“Under the Lights”

This article was written by Oscar Eddleton

This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


One hundred years ago on Thursday, September 2, 1880, teams representing two of Boston’s prominent department stores, Jordan Marsh and Company and R. H. White and Company, played a game of baseball at Nantasket Bay on the oceanside of Hull, Massachusetts.

This game would have held no historic value and would long since have been forgotten had it not been for one unique feature. It was the first baseball game ever played at night “under the lights.”

The debut of night baseball a century ago was an ambiguous one in the sense that the game itself was not the main attraction. Rather the primary event was an elaborate lighting display staged by the Northern Electric Light Company of Boston to demonstrate the feasibility of illuminating large areas including cities. Thomas Edison had invented the incandescent lamp the previous year, so this baseball game under the lights was a means of proving a point.

The contest was played on the lawn in the rear of Nantasket’s Sea Foam House. Three wooden towers were erected some 100 feet apart at the summits of which were placed 12 electric lamps having a combined strength of 30,000 candle power. In a small shed had been placed two engines with three electric generators, one for each tower.

The Boston Post of September 3, 1880, reported that “when the lamps were lighted after dark the effect was fine. A clear, pure, bright light was produced, very strong and yet very pleasant to the sight.”

Although the Post stated that this first nocturnal baseball game was played “with scarcely the precision as by daylight,” Jordan Marsh and Company and R. H. White and Company did play nine innings to a 16-16 tie when the game was called to allow the two teams to take the last boat back to Boston. Some 300 spectators attended the historic encounter.

It would make a good story to be able to state that night baseball became an instant success following the debut at Nantasket Bay and that the professional leagues began to consider its possibilities with interest and enthusiasm. Such of course was not the case. Actually, another 50 years passed before the moguls of Organized Baseball finally decided to give the arc lights a serious try.

The next night game of record was played June 2, 1883, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, between Quincy, Illinois, and a team called the M. E. Church Nine. Quincy won, 19-11, in a seven-inning game played before some 2,000 fans.

There is evidence of other night games played during the 19th century but they were strictly exhibitions and considered by Organized Baseball as merely “a craving for novelty.”

The long hiatus following the birth of night baseball in 1880 did, however, produce some interesting experiments that perhaps enhanced the development of the concept of playing under the lights.

In 1909 there appeared on the scene one George F. Cahill, an inventor from Holyoke, Mass. In addition to a pitching machine, he had devised a portable lighting system and obviously possessed a vision of what night baseball could become. He journeyed about the country trying to interest ball clubs in his invention.

With the permission of Garry Herrmann, President of the Cincinnati Reds, Cahill staged a night game on June 19, 1909 in the Reds’ park between the Elk Lodges of Cincinnati and Newport, Ky. Surprisingly, the game was played without difficulty and the 3,000 spectators, including the Cincinnati and Philadelphia teams which had played that afternoon, had little trouble following the ball. President Herrmann appeared impressed, as were others, but nothing of consequence came of it.

The following month, July 7, 1909, there was a breakthrough of sorts. On that date Grand Rapids and Zanesville of the Class B Central League played a night game at the Ramona Athletic Park, Grand Rapids, Mich. The mayor of Grand Rapids, George Ellis, officiated as umpire.

The Grand Rapids Herald of July 8, 1909, reported that Grand Rapids won the seven-inning contest, 11-10, over Zanesville before a crowd of 4,500 fans “drawn by the novelty of the play by artificial light.” The Herald also stated that “Outfielders had their troubles in judging the balls hit in their direction but the light was perfect for the batters, and how they did land on the ball.”

The question immediately arose as to whether the contest would count in the league standings. It did not. There was a rule of that period which prohibited league games from starting later than two hours before sunset.

Meanwhile, George F. Cahill was still persistent in his efforts to convince the major leagues of the wisdom of attempting night baseball. This time he turned to the American League.

On August 27, 1910, using his patented lighting system, Cahill staged a night game at the new White Sox Park in Chicago with the approval of President Charles Comiskey. Over 20,000 fans watched the Logan Square and the Rogers Park teams play nine innings under the glare of twenty 137,000 candle-power arc lights. Once again the experiment was successful but with meager results beyond that.

George F. Cahill, a man ahead of his time, was doomed to disappointment and frustration. Despite his determined and apparently successful efforts, the magnates of baseball refused to take his vision of night baseball seriously. Fortunately he did live long enough to attend the first Major League night game in Cincinnati, May 24, 1935, his dream now a reality.

There was one final experiment with baseball under the lights before the advent of the real thing. It occurred June 24, 1927, when Lynn and Salem of the Class B New England League played an exhibition game sponsored by the General Electric Employees’ Athletic Association. The contest, a seven-inning affair, was played at General Electric Field, West Lynn, Mass., with Lynn the victor, 7-2. The game itself was an artistic success with several spectacular catches, a double play by Lynn and only two errors.

The crowd, estimated at more than 5,000, included Claude B. Johnson, President of the New England League, who predicted that within five years all leagues would have night baseball including the majors. Also on hand were delegations from the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators, who were playing in Boston. Both managers, Bucky Harris of the Senators and Bill Carrigan of the Red Sox, were high in their praise, both foreseeing night exhibition games in the major leagues in the near future. The players were impressed as well, with Goose Goslin, Washington’s star outfielder, expressing a personal desire to play in a night game. Adding to the pleasure of the occasion was the famed baseball comedian, Al Schacht, who delighted the crowd with his pre-game antics.

In retrospect, it is difficult to comprehend the aversion of Organized Baseball to the night game when so much interest and enthusiasm were expressed whenever and wherever it was played. Certainly some innovative and venturesome club owner or general manager would seize the initiative and pioneer on this new frontier. But it did not happen immediately. Finally, in late 1929, E. Lee Keyser, president of the Des Moines club of the Class A Western League, announced at the annual National Association convention that he intended to open the 1930 season at night in Des Moines. The race for the honor of the first regular season night game was on.

