View Full Version : Erardi article on the first night game in baseball history

05-23-2009, 01:04 AM
'Reds were only game in town'
By John Erardi • jerardi@enquirer.com • May 22, 2009

“The New Deal has assured more people with leisure (time) and money to spend in enjoying it … An emergency may have justified night games (in the minor and Negro leagues), but the period appears to have passed.

“… Night baseball is now definitely on the way out. The mourners will probably be few. It was a noble experiment. … (but) it didn’t live up to the expectations of its supporters.”

- February, 1934, an editorial in The Sporting News, “Baseball’s Bible.”

Seventy-four years ago, on May 24, 1935, Cincinnati engineered the first night game in Major League Baseball history, overcoming deep opposition of baseball’s traditionalists, including the commissioner and other National League owners.

It was an immediate success. The Reds would stage seven night games that season at Crosley Field and draw an average 18,620 fans, four times the average of its day games.

Night games helped transform the franchise from perennial cellar-dweller into a World Champion within five years.

The success kept the team in town and ultimately helped revitalize all of major league baseball. A strong case can be made that night ball, as pioneered at the highest level in Cincinnati, is the greatest innovation of baseball’s modern era.

In April, the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum opened its “Crosley Field Remembered” exhibit, which runs through the end of the season. It was made possible by the loaned treasures of Reds fans and collectors. The fans’ memories also help tell the story of Crosley Field on one of baseball’s most historic nights.

'Not sure what I'd see'

Harold Brown, 21, hopped in his 1930 Model A, dark green with white convertible top and white sidewall tires, and headed down the 3-C Highway toward Cincinnati to see the Reds play.

Brown lived with his family on a farm. His father wasn’t a big baseball fan – too busy as a farmer – but Harold loved the sport. He played shortstop in Wilmington and thought he could have gone pro if not for the demands working on the farm.

Brown, now 95, said he wasn’t sure what he would see that night. And he wasn’t alone. Reds manager Charlie Dressen and the Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson decided not to play all of their best players because they weren’t sure how the experiment would go.

Still, there was reason for optimism. A workout under the lights two nights earlier yielded no complaints from the players.

Even before that workout, Reds general manager Larry MacPhail and club owner Powel Crosley Jr. were confident. MacPhail had staged night baseball games in the minor leagues in Columbus. Done correctly, he knew the environment would be safe for players and thoroughly enjoyable for fans.

The bigger concern was financial. The National League limited the Reds to seven night games, and forbid night exhibitions against American League teams. Would that be enough for the club to recoup its $62,000 investment in the project, especially given the impact unpredictable weather has on any outdoor activity?

MacPhail was skeptical, but the deep-pocketed Crosley gave him the go-ahead anyway.

The Reds stood alone. Of the NL’s other teams, only St. Louis favored night baseball. But its owner shared a stadium with the St. Louis Browns of the American League, and couldn’t work out a financial arrangement.

Other owners thought night baseball was bush league. It had been done in various minor leagues for several years, and by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, albeit nowhere to the quality the Reds proposed.

For the most part, major league players in general opposed lights. They were accustomed to a daily routine and, as is human nature, liked things as they were. They also didn’t like that somebody else – the magnates – stood to reap the benefits.

So for the Reds, it didn’t matter that minor league teams had played under the lights. This was the major leagues, and it had to be done right. Or it would take forever to do again.

A chance to draw more fans

Going into 1935, major league games were played in the daytime, typically around 3 p.m. This gave fans with early work shifts time to make the game, and teams enough sunlight before the shadows set in. Games often ended in less than two hours.

Playing at night, in theory, would create opportunities for fans who couldn’t attend during the day. But there were no guarantees they would.

As early as 1909, Cincinnati experimented with night baseball. At the time, Reds owner Garry Herrmann decided to keep his Reds players out for fear of injury.

Instead, he chose two amateur teams – the Elks Lodges in Cincinnati and Newport – to test baseball under the lamps.

The Cincinnatis won 8-5, in a game marred by 18 errors and 24 strikeouts. The local newspapers reported the infield was adequately illuminated, but outfielders struggled to track the ball.

Flash forward to May 23, 1935. That was the original date for baseball’s first night game. But that day dawned with rain, and more was forecast, so MacPhail postponed history for a day. It gave fans plenty of time to rearrange their Friday night plans.

The scheduled festivities were listed in the next day’s papers.

