- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

And God said, 'Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.
Genesis 1:3-4

As far as major league baseball was concerned, the Good Lord had nothing to do with letting there be lights. That distinction was shared by Powel Crosley and Larry MacPhail, respectively the owner and general manager of the moribund Cincinnati Reds, who were watching their club and many others sink toward financial ruin in 1934 as the Depression gathered strength.
"Why can't we put in lights?" Crosley asked MacPhail, who had been responsible for this innovation a couple of years earlier with the Columbus, Ohio, minor league team. "s there any rule against it?"
"No," replied MacPhail, "but "
"Why don't we try?" Crosley said.
Well, why not? At a National League meeting in December 1934, MacPhail pleaded with other owners and executives to allow the Reds to play seven night games in 1935. Horrified though they might have been by the thought of seminal change, the magnates agreed. Really, they had no choice. Playing in the smallest city in the major leagues, the last-place Reds had drawn just 206,773 at home that season barely enough to pay the expenses for visiting clubs.
So it was that on May 24, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting in the White House, threw a switch that illuminated Crosley Field for the first night game in major league history. MacPhail, a flamboyant promoter who later ran the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Yankees before leaving baseball in 1947, put on a good show for the inaugural. He even invited 88-year-old George Wright only surviving member of baseball's first professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings but illness prevented Wright from attending.
League president Ford Frick wore a topcoat as he threw out the first ball. So did most people in the crowd of 20,433, for the night was chilly. Yet there were no recorded casualties among the spectators despite warnings in some quarters that it would be unhealthy for fans to be out in the night air long enough to watch a ballgame.
When the game started at 9 p.m., under 616 150-watt bulbs, Cincinnati pitcher Paul Derringer took over. A strong right-hander who would pitch the Reds to pennants in 1939 and 1940, Derringer limited the Philadelphia Phillies to six hits and went the distance. And he beat them in just under two hours, about the average length of a game in that pre-TV era.
The Phillies, equally as bad as the Reds that season, played without stalwarts Jim Bottomley and Ernie Lombardi, manager Chuck Dressen apparently fearing they somehow might be injured that treacherous night air, y'know. Or maybe it was simply past their bedtime.
Asked afterward for his opinion of baseball under the lights, Phillies outfielder George Watkins said, "I prefer daylight ball, but I'm willing to do anything I can to help the game."
From a distance of nearly 70 years, it is difficult to appreciate the early objections to night baseball and how quickly they disappeared once club officials began counting gate receipts. For their seven night games in 1935, the Reds quickly recouped the $50,000 they had spent to install lights by drawing 130,337 with a sixth-place club nearly two-thirds of their 1934 total for 70-odd day games. Such numbers quickly overwhelmed complaints that night games somehow "ruined" baseball.
After the Cincinnati inaugural, the Sporting News then considered baseball's "bible" conceded that at night games "attendance didn't decline [sic], players were not maimed and bruised, and the pitchers did not gain any decided advantage." By 1939, the newspaper was supporting a suggestion by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith that the major leagues schedule two continuous months of nothing but night games.
Griffith, a baseball pioneer and Hall of Famer, was perhaps the quickest convert. In 1935, he complained, "MacPhail is making a circus of the game. Night baseball is synthetic Washington fans will never see it." But Griff could count as well as the next man. Four short years later, he was saying, "Night baseball appeals to more people and interest is intensified. Seven games [per club] are not enough."
Two years later, Griffith Stadium became the 11th major league ballpark to install lights over a seven-year span. By 1948, Chicago's Wrigley Field was the only one without arcs; the Cubs held out until 1988, principally because of the residential neighborhoods surrounding the ballpark.
In his "Green Light" letter to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis urging that baseball continue during World War II, President Roosevelt expressed a desire for more night games to accommodate war workers. That pried the lid off, and today nearly all weekday major league games after early spring are played at night. So, too, are playoff and World Series contests to the accompanying lament of surviving purists.
Night games had been played by amateur teams under portable lights as far back as 1880, but Independence, Kan., and Des Moines, Iowa, of the Western Association in 1930 became the first cities in Organized Baseball to install them. Although an evening affair had been played in Independence a short time earlier, the Chicago Tribune reported Des Moines' debut on May 2 with a banner headline on the front page: PLAY FIRST NIGHT BASEBALL. (This was the newspaper, after all, that 18 years later famously told its readers that DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.)
The Tribune reported that a General Electric engineer had labored seven years to develop a lighting system adequate for baseball. Under what the newspaper described as "50 million candle power" emanating from six steel towers 50 feet high, Des Moines defeated Wichita 13-6.
However, the Tribune reporter detected defects right at the start. In the first inning, Wichita's third baseman lost a popup in the lights. Also, outfielders had trouble following flyballs because of "regions of darkness at the extremities of the foul lines," whatever that meant.
The reporter also noted that three hours of electricity cost the Des Moines club $25.
Of course, Cincinnati's lights were much better than that in Des Moines and each succeeding set brightened the scene further. When the arcs came on for the first game at Philadelphia's Shibe Park in 1939, Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack murmured into an open field microphone, "Why it's even brighter than on a sunshiny afternoon."
Seven decades later, economics, social patterns and the demands of television have conspired to make baseball almost exclusively an evening pastime. So if we're looking for persons to blame when games drag on past the witching hour, let's start with Powel Crosley and Larry MacPhail.

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