Though night may fall, play ball!

There is no chance of night baseball ever being popular in the bigger cities. People there are educated to see the best there is and will stand for only the best. High-class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial light.
Clark Griffith, Washington Senators owner

No need to comment on the above quotation, though it does offer a clue as to why the Senators were such an unsuccessful franchise. In truth, Griffith wasn’t the only skeptic. Though he was the last owner to install lights before War II, there were still five teams (Cubs, Braves, Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers) that could comply with wartime blackouts by default.

By the 1930s, electricity was a fact of life in 20th century urban (though not always rural) America, and it’s hard to see why major league baseball was so slow to capitalize on it. Minor league and Negro league teams came on board in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but MLB viewed it as something worthy of a carnival sideshow. The integrity of the game (harumph, harumph) was and is usually the excuse for maintaining the status quo… until the subject of revenue enhancement arises. During the Depression, that was Topic A.

In 1934, the highlight of the Cincinnati Reds’ season was that the fact that they were the first team to fly on a road trip (to Chicago). On the field, the Reds finished last; their attendance (206,773) was next to last. Even by Depression-era standards, this was sub-par, but general manager Larry MacPhail had an idea. I guess you could say a light bulb went off in his head.

I don’t know how MacPhail pitched the subject to the other NL teams (he needed their approval to schedule night games), but I’m guessing he stressed the financial benefits of adding lights to Crosley Field. After all, visiting teams shared in the gate receipts, so if the Reds put more butts in the seats, that would put more money in the other teams’ coffers. And if it didn’t hype attendance, then the expense of installation and illumination belonged to the Reds. It was a no-risk proposition for the other seven teams, an offer they couldn’t refuse.

So MacPhail got General Electric to design and install what was then a state-of-the-art lighting system. For baseball fans, the GE slogan “We bring good things to light” (though that ad campaign wasn’t around back then) was right on the money.

So on Friday, May 24, 1935 the first major league night game took place in Cincinnati—the first game in major league history that stood zero chance of being called on account of darkness. In fact, as the phrase “night game” entered the vernacular, it also gave rise to “day game,” a phrase that would have been a redundancy—at least in Cincinnati—before then.

The historic nature of the event was not lost on the media and the event was well chronicled. Indeed, President Franklin Roosevelt kicked off the proceedings from the Oval Office of the White House by pressing a gold telegraph key to cut loose the juice.

For the record, not that it really mattered, the Reds defeated the Phillies 2-1, with Paul Derringer besting Joe Bowman. The electric bill was not too burdensome for that contest, as it only took 1:35 to play it. And if you’re looking for a real trivia stumper, how about this one: Phillies’ second baseman Lou Chiozza was the first major leaguer to step up to the plate in a night game.

It shouldn’t have been too tall an order to fill up the park (Crosley Field held only 26,060 in those days), but only 20,422 showed up. The lingering dampness likely played a part (the historic event had been postponed from the night before). Then again, the Phillies were hardly a big draw in National League cities under any circumstances. Their home attendance (169,885) made the Reds’ fan base look pretty solid.

The May 24 game against the Phillies was the first of seven (one against each NL opponent) night games in Cincinnati that season, so Queen City fans had six more chances to see major league ball at night. By the end of the season, a baseball fan in Cincinnati could justifiably say, “I have seen the future, and it works.”

Another memorable night game occurred at Crosley Field on July 31. The defending World Series Champion Cardinals were in town and ticket demand was so great that the overflow was admitted to the field up and down the foul lines. Attendance was estimated at 30,000, which would have put thousands of people on the field. Clearly, had this Wednesday contest been played in the daytime, nowhere near that many people would have attended.

Given the proximity of the fans to the field, the players could not ignore their cheers or jeers. Kitty Burke, a local nightclub singer in attendance, belittled the hitting prowess of Joe Medwick, who responded by saying that her own hitting skills probably left a lot to be desired.

