Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Night Baseball Has a Hit

There was no better proof of the concept for night baseball than a 1910 game at White Sox Park, but Major League Baseball wouldn't have its first artifically lit game for 25 more years.

by Jack Moore
Aug 27 2015, 5:12pm

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

By the turn of the century, baseball—not always known for being cutting edge—was dabbling in electric lights. Experimental night games had been played from Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts, to Stockton, California. But there was no better proof of concept for night baseball than the game that took place 105 years ago tonight, when thousands of people streamed into White Sox Park to watch an exhibition matchup between two local semi-professional teams.

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"NIGHT BASEBALL A SUCCESS," the Chicago Tribune declared in a rave review the next day. "PLAYED LIKE A REAL GAME." "The ball could be followed as readily as if thrown under natural light," it continued, "and the players declared that nothing interfered with their vision."

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The National League began play in 1876, the same year Los Angeles became the first American city to light its streets under electric lamps. Major League Baseball, however, was reluctant to adapt the new technology, and was married to the daylight for another 59 years. Despite baseball's stubbornness, there was no lack of effort from outsiders. Visionaries from electric companies to lone inventors staged pioneering night games across the country, many touted as successes by players and spectators alike.

These experiments began as early as 1880, when the Northern Electric Light Company of Boston staged a contest at Nantasket Beach to demonstrate the company's ability to illuminate a large, public area. It was a difficult game: in his book A Game of Inches, Peter Morris quotes from New York Clipper reports that "the players had to bat and throw with some caution," and that errors caused by poor visibility were "innumerable." Other, more successful experiments in artificial lighting followed, but for decades organized baseball ignored the new technology, which it saw as nothing but "a craving for novelty."

The twentieth century marked a new push for night games. This time, it was supported by a big name in organized baseball: Cincinnati Reds president (and eventual National League president) August Herrmann. In 1909, the inventor George Cahill, backed by Herrmann, constructed a portable lighting system, patented as an "Illuminated System For Base Ball And Other Games." Cahill's first experiment took place at the Reds' home park, which was fitted with temporary lights for a pair of local Elk Lodge teams. Reds manager Clark Griffith told reporters he was "surprised at the ease with which the game was played."

The 1910 White Sox Park game was the biggest of Cahill's experiments. It was actually the final of three experiments conducted that week, after successful games of rugby and soccer, as reported by the trade journal Electrical Review and Western Electrician. The baseball game was the most ambitious event, as it required the lights to cover far more field area as well as illuminate the skies for fly balls. Things weren't perfect. "At times the lights would flicker," the Tribune noted, "but when only two or three acted badly the change was not noticeable. The present voltage is below the amount wanted and promises of better current have been given." Still, the lights worked well enough that some players claimed the lamps were easier to contend with than the sun.

Despite the success of Cahill's Chicago experiment, major league owners took no further interest in his technology, and the White Sox Park game was the last night game powered by Cahill's illumination system. It wasn't until the General Electric Athletic Association sponsored a night exhibition game between a pair of Class B New England League teams in 1927 that electric lighting took off in the minor leagues. Sensing the huge revenues they could make by opening up ballparks to workers on day shifts, teams raced to play under the lights. Those that did reported double or even triple the attendance numbers, even with the Great Depression well underway. The costs of powering the lights was obliterated for most clubs by the increased revenues the lights brought in. The big clubs didn't flinch.

The continued aversion to night games from major league owners was baffling from an economic point of view. The night game opened up baseball to the gigantic proportion of the population that has to work during the daytime—all owners had to do was turn on the lights to reap the profits. The plutocratic major league owner's argument against doing so was less about economics and more about class. Clark Griffith, who had been so pleasantly surprised by the lights as Reds manager in 1909, was a vocal opponent of them as owner of the Washington Senators in the 1930s. Griffith characterized night baseball as "just a step above dog racing." "There is no chance of night baseball ever becoming popular in the bigger cities," he told the Washington Star in 1935. "People there are educated to see the best there is and will stand only for the best. High-class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial light."

An air of respectability was key to the success of the young major leagues. Not only was a clean image necessary to gain the favor of high-paying season ticket holders and sponsors, but baseball's standing with legislators and judges was also justified through the game's classiness. If that meant leaving working class fans in the dark decades after night baseball was technologically plausible, it was an easy choice for the men with the power.

That only began to change when Larry MacPhail, the pioneering general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, presented his vision for baseball played under the lights at the 1934 Winter Meetings, as detailed in Don Warfield's book The Roaring Redhead. Before joining the Reds organization, MacPhail had successfully installed lights and created a (fairly lucrative) tradition of night baseball with a minor league team in Ohio. He saw room to do the same with the struggling Reds. Still, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told MacPhail at the meetings, "Not in my lifetime or yours will you ever see a baseball game played at night in the majors."

Landis would turn out to be wrong: MacPhail put the Reds under lights in 1935, and did the same to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field when he became Dodgers general manager in 1938. Every ballpark except Wrigley Field was lit up by within the next ten years, although Wrigley would hold out until 1988. In the end, there was simply too much money being left on the table for owners to eschew night baseball. Nor did it hurt when President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged clubs to play night games during World War II, "because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally."

Once technology got its foot in the major league door, it quickly overran the snooty mindset of baseball ownership. Night games not only led to record attendance numbers in the big leagues; they fueled the explosion of the minors, which grew from 13 leagues in 1933 to 43 in 1940, with attendance swelling to 20 million paying customers. What had been dismissed as a novelty became just another part of the game in a flash. It just took a few decades for baseball owners to see the light.

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