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Yankees Magazine: When Yankee Stadium Was Lit 

The first night game at Yankee Stadium provided a lifetime of memories
May 29, 2020

Ed. Note: During the current stoppage in baseball, Yankees Magazine is periodically putting some of its archival material online for the first time. This story first appeared in the May 2012 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

Ed. Note: During the current stoppage in baseball, Yankees Magazine is periodically putting some of its archival material online for the first time. This story first appeared in the May 2012 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

It was nearly 9 p.m., and only one batter into the game, Clarence “Cuddles” Marshall was already in trouble.

Nearly 50,000 fans -- some of whom had come to Yankee Stadium the night before only to be told the game was rained out -- were there to witness the first game under artificial lights in The House That Ruth Built. The date was May 28, 1946, and an unseasonably frigid night left most of them shivering.

One month after his 21st birthday, Marshall was making the first start of his big league career. His catcher, Bill Dickey, arguably the greatest backstop baseball had ever seen, walked toward the mound after Marshall walked Senators leadoff hitter Sherry Robertson on four pitches.

Dickey also happened to be making his home debut as manager after taking over for Joe McCarthy the previous weekend in Boston -- the first skipper in the Yankees dugout other than McCarthy in 16 years.

Marshall blew on his hands to try to keep them from completely freezing as the legendary Dickey approached him.

“You scared, kid?” Dickey said.

“Yes.”

“So am I.”

Dickey patted the young right-hander on the rear end and retreated to home plate.

***

It’s hard to imagine today -- when more than half of the Yankees’ home games begin after 7 p.m. -- but for the first 23 years of Yankee Stadium’s existence, not a single inning was played under lights.

The tradition-minded Yankees, particularly conservative team president Ed Barrow, were in no rush to join the nocturnal ranks. After their first night game, a 3-2 loss on June 26, 1939, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park to an Athletics team that had been 0-8 against the Yanks that year, Lefty Gomez remarked, “There must be a catch to this.”

Though the consensus was “hardly favorable,” feelings started to warm after the Yankees’ second night game, a 14-5 rout of the White Sox at Comiskey Park on Aug. 22, 1939, in which the Bombers clubbed five homers.

That same day, however, Lou Gehrig gave a radio interview to KROC-AM in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic, blasting the innovation as nothing more than a spectacle.

“Well, night baseball is strictly a show and is strictly advantageous to the owners’ pocketbook,” Gehrig said. “But as far as being a true exhibition of baseball, well, I don’t think I can say it is, and it’s very difficult on the ballplayers themselves. … It’s not really baseball. Real baseball should be played in the daytime, in the sunshine.”

Afternoon games continued to fill the Yanks’ home schedule through the war years, but when Dan Topping, Del Webb and Larry MacPhail purchased the team from the Ruppert estate in February 1945, changes would soon come in a hurry.

***

Cuddles Marshall grew up in the very northwest corner of the continental United States in Bellingham, Washington, 90 miles north of Seattle. Gehrig, his boyhood idol, was nearing his 2,000th consecutive game played when Marshall told his mother, “You know, Mom? One day, I’m going to play for the New York Yankees.”

Now here he was, on the mound at Yankee Stadium, Joe DiMaggio playing behind him in center field, Charlie Keller in left and Tommy Henrich in right. Marshall had been preparing for this moment all his life. In fact, it was his experience (albeit brief) with the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers -- whose stadium had lights -- that led Dickey to choose Marshall as his starter.

Marshall thought back to his big league debut as a reliever at Fenway Park five weeks earlier, when he got Ted Williams to hit into a double play with the bases loaded.

I can do this.

Marshall got the second batter, Buddy Lewis, to hit a ground ball to short. Phil Rizzuto scooped it up and flipped it to Joe Gordon for the force at second.

***

The rainout on Monday, May 27, dampened the spirits of one man more than anyone else. “MacPhail, who always looks forward to one of his new ventures with all the eagerness of a youngster who can’t wait for tomorrow to try out his new roller skates, was easily the most disappointed man in town,” wrote The New York Times' John Drebinger.

The fiery redhead with the golden tongue was a whirlwind of activity. Since acquiring a share of the Yankees, MacPhail had:

  • sent shockwaves throughout the league by selling ace pitcher Hank Borowy to the Cubs in the middle of the 1945 season;
  • approved a $600,000 renovation of Yankee Stadium that included a new triple-tone coat of paint, created the first Stadium Club for season-ticket holders and moved the home dugout from the third-base side to the first-base side of the field;
  • sent the Yankees to Panama for three and a half weeks of Spring Training in 1946;
  • seen to it that all 154 regular-season games would be broadcast for the first time in team history, bringing in Mel Allen and Russ Hodges to call the games on WINS Radio; and
  • introduced the Yankee Mainliner, making New York the first team to fly to its road destinations.

No innovation brought more excitement for MacPhail, however, than the installation of lights atop the Stadium roof.

To this day, MacPhail is credited as being a pioneer of night baseball. It was he who brought lights to the Majors, first illuminating Cincinnati’s Crosley Field as vice president and general manager of the Reds in 1935. Upon moving to the Dodgers, he lit up Ebbets Field on June 15, 1938 -- the game in which Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer tossed his second straight no-hitter.

On Jan. 15, 1946, MacPhail beamed with pride as he led a contingent of reporters on a tour of the construction at Yankee Stadium. A.E. Carlson, the Bronx firm that had done the grandstand expansion in 1937, was hired to do the roofing work. Six banks of lights containing 1,409 floodlights -- with 1,500 watts in each lamp -- would ring the Stadium. The result was said to be the equivalent of playing under 5,000 full moons and would provide “sufficient light to illuminate a four-lane highway from New York to Washington,” Drebinger wrote. The installation also called for 30,000 feet of steel electrical conduits and 15 miles of wiring according to a July 1946 article in American Roofer.

