If You Build it They Will Come: How a GE Engineer Invented Night Baseball

March 31, 2014

image

'Tis baseball season again. Night games are as common as peanuts and Cracker Jack these days, but that has not always been the case.

For many decades baseball was a daytime pursuit. But weekday games didn’t mesh with the company clock and stands were often empty. Until Robert J. Swackhamer’s homerun.

Swackhamer, a GE lighting engineer, was thinking about freight trains, not baseball, when he hit upon his idea. In the 1920s, a railroad company asked him to design an array of high-wattage lamps that would allow it to keep rail yards open overnight.

The lights worked so well that Swackhamer convinced his bosses to test the arrays at the General Electric Athletic Field at Lynn, Mass.

On June 24, 1927, five towers supporting 72 flood lamps lit up the first night baseball game in history 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.

image

The first night baseball game ever played. Salem beat Lynn 7-2 at the General Electric Athletic Field at Lynn, Mass. in June 1927.

It was a hard sell as teams initially 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.

John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants manager, warned that “undoubtedly an attempt will be made to introduce night baseball in the major leagues, and it cannot be considered lightly.” 

image

The packed stands at Lynn included players from the Boston Red Sox and Washington Americans who came to see Swackhamer’s innovation.

It took GE three years to sign up a handful of minor league teams as customers. But in 1935 the sales team finally had a hit with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds were on the brink of bankruptcy at the time. No more than 3,000 fans would show up for a weekday game on average. Owner Powel Crosley and general manager Leland “Larry” MacPhail took a gamble and  invested $50,000 ($850,000 adjusted for inflation) in the GE lights.

image

Swackhamer’s drawings for lighting the GE stadium in Lynn.

The first night game in Major League’s history took place at the Red’s Crosley Field 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 announcer Red Barber.

The fans also liked them. The team played seven night games in 1935 before 130,000 fans, or 18,500 visitors on average per game. The rest is history.

image

Cincinnati Reds owner Powel Crosley asked GE to install the lights above Crosley Field.

Other teams soon followed the Reds’ lead. By 1941, 11 of the 16 Major League baseball fields installed GE lights, including the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Swackhamer was vindicated when even the Giants came to see the light.

image

The Reds played seven night games in 1935 before 130,000 fans, or 18,500 visitors on average per game. The rest is history.