A classic under the lights
To be exact, it was on Oct. 13, 1971, that the National Pastime's grandest, most time-honored event, the World Series, saw for the first time ever one of its contests played at night. The occasion was Game 4 of the 1971 Fall Classic, pitting the visiting Baltimore Orioles against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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The game saw the Pirates come away with a 4-3 win over the Orioles and even their series at two games apiece. The first ball pitched in the first World Series baseball game played at night – a strike from lefty Luke Walker to Paul Blair – was donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The game was highlighted by a pair of 21-year-old Bucs rookies: Bruce Kison pitching 6 1/3 innings of one-hit relief and Milt May driving in the winning run with a seventh-inning pinch hit. Those details can be found in the record books, but what remains noteworthy from this event is its place in the game's evolution.
By 1987 – just 16 years after the first World Series night game – day games disappeared from the Fall Classic landscape.
The results achieved with Game 4 of the 1971 World Series were spectacular: An estimated 63 million viewers, the largest TV audience ever for a prime-time sports telecast. Also, the game had the highest rating in the national Nielsen report for the week ending Oct. 17, upstaging such popular options as All in the Family, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O and Laugh-In, and registering a 34.8 rating (a percentage of the number of TV sets in America) and a 54 audience share (a percentage of the number of TV sets in use during Game 4).
"When I became commissioner in 1969, the policy was to play most of the World Series games on weekdays," Kuhn would say later. "It was a time when most housewives were busy, the children were at school and the men at work. The country's top sports attraction thus was seen by a limited number of people.
"I broached the subject to NBC. They were skeptical and resistant. The World Series comes in the first 13 weeks of the new season for the TV networks. It is a time when they are trying to establish viewer habits. They didn't want to interrupt their regular shows with a one-shot deal like the Series.
"There had been suggestions of night games for the Series – one of the strongest advocates was Charles Finley."
Finley, famous as the owner of the 1970s Oakland A's, had been advocating for night World Series games as far back as the early 1960s.
"We play night baseball all season and then don't even give the loyal fans of our country one night game during the Series," Finley once said. "I am sure I have some support in my suggestions that some of the World Series games be played at night to give the working man a chance to attend and greatly increase the size of the television audience.
"I'm the working man's greatest friend since that guy who invented time-and-a-half."
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum