You Can’t Believe Everything You Read – the Surprisingly Early History of the First "Scheduled" Night Game of Professional Baseball – September 1, 1888
Tradition holds that the first night-game of major league baseball was played at Crosley field in Cincinnati on May 24, 1935. The Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1, under electric arc-lights switched on by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a remote switch in the White House.
The big-league Kansas City Monarchs, of the Negro League, had played under electric light five years earlier; but in an exhibition game against the House of David (who travelled with their own portable electrical lighting system), not in big league play.
But although both of those may have been night-game “firsts” of some kind, for games actually played, they were not night-game “firsts” for major league games “scheduled” to be played at night. The first scheduled night-games involving major league teams scheduled about fifty years before actual night games were ever played in the majors.
The first known scheduled night-game involving at least one major league baseball team was scheduled to be played in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1883. The first known scheduled night-game between two major league baseball teams was scheduled to be played in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1888. In both cases, games were postponed, and then never played. In one case, it was the weather; in the other, technical problems. In both cases, the management took the opportunity to play test-games to test the visibility conditions before rescheduling. In both cases, the visibility was so unsatisfactory that the postponed games were apparently rescheduled for daytime. The nighttime baseball experiment was postponed for about fifty years – at least for the major leaguers.
Early Night Baseball
The dream of playing baseball at night is even older than Edison’s patent on the incandescent lightbulb. In December, 1878, more than a year before Edison’s patent issued, the New Orleans Picayune[i] declared Edison’s life not to have been in vain – if, for no other reason than, baseball could be played under his light:
The New Orleans Picayune has discovered that Edison has not lived in vain – base ball can be played under his light.
The Brenham Weekly Banner (Brenham, Texas), December 27 1878.
Although he had only just recently filed his patent application, Edison’s electric light was already big news; the most famous inventor of his day was known to have turned his attention to the most anticipated invention of the time, the light bulb; now symbolic of any brilliant idea. The New York Sun, for example, had recently published an extensive interview with Edison, in which the main topic of discussion was his recent work on the electric light.
Chariton Courier, November 30, 1878, page 1 (reprinted from the New York Sun).
The promise of nighttime light stayed in the news. In 1879, the New York Sun waxed futuristic (if that’s a thing) about the promise of electric lights – night baseball was one of its anticipated benefits:
The night may not be distant when a nine inning base ball game will be played under its rays.
Little Falls Transcript (Little Falls, Minnesota), August 7, 1879, page 1 (reprint of New York Sun article).
The editors of The Sun were already familiar with electric light in 1879. They had recently installed an electric light on their building that shone on City Hall Park, from which the sounds of children playing under the lights reached the ears of “toiling editors.” An article about their light mentions children playing nighttime leap frog and tag – it is not too difficult to imagine the same children playing a little night-baseball too; perhaps those children were actually the first ones to play baseball under the lights?
Little Falls Transcript (Little Falls, Minnesota), August 7, 1879, page 1 (reprint of New York Sun article.
The Sun was right – the day was not too far in the distant future. The future arrived in October of 1880.
First Known Night Game
The first known game of baseball played under lights was a decidedly amateurish affair contested by the employees of Boston-based, rival mail-order retailers, R. H. White & Co., and Jordan, Marsh & Co. The game was played in front of guests of the Sea Foam House in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Nantasket Beach, in Hull Massachusetts on October 22, 1880. The lighting was not bright enough for spectators to really follow the action, and fielders found it less dangerous to just let fly balls bounce and chase them, than to catch them on the fly. The organizers of the event even took journalists covering the event on a short field trip during the game. But the game was only a sideshow; the main event was a demonstration to show the feasibility of lighting large areas of cities with electric light:
Lighting Towns By Electricity.
A novel exhibition of base ball made at Strawberry Hill, Nantasket beach, last evening. What especially attracted the three hundred spectators to the balconies of the Sea Foam House was the promise of the exceedingly novel sight of a game of base ball in the evening, long after the sun’s rays should be dispelled by natural darkness. The real significance of the occasion, however, was the first public experiment in illustration of a new system of illuminating towns by electricity. The plan is to illuminate the streets of a city – in fact, the whole atmosphere around and above the buildings – that the use of any light whatever in the house will be rendered unnecessary. This end is to be attained simply by placing groups of electric lamps on the summit of towers some 200 feet high, and placed at intervals, say four to the square mile, through a city. . . .
An idea of the effect produced by the illumination may be best conveyed by stating the fact that a flood of mellow light thrown upon the field enabled the ball-layers, between 8 and half-past 9 o’clock, to complete a game of nine innings. The nines were picked from the employes of Jordan, Marsh & Co. and R. H. White & Co., and tied the game with a score of 16 to 16. It cannot be said that the practice of such sports is likely at present to be carried on extensively by night rather than by day, for the players had to bat and throw with some caution, and the number of errors due to an imperfect light was innumerable. Fly balls descending nearly perpendicular could be caught easily, but when batted a long distance it was much easier and saver to get the ball by chasing it after it struck the ground. The fact, however, that a game could be played at all shows a considerable advance in the intensity of the light over that which previous experiments have disclosed. To the spectators the game proved of little interest, since in general only the players’ movement could be discerned, while the course of the ball eluded their sight.
During the game, by the courtesy of the managers, the representatives of the press were treated to a ride along the shore to Allerton Point, distant a mile in a straight line from the towers. Here the light shone upon the face of a watch with sufficient brightness to disclose easily the position of the hands. Upon the hotel plaza one could read in the full radiance of the light a newspaper at a little less than the ordinary distance for holding a book from the eyes, but turning so as to throw a shadow upon the page, the letters immediately vanished. – [Boston Advertiser, Sept. 3d.
Sacramento Daily Record-Union, October 23, 1880, page 6.
The reference to “previous experiments” raises the question of whether this was, in fact, the first nighttime game of baseball. Were there earlier attempts to play baseball under the lights, or was this a casual reference to earlier attempts to light large, outdoor areas?
In any case, these amateurs had started a trend that professionals were soon to follow – or at least attempt to follow.
Nighttime Baseball in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1883
Early in the 1883 baseball season, the National League’s Indianapolis team was set to play the professional team from Fort Wayne, Indiana, which played its league games in the Northwestern League (similar to a AAA minor league today), for the "championship" of Indiana.[ii] The game was made even more noteworthy because it was scheduled to be played at night:
Base Ball at Night.
Fort Wayne, Indiana, 28. – The experiment of playing base ball by electric light will be tried in this city, to-morrow night, when the Fort Wayne and Indianapolis clubs will contest for the championship of the state. The grounds will be lighted with twelve lights on the four corners and sides of the grounds on poles forty feet high from the grounds.
The Salt Lake Herald, May 29, 1883, page 4.
The game never took place; the game was postponed due to bad weather. A test of the lighting conditions also signaled a need to increase the number of lights before the game could be held:
The Fort Wayne and Indianapolis ball clubs went to play a game on the former’s grounds last night, by electric light, but a storm prevented. A test of the lights was made but they were insufficient to well illuminate the center field, and twenty-five more Jenny lights[iii] are to be added, making thirty-six in all, and the game will come off soon.
The Daily Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota), May 30, 1883, page 4.
With the addition of some new lights, the field conditions were believed to be in order:
Base Ball at Night.
Fort Wayne, 1. – The second test of lighting the base ball grounds with the Jenny electric light was made to-night with sixteen burners which proves the practicability of playing base ball at night.
The Salt Lake Herald, June 2, 1883, page 4.
If only their optimism had been justified. Before Indianapolis and Fort Wayne could reschedule their game, two other teams played a night game on the field; a professional team from Quincy, Illinois, a member of the Northwestern League, beat up on some Methodist schoolboys from Fort Wayne College; the professionals out-scored the college boys 19 to 11.[iv] The results of the game were predictable and the lights were less than promising:
They have had that game of base ball at Fort Wayne by electric light, but the evidence given by the wires is that it was not an enthusiastic success, especially with the fielders, who when they endeavored to take a fly found the rays of too many conflicting suns in their eyes or an unreliable mixture of suns and moons.
