Indians Warmed Early to Night Baseball
Vince Guerrieri | On 29, Jun 2016
Today, night baseball is almost taken for granted.
Unless you’re on the North Side of Chicago, day games are a novelty – for the opener, the occasional holiday and a getaway day game on Wednesday or Thursday.
But in the 1930s, night baseball was a novelty – and it took World War II for it to take hold widely.
Thomas Edison – a native of Milan, Ohio – made the first public demonstration of a light bulb in 1879. A year later, electric light was used to illuminate an amateur game in the Boston area. The first night games came in 1930, with minor league teams and the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues playing under the lights, but it took another five years for night baseball to come to the major leagues. On May 24, 1935, the Cincinnati Reds beat the Phillies under the lights at Crosley Field in the first night game in Major League Baseball. The lights were turned on by President Franklin Roosevelt, who flipped a switch from the White House.
The next team to add lights were the Brooklyn Dodgers, who lost to the Reds on June 15, 1938, in what turned out to be the second of Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters. The Indians announced at the beginning of 1939 that they would play seven night games, but their first night game of the year was the first American League game under the lights, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia on May 16, 1939. Down 3-1 in the eighth, the Indians tied the game – and chased Athletics pitcher Lynn Nelson. Then, in the top of the 10th, Leroy Parmelee imploded, giving up four walks, a double to Jeff Heath, and a single to Ken Keltner, staking the Indians to five runs, which proved to be the margin of victory, 8-3.
The next day’s The Plain Dealer quoted Indians players as saying it wasn’t so bad – with the exception being Keltner. “It’s lousy,” he said. “I’ve played under better ones in the minors.”
A month later, Cleveland hosted its first night game, against the Detroit Tigers on June 27. The new lights – all 712 1,500 watt lights on six towers around the stadium – cost around $55,000, and represented more wattage than for 4,000 homes.
The lights went on at 8:30 p.m., and after brief fielding practice by both teams adjusting to the light, the game started around 8:50 p.m. (the game took a scant two hours). Bob Feller struck out 13 and shut out the Tigers, 5-0, in front of more than 55,000 fans – including a few celebrities.
American League President Will Harridge said the view was great and the atmosphere was festive, but it was fans like George Green who sold night baseball. Green, from Chardon, said his schedule fills up quickly, “but when they play at night, I’ll be here.”
Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, thought night baseball was a fad, saying, “There is no chance of night baseball ever being popular in the bigger cities. People there are educated to see the best there is and will stand for only the best. High-class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial light.”
But the U.S. entry into World War II changed that. With mills and factories working around the clock, and baseball being deemed vital to national morale in Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “green light letter,” fans didn’t always have a chance to see a day game. While the ballparks that hadn’t installed lights held off during the war (famously, Wrigley Field was set to install lights for 1942, but instead donated the light towers to a wartime scrap metal drive), the ones that did began to schedule more night games. In fact, impresario Bill Veeck, then the owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, scheduled some games at 8 a.m.to accommodate workers getting off the midnight shift (he’d have a bed on the field, and manager Charlie Grimm would hop out of it in his baseball uniform, ready to manage).
In 1946, Veeck bought the Indians, who had been splitting time between League Park and Cleveland Stadium. Veeck made Cleveland Stadium the Indians’ full-time home beginning in 1947. One of the reasons for the move?
League Park never had lights.
Photo: pinterest scan of promotional postcard