Tuesday, January 21, 2020

George Van Derbeck and the Early History of Night Baseball

George Van Derbeck founded three baseball teams, each of which introduced a now-familiar team-name into American sports: the Portland Webfooters (1890), a precursor of the Oregon Ducks name now associated with the University of Oregon; the Los Angeles Angels (1892), the first professional league baseball team in Los Angeles, a precursor to today's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the American League; and the Detroit Tigers (1894), who are still in business as the Detroit Tigers of the American League.  

For more background on George Van Derbeck and a history of his three teams and team names, see my earlier post, Angels and Tigers and Ducks - a Baseball Biography of George A. Van Derbeck

Coincidentally, all three of his baseball teams were involved in three of only a hand-full of early experiments in night baseball under the light.

In 1896, Van Derbeck's Detroit Tigers baseball team, then in the Western League, arranged what may be the earliest night game involving a major league team, an end-of-the-season exhibition meeting with the Cincinnati Reds of the National League.[i]  Little is known about what happened at the game, the results were not published and the result of the game was not included in a summary of the four-game series played between the teams that week, in which Detroit bested the National Leaguers three games to one.[ii]

The game is not a major landmark in baseball history.  It did not spark a trend of more night games, it was not the first game ever played under electric lights, and wasn’t even the first George Van Derbeck team to play a night game.

People had been dreaming about playing baseball at night from the moment Edison invented his light bulb.

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.

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).

Children in New York City’s City Hall Park played “tag and leap frog” under the “vivid rays” of an electric light mounted on the New York Sun Building in 1879, prompting one observer to imagine that, “the night may not be distant when a nine inning base ball game will be played under” electric light. [iii]  Any children who might have played baseball under that same light would have been among the first people anywhere to play a night game of baseball under the lights. [iv]

Employees of two Boston mail-order retailers, R. H. White & Co. and Jordan, March & Co., played what is believed to be the first game of night baseball at the Sea Foam House in Hull, Massachusetts on September 2, 1880. [v] 

The National League’s Indianapolis team scheduled a night game against Fort Wayne of the Northwestern League in 1883, which would have been the first all-professional night game if it had actually taken place.  The game was initially postponed due to weather, and later cancelled after an exhibition game on the same field, between a minor-league team from Quincy, Illinois and a college team from Fort Wayne, demonstrated the inadequacy of the light for satisfactory fielding.[vi] 

In 1888, Indianapolis and Detroit scheduled what would have been the night game between two major league teams, this time under gaslight instead of electric lights.  Tests with two lights seemed promising, but when they added more lights, the light from each became dimmer.  The team owner eventually scrapped the idea.[vii]

In 1890, Hartford hosted Baltimore in a nighttime exhibition game played under eight arc lights one evening after a regular-season, Atlantic Association matchup.[viii]  To lessen the dangers of playing in relative darkness they played with a softened ball and pitched under-handed.  The game lasted only a few innings.

The Electric Light Picnic.

Twenty-five hundred persons gathered at the ball grounds tonight, expecting to see a base-ball game by electric light. The game was a farce.  Only a few innings were played, and nobody knows the score, although Hartford is believed to have won.  Score cards were sold, but they could not be used, as, in the absence of a sufficient number of policemen, the crowd rushed upon the field.  Eight arc lights were used – three at first base, three near third, two in centre field and one on the grand-stand, but the number proved inadequate.  A twenty-cent ball was used, and it was softened by being pounded with the bat.  Daniels and Valentine tried to do the umpiring.  Kid and O-Rourke were the pitchers and tossed the ball to the batter in the old-fashioned style.

The Baltimore Sun, July 24, 1890, page 6.

With night games so few and far between at the time, it is interesting to note that the Detroit Tigers were not George Van Derbeck’s first team to play at night; they were his third team to experience night baseball. 

George Van Derbeck brought professional baseball to Portland, Oregon with his first professional baseball team, the Portland Webfooters (the team’s nickname a precursor to the now-well known Oregon Ducks).[ix]  In August of 1891, the Webfooters played a three-inning, nighttime exhibition game at Spokane following an official Northwestern League matchup in the afternoon. 

Baseball by Electric Light Next Sunday Evening.

