Negro League Team Used Lights Years before MLB


When celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the first Night game played in Crosley Field in Cincinnati, MLB’s Matt Brown’s headline read:

"Let there be lights: Reds mark anniversaryCrosley Field hosted first-ever night game 75 years ago"

The story recalls the iconic moment when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button at the White House to activate the lights at Crosley Field to the astonishment of the 20,000 suddenly illuminated fans who watched the Reds beat the Phillies, 2-1, “in the first night game in Major League Baseball history on May 24, 1935.”

Mr. Brown was correct in delimiting the claim of the “first-ever night game,” by adding “in Major League Baseball history,” since…

"the first night baseball game was played in Massachusetts 55 years prior to the Crosley Field spectacle."

“By most accounts the first night baseball game was played on Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts, on September 2, 1880, starting at 8 o’clock. (Edison had perfected his light bulb the year before.)

Northern Electric Company of Boston organized the game to advertise the use of electricity, featuring teams sponsored by two local companies. The lights were too weak, causing many errors.

The game ended after nine innings and an hour and a half of play in a 16-16 tie so the teams wouldn’t miss the last ferry back to Boston.” [2]

There are reports that, during the remainder of the 19th century “a handful of other night games were played, most using electric light, but at least one used gas. None of these games seems to have been a rousing success.” [2]

On October 24, 1929, the entire country went into the darkness with the shocking crash of the stock market crash.

Although the Kansas City Monarchs were a success on the field–they won the Negro National League championship in 1929–they had their lowest gate receipts in the history of the league. The double whammy forced team owner J.L. Wilkinson to consider leaving the league and becoming an independent.

Wilkinson had experimented with illumination for night games earlier in his career; his prior team, the All Nations, played a game by gaslight near Des Moines. In desperation, he decided to take a shot at lighting that would allow the team to play games in the cooler evenings, when the workday was over for the farmers and the factory workers in small towns.

He added Thomas Baird as a partner, mortgaged most everything he owned, and hired Omaha’s Giant Manufacturing Company to construct a portable lighting system for an amount between $50,000 and $100,000. (A 1929 dollar had the same buying power as $12.82 in 2011, so that would be between $641,000 and $1,282,000 today.)

The system had telescoping poles which extended 50 feet above the field. The photo to the right shows a set of six floodlights atop each pair of poles. Derricks pivoted the poles into position above the truck beds to which they were secured.

“In her book, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball, Janet Bruce says that the Monarch’s lighting system took about two hours to assemble. The set-up included a huge generator that was placed in center field, made an enormous amount of noise, and “used fifteen gallons of gasoline every hour.” [2]

Generating illumination was not to be taken lightly; the lights were only 50 feet above the field, so any ball hit higher was lost in the dark sky. A limit was placed on the number of bases allowed for a fly ball during night games.

In the original Yankee Stadium, outfielder had to contend with three monuments in CF, but here they had to avoid running into the generator and its many wire in the outfield, and the poles added to the OF obstacle course.

The lighting system also helped ease the financial burden.  Since the Monarchs’ delayed their schedule, so their season didn’t start until about a month and a half after the rest of baseball, Wilkinson was able to rent his lighting system out to other teams.

The Negro League Kansas City Monarchs were using lights for night games six years before MLB and that fact should see the light of day.