The Daily Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota), June 3, 1883, page 4.
Although the game was played under seventeen “Jenny lights” (more than the twelve used in its original test, but far less than the planned thirty-two), the visibility was too low. Although the “[p]laying between the pitcher and the catcher enabled them to work fairly . . . the fielding was unsatisfactory owing to the insufficient number of lights used.” And the game was sloppy; “Passed balls, Quincy 4, College 5. Errors, Quincy 6, College 11.”
The Daily Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota), June 3, 1883, page 5.
The Saline County Journal (Kansas), June 7, 1883, page 2.
Although one report of the game suggested that the team planned on getting more lights to play another game in the future, I was unable to find any account of another night game in Fort Wayne, Indiana during the rest of the season.
The poor results may have soured the entire baseball industry against electric lights. It would be five years before two more professional teams scheduled a night game.
Nighttime Baseball in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1888
On August 23, 1888, the Evening Bulletin of Maysville, Kentucky printed what may be the first-ever report of a night game featuring two major league baseball teams:
Indianapolis and Detroit base ball clubs played a game of base ball by electric light Tuesday night. The scheme worked well.
The Evening Bulletin, August 23, 1888, page 4.
As with many things, however, you can’t believe everything you read. And the corollary to that rule, that most things you read have at least a grain of truth in them, also holds true. Although Indianapolis and Detroit had played a game that day – they played their game during the daytime.
What was true, however, was that the Indianapolis team had played under the lights that day; but not in a game. It was a test-run to prepare for a scheduled night-game against the Chicago White Stockings the following week.
The story was also false on one more score; the lights were not electric – they ran on natural gas.
The story was also false on one more score; the lights were not electric – they ran on natural gas.
The Los Angeles Herald published an optimistic account of the practice:
The Los Angeles Daily Herald, August 22, 1888, page 4.
The Indianapolis Journal published an extensive report of the practice, the effect of the lights, and the hoped-for night game to be played against Chicago; they seemed optimistic – just add a few more lights and everything would run smoothly – as if:
The first attempt ever made at playing base-ball by natural-gas light occurred last night at the ball park in this city. It was merely a preliminary test, no regular game being attempted, and the illumination not being nearly so extensive as is contemplated when a regular game is to be played. Only two lights were used. They were erected in the northeast corner of the ground, about sixty feet apart, and they threw a bright light all over the ground. Nearly all of the members of the Indianapolis team got out and practiced. Balls were batted in the air, to the outfield, and along the ground, and the players seemed to get them as easily as in the daytime. The ball could be seen clearly when high in the air. A new ball was tried at first, and afterward an old one was thrown in, but it seemed to make no difference. Manager Spence, who had all along been skeptical concerning the success of the project, said, after watching the playing last night, that he believed it would be a go. Denny McGeachy and others thought the same thing. Quite a crowd was out to watch the exhibit, among them nearly all the directors of the club. President Brush was much pleased with the result, and no sooner did he see the effect of the display than he ordered sixteen lights to be put in by the natural gas companies at once. The difference between sixteen lights and two will be very marked, and judging from last night’s display it will be an easy thing to play a regular game with that much illumination. The club goes to Pittsburg to-night, and no night game can be played until it returns, but the attempt will be made with the Chicagos during the series here with that club the latter part of next week. The game will probably be played on Saturday night, Sept. 1.
The Indianapolis Journal, August 22, 1888, page 7.
The stage was set for a showdown against Chicago under the lights:
But when the Chicago game rolled around, they played it during the day. Coincidentally (or not?), the gas company took out a large advertisement just below the notice of the game:
The night game never happened because the gas-plan was snake-bit from its inception. First, there were construction problems:
During the first inning [of the Knights of Pythias Game] the workmen who were engaged in putting up natural-gas pipe, at the east portion of the stand, let a section of the piping fall, but it was fortunately caught before striking any of the spectators.
And then, there wasn’t enough gas to fully illuminate the field. What happens when everyone flushes the toilet at the same time? – it’s the same with natural gas. If you add fourteen extra lights, without increasing the supply of gas, you get sixteen dim lights – instead of two bright ones.
Not Very Successful.
The workmen put in the last of the lights at the ball park yesterday afternoon, and last night all of them were lighted and an attempt was made at knocking the ball around. The result was quite disappointing to the stockholders of the club. It was found that the lights were by no means as brilliant as it was hoped they would be. It seems that when the two lights were burning in the test made a couple of weeks ago they made a much more brilliant display than they did last night, when compelled to share with thirteen or fourteen other lights. The fact that a strong wind was blowing no doubt affected the lights somewhat, but it was quite evident that the illumination was by no means sufficient to light the grounds for playing at night. An old ball could not be seen at any distance at all, and a new ball was visible only a part of the time as it sailed through the air. Healy and one or two others of the players suggested that if additional lights be placed back of third and first bases, and a reflector used, the light would be sufficient, as the main trouble seemed to be in seeing ground balls, but not many coincided in this opinion. President Brush is now afraid that the experiment will not be a success, and that the expense to which the club has gone in putting the lights will be a loss. However, it might be well to leave the lights where they are, as the park might be rented for summer evening exhibitions of some kind.
The Indianapolis Journal, September 6, 1888, page 3.
President Brush, the owner of the Indianapolis club and promotional genius behind the aborted night-game, is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. John T. Brush owned the Indiana Hoosiers during the 1880s, and later owned the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Giants. He served as owner of the New York Giants for more than twenty years, from 1890 until his death in 1912. He is also one of the men responsible for writing the rules that still govern the modern World Series. But despite all of his accomplishments, he could not pull off a satisfactory night game with late-1880s technology.
But for two postponements, the history of major league night-games may well have been vastly different. If the weather hadn’t been so bad in 1883, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis could have played a game under electric lights. If the pipe-fitters hadn’t been so clumsy in 1888, Indianapolis and Chicago might have played a game under gaslight. That’s not to say that the games would have been a success; they would likely have been plagued by the same visibility problems that affected the test-games. But the list of “firsts” in baseball would be a lot older.
As it is, it took nearly fifty years to realize the dream of night baseball and for another night-game to find its way onto a major league schedule.
But the first scheduled games – they were scheduled much earlier than generally believed.
[i] The patent generally considered to be Edison’s original patent for an incandescent light bulb is US Patent Number 223, 898, Patented January 27, 1880, filed November 4, 1878. When he filed for that patent, however, he had already received at least six patents related to the electric light; and others had made less-successful electric lights with other designs since as early as the 1840s.
[ii] It was a common practice at the time for professional baseball teams to sprinkle several non-league games throughout their season which would not count in the league standings.
[iii] “Jenny” lights were electric arc lights manufactured by the Jenny Electric Light Co. which had offices in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and may have been based there. See The Electrical World, Volume 3, page 139 (The Jenny Light in New England. – A new elecrric arc light is coming into the field here in New England . . . . This light is known as the Jenny electric light. It is well known in the West, where it is considered one of the best, and holds its own in competition with the Brush and Thomson-Houston Company systems.” and Volume 4, page 88 (“The outside lighting is done by the Jenny Co., Fort Wayne, Ind.; a description of that will be given hereafter.”).
[iv] Other accounts of the game list the contestants as Quincy and the M. E. Church Nine. See, Under the Lights, by Oscar Eddleton, on the Society of Baseball Research Journals Archive (research.sabr.org). The apparent disagreement is accounted for by the fact that Fort Wayne College (now Taylor University), was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church as Fort Wayne Female College in 1846. It went co-ed and changed its name to Fort Wayne College in 1850. The M. E. Church Nine and “the college” in Fort Wayne are two names for the same team.