So while the Reds were at bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, Burke went to the on-deck circle, borrowed a bat from Babe Herman, and stepped into the batter’s box. Paul Dean lobbed her a pitch, which she promptly hit back to him, and he tagged her out—probably a fairly easy task, since she was wearing high heels. Hence the first—and as far as I know the only—time a woman has wielded a bat during a major league game.

Dean got the out then, but he wasn’t so fortunate two innings later, as the Reds garnered a 4-3 walk-off victory with one out in the 10th.

The real story was not so much the game as the crowd. The Reds had always had fans from Kentucky and Indiana, but games like the above resulted in railroads adding extra trains to Cincinnati on game nights. The Reds’ attendance more than doubled (to 448,247) in 1935 even though they rose only to sixth place. Of course, the seven night games alone were not enough to account for the 240,000-plus increase in fans, but they certainly helped.

Thomas Edison died in 1931, so he wasn’t around when Cincinnati flipped the switch. In fact, even after the Reds showed that night games were not only feasible but even desirable, other teams were slow to catch on.

When Crosley Field turned night into day, there were 16 major league ballparks. The Cardinals and Browns shared the same facility (Sportsman’s Park) while the Indians had two homes, League Park and Municipal Stadium. So there should have been plenty of work for electricians. But nothing happened for more than three years.

The Cubs became the most famous holdout (though they had lights ready to install for the 1942 season, they ended up donating them to the war effort), but they had plenty of company. In fact, four other major league ballparks were still without lights by the end of World War II.

More than three years after Crosley Field introduced night baseball, another team finally decided to follow the path blazed by the Reds. On June 15, 1938, Ebbets Field was aglow for the Dodgers’ first night game. Larry MacPhail had left Cincinnati to become the president of the Dodgers, and one of his first acts was to renovate Ebbets Field. The installation of lights was part of that project.

As it turned out, night baseball was just one of MacPhail’s innovations. He hired Red Barber, who had done play-by-play in Cincinnati, to do the same for the Dodgers in 1939. These were the first radio games in the New York market. Also, the first televised game took place at Ebbets Field on Aug. 26, 1939. So history was being made in Brooklyn, while the Giants and Yankees dragged their feet.

The Dodgers’ first nighttime opponent was Cincinnati, so the Reds were the first major league club to play night games home and away. The Brooklyn faithful were assured they would witness baseball history that night just by showing up. Ah, but they got so much more, even though the Bums were treated rudely. For Aug. 26 was the date of Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter. Four days earlier, he had staged a No-No Nanette in Boston. In Brooklyn, 38,748 were on hand (3,748 above capacity) for his second no-hitter. It was one of the few times in Ebbets Field history that Brooklynites were observed rooting against the Dodgers.

The following season a number of teams saw the light. Rightly or wrongly, 1939 was celebrated as the centennial year of baseball, so maybe team owners thought it was time to get up to date. The first night games for each team that year were as follows:

May 16, 1939, Shibe Park, Philadelphia A’s. The A’s not only made history playing the first night game in their history (and American League history), they also played the first extra-inning night game in their history (and American League history). Unfortunately, the 15,100 fans on hand left disappointed, as the A’s wasted no time in coughing up the game in the 10th inning by yielding five runs. Final score: Indians 8, A’s 3.

June 1, 1939, Shibe Park, Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies had abandoned Baker Bowl, their dilapidated ancestral home, the season before. Connie Mack and the A’s owned Shibe Park, so the Phillies also benefited from his investment. Only 8,000 were on hand for the Phillies’ debut under the lights. Like the A’s, the Phillies disappointed, losing 5-2 to the Pirates (Rip Sewell over Kirby Higbe).

June 27, 1939, Cleveland Indians. 55,305 were on hand at Cleveland Stadium (later and better known as Municipal Stadium) to see Bob Feller—then just 20 years old—throw a one-hit shutout against the Tigers. Final score: 5-0. No one was making any mistake-by-the-lake jokes that night. In fact, the day before, the Indians had played at League Park, losing 11-2 to the Tigers in front of just 3,500.

