At precisely 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 24, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a Western Union telegraph key in the White House and an electric pulse traveled 500 miles over copper wires to a signal lamp near first base at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
When Cincinnati Reds President Larry MacPhail saw the lamp come to life, he flipped a switch on a small table in front of him, and 632 floodlights towering above the stadium came on. A crowd of 20,422 let out a huge roar as a new era in major league baseball got underway: night games.
Top image: Reds General Manager Larry MacPhail flipped a switch on May 24, 1935 and turned on 632 floodlights and spotlights at Crosley Field. Photo courtesy of Robert Payne. Above: First major league baseball night game. Photo courtesy of Robert Payne.
This week, the 2019 Major League Baseball season kicked off with a handful of night games. But though they're common today, games played after dark haven't always been the norm. Prior to 1935, night games had been played only in the minor leagues: Teams discovered that even the Great Depression didn’t stop people from coming out, and that baseball under the lights often doubled or tripled attendance. Seeing the success in the minors, MacPhail received permission at the December 1934 National League meetings to introduce night baseball in Cincinnati.
The Reds awarded the illumination contract to GE, maker of powerful lighting equipment, and the company turned to engineers Earl Payne, Al Rutterer and Charles Young, along with technician Wayne Conover of Cincinnati Gas & Electric (now part of Duke Energy), to design the layout.
The team began working in January 1935, with tools including slide rules, illuminometers and Payne’s collegiate engineering textbooks from the University of Cincinnati. Among the puzzles they needed to solve: the number and combination of floodlights and spotlights, as well as the height and number of light towers.
Among the puzzles they needed to solve: the number and combination of floodlights and spotlights, as well as the height and number of light towers. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.
They worked on the layout for nearly four months before the CG&E drafting department drew up the blueprints. GE erected the towers and installed the Novalux floodlights. Payne and Rutterer had to climb ladders up and down the 115-foot-tall towers numerous times to make modifications to the lighting array. So, add courage to creativity.
Finally, after several weeks of testing, it was time to play ball.
Finally, after several weeks of testing, it was time to play ball. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady,
National League President Ford Frick threw out the first ball on that cool May evening. The Reds defeated the visiting Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 behind the six-hit pitching of Paul Derringer. Of course, the score was a historical footnote to what was achieved that evening. The reviews from players and fans were positive, and night baseball was here to stay.
After seeing the success in Cincinnati, other teams followed. Under MacPhail’s leadership, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn was the next park to embrace night games, in 1938. By 1948, all but one major league park had lights. The Chicago Cubs waited until 1988 to play under the lights at Wrigley Field. Today, about 66 percent of all games are played at night. “Major league baseball was changed forever — in Cincinnati and later all over the country,” wrote Earl Payne's son Robert in his book "Let There Be Light: A History of Night Baseball 1880-2008."
As for Duke and GE, the companies keep playing ball. GE turbines and other electricity-generating equipment are working in dozens of Duke power plants across the U.S.
Larry MacPhail moved on to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he illuminated Ebbetts Field. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady.
A version of this story originally appeared in Duke Energy's illumination magazine.
Earl Payne’s son Robert wrote about his father’s efforts in a book about the history of night baseball, "Let There Be Light: A History of Night Baseball 1880-2008." Image credit: Robert Payne.