Gates open at 6:30 p.m., followed by Reds and Phillies batting practice, a band concert, marching bands and color guard, and fireworks followed by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then – at 8:30 p.m. – “President turns on lights,” followed by 12 minutes of infield practice for each team, ceremonial first pitch and the game to begin at 9 o’clock.

A chilly night for baseball

Walter Haller rode to the game from Madisonville with his father, in their old Model T.

“We didn’t have tickets – we couldn’t afford them,” says Haller, 9 at the time. “My dad’s idea was to wait outside the left-field gate – it was a really small gate; very few people even knew about it – and then to give it the bum’s rush when everybody else went through.

“I don’t even remember being disappointed we couldn’t get in,” Haller recalls. “I just wanted to see the lights come on. I remember finding a spot where I could stand on my tiptoes and see the field. To this day I think, ‘What a wonderful thing for my dad to do, to take me to that game.’ ”

The temperature dipped quickly into the mid-40s, and even those 632, 1,500-watt incandescents couldn’t warm things up. The local papers reported it was more like a night for football.

“It was rather cold that night,” remembered Robert Walters, 11 at the time. He attended the game with his 17-year old sister, Evelyn, and their father.

“My mother had the hot chocolate ready and something to eat when we got home. Boy, that tasted good!” Robert says.

Future doctor Taylor Asbury, 9 at the time, was there with his dad, an orthopedic surgeon who was a consultant with the Reds and friends with Crosley. The Asburys sat in a box seat between home and third base, only 10 rows up from the field.

He had had a good view of National League president Ford Frick and American League president Will Harridge. Asbury got their autographs on a scorecard he later misplaced.

There were 20,000-plus paid fans in the stands, and reports of another 5,000 freebies. Crosley capacity was 29,000. More than likely a few tickets were given to companies that helped outfit the field with lights.

“My father worked for the gas and electric company, and he was invited to attend with other members of the ‘underground’ department,” recalls Stuart Wooley, 10 at the time. “He took me along.”

Alan Montague, 13 at the time, marched in behind his dad – a drum major in Bentley Post of the American Legion.

“I don’t think I even had a seat of my own. I sat with the guys in the drum corps,” Montague recalls.

“They just sort of squeezed me into the bleachers with them. I remember the fellas were anxious for the lights to come on so the game could start. Remember now, these were all World War I veterans. Roosevelt had just vetoed a bill that would have given them a bonus. Before the lights came on, I remember some of them saying, “Roosevelt vetoed the lights!’ They didn’t like him vetoing their bonuses.”

'It was quite a sight'

The story of “The Moment” often contains references to Roosevelt flipping a switch in the White House that triggered the Crosley Field lights.

Of course, there was no such switch. Instead, Roosevelt tapped a telegraph key that alerted the folks in Cincinnati to hit the switch, which is exactly what happened.

All 632 lights came on at once, a visual explosion that those who were there will never forget.

“It was almost dark when they turned the lights on,” recalls Jim Vogel. “It was quite a sight, all those lights coming on at once. Everybody rose to their feet, and ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed.’”

Several fans remember the green field having a “brownish” hue, which is exactly right, says Declan Mullin, the Reds’ vice president of stadium operations. There was no color correction from the lights as there is today, he notes.

The Reds won 2-1, and Reds’ pitching ace, Paul Derringer, went the distance. For the most part, the players found the lighting to be just as good as in daytime, except for a shadow in the left-field corner.

Home-plate umpire Bill Klem thought the batters swung at more bad pitches than in a normal game, and that some calls on outfield plays were a little harder to make than normal, but otherwise the first-time event was a smashing success.

Today, 74 years later, the eyewitnesses’ lack of recollection about the game itself is understandable.

Why would you remember the little things when seeing history unfold is what was memorable?

“What I remember is just the general overall excitement on the street about ‘The First Night Game,’ and how excited I was that I was getting to go,” remembers Viola “Lee” Mahler, 7 ½ at the time. “Back then, the Reds were the greatest thing in town. You could say, ‘The only game in town.’ They were everything.”


05-23-2009, 01:09 AM
Crosley Field night game truly an event
By John Erardi • jerardi@enquirer.com • May 22, 2009

Mary Butler was 10 when the Reds played Major League Baseball’s first night game on May 24, 1935.

She didn’t want to go to the game at first because she was afraid of fireworks. Reds general manager Larry MacPhail had booked pre-game pyrotechnics to help ensure a better crowd in case “night ball” alone wasn’t enough.