Aug. 14, 1939, Chicago White Sox. Charles Comiskey, the old tightwad, probably would have balked at spending money for lights, but he was eight years dead by this time. 30,000 showed up for this historic contest—a 5-2 victory over the Browns. Obviously, this was far more than a Monday matinee against the Browns would have drawn. As it turned out, night baseball in Chicago was a south side exclusive until 1988—almost half a century—when the NL north-siders finally came around.

The 1939 lighting trend continued into the next season; in 1940 four more teams joined the fold.

On May 24, 1940, at the Polo Grounds, the New York Giants defeated the Boston Bees by a score of 8-1 in front of 20,260. Not a particularly impressive crowd— especially for a Friday night—but the Bees, who came into the game with a record of 8-15 and finished the season in seventh place, were hardly a top draw.

On that same evening in St. Louis, the Browns took on the Indians. For the second consecutive year, Bob Feller—now 21 years old—pitched the inaugural night game in a major league ballpark. No shutout this time, just a victory, 3-2 over Eldon Auker. 24,827 showed up for that contest, perhaps as much to see Feller in action as to sample baseball under the lights at Sportsman’s Park.

Less than two weeks later (on Tuesday, June 4), two more teams joined the parade on electric avenue. At Forbes Field, the Pirates crushed the Boston Bees by a 14-2 score in front of 20,310. Meanwhile, Sportsman’s Park was in the spotlight again as the Dodgers pounded the Cardinals 10-1 in front of 23,500.

The last team to get lights before World War II was the Washington Senators. Clark Griffith finally gave in and flipped the switch at Griffith Stadium on May 28, 1941. 25,000 turned out to see what turned out to be Game No. 13 in Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game streak. The final score was Yankees 6, Washington 5. Damn Yankees!

Understandably, the coming of World War II halted the illumination of America’s ballparks, as it halted just about everything that wasn’t military-related. The money just wasn’t there, and even if it was, it might have appeared unseemly if not downright unpatriotic to spend money on something that, if not exactly frivolous, wasn’t really necessary. The inferior brand of major league ball during World War II was hardly worth any extra expenditure anyway.

Notably, President Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous “green light” letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said, “I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”

After World War II, a new day dawned for night baseball. Aside from the Cubs, the holdout teams got religion.

Night games weren’t banned in Boston, but it was the only two-team city with day games only. That ended when Braves Field was lit up on Saturday, May 11, 1946, in front of 35,945. Aside from Wrigley Field, something of a special case, this was the last National League park to light up. The Braves didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, however. Final score: Giants 5, Braves 1. That made the Boston Nationals 0-3 in inaugural night games. Even the home field advantage hadn’t helped.

The Yankees lit up the South Bronx later in the month. The House That Ruth Built was finally wired for night games, the first of which took place on May 28, 1946. It was surely no coincidence that Larry MacPhail had taken over as GM/president the year before. Unfortunately, the result was disappointing to the 49,917 on hand, as Dutch Leonard and the Senators turned back Clarence “Cuddles” Marshall and the Yanks by a 2-1 score.

Fenway Park finally came on line on June 13, 1947. Final score: Red Sox 5, White Sox 3, in front of 34,510 (about 1,000 under capacity). I don’t know how many night games the Red Sox played that year, but night vision was obviously no problem for Ted Williams, who won his second Triple Crown (.343, 32 homers, 114 RBIs) and also led the league in walks with 162. Of course, if you have 20/10 vision, what’s a little thing like illumination?

The last American League team to get lights was the Detroit Tigers. More than 13 years after the Reds got things started, Briggs Stadium finally came on board on Tuesday, June 15, 1948. 54,480 (about 2,000 above capacity) were on hand to see the Tigers take on (and beat) the A’s; final score: 4-1. Detroit was unfashionably late because there were so many shift workers at the local auto plants. There were enough fans to keep attendance healthy at day games, so installing lights just wasn’t a priority.