Next Sunday evening a unique entertainment will be given at the ball park at Twickenham under the auspices of the Spokane Athletic Club.  Fifty arc lights will be placed on the grounds, and a game of ball will be played between the Spokane and Portland teams.  Each player will appear in a grotesquely ridiculous suit of his own selection, and a prize will be given to the player appearing in the funniest make-up. 

The Spokane Review, August 2, 1891, page 8.

Spokane Chronicle, August 8, 1891, page 5.

The Webfooters took the daytime game by a score of 8-6[x] and prevailed in the abbreviated night game 4-3.

A Large Attendance and Interesting Contests Indulged In.

Spokane, Aug. 9. – [Special.] – Five thousand people saw the ball game and other sports by electric light tonight. The ball grounds were brilliantly illuminated by seventy-five arc lights.  Three innings were played, Portland winning by 4 to 3.  The Spokane players wore ridiculous costumes.  Manager Barnes was umpire, and enforced his decisions with a revolver and blank cartridges.  Tom Parrott won the 100-yard dash, with Stenzel second.  Parrott also won the ball for throwing a distance of 370 feet.  Flaherty was second, 363 feet.  Other events made up a ninteresting programme, and the novelty of the sports by electric light was an unqualified success.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 10, 1891, page 3.

Van Derbeck founded his second team in Los Angeles in 1892.  In 1893, his team, the original Los Angeles Angels (a century before they were “of Anaheim”), staged a “Burlesque” game of night baseball before a capacity crowd following an official, California League day-game against Stockton.  Van Derbeck himself had been forced out of the league before the start of the season, so he was not personally involved in the game.  He moved to Detroit to start the Tigers before the end of the year.[xi]

The Angels took the day-game by a score of 7-3.  The home team was also won the nightcap 5-2, but the score was meaningless in a game played entirely for comedic effect.  The game featured a bulldog, an Angel dressed as the Devil, reverse base-running, and a potato race.

Some twenty arc lights were hung over the diamond, and a search light was manipulated from over the grand stand so as to strike any desired spot on the grounds.

Soon after 8 o’clock there was music by the band, and the procession approached the diamond.  Manager Lindley came first, wearing a hat nearly as tall as himself, and trailing behind were the respective members of the two teams accompanied by the musicians.

The costumes were of variegated colors and of fantastic designs, and their appearance provoked roars of merriment.  One of the Angels, sad to relate, had temporarily so far fallen from grace as to appear like a certain character whose raiment is of red and whose feet are cloven.

After marching two or three times around the grounds there was a neat little introductory speech by Manager Lindley, after which the players took their positions.  Umpire Brink stood just behind the pitcher and held a rope in his hand.  There was a bull dog on the other end of the rope.

The various players then took turns in going to bat.  Some of didn’t go to bat, but used an old broom or umbrella instead.  It was a play-as-you-please game, and they were not over particular about the rules.  One of the batters even ran to third base instead of to first.  Hits became fouls and fouls were decided to be strikes, which caused the crowd to yell.  This nettled the bull dog, and he caught a fly on his own account.

A committee was appointed to get the ball again without getting a bit, and, after this had been done, there was some more sorrowful batting.  Sometimes the ball would drop to the ground close to the batter, and he would make a home run before the sphere was picked up.  There was more agony drawn out to some length, during which the bull dog got weary and was retired from the field.

The game was finally awarded to the home team by a score of 5 to 2, and then the Angels with one fell swoop of their wings polished the Stockton chaps off the diamond.

A song rendered by “Buck” Hughes was liberally encored, and a potato race by four nimble colored individuals concluded the evening’s entertainment.

The Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1893, page 2.

[i] For more information, see,“The First Night Game at Michigan & Trumbull was Played in 1896,” Richard Bak, VintageDetroit.com, August 31, 2011. https://www.vintagedetroit.com/blog/2011/08/31/the-first-night-game-at-michigan-trumbull-was-played-in-1896/
[iii] Little Falls Transcript (Little Falls, Minnesota), August 7, 1879, page 1 (reprinted from the New York Sun.).
[viii] “Night Baseball in the 19th Century,” Eric Miklich, 19cbaseball.com. http://www.19cbaseball.com/field-10.html
[x] Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 10, 1891, page 3.

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