Late night baseball is as common as peanuts and Cracker Jack, but it has not always been the case. For many decades baseball was a daytime pursuit. Weekday games often clashed with the company clock and stands were empty. Everything changed in the 1930s when GE lighting designer Robert J. Swackhamer hit on an idea for stadium lights. His lights forever changed the economics of the game. They also saved at least one baseball team from ruin.
The first night baseball game ever played. Salem beat Lynn 7-2 at the General Electric Athletic Field at Lynn, Massachusetts in June 1927.
Swackhamer was thinking about freight trains, not homeruns, when he started working on his lights. In the 1920s, GE’s railroad customers asked Swackhamer to design special arrays of high-wattage lamps to keep rail yards open overnight. The system performed so well that Swackhamer convinced his bosses to try the lights at the General Electric Athletic Field at Lynn, Massachusetts. On June 24, 1927, towers supporting 72 flood lamps illuminated the first night baseball game between Lynn and Salem.
Salem won 7-2 and the packed stands, which included players from the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Americans who played in Boston that afternoon, got the GE sales team thinking. Within three years GE signed up several Minor League teams and by 1935 it had the first big customer. The Cincinnati Reds were on the brink of bankruptcy at the time. No more than 3,000 fans would show up for the average weekday game. Maybe more people will come after work, the Reds owner Powel Crosley and general manager Leland “Larry” MacPhail reasoned. Crosley took a gamble and asked GE to raise the lights over the Reds’ Crosley Field.
The first night game in Major League’s history took place on Friday, May 24, 1935. A crowd of 20,000 people watched the Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1. It was narrow win, but it caused a revolution in baseball. “As soon as I saw the lights come on I knew they were there to stay,” said Cincinnati’s Red Barber who was announcing on the first night. The fans liked the night game idea. The Reds drew 207,000 people in 77 home games in the 1934 season. The team played just seven night games in 1935. They brought in a total of 130,000 fans, or 18,500 visitors on average per game. Not bad for a $50,000 investment.
Some large teams viewed the idea of night games with trepidation. “They wanted to turn me over to the sheriff in 1930 when I put in the first [Minor League] baseball lighting system in Des Moines and said it wouldn’t be long before the major leagues would do it,” Swackhamer told the writer David Pietrusza. He had a point. “Undoubtedly an attempt will be made to introduce night baseball in the major leagues, and it can not be considered lightly,” New York Giants manager John McGraw worried. But many teams soon followed the Reds’ lead. By 1941, 11 of the 16 Major League baseball fields had installed GE lights, including the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and even the Giants.
GE has turned on the lights at 21 baseball arenas around the country, including the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards, and the San Francisco Giant’s AT&T Park. Lighting a baseball stadium is no trifle. The entire process, from planning to installation, can take roughly two years. Debbie Johnson, a lighting designer with GE Lighting, says the most challenging aspect of the process is “coordinating the fixture locations to achieve the optimum lighting levels.” Johnson says that there are “many obstacles like speakers, scoreboards and banners” that can get in the way. Her colleague, lead lighting designer Rick Owen, says that the “aiming process” is the most arduous part of the job and can take days on non-stop work. “We crisscross the field so many times that we end up walking several miles throughout each day,” Owen says. Even details such as the way the grass is mowed effect reflectivity and the end result.
But for Johnson, it’s all good. “I love being able to make the game more enjoyable for fans across the nation,” she says. “In the end, it’s all for them.”