By 1948, night baseball was no longer a novelty, and every major league ballpark built since then has had lights incorporated into the design. Aside from the effects on attendance, it was obvious that lighting made scheduling easier by eliminating games that had been suspended due to darkness. Even day games delayed by rain could be saved if the lights could be turned on late in the day and the game could be played under the lights to completion. Also, fan comfort was enhanced by post-sundown contests during the summer months. Perhaps the only group adversely affected by night games was the press, as beat writers had less time to knock out their accounts of the contest for the next morning’s papers.

Given all the benefits of night baseball, it is hard to see why Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley had a postwar change of heart and left Wrigley Field unlit. He said he did not want to disrupt the surrounding neighborhood, but that didn’t seem to concern him in 1941. Perhaps he was selling so much chewing gum, he didn’t have to worry about attendance. Of course, as the last ballpark without lights, Wrigley Field assumed a new (yet old-fashioned) identity. It evoked good old days of nickel beer, straw boaters, and detachable collars.

Some ballparks are built unique, others achieve uniqueness, and some have uniqueness thrust upon them. Wrigley Field fell under the third option by staying the course. While every other team owner jumped on the bandwagon, Phillip Wrigley chose to remain a pedestrian. It was likely a point of pride as much as a lifestyle choice.

It was not that Wrigley Field hadn’t changed over the years (the famed ivy, for example, wasn’t planted on the walls till 1937 when the park was 23 years old), but Wrigley was saying that the ballpark named after his father (and by extension his company) would henceforth be preserved; it was an antique but not antiquated. People still lived in historic homes, so why couldn’t a baseball team still play in a historic ballpark?

The Chicago Tribune, which bought the team in 1981, had other ideas. So did the commissioner of baseball, who had jurisdiction over postseason games. Prime-time night games in the NLDS and World Series were no longer novelties, and the prime time TV profits were greater, so Commissioner Peter Uebberoth decreed that if the Cubs made the postseason and did not have lights, they would have to play their “home games” somewhere other than Wrigley Field.

Thirty years ago, it was debatable as to which was more unthinkable: night games at Wrigley Field, or a Cubs home game played in Comiskey Park or Milwaukee or St. Louis. Then again, the thought of the Cubs in the World Series is even more difficult to envision.

So the Cubs were more or less forced to add lights. The first game was scheduled for Monday, Aug. 8, 1988. The sellout crowd saw the first major league baseball played under the lights at Wrigley but not the first official game, as rains washed out he contest against the Phillies in the fourth inning. Consequently, the 36,339 fans who were lucky enough to have tickets for the following night (a 6-4 victory over the Mets) could say they had seen the first official game.

A generation of fans has grown up since the Cubs turned the lights on. Wrigley Field is still a special place, but not quite as special as it was before 1988. It took 13 years to retro-fit all major league parks other than Wrigley for night ball, and another 40 years till Wrigley fell into line. By 1948 night games had gone from novelty to parity; by 1988, they had gone from parity to dominance.

East Coast fans staying up till midnight to watch World Series games on TV (not to mention the fans shivering at the ballpark) might welcome a day game and a chance to play hooky like in the old days. Not going to happen, folks. Turn-back-the-clock games are okay now and then, but don’t fall in love with them. The networks, the Commish—and the almighty dollar—have ruled otherwise.

Crosley Field was torn down in 1972, but the after-effects of the game played there on May 24, 1935 proved far more durable than any bricks-and-mortar structure.

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Comments

  1. Jim said...

    Baseball was meant to be played during the day.  Only games I go to.  They also end up being get away days with everybody swinging at first pitches, for better or worse.  Another problem is that fielders no longer know how to field in the sun, so defense is not top-notch.  But still more relaxing.

  2. Gyre said...

    Interestingly, while I’ve watched thousands of games at night on TV, I’ve never been to a night game.  Every game I’ve ever gone to has always been far enough away that I had to go to a daytime game.

    I really liked the article, all the little bits of history are fun.  I’d say the best trivia that came out of this one is ‘Has a women ever batted in a major league game?’

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    It wasn’t so obvious that lighting would eliminate games being suspended due to darkness. It wasn’t until 1950 that the NL allowed lights to be turned on during a game, and the AL allowed it only in certain circumstances that year, removing the restrictions the following season.

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