Keyser meant for his home opener with Wichita as the opposition to be a gala occasion and the first night game to be played in regular league competition. The game was a festive event as planned, but it was not a nocturnal “first.” Unfortunately for the Des Moines team, the Western League schedule called for it to open the season on the road. The home opener could not be played until May 2, 1930.

Meanwhile, the Producers of Independence, Kansas, of the Class C Western Association were to open their season at home against Muskogee and were intent upon the honor of playing the first league game under the lights. The lighting equipment had been installed at Riverside Park and the historic game was scheduled for April 26, 1930. However, the honor was delayed as the game was rained out. A Sunday afternoon game was played April 27, and the big game finally came off on Monday, April 28th.

Around 1,000 fans turned out for the nocturnal “first” which was played on a soggy field and won by Muskogee, 13-3. One old Producer recalls the famous game. “I don’t remember having much trouble with the lights,” stated catcher Sherman Walker. “They were pretty good although I do remember you’d get a shadow which gave you the impression it was only half a ball.”

Very quickly minor league teams discovered that in spite of the financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression, baseball under the lights often doubled and tripled their attendance figures. The writer attended the first night game in Richmond, Virginia in 1933, when that city had a team in the Class B Piedmont League and recalls the positive impact it had. Indeed it is fair to say that night baseball was the economic savior of many minor league teams during those dark days of the depression. By 1934, 15 of the 19 minor leagues had one or more parks equipped with lights. Still the major leagues declined to participate. Their 1934 schedules listed day games only.

In 1935, however, there was a capitulation. Leland Stanford “Larry” MacPhail, the dynamic General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, at the National League meeting in December 1934, requested permission to introduce night baseball in Cincinnati. MacPhail had experienced considerable success with the innovation at Columbus of the American Association.

The idea of playing major league baseball under artificial lights was still repugnant to most of the National League executives who regarded the night game as a risky experiment. This sentiment is clearly reflected in the report of the matter in the 1935 Spalding’s Baseball Guide.

With great reluctance, however, MacPhail was granted permission to play seven-night games at Cincinnati in 1935, one with each team provided each consented. The National League’s concession to Cincinnati was justified as an attempt to assist a franchise that was in perilous financial condition.

The first night game in Major League history was played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, May 24, 1935, with an attendance of 20,422. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seated in the White House, pushed a button and 1,090,000 watts of electric power from 632 lamps flooded the field turning night into day. Ford Frick, President of the National League, threw out the first ball after which the Reds defeated the visiting Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1, behind the six-hit pitching of Paul Derringer. The initial reaction was mixed, and enthusiasm was tempered but overall there was no denying that the arc light debut had been a genuine success.

It was indeed appropriate that Cincinnati, the birthplace of professional baseball in 1869, should host the occasion marking the beginning of a bright new chapter in the game’s colorful history.

Larry MacPhail continued to be the apostle of night baseball as he moved from Cincinnati to Brooklyn in 1938 and quickly installed lights at Ebbets Field. The first game under the lights was played on June 15 and this time Cincinnati was the visiting team. It was an artistic success in every way as the Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer pitched his second successive no-hit game in blanking the Dodgers, 6-0, before 38,748 fans.

By now the American League was becoming interested in the night game. Ironically, the first convert was the league’s oldest executive, Connie Mack, age 76, president and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Connie had noted the surge in attendance and receipts at Cincinnati and Brooklyn for night contests. Lights were erected at Shibe Park in 1939 and on May 16 the Athletics and Cleveland played the inaugural night game with the Indians winning, 8-3, in ten innings before 15,109. The National League Phillies, who had become tenants of Shibe Park, also played seven-night games in 1939.

In 1940, 70-night names were scheduled in the Majors and for the first time more parks had lights than those which did not. The only holdouts were Boston and Chicago in the National League and New York, Boston, Detroit, and Washington in the American. Lights were erected at Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1941 while the Yankees and the Boston Braves waited until after World War II to install lights in 1946. The Red Sox followed in 1947, and Detroit was the last AL team into the fold in 1948.

The first Major League All-Star Game played under the lights, July 6, 1942, at the Polo Grounds in New York, was not intended to be a nocturnal contest. However, an afternoon rain delayed the game’s start until 7:22 p.m. The contest ended two minutes before a World War II blackout test at 9:30 with the American League winning, 3-1.

As the decade of the 1950s began, Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was the scene of the first season opening night game, April 18, 1950, as the Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-2, under the lights.

The following year, April 17, 1951, the American League staged its opening night inaugural at Shibe Park where the Philadelphia Athletics lost to the Washington Senators, 6-1.

Twenty years passed before the first World Series night game was played. On October 13, 1971, at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, the Pirates edged the Baltimore Orioles, 4-3, before a record throng of 51,378 in game No. 4 of that series.

Today major league schedules continue to include a preponderance of night games. Only the Chicago Cubs play all their home games in daylight. Picturesque Wrigley Field provides the young fan interested in baseball history with an opportunity to see the way it used to be.

In terms of the history of night baseball, 1980 is the year of the anniversary. It marks the centennial of the first game played under the lights (September 2, 1880); the golden jubilee of the first regular season night game in the minor leagues (April 28, 1930); the 45th anniversary of the first major league night game (May 24, 1935); and the 30th anniversary of the first season opening night game (April 18, 1950).

These anniversaries reflect to some extent the slow but determined progress of night baseball despite the barriers of apathy, skepticism, hostility, and fear of innovation. They also recall minding the words of Victor Hugo, “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”

 

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