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MacPhail, MLB saw the light 77 years ago

MacPhail, MLB saw the light 77 years ago

Special to
Thursday is the 77th anniversary of one of the most momentous nights not just in baseball history, but in the cultural life of the United States, and eventually the rest of the world.

On this night in 1935, the first Major League night game took place at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, as the Reds beat the Phillies, 2-1. The game had been scheduled for May 23, but it was postponed because of rain and cold.

The official attendance was 20,442 but the crowd was estimated to be around 25,000, the third-largest crowd of the season in Cincy (the game on May 22 was played in front of 2,000 fans), including National League president Ford Frick and American League president Will Harridge. All were watching a game lit by 632 light bulbs. The contest also featured President Franklin Delano Roosevelt switching on the flood lights from Washington, D.C..

Much significance was made of the fact that the game was errorless, and Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson told the AP that the low hit total (10 combined) had nothing to do with the lights.

"Both pitchers just had all their stuff working, that's all," Wilson said. "You can see that ball coming up to the plate just as well under those lights as you can in the daytime."

Wilson let it be known that he "thinks night baseball is all right, if the fans want it, but I'd rather play in the daytime."

As with most players, night lights were tested in the Minors before they reached the Major Leagues.

The first night game was held in Lynn, Mass., on June 24, 1927, in a game between the Lynn and Salem clubs in the New England League. The four floodlight projectors lit up the General Electric field. The flood lights carried a volume of 500,000 mean candlepower and the field was lit by 72 projectors, which gave an estimated volume of 26,640,00 candlepower. Observers were impressed, and the experiments continued.

For example, more than 10,000 fans, including a number of MLB executives, attended an International League night game in Jersey City when Newark defeated the home team, 18-11, in 10 innings on July 24, 1930, under 300,000 watts of light. You read that correctly -- it was still five years before the Majors adopted night baseball.

Attending that game, Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert told John Drebinger of the New York Times, "From what I heard and what I see here, I imagine night baseball will prove a great benefit to the Minor Leagues, and if it becomes definitely popular in the Minors, I don't see why some day it should not become a part of Major League Baseball."

The visionary behind bringing lights to the Majors was Larry MacPhail, who was running the Reds at the time.

Arthur Daley, who brilliantly wrote the Sports of the Times column for the NY Times, explained on the 30th anniversary of this momentous event how MacPhail had to plead with fellow executives to let him have some night games saying, "Night baseball has saved the Minors from collapse, and the Cincinnati franchise is in such perilous financial condition that it needs extra help. It's either light up or fold up."

MacPhail promised only seven night games in a one-year experiment that, if it failed, would be abandoned. Clark Griffith, owner of the Senators, responded, "There is no chance of night baseball ever becoming popular in the bigger cities. High-class baseball cannot be played under artificial lights. Furthermore, the benefits from attending the game are largely due to fresh air and sunshine. Night air and electric lights are poor substitutes."

Three years later, MacPhail was running the Dodgers, and Ebbets Field was lit up. It should be noted that on June 15, 1938, Johnny Vander Meer pitched his second consecutive no-hitter under the lights at Ebbets Field.

In 1939, the White Sox, Indians, Phillies and A's added lights, while the Giants, Pirates, St. Louis Cards and Browns added them in '40. A year later, Griffith's Senators came on board, and in '46, with MacPhail now running the team, the Yankees lit up as well. The Braves, Red Sox and Tigers soon followed suit, until only Phil Wrigley and the Cubs were holdouts.

On Aug. 8, 1988, in a contest against the Phillies, the Cubs played their first night game at Wrigley Field, only to be rained out after 3 1/2 innings. The first official Wrigley night game occurred the next day, when the Cubs defeated the New York Mets, 6-4.

Before the historic meeting at Crosley Field, MacPhail pleaded with his cohorts to see the light. Yankees executive Ed Barrow said, "Night baseball is just a fad. It will never last once the novelty wears off."

But the novelty never did wear off. Night games changed baseball forever -- and ultimately sports all over the world. It changed our culture, our economy and, in many ways, our leisure life. We often talk about the great pioneers of the game, and we should remember that one of them was MacPhail.

Bill Chuck is the editor of Billy-Ball.