A Night in the Life of Baseball

These days, most games are played at night, but that wasn't always the case (via Brendan C).

These days, most games are played at night, but that wasn’t always the case (via Brendan C).

Once you hit the 100-game milepost in the major league baseball season, the pecking order is pretty well established. There’s still time to jockey for position, but by and large, the contenders, the mediocrities, and the losers have pretty well sorted themselves out. At that point, no team has been mathematically eliminated, but it’s pretty obvious that some teams haven’t got a snowball’s chance at a mid-summer Texas Rangers home game.

On Friday, Aug. 9, 1946, the 16 major league teams had more or less reached triple figures in games played. At the beginning of the day, only the Pirates had yet to hit the century mark. Pittsburgh had played 98 games, but since the Bucs were mired in last place with a record of 38-60, they were not worried about how a late-season bulge in their schedule might affect their pennant fortunes.

The overarching story of the 1946 season was the return of real major league ballplayers (and fans) from the military. In fact, Aug. 9 was the one-year anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, so in a sense, it was also the one-year anniversary of the end of World War II.

Attendance was robust at all major league cities. The Tigers and the Cubs had won pennants in 1945, but that didn’t make them favorites to return to the World Series in 1946. The Tigers didn’t return till 1968, and the Cubs…well, by my count, they are now in year four of their 14th five-year plan. You could construct a cathedral in medieval Europe faster than you could conjure up a Cubs pennant.

As with many other facets of American life, baseball post-war was very different, not just from wartime baseball but from pre-war baseball. Even minor changes were indicative of shake-ups to come. For example, the Yankees became the first team to fly regularly. At the time that might have seemed like Yankee privilege, but eventually it became SOP for all teams. While Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut in 1947 has received no shortage of attention, it is worth noting that his appearance on the minor league Montreal roster in 1946 actually signified the first integrated roster in organized baseball in the 20th century.

Then there was that newfangled Mexican League that was attracting major league players and threatening to drive up salaries. The American Baseball Guild, a forerunner of today’s MLB Players Association, was also making owners nervous. Why, that Greenberg guy in Detroit leads the AL in homers and RBIs in his first full season since the war, and he thinks he’s entitled to more than $85,000! Where will it all end? Ah, the eternal question!

One important development that eventually would have a great influence on baseball was the 1946 debut of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (better known as ENIAC). The welter of statistics we have access to today would not be possible without the smaller, more sophisticated descendants of the world’s first electronic computer.

So a lot was going on in 1946, but what made Aug. 9 so special? When that date rolled around, it was destined to go down in baseball history. But even if history hadn’t been made on that date, it would have happened later in the year, or perhaps 1947, or no later than 1948. It was simply a matter of a trend waiting for the right circumstances.

The trend was night baseball. The “right circumstances” meant that the Cubs, Tigers and Red Sox would have to be on the road, since Wrigley Field, Briggs Stadium (a.k.a. Tiger Stadium) and Fenway Park still were without lights. League Park, still the home of the Indians on weekdays, was also lightless. These were the conditions that prevailed on Aug. 9, the first time ever that all major league teams were engaged in night games.

Wittingly or otherwise, the schedule-makers had set up this momentous day, but it was not necessarily a done deal. A rain-out, for example, would have ruined it. Friday was probably the ideal day to aim for an all-night-game schedule, as that was typically the beginning of a weekend series, and getaway day was two or three days away. Also, scheduling night games on Friday made economic sense, as it was probably the most convenient night of the week for most fans. They could sleep in on Saturday if the game went into extra innings.

For sure, sports sections the next day would make note of the history just made, but sportswriters probably already had circled Aug. 9 on their calendars. Fans in the know who were so inclined could attend their local game and later say they had been a part of baseball history. It would be interesting to know if advance tickets sales were greater than normal for the date.

So it was pretty much a given that history would be made on Aug. 9, barring inclement weather, a railroad strike, or a power failure. As historic as the event was in 1946, today an all-night-game slate hardly would be unusual, except on a Sunday.

But what about the games themselves? After all, there were eight games played that night. Did anything of interest happen on the field on that date? Or did the big story overshadow the eight sub-plots and a cast of hundreds out there begging for attention? Let’s take a closer look at what happened at eight different major league ballparks on that historic summer evening.

