts had yanked the league’s Rookie of the Year and Colts starting quarterback George Shaw. Accorsi was livid. He watched a young man with black high top cleats and a flat top don his helmet and jog to the head of the huddle.
“Calm down, kid,” bellowed another Colts fan to Ernie. “They had an inter-squad game last week. This Unitas kid threw seven touchdowns.”
Johnny U – the best there ever was – threw laser beams in the Hershey Park Stadium that day, including his first professional touchdown. The year was 1953. The Colts beat the Philadelphia Eagles in their first preseason game of the year.
The NFL in Hershey
Milton S. Hershey dreamed of building a state-of-theart stadium and bringing an NFL team permanently to Hershey, Pennsylvania. From 1903 to 1904, he was building a chocolate factory. By the late 1920s, he had engineered the infrastructure of two towns – one in Pennsylvania and one in Cuba. The NFL was next.
“Back then,” remembered Accorsi, who grew up to be a sportswriter, New York Giants GM, and NFL consultant, “the National Football League was barely above a sandlot league. Teams were based in towns like Sheboygan, Duluth, and Green Bay. Mr. Hershey had a legitimate chance to get a team in Hershey, and he was determined to do so.”
In 1931, Mr. Hershey attempted to buy the Frankfort Yellow Jackets and move them to Hershey. But his attempt was blocked. NFL commissioner Joe Carr had his own vision. Carr wanted to grow the NFL by moving teams into big cities. Major-league cities.
Two years later, the NFL approved Burt Bell from Philadelphia to buy the Yellow Jackets, and Bell transitioned them into the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Mr. Hershey was crestfallen,” stated Accorsi. “But he and Burt Bell were friends, and Bell promised a relationship.”
A fast track
Undaunted by the failure to secure an NFL franchise, Mr. Hershey completed the Stadium in 1939. The use of the venue took a hard left turn. Hershey Park Stadium began hosting world-class car races.
“Racing was actually the first use of the Stadium,” confirmed Nicole Soliday, Executive Director for the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society. An original photo in the Society’s collection, sent to Speedway Enterprises of New York City by an unknown scout, has a legible scrawl on the reverse side that states, “This will be the best midget setup in the East – 14,000 seats – Paved track – traffic lightsspeed crash rail.”
Mr. Hershey found other uses for the Stadium, such as the Cocoa Bean Bowl – an annual football matchup between Hershey High School and Milton Hershey School – which continues today.
During World War II, no professional football games were played, but the “Steagles” used the Stadium as a practice field for a combination of Steelers and Eagles who were home from battle and ready to play.
The Eagles set up training camp in Hershey from 1951 to 1967 – 17 years – and continued hosting at least one ex- hibition game at the Stadium each year.
“The first game was always against the Baltimore Colts,” explained Ray Didinger, six-time Emmy Awardwinning writer and producer for NFL Films, TV sports commentator and native Philadelphian. “It was quite an experience to walk into the … Stadium and see players like John Unitas, Gino Marchetti and Lenny Moore warming up just a few feet away.”
The games drew huge crowds, reaching an average attendance larger than the population of the entire town and drawing many new fans to the Stadium.
“My whole family were big Eagles fans and those trips to Hershey each summer (to watch football) are among my favorite childhood memories,” continued Didinger, currently a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. “I can still close my eyes and hear the sound of the players’ cleats on the asphalt parking lot.
“You could stand right along the sideline and watch practice. Some people would bring a blanket and picnic basket and have lunch. Kids could stand behind the end zone and shag balls while the kickers were warming up. I did it all the time.”
The glamorous LA Rams – led by Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, with movie-star looks and a moviestar wife (Jane Russell) – even came to Hershey for a week in the summer of 1952, in need of a place to practice. They sported shiny orange and gold jerseys and helmets with a design – the first in the league.
“We ran over to the stadium after school every day to watch the end of practice then walked through Hershey Park with the Rams players,” recalled Accorsi. “We kind of took the Eagles for granted because they were always around. But the Rams … they were Hollywood. We’d only seen them in news clips at the movies.”
Justin and Jay Z
In 1953, President Eisenhower came to the Stadium for a birthday bash, and, in 1955, a temporary hardwood floor was installed for a special outdoor game involving the Harlem Globetrotters. The Pennsylvania State Police Rodeo, a show that began in the 1920s and continued until 1974, traveled around the Commonwealth but always found its home base in Hershey at the Stadium.
1957 brought the first Big 33 Football Classic – a high school all-star game featuring the top 33 players in Pennsylvania against other state all-star teams. Through the years, Pennsylvania has suited up against many states’ all-stars, including Maryland, Texas and Ohio. This annual tradition is a beloved regional feature to kick off the start of summer.
Today, the world’s best musical acts frequent the Stadium. Jay Z. Justin Timberlake. One Direction. And locals attend the Stadium in droves to watch their favorite high school teams compete in football, soccer and band competitions.
‘Under the Stadium Sky’
This year, Hersheypark Stadium turns 75. To celebrate three-quarters of a century of sports, music and entertainment, the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society will hold “Under the Stadium Sky,” the 2014 Annual Preservation Weekend.
The events will begin with “Friday Night Lights,” a VIP reception that will feature an elegant tailgate with a one-of-a-kind view to the Stadium, on Friday night, Sept. 19. Saturday’s events kick off with a historic community tailgate inside the Stadium on Sept. 20,featuring live displays and exhibits celebrating the historic football, sports, State Police, auto racing, and musical events that took place in the iconic landmark.
The culminating event of the weekend will be the 18th Annual Preservation Dinner, “Stadium Celebrations,” held at the historic Hersheypark Arena, a few steps away from the Stadium, which will expand on the theme of upscale tailgating with a festive evening of entertainment, silent and live auctions, and featuring guests of honor Ernie Accorsi and Ray Didinger.
“It will be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revisit the sounds and scenes of memorable community events gone-by, and serves to raise needed funds that benefit our efforts to preserve the history and heritage of the community,” stated Soliday. The event is intended to recognize and commemorate the unique and dynamic history of our community.
For more information on the weekend, visit www.hersheyhistory.org.
Although Mr. Hershey never secured his own NFL team, for 75 years the town has enjoyed the diversion and drama many talented performers and athletes have brought to the quiet little town in South Central Pennsylvania.
“He dreamed big dreams for our town,” concluded Accorsi. “The stadium is yet another example of this.”
For more photos of Hersheypark Stadium through the years, see Photo Album link above.