The Night the Lights Went On
Jon looks back at the first night game in baseball history.
Ask most baseball fans, at least those with a sense of history, and they will tell you that night baseball started back in 1935. Larry MacPhail, then the General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, installed lights at Crosley Field. President Roosevelt, taking time off from implementing the New Deal, pressed a button that turned on the lights before this game. The Reds went on to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 on the night of May 24th. (Trivia time: It is well known that the Chicago Cubs were the last of the sixteen teams in existence in 1935 to host a night game. Who was the second to last team, and when? The answer is at the bottom of this article.)
While it is true that this was the first night game in Major League history, both Des Moines and Independence, Kansas of the minor league Western Association played under the stars in 1930. The great Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs, played night games in 1930 as well, travelling the country with a portable lighting system. But, the origins of night baseball go back half a century prior to that, almost back to Edison’s invention of electric light itself.
Jordan Marsh versus R. H. White
In early September 1880, the Northern Electric Light Company put on a demonstration of a system of massed lamps. At the time, this was considered a solution to the problem of lighting cities and towns. The demonstration was conducted at the Sea Foam House on Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts. Three wooden towers, one hundred feet high and five hundred feet apart, were placed on the spacious lawn of the Sea Foam House that late summer Thursday night. Each tower held twelve electric lamps having a combined strength of 30,000 candle-power.
As part of the demonstration, a baseball game was played by clerks from Jordan Marsh & Co. and R. H. White & Co.; two Boston Department stores. The two teams were able to get in a nine-inning game in roughly an hour and a half, but the game was tied at 16-all and was called. It wasn’t called due to darkness, rather, the players had to catch the last boat. An account of the game in the September 3rd Boston Post stated, “...there was sufficient light to enable a game of base ball to be played, though with scarcely the precision as by daylight.”
Nights of the Hoosiers
The next three recorded night games in baseball history all took place in Indiana. On June 2nd, 1883, the Quincys of Illinois played a team of local players in Fort Wayne and defeated them 19-11.
On August 22, 1888, the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Northwest League played a local college team in a “night game” at dusk with the use of natural-gas lights. On September 6, 1888, they made some changes to the lights, but were still unable to play effectively and dropped the idea.
While the Hoosiers and Quincys were professional teams, the other competitors in these Ur-night games were amateurs. The first night game between two professional squads was to take place towards the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century.
A League that Time Forgot
The Atlantic Association (or League, as it was sometimes referred to) had a brief and somewhat obscure history. Its founders intended the circuit to become a major eastern league to compete against the National League, much like the American Association did in the Midwest. The league lasted two seasons, from 1889 to 1890. Among the Association’s notable alumni was the famous left fielder Jesse Burkett. Pitching for the Worcester club in 1889, Burkett racked up 30 wins and 240 strikeouts. While the Association mainly consisted of teams playing in medium sized northeastern cities, a Washington team joined in 1890. Baltimore also took a brief hiatus from the American Association in ‘90 and played there until it rejoined the more prominent league later on that summer.
The Atlantic Association suffered the age-old curse that all minor leagues suffer: lack of money. Four teams, or almost half the league disbanded each year of the league’s existence. While lack of money is usually due to low attendance, the death knell for the league may have been the emergence of a third major league in 1890 (the Player’s League made it’s brief meteoric appearance that summer.) But that is mere speculation on my part.
The Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles of the Atlantic Association were not the Orioles of Earl Weaver, the Robinsons, or Cal Ripken. Actually, they were the direct ancestors of the New York Yankees. They already had major league experience, playing in the American Association since it’s inaugural season in 1882. In between the 1889 and 1890 seasons, Baltimore pulled out of the so-called “Beer and Whiskey League” after a power struggle where Saint Louis Brown’s owner Chris Von der Ahe tried to appoint a hand-picked league president. In case you were wondering, no, Von der Ahe was not a used car salesman.
For those not familiar with the history of the American Association, it was more colorful than the established National League. Admission was generally 25 cents as opposed to the normal 50-cent ticket price for NL games. Many of the Association team owners were either brewers or distillers and they sold their products in their ballparks. Hence, the Beer and Whiskey League nickname. The stands at NL ballparks were usually dry. Finally the Association played games on Sundays. From the modern point of view, it is hard to picture Sunday baseball and adult beverages at the games as controversial issues, but they were. Lower ticket prices, access to spirituous beverages, and Sunday games helped attract a more working class crowd than was the case at National League games.
Despite losing many of their star players to the newly formed Player’s League, or Brotherhood, as it was sometimes called, Baltimore was a dominant team in the Atlantic Association. Managed by Hartford native Billy Barnie, they ran up a record of 77 wins and 24 losses. Barnie, incidentally, was a leading figure in organizing the Atlantic Association. On August 25th, the Brooklyn Gladiators of the American Association folded. Two days later, the prodigal Orioles returned to that league to take their place.
The Hartford Nutmeggers
After the National League Hartford Dark Blues left for Brooklyn in the spring of 1877, Hartford was without professional baseball for a decade. The Dark Blues reemerged as an Eastern League team in 1886 before disappearing after one mediocre season. Baseball returned to Hartford in 1889 with the founding of the Atlantic Association. For those of you not from Connecticut, the team’s name was a reference to that state’s unofficial nickname, The Nutmeg State.
After finishing a respectable 52 and 44 in 1889, 1890 proved to be a disappointment in 1890. Some of the woes were financial in nature. On March 27th, 1890, there was a benefit for the team at the Hartford Opera House. The entertainment included the Hartford Ideal Minstrels. Also on the bill was “... the march of the Black Knights, an elaborate production with colored calciums.” That type of entertainment wouldn’t go over very well today.