But Butler was talked into going by her parents.

“I went with my grandmother and my uncle,” she remembers. “We had box seats behind the Reds dugout.”

Seventy-four years after the game, Butler is among a number of local residents who shared their memories of Crosley Field’s first night game with the Enquirer.

Tom O’Brien, then 13, took streetcar “No 49: Zoo – Eden” down the incline from Mt. Adams with his dad, brother and classmate Bob Helmes from Holy Cross School, “up on the hill,” and then across Liberty Street to the ballpark.

“I don’t know how my dad got tickets,” says O’Brien, now 87. “He delivered milk for Towns and West Mill Co., back when they had horse-pulled wagons.”

There was a lot of marveling at dads who somehow came up with tickets. Marvel is just something you do when you’re a tyke and really in awe of the old man.

In fact, tickets weren’t as hard to come by as many people thought.

In the days leading up to the game, rumors circulated that it would be a sellout. But reporters quoted MacPhail in Friday’s papers as saying plenty of seats remained.

Recalls Robert Cordes: “I was only 5, not yet in kindergarten. We didn’t have preschool back then. I was headed for school in the fall. I don’t know exactly how my dad came up with tickets. But he delivered ice to taverns and such, and I remember we took some of those people with us. It was a big deal. We had good seats, too – box seats behind third base. My dad was Clarence Cordes. They called him ‘Fats,' ” because he weighed over 200 pounds.”

Lou Ruehl, who was 6 at the time and living in Price Hill, recalls his trip to the ballpark this way: “We took the crosstown street car to under the Western Hills viaduct and then transferred to the Clark Street trolley that ran along the back of the center field fence and that’s where it let us out.”

Harold McKinley and his father took the bus from Fifth Street in Covington out to Ludlow and then walked across the Southern Railroad Bridge and up to Crosley Field located at Findlay and Western Avenues on Cincinnati’s West End.

“It was better than a mile from the bridge to the ballpark,” he remembers, and he doesn’t remember complaining.

There were all sorts of ways to get to the former Redland Field.

“Dime on the Green Line,” remembers Mae Brinkman from Covington and 19 at the time. “We walked out to Crosley from downtown. I was with Robert, my future husband He was a jeweler. When he heard tickets were available, he went ‘Johnny on the spot’ to get ‘em. We had great seats – second row, right behind the catcher. That was a big, fancy date!”

Some folks, fortunate enough to have a car and the money to park it, lived large. Harold Brown, of Wilmington, recalls having to pay $3 “to park in somebody’s yard.”

A box seat back then was only $2, and a general admission seat 80 cents.

Brown, who had attended Ohio State University, worked for an augur bit company and was second in charge of the screwdriver section.

He and his buddy sat behind third base, halfway up the grandstand.

He wasn’t the only one who’d come a long way on this historic night. Omer Johnson, then 11, came down from Middletown with his dad.

It wasn’t just fathers and sons or daughters or couples. There were all sorts of arranged pairings, triplings and quadruplings. People nowadays talk about Cincinnati being an “event city.” Well, May 24, 1935, at Crosley Field was an event, all right.

There would never be another like it; you can only be first once. People wanted to get there. In some cases, if you didn’t have a child, you borrowed one.

“A fellow who rented two rooms in our house – Harold Werner and his wife -- took me,” John Wolber remembers.

Yes, it was one of those games where any ticket was a good ticket.

Well, almost.

“I sat behind a pillar!” yelps Harold McKinley. “We were underneath the overhang. I couldn’t see the pitcher! But I still had fun, because I wanted to be there to see the lights come on. I don’t know why my father took me. I had two brothers at home who were older than me.”


05-23-2009, 01:21 AM
John Erardi is awesome.

05-23-2009, 01:25 AM
John Erardi is awesome.

I agree. I love reading his work.

05-23-2009, 03:14 PM
Of course, there was no such switch. Instead, Roosevelt tapped a telegraph key that alerted the folks in Cincinnati to hit the switch, which is exactly what happened.

All 632 lights came on at once, a visual explosion that those who were there will never forget.

When Roosevelt tapped the key Larry MacPhail was at a table along the 1st base line and he threw the switch. About 30 years later a guy showed up with a slew of photos of the event that his father had taken, apparently his father helped design the lighting system and was on the field the whole game.

Here's an image of the non reds game from 1909