Let There Be Light

Negro Leagues pioneer J.L. Wilkinson helped popularize night baseball

February 04, 2013
Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Tina Zayat 

The uniforms have changed.  Umpiring has changed.  And the equipment has evolved.  But one of the most influential changes to the game of baseball has been men willing to risk it all on a bright idea: Electric light.  

The invention of the incandescent light bulb would definitely change the game. But it took time. 

Future Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson took a chance on night baseball. Partnering with Thomas Baird in 1929, he commissioned the Giant Manufacturing Company of Omaha, Neb., to build a portable electric lighting system so his Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs, could play more baseball, draw more fans to the game, and, more importantly, increase their revenue during the Great Depression. Wilkinson’s risk paid off and it helped change how baseball is viewed today. 

However, Wilkinson wasn’t the first to attempt baseball after sunset. A game between two department store teams took place in Hull, Mass., on Sept. 2, 1880, soon after Thomas Edison achieved a long lasting light bulb. The newness of electricity attracted many people, but some Boston newspaper reporters wrote that the lights proved disappointing to the game. As modifications improved the lights, more teams tried night games into the early 20th Century. 

By 1930, the Kansas City Monarch’s floodlights, transported on truck beds behinds the team bus, were considered a success. Then, the Des Moines Demons, a minor league team in Iowa, took a solid chance on night baseball’s future and played May 2, 1930 under permanent lights anchored in concrete. Many minor league teams adopted night baseball within the next few years. Lights allowed them to sometimes schedule three or four games a day and night games often meant the difference between profit and loss. 

Still, the major leagues weren’t as quick to pursue the idea – not until May 24, 1935, when, at 8:30 p.m., President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key at the White House in Washington sending an electrical pulse over 500 miles of telegraph wire to illuminate a large light bulb at Crosley Field in Cincinnati for the Reds versus Phillies game. Then, Reds general manager and future Hall of Famer Larry MacPhail flipped a switch that lit up the entire field.  “As soon as I saw the lights come on, I knew they were there to stay,” said the late Red Barber, the Reds broadcaster that night. “The lights were perfect.  There were no shadows.  Everything was lovely.” 

Eventually, all major league teams added lights, concluding with the Chicago Cubs on August 8, 1988, and changed baseball history forever. 

Preserving history is one of our missions at the Hall of Fame and one of our archived items is a sign advertising a Kansas City Monarch game on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1930 using their new portable electric lights. Our Library and Photo archives both have generous files pertaining to night baseball and the Museum has two baseballs from the historic major league night game at Crosley Field. 

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, Rachel Robinson, the Evolution of Night Baseball, Welday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie Morgan, Bill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson. 

Tina Zayat is a fulfillment and shipping associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum