With a now legendary click, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tapped a telegraph key at the White House at precisely 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 24, 1935. Approximately 500 miles to the west, the signal lit a lamp near first base at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. On that cue, Reds President Larry MacPhail flipped a switch and a crowd of 20,000 fans erupted in cheers as 600 floodlights dumped artificial daylight onto the baseball diamond. At that moment, the American pastime added a second shift. Cincinnati defeated Philadelphia 2-1 in major league baseball’s very first night game.
Few people, even then, recalled that the very same teams almost met under the same circumstances 26 years earlier. In 1909, League Park (aka The Palace of the Fans) was equipped with high-intensity carbon-arc lights on towers reaching 100 feet above the field. The Reds and the Phillies were expected to play an exhibition game to demonstrate the feasibility of night baseball on a June night that year, but Cincinnati executives got cold feet.
The idea came from an East Coast inventor named George Cahill. He and his family worked together on a number of high-concept but ultimately low-profit inventions like an early version of an electric typewriter, a baseball pitching machine, and especially the Telharmonium, which delivered synthesized music to subscribers over a cable network. Needless to say, radio ultimately killed that idea.
But the Cahills did come up with some nifty ideas for illuminating large outdoor spaces at night. August “Garry” Herrmann, who was not only president of the Cincinnati Reds but one of three commissioners who oversaw major league baseball, was intrigued. In August 1908 he created a corporation, the Night Baseball Development Company, to investigate the concept. With the corporation’s investment, Cahill constructed five spindly towers beyond the outfield bleachers and four massive lamps atop the grandstand.
Herrmann told the newspapers that Cincinnati and Philadelphia were going to inaugurate the illumination array, but he reconsidered as the proposed test drew nearer. A lot of baseball experts, who’d rather spend their evenings at the saloon than at the ballpark, convinced Herrmann that artificial lighting would subject his players to all sorts of injuries.
As June arrived, Herrmann unveiled Plan B. Instead of major league players, teams from a couple of Elks lodges would take the electrically illuminated field. Herrmann, in addition to his roles with the Reds and the National Baseball Commission, was in the running to be named Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks. Garnering some headlines for his lodge brothers couldn’t hurt; in fact, Herrmann was indeed elected Ruler of the Elks in 1910.
Cincinnati Lodge #5 (still active in Cheviot) and Newport Lodge #273 (still active in Cold Springs) showed up for practice on June 16, 1909. Only nine of the 14 arc lamps were lit, but blazed bright enough for practice. Newspaper photographers enjoyed documenting the event without having to use flash.
Everything was set for a full game on June 17, except the weather. Rain postponed the action until the next night. The rainout didn’t dampen curiosity, according to The Cincinnati Post [June 19, 1909]:
“Some 4,000 folks, most of them baseball fans, but quite a few attracted by curiosity alone, traveled to League Park Friday night to see the first game of night baseball ever played with regulation-sized ball and bats and all of the fielders playing in exactly the same positions as the daylight players do.”
If all of that sounds like a lot of qualification, it is, because this wasn’t the first game of night baseball. As early as the 1880s, minor league clubs, including one in Fort Wayne, Indiana, had experimented with artificial lighting. Results were disappointing because the lights shed too much glare, a drawback Cahill claimed to have solved.
By the time the Cincinnati Elks defeated their transpontine opponents by a score of 8-5, a number of distinguished visitors, including several minor league franchise owners, were ready to sign orders for Cahill’s lighting systems. Many did. By the time President Roosevelt tapped that key in 1935, the minor leagues were familiar with night games. From a technical standpoint, the Cincinnati game was a huge success. It made the cover [August 1909] of Popular Mechanics magazine, which raved about the innovation:
“A small-sized fortune has been expended in Cincinnati in the construction of a remarkable illumination scheme for lighting the National League baseball park of that city in such a manner as to make ball games possible at night. The chief problem was not in providing sufficient illumination, but to provide it in such a way that none of the centers of illumination will blind the players.”
Why not the majors? Fears about injuries lingered. Although Cahill took pains to minimize glare and to evenly illuminate the playing surface, players thought the harsh lighting disguised divots and holes, promoting falls and twisted ankles. The fans weren’t quite ready for night games, either. In 1909, the 10-hour workday was still standard and few bleacher bums had the stamina for an evening game. Mostly, however, it appears that inertia kept major league baseball from moving forward. A writer for The Sporting News [June 24, 1909] summed up the prevailing attitude:
“The rays of the good old sun were missing; the grass didn’t take on the right hue, and you couldn’t see the inside workings of the minds of the spectators, and these are the things that add so much to the attractiveness of the game as played under natural conditions.”