Night games gave access to baseball to millions
Today, baseball fans born after 1935 have grown up knowing almost nothing but night baseball. But for more than 70 years, big league baseball was played exclusively during the day.
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Commissioner Landis initially said to future Hall of Famer Larry MacPhail, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds at the time of the first night game: “Young man…not in my lifetime or yours will you ever see a baseball game played at night in the majors.”
Yet faced with a dire financial outlook in Cincinnati, MacPhail and Reds owner Powell Crosley changed the Commissioner’s mind, and he allowed the Reds to host seven night games in 1935. The numbers quickly grew, and 11 of the 16 major league clubs had installed lights by the time the United States entered World War II.
By the end of the War, only the Red Sox, Tigers and Cubs were holdouts. The Red Sox installed lights in 1947, and the Tigers in 1948. Phil Wrigley of the Cubs held out until 1988, saying that baseball was meant to be played in the sunshine. Wrigley had actually ordered lighting materials after the 1941 season, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he immediately donated all the material to the War Department for use in lighting “flying fields, munitions plants, or war defense plants.”
The Cubs finally added night baseball to their offerings on Aug. 8, 1988, though many of their home games are still played in the day.
There was a night baseball doubleheader played at Wrigley Field long before 1988, however. On July 1, 1943, two all-star teams from the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League, Wrigley’s brainchild, played a shortened doubleheader under a temporary lighting system.
The Hall of Fame’s collections have been vastly enriched by donations related to the first major league night game at Crosley Field. In 1970, the Reds donated their files and records relating to the development of lighting at Crosley Field to the Hall of Fame. The collection includes ball park diagrams, correspondence, and proposals from three companies to handle the installation: Westinghouse, Giant Projectors, and the ultimately successful bid from General Electric.
The following year, the National League gave the Museum a scrapbook containing press clippings, photos, and editorial cartoons documenting the development of night baseball in each of the original eight NL cities.
The Hall of Fame Library additionally houses a collection of 30 photographs of the first night game from Major Bob Payne, a retired Army chaplain and author of a book about night baseball, whose father, Earl D. Payne, was one of the Cincinnati Gas and Electric lighting engineers who worked on illuminating Crosley Field.
The Hall of Fame has two baseballs from Crosley Field from the night of that historic game. One was kept by future Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem, and the other is signed by a host of players and others, and includes the statement: “The lights are swell.”
Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail donated a beautiful painting entitled, “The First Major League Game Ever Played Under Floodlights,” painted by H.M. Mott-Smith for General Electric’s 1936 promotional calendar.
It seems that the words of J.L. Wilkinson have proved to be true: Lights are to baseball what talkies are to the movies.
Tim Wiles was the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum