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Lighting Up the MLB: The History of the Lighted Night Game

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Lighted night games are pretty typical in baseball these days, but it wasn't always so common. As the World Series continues, learn the history behind lighting up ball fields.

First Night Game Ever

If you were to guess when the first baseball game was played under the lights, which year would you choose? It turns out that lighting a ball field, temporarily at least, first happened in the 1800s when the nation was barely a century old. 

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, on September 2, 1880, three wooden towers supported electric arc lamps provided by the Northern Electric Light Company of Boston. Edward Weston’s patented lights first debuted at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, and a night baseball game seemed like the perfect way to demonstrate their power.

The game featured players representing two major Boston department stores. The game was played at Strawberry Hill, along the shoreline at Nantasket Beach. From a competitive standpoint, the results were anti-climactic. There were errors aplenty under the decidedly uneven lighting. The teams played to a 16-16 tie in nine innings. Some believed the teams decided against extra innings out of fear that the players would miss the last ferry of the night back to Boston.

On June 2, 1883, the Quincys, a professional team from Illinois, played a college team under 17 giant arc lights in Fort Wayne, IN. About 2,000 fans paid 25 cents each to watch the exhibition. It is believed to be the first night game played by a professional baseball team.

In 1896, on Independence Day, Honus Wagner played under the lights in Wilmington, DE in what was bllled as the first regularly scheduled night game. However, the next day, the Wilmington Morning News slammed the contest, saying, "The ball became lost so many times and so many runs were made that they were not counted.” 

First Game Under Permanent Lights

It was not until the 1930s that the first professional baseball games were played under permanent lights. On May 2, 1930, the Des Moines Demons took on the Wichita Aviators at Western League Park in Des Moines, IA. Excitement filled the night as almost 12,000 fans turned out for the historic contest. 

Ultimately, the Demons prevailed, 13-6. Sec Taylor, a writer for the Des Moines Register, spoke of "One hundred forty-six projectors diffusing 53,000,000 candle-power of mellow light.” Gone was the uneven lighting that plagued the earliest attempts at night baseball. In fact, playing ball under the lights became essential during the Great Depression, as it allowed those working long days to enjoy relief at night games. 

Western League Park’s lighting beamed from 90-foot, galvanized iron towers. The lighting system cost $22,000, a princely sum at the time, but a modest amount to invest in the effort to save minor league baseball in Des Moines. The first night game was such a success that a day game scheduled for the following day was changed to a night game.

Other minor league teams quickly reacted to the success in Des Moines. During the summer of 1930, 38 other minor league teams scattered across the country adopted night baseball.

Still, night games took a while to catch on at the major league level. The first such game did not occur until May 24, 1935, when the Reds and the Phillies met at Cincinnati’s Crosby Field. The game was played following much fanfare. In a symbolic gesture, President Franklin D. Roosevelt “turned on” the lights from Washington D.C. Approximately 25,000 fans turned out for the spectacle at Crosby Field. Ultimately, the visiting Phillies prevailed, 2-1.

In the years that followed, the success in Cincinnati spurred night baseball at most of the other major league parks. By the time WWII got underway, 11 of the 16 major league teams had installed lights at their stadiums.

Of course, Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, remained a holdout for a long time. Finally, on August 9, 1988, more than a century after the Massachusetts exhibition at Strawberry Hill, the Cubs defeated the New York Mets at night, 6-4.

Electricity Use at Modern Ballparks 

It is estimated that lighting a modern major league baseball stadium for 81 regular season games requires approximately 30 million kWh of electricity, equivalent to the electricity required to power thousands of homes. How does that compare to the electricity used by the average home in the U.S.? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average residential utility customer used 10,812 kWh of electricity in 2015.

Of course, there’s far more involved than simply lighting the field. Jumbotrons, concession stands, restaurants and ubiquitous TVs all consume electricity as well. Plus, a prodigious amount of electricity is required to bathe the fields in enough light to facilitate quality TV broadcasts.

As a result, there have been considerable efforts to conserve energy. The MLB has been a major participant in the Sports Greening Project, a conservation effort spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

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  • Energy-Efficient Stadiums

    According to the Alliance to Save Energy, Marlins Park, the home of the Florida Marlins, is the most energy-efficient MLB ballpark. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-rated facility uses about 20 percent less energy than similar structures. In 2008, Nationals Park in Washington D.C. became the first major sports facility to be LEED certified. Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, was not far behind when it also achieved LEED Silver certification two years later. Target Field combines energy-efficient field lighting with a system that automatically shuts down overall stadium lighting at opportune times to reduce energy costs by thousands.

    Safeco Field First with LED Lights

    In recent years, the conversion of standard lights to their energy-sipping LED counterparts has revolutionized energy consumption at ballparks. In 2014, Seattle's Safeco Field became the first major league ballpark to make the switch to LEDs. With the LEDs, energy consumption is reduced about 60 percent even though the fixtures are 20-30 percent brighter than those they replaced. Since the light emitted more closely resembles sunlight, players and fans enjoy improved visibility. The LEDs also allow for ultra-slow motion replays without the characteristic light flicker common with metal-halide bulbs. Annual energy savings are estimated to be about $50,000.

    Over the years, night baseball not only survived, it flourished. Today, more than four of five MLB games are played at night. More than 130 years have passed since Edward Weston flamboyantly demonstrated the power of his arc lights along Nantasket Beach in Massachusetts. More than eight decades after the Reds-Phillies night game in Cincinnati, today’s energy-efficient LED lights bathe major league ballparks in the best light yet, a light closer to the color temperature of sunlight that any of its predecessors.

    Baseball season may soon be winding down, but we have months of football watching to go! See how your team's city ranked in our list of "Greenest To Environmentally Meanest" NFL cities.


    Posted: October 26, 2017