MacPhail smiled as he prepared to finally bring night baseball to the most famous stadium in sports, recalling what baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had told him when he first proposed the idea in 1934.

“Young man,” Landis had said, “not in my lifetime or yours will you ever see a baseball game played at night in the Majors.”

***

Dickey had wanted to manage, but not like this.

McCarthy, perturbed by the Borowy sale and ailed by a gall bladder condition, had nearly walked away in 1945. A “perfectionist” regarded by many as the greatest manager in baseball history, McCarthy expected his players to do things the right way -- the Yankees way. MacPhail, with his torrent of changes and ebullient persona, was not McCarthy’s type of guy.

McCarthy tried to make it work, but the relationship between the manager and the owner continued to sour in 1946. Citing a recurrence of his gall bladder condition, McCarthy retreated to his farm in Tonawanda, New York, near Buffalo, in the middle of a 13-game May road trip.

After eight American League pennants and seven world championships, including a sterling 29-9 record in World Series games, McCarthy was done in New York. Even a personal visit from Yankees executive George Weiss to try and talk him out of it had no effect. “My doctor advises that my health would be seriously jeopardized if I continued,” McCarthy wrote in a telegram to MacPhail. (He returned to managing in 1948 with the Red Sox.)

“MacPhail’s flamboyant doings, his airline rides, his beauty parades on the ball field and night baseball were anathema to McCarthy whose idea of baseball was playing it in the afternoon without benefit of sideshows or interference from the club president,” wrote The Washington Post's Shirley Povich. “McCarthy might have parted company with the Yankees last season, except for the fact that MacPhail was shrewd enough to fear that it wouldn’t look nice, and that he would be under the suspicion of running out the most popular manager in the history of Yankee Stadium fans. That would not have been a smart way for MacPhail to break in as president of the Yanks.”

On May 24, just before a three-game weekend series in Boston, MacPhail named Dickey manager. After going 1-2 at Fenway, Dickey’s charges came home for the first night game trailing the Red Sox by six games.

***

MacPhail liked to encourage early arrivals at Yankee Stadium by providing a variety of pregame entertainment throughout the season, including a barbershop quartet sing-off, a gymnastics exhibition, a Yankees-Red Sox home run derby and an accuracy contest pitting players against archers.

The pomp and circumstance for the inaugural night game was no different.

At 8:15 p.m., the marching band from Hempstead High School on Long Island paraded to the flagpole in center field, where monuments to Miller Huggins and Gehrig stood. While Dickey and Washington manager Ossie Bluege stood with their teams at attention along the base lines, Metropolitan Opera star soprano Rose Bampton sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“All this was done in the gathering dusk and a few minutes later the great floodlights overhead went on, one tower at a time, to throw a brilliant glare on the field,” The Times reported. “Engineers had claimed this to be the last word in lighting effects for a sports arena and the impression seemed to be the Yanks really had something.”

General Electric president Charles Edward Wilson, whose engineers were responsible for the installation, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. MacPhail had brought lights to a third big league city and his first AL park.

And as expected, nearly every reserved seat in Yankee Stadium was occupied.

***

With a man on first and one out, Dickey flashed Marshall the sign.

The young hurler wasn’t thinking about the 49,917 fans trying to stay warm in the stands or the American League’s leading hitter, Mickey Vernon, on deck. He was focused on the batter, All-Star Stan Spence, and, more specifically, his manager’s, or rather, his catcher's mitt.

Marshall peeked over at Lewis, who was leading off first, then delivered his pitch. Spence hit a tailor-made double play ball to second base that the Yankees infielders turned, easy as 4-6-3.

“See, kid -- nothing to be scared of,” Dickey said as he and Marshall trotted into the dugout amid the roar of the crowd.

Snuffy Stirnweiss led off the bottom of the first with a double down the left-field line, and DiMaggio’s two-out single put New York ahead, 1-0. That would be the only time the Yanks scored, though, as veteran knuckleballer Dutch Leonard scattered six hits in a complete-game 2-1 victory. Leonard even knocked in the game-winning run with an RBI single in the fourth.

Though Marshall was tagged with the loss in his first start, he pitched well. Well enough, in fact, to end eventual batting champ Vernon’s career-long 22-game hitting streak.

“He was just so excited to pitch in a game and be the starting pitcher that he just went out there and did his job,” Marshall’s daughter Barbara Housel said recently. “He loved baseball so much and wanted to pitch so much that he just got out there and gave it his all.”

The 1946 season did not go well for the Yanks on the field: Dickey clashed with MacPhail and managed his last game on Sept. 12, leaving coach Johnny Neun in charge for the final 14 games. New York finished in third place, 17 games behind Boston (this despite a 9-5 record in home night games that season).

To MacPhail’s delight, however, the Yankees were a smash at the gate. With World War II over, the star players back in baseball uniforms and the advent of night baseball, attendance records were obliterated. The Yanks passed the 1 million mark at home on June 9 and would surpass the Major League home record of 1,485,166 set by Joe McCarthy’s 1929 Cubs by nearly 800,000.

MacPhail would last only one more turbulent year in New York -- and baseball -- famously going out in a drunken blaze following the 1947 World Series victory over the Dodgers.

Marshall’s career included just 40 more appearances with the Yankees and a 28-game stint with the St. Louis Browns in 1950 before a car accident in which he was a passenger ended his playing days. Yet the memory of that first night game, and of wearing a Yankees uniform, resonated with him until his death in December 2007.

“When he passed away, we buried him in his Yankees uniform,” his daughter said. “That’s who he was. His whole life, he loved the Yankees through and through.”

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.