Admittedly, the stakes for some teams were not high. Certainly, fans at Forbes Field were not excited by the Pirates’ prospects at that point in the season. Only 13,624 turned out for the game against the Cubs, who started the day at 54-46. The result was another loss for the Buccos–final score Cubs 9, Pirates 3.

The big star for the Cubs, surprisingly, was shortstop Lennie Merullo, who went 4-for-5 with four RBIs. Notorious for his slipshod fielding, Merullo was no great shakes at bat, either. He would finish the 1946 season with a .151 batting average. Those four RBIs were more than half of his season total (seven). Even more surprising was that Merullo was asked to return in 1947, which proved to be his last year in the majors.

The game in Pittsburgh was noteworthy for one other factor: regime change. In fact, just the day before, Bing Crosby became part owner of the Pirates (he was one of four partners, including John W. Galbreath, who emerged as team president in 1950). Like Galbreath, Crosby “invested” in thoroughbred racehorses. In his radio appearances, he often indulged in some self-deprecating humor-–literally a running gag-–about his horses being tail-enders. Surely, some wags must have observed that his purchase of the Pirates would bring about the same result in a different sport.

Even so, Crosby retained his interest in the Pirates until his death in 1977. Curiously, Bob Hope, Crosby’s partner in their highly popular “Road” pictures (their fourth, Road to Utopia, was released in 1946, following the Road to Singapore in 1940, Zanzibar in 1941, and Morocco in 1942), also became involved in team ownership in 1946 when he purchased a portion of his hometown team, the Cleveland Indians.

After the 1946 season, Crosby recorded a song entitled “Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye” in honor of Hank Greenberg’s arrival in Pittsburgh. More important was the offseason installation of Greenberg Gardens. By placing the bullpens in front of the left-field scoreboard, the distance down the left-field line shrunk from 365 to 335 feet, while the adjacent power alley went from 406 to 376 feet. Greenberg had led the AL with 44 home runs in 1946, but the Pirates were able to obtain him thanks to a salary dispute with Detroit.

The altered dimensions would prove more helpful to Ralph Kiner (left field then became known as “Kiner’s Korner,” a name that cropped up later as the name of his post-game radio show with the Mets). The 23-year old rookie matched his age by hitting 23 home runs in 1946. That would be an impressive amount for a rookie any season, but in 1946, it was also good enough to lead the NL. It was the first of Kiner’s seven straight home run crowns. He also tied the Pittsburgh rookie record, set in 1938 by Johnny Rizzo, who was plying his trade for the St. Paul Saints in 1946. Only in 1946 did Kiner have to contend with a super-sized Forbes Field. After his last season in 1954, the original dimensions were restored.

The Aug. 9 attendance at Forbes Field was not the worst of the night. At Griffith Stadium in Washington, only 9,825 turned out to see the A’s take on the Senators. The A’s, with a record of 30-74, were hardly a big draw, but there was something (albeit small) at stake for the Senators. A win would draw them even on the season at 53-53.

For most teams, playing .500 ball is neither here nor there, but by the Senators’ usual standards, it would qualify as a good season. But .500 ball was a step down in 1946, as the year before, the Senators had finished in second place with a record of 87-67, just one-and-a-half games behind Detroit.

They had done it all with pitching and small ball. Washington had led the league in ERA (2.93), shutouts (19), and fewest walks allowed (440). Their home run leader was Harlond Clift with eight-–shades of the dead ball era! Even more unusual, they went the entire 1945 with just one home run at Griffith Stadium, and that was an inside-the-park job by Joe Kuhel. On the road, they had hit just 26 home runs. By way of contrast, league leader Vern Stephens of the Browns had hit 24.

On this day, the Senators succeeded in their mission to reach .500, with a 2-1 victory. Mickey Vernon went 2-for-3 and knocked in both runs. He had many memorable games that year– he would go on to lead the AL with a .353 average. Mickey Haefner got the complete-game victory for the Nats while Chalmer Luman Harris (better known as Lum) went the distance in the loss.

Harris had a forgettable pitching career and a lackluster managerial record, but in 1965 he did have the distinction of being the first man to manage the Astros in the Astrodome. In 1946, however, indoor air-conditioned baseball was the stuff of science fiction. At any rate, the game in Washington was over in one hour and 31 minutes, and today that would be the stuff of science fiction.

The attendance in Washington was less than spectacular, but it was not the smallest of the evening. That distinction belongs to Sportsman’s Park, where the Indians defeated the Browns 5-4 in front of 7,378. The game took two hours and 14 minutes to play. Since the Browns started the day at 46-57 and the Indians at 50-56, it was hardly a clash of the titans.

The Browns were just two years removed from their only World Series appearance, and in 1945 they had finished in third place with a record of 81-70. But by 1946, the Browns had returned to their traditional home in the second division. Attendance was booming for most teams, but not for the Browns. Or was it?

The AL average attendance in 1946 was 1,202,648 per team. The Browns’ 1946 attendance (526,435) was last in the American League, creating quite a drag on the league average. But the Browns’season total was slightly higher than in their pennant year. In 1950, the Browns’ total attendance would sink to 247,131. Even that is better than the team’s attendance during the 1930s, when yearly total attendance was below 100,000 during three seasons, and the highest was 179,126. So the Browns’ crowd on Aug. 9 was the lowest of the day in the majors, but by their standards, it was not bad.

Attendance was respectable at all other venues. At Crosley Field in Cincinnati, 24,622 witnessed a 5-2 Cardinals victory (in two hours and 12 minutes) over the Reds. Cardinals starter Howie Pollet was 13-6 after the contest and well on his way to leading the league in victories (21) and ERA (2.10). The Reds (48-52) were just playing out the schedule, but the Cardinals, at 60-41, were right behind the league-leading Dodgers, whom they eventually tied at season’s end at 96-58 (and defeated in a two-game sweep following the regular season).

What was a mere footnote at the time achieved some importance with the passing of time. That event was the first major league home run of a 20-year-old Cards rookie named Joe Garagiola. The garrulous Garagiola achieved far more fame as an announcer than he did as a player, but even so, the achievement is worth noting.

Meanwhile, at Braves Field in Boston, another young player was making a name for himself. Warren Spahn defeated the Giants by a 5-3 score in front of 23,025. It all played out in just one hour and 58 minutes.

In his first full season, Spahn would finish 8-5 with a 2.94 ERA. The next season would be his first of his 13 20-win seasons on his way to the Hall of Fame. Spahn had made a brief appearance with the Braves in 1942, when manager Casey Stengel called him gutless and sent him back to the minors because he refused to throw at a batter. No doubt Spahn relished his three victories over Stengel and the Yankees in the 1957 and 1958 World Series. In 1965, when the 44-year-old Spahn joined the Mets, Stengel was his manager once again. This inspired Spahn’s famous comment that he was probably the only man who had played for Stengel both before and after he was a genius.

In 1946, the Braves were enjoying a decent (81-72) but not great year. As for their opponents, 1946 proved to be a disastrous campaign. The Giants stood at 47-56 on Aug. 9 and went 14-37 the rest of the way to finish the season at 61-93, good for last place-–two games behind pitiful Pittsburgh!

The 1946 squad, which had been hard hit by defections to the Mexican Baseball League, was the team that inspired the famous quote by Leo Durocher (then the Dodgers manager) about nice guys and last place. There is some dispute as to the actual wording, but the meaning was still quite clear.

At Comiskey Park, another Hall of Fame left-hander emerged victorious-–but he got a save, not a win. In 1946, Hal Newhouser had his third consecutive 20-win season. With 26 victories, he would tie Bob Feller for most wins in the American League. He also led the loop in ERA (1.94) and even finished second in the MVP voting. Newhouser made 34 starts in 1946, but this was not one of them. Since the save was not an official statistic until 1969, Newhouser’s feat was not duly noted until long after he had retired.

Using a starter to nail down a victory in the ninth was not as unusual in 1946 (Newhouser had 26 saves in his career) as it would be today when closers are groomed for just that purpose. Newhouser saved the game for Fred Hutchinson, who evened his record at 8-8. The were 31,833 fans on hand for the contest, which timed out at 2:19. The Tigers would not repeat as pennant-winners in 1946, but they hardly disgraced themselves, finishing in second place with a 92-62 record.