Not only were the Nutmeggers unsuccessful financially, they were not a great success on the field. The team was mired in the second division and went through three managers. One was former major league star Ezra Sutton. Sutton’s tenure was cut short on July 15th. A number of personal tragedies befell Sutton that year. One of these, undoubtedly, was the cause for his mid-season departure. Many of the Hartford players had major league experience either prior to or after their stay with the Nutmeggers. But none of them had a career close to equaling Sutton’s. Perhaps the next most noteworthy name associated with the team was that of catcher George Stallings. He went on to pilot the Miracle Boston Braves to the 1914 World Series Championship.
A brief comment from the July 25th Hartford Courant sums up the Nutmeggers: “It is evident that the members of the Hartford Ball Club need team practice. They seem to think the Ward street ground is in place only in the afternoons. It is also there in the mornings and is an excellent place to practice ball playing on.” The Ward street ground was the home field for the club. It stood on the corner of Ward and Broad Streets, just south of Park Street in the Frog Hollow neighborhood.
The money from the opera house benefit did not last through the season. By July, it was time for the team to find another way to raise money. As a matter of fact, the Hartford Daily Times issued a call for donations for the team in July. And I’ll bet you though that public funding for sports teams was a new phenomenon. Hey! At least it was voluntary back then.
The Night That The Lights Went On In Hartford
July 23rd 1890 proved to be a busy day at the Ward Street ground. Two nines of streetcar conductors and drivers played there in the morning. The Wethersfield Avenue line played the Retreat Avenue line in a high scoring affair. The “Reds” (Wethersfield Avenue line) won 21-20. Seeing how the game only ran five innings, it was definitely high scoring.
The afternoon saw an official Atlantic Association game between Hartford and Baltimore. Baltimore won this one easily 9 to 2. But the most interesting game was yet to come.
Of the three major Hartford dailies at the time, the Hartford Daily Times may have provided the most interesting coverage. They had an advantage over the more famous Hartford Courant, being an evening paper with an easier deadline to meet. They hyped the game in that evening’s edition.
ELECTRIC LIGHT BALL GAME
Ball by electric light! Well, well, well! The first thing we know the boys will be playing ball on bicycles or in row boats. The game tonight will be a dandy one, sure. There will be nine lights - three at third base, three at first base, two in centerfield or fifty feet back of second base, and one over the fence just back of the catcher. The novelty of the game will be the means of drawing a large crowd, and already a large number of tickets have been sold. The Hartfords and Baltimores play the game. In addition to the contest, the leader of Thatcher’s minstrel band will play a number of solos on the cornet. Don’t fail to go. Admission 25 cents.”
I wonder if the cornet solos sealed the deal for any fans.
There was no mention in the newspapers of the electric company that supplied the lights for this game. But it was probably the Hartford Electric Company. By 1890, HELCO made Hartford the best-lit city of its size in America. It had the first all-electric street lighting system in New England. HELCO used direct current. Alternating current did not become popular until later in the decade.
Before the game got underway, a couple of footraces were run. George Henry of Baltimore beat John Staib of Hartford and Irving “Stubby” Ray of Baltimore outran Thomas O’Connell of Hartford. Not only was Hartford a poor ball club, they weren’t a good track team either. Imagine the embarrassment of being outrun by someone nicknamed “Stubby.”
The Daily Times used the game as an opportunity to use their team coverage approach they assigned six reporters to various locales, such as the bus station, the stands, the knotholes, and even on the field.
Pitching for the Baltimore Orioles was Mike O’Rourke, who got a brief cup of coffee in the majors when Baltimore returned to the American Association. Hartford elected to start William “Parson” Kidd. Kidd was not stranger to Connecticut baseball, having been an excellent hurler for Wesleyan in the 1880s. Playing under a primitive lighting system, it would be difficult to see high fly balls. So, the ball was tenderized by repeated poundings of the bat. Additionally, the two moundsmen pitched by tossing the ball underhanded.
So who won the game? The newspaper accounts were unclear. The official scorer was a Daily Times reporter who went under the byline “Me Too.” He delegated the task to his assistant. In his words, “she discovered a friend, and in the most confidential portions of their little chat she forgot to score many of the runs. According to the best authority the figures are: Hartford, 20; Baltimore 19.”
We aren’t sure who really won that game; the first night game between two professional clubs. And it is highly unlike that we ever will. It appears that Hartford was victorious. Unfortunately for them, this rare win was in an exhibition, not an official game. But the game did win the Hartford team a brief reprieve. The next evening’s Hartford Evening Post reported that, due to the large attendance (estimated at about 3,000,) all players were paid their full salaries up to date. The article went on to say that management hoped to have another night game in the near future. There were also plans for a benefit picnic for the team. Alas, it was never to be. The Hartford team folded soon afterwards, during the dog days of August. Professional baseball would not return until six years later, when the Hartford Bluebirds were runners-up in the Atlantic League.
This game intrigued me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I’ve been a life-long resident of the Hartford area, save for several years of military services. Also, I noticed that it wasn’t mentioned in Michael Gershman’s Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark even though he recounts several other 19th century night games. This spring I found a 1956 edition of the Official Encyclopedia of Baseball and it mentioned the game. This prompted me to dig further and pore trough newspaper articles over 11 decades old. Special thanks go to the Connecticut State Library and several baseball historians who helped me: David Arcidiacono, Clifford Blau, Reed Howard, Lloyd Johnson, Steve Kreviskey, and Len Levin.
(Trivia question answer: Detroit, who defeated the Philadelphia A’s 4-1 on June 15th, 1948.)
Posted: August 20, 2003 at 05:00 AM | 6 comment(s)
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