The Dodgers would go on to finish in second place, though it took them 156 games to reach that status, as they were tied with the Cardinals after the regular season’s standard 154 games. On this evening, they had first place to themselves with a 63-40 record and yielded no ground. It was a squeaker, but Kirby Higbe managed to prevail in a 1-0 shutout (played out in two hours and 16 minutes) over the Phillies.

A bit surprising was the size of the crowd, as 29,711 showed up at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, even though the Phillies, with a 43-57 record, were going nowhere. They would eventually finish in fifth place with a 69-85 record.

The crowd at Yankee Stadium, however, was more than double the total in Philadelphia. In 1946, night baseball was still something of a novelty at the House That Ruth Built (the lights were turned on for the first time on May 28), but the Red Sox-Yankees confrontation, which attracted 63,040, would have drawn a crowd even if they scheduled it at three in the morning.

The Red Sox were on their way to a 104-50 record and a pennant, their first since the Bambino was on the roster. Those were the days when their lineup included Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Rudy York, and Johnny Pesky. By leading the Sox to a first-place finish, manager Joe Cronin became the first American League manager to win pennants with two teams. (His first was with the Senators in 1933.)

Attendance in Boston had skyrocketed. The Red Sox finished the season at 1,416,944, and averaged 18,166 per opening. They had never drawn a million fans before, and their per-game average had never been in five figures. Supposedly, that drawing power was also reflected in their road attendance, and on this Friday night it was much in evidence.

The BoSox came into the game with a 75-31 record, and the Yanks were in second place at 61-43. Obviously, if the Yankees were going to make a run at the Red Sox, they needed to start immediately. Yankee fans realized this, so they turned out in droves. The Sunday afternoon game two days later drew 72,320. For the season, 2,309,029 went through the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium, a record not just for the Yankees but for all of Major League Baseball.

On this night, it took the Red Sox two hours and two minutes to eke out a 4-3 victory. The key blow was a three-run homer by the Sox’ York. The winning pitcher was Dave “Boo” Ferriss, who was in the middle of a short but extraordinary career. Ferriss started his major league career at age 23 with a five-hit shutout over Bobo Newsom and the Athletics on April 29, 1945. He kept the scoreless inning streak going for 22 innings, setting a record (since surpassed by Brad Ziegler in 2008) for most scoreless innings pitched at the beginning of a career, and finished his rookie year with a 21-10 record.

On this evening, Ferris’ 4-3 victory over the Yanks would run his record to 19-4. He would finish the 1946 season at 25-6, leading the league in victories and pitching the Red Sox into their first World Series appearance in nearly 30 seasons. After that, it was all downhill for Ferris. Because of arm miseries and asthma (which was bad enough to get him a medical discharge during World War II), he retired early in the 1950 season with a 65-30 record. He was only 28 years old. Despite his health problems, Ferriss is still alive at age 92 in his native Mississippi.

So when we look at the eight contests played that day, we see that Aug. 9 was about a lot more than night baseball. It was just one eventful date in an eventful season. As is still the case today, there was a lot more to the story than the sound bite.

Today one can only marvel at the briefness of each contest. The longest game of the day at 2:35 was the Pirates-Cubs contest. Today that would be way below average. The shortest game of the day was the Senators-Athletics contest, which was over in a mere 1:31. That would be about half the duration of an average contest today. The average time of the eight contests was two hours and eight minutes. Babysitters working for baseball fans didn’t make much money in those days.

Of course, night games were a boon to working people. A total of 203,430 fans took the opportunity to take in a game and participate in the historic night. About 31 percent of them were in Yankee Stadium; a mere 3.6 percent were in St. Louis.

And let’s not overlook the fact that for the first time in baseball history, vampires could attend any scheduled major league game!

Now there’s a movie script just waiting to be written!

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Comments

  1. Frank Jackson said...

    Since I wrote the above article, it occurs to me that 1946 was the last year anyone could utter the phrase, “The defending National League champion Chicago Cubs.” What a strange ring that has to it.

  2. MarylandBill said...

    I don’t know what the start times were, but if they were before 8, the Vampires would have missed the first pitch :).

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