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From the Archives: Bringing light to Wrigley

This week, we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first night game at Wrigley Field.

Let there be lights! // Stars will be out tonight at Wrigley

By: Joel Bierig, August 8, 1988

The Cubs might receive more attention tonight for playing a baseball game under the lights than Thomas Edison got in 1879 for inventing the light bulb.

Almost 109 years after Edison’s invention, the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies will play the first night game in the 74-year history of sun-kissed, wind-swept, ivy-laden Wrigley Field, the last major league ballpark to adopt lights.

A capacity crowd of 39,012, plus millions watching nationally on superstation WGN-TV (Ch. 9), will see lights go on at Wrigley Field 40 years after the illumination of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, the last previous park without lights.

This 7:05 p.m. game has been called the biggest regular-season event in the history of sports, not to mention sports ticket scalping and commercialization.

Which isn’t necessarily as crazy as it sounds.

As Cub marketing director John McDonough says, “You can have more than one World Series game, more than one All-Star Game, more than one playoff game. But the first night game happens only once, and everyone wants to ride the coattails of history.”

When the last 13,000 tickets went on sale by telephone June 28, TicketMaster lines registered 1.5 million attempts in 3 1/2 hours. The game’s co-sponsors, WGN Radio and True Value Hardware, conducted a sweepstakes that attracted 400,000 applications for about 500 tickets.

The Cubs have issued 560 media passes – believed to be a record for a regular-season baseball game – to outlets as distant as Japan. Crews from NBC-TV’s “Today” show will begin setting up at 5:30 a.m. for a live broadcast this morning from the bleachers.

The Cubs’ home debut under the stars also is expected to draw a galaxy of luminaries from the entertainment and political worlds. And not just avowed Cub diehards such as comedian Bill Murray and actor Tom Bosley, familiar faces at the club’s big games. The identities of most of the special guests, however, seem the best-kept secret since the date of the first Wrigley night game, which finally was announced June 20.

Wrigley Field, traditionally a haven for everyone from school children to senior citizens, tonight will be dominated by the rich and famous. More spectators may arrive by limousine than by L.

A member of one of Chicago’s most prestigious health spas was seen several weeks ago paying an acquaintance $1,400 for two tickets. The acquaintance had asked $2,000. The two-ticket rate is said to have dropped to $600, partly because the Cubs have fallen out of the pennant race and partly because the club’s owner, Tribune Co., took the edge off history by turning on the lights July 25 for a Cubs’ Care charity workout that drew 3,000 spectators at $100 each.

If it’s any consolation, tickets to tomorrow night’s game against the Mets – the second of seven Wrigley night games this season – reportedly can be had for $75 each.

Beginning in 1989, the Cubs can play 18 night games a season for 14 years. The City Council’s approval Feb. 25 of Wrigley night games came after a seven-year battle between Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs, and opponents of lights.

Night baseball was introduced May 24, 1935 in Cincinnati, where the Reds beat the Phillies 2-1 at Crosley Field.

That isn’t the only reason the Phils are a fitting opponent for the Cubs’ inaugural home night game. Dallas Green, forced out last Oct. 29 as Cub president and general manager, began the push for lights after joining the club from the Phillies in October, 1981. And Green’s first Cub manager was Lee Elia, who now manages the Phils. In a profane 1983 tirade, Elia called Wrigley Field a daytime playground for the lazy and unemployed: “85 percent of the (deleted) world’s out makin’ (deleted) living. The other 15 percent come out here.”

The installation phase of the Cubs’ $5 million lights project began April 7 and was completed during the July 11-13 All-Star break – 54 years after an innovative young Cub front-office employee, Bill Veeck, urged former owner Philip K. Wrigley to put up lights.

Veeck made his initial plea in 1934, the year before the first lights in the majors were installed in Cincinnati. The lights movement already had engulfed the minor leagues.

“Just a fad,” Wrigley told Veeck. “A passing fancy.”

Veeck brought up the issue every year, but Wrigley continually resisted. He insisted light towers would spoil the park’s appearance.

Working with a hydraulic engineering firm, Veeck produced a system for placing the “baskets” – the platforms on which the lights were mounted – on telescoping towers. By day, the baskets would be be tucked out of sight. “At night, when they were needed, they were to rise out, fully lighted,” Veeck explained in his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck.

Wrigley, however, argued the lights themselves were so garish they would ruin the effect he had tried to create for his ballpark.

Veeck even had Westinghouse run tests with fluorescent lighting. They were successful, but Wrigley was unimpressed. Eventually, Veeck contended there was more to Wrigley’s stance than the mere belief baseball was meant to be played in sunlight. “Having blown the chance to be first with lights,” Veeck wrote, “Mr. Wrigley just wasn’t going to do it at all.”

In 1941, with World War II taking its toll on Cub coffers, Wrigley quietly and reluctantly changed his mind. Earlier that year, Veeck had left to buy a minor league team in Milwaukee. Under an assumed name, the Cubs bought steel towers and electrical cable. They stored the materials under the stands. On Dec. 7, a day before work was to begin, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, Wrigley sent the steel and cable to American shipyards for the war effort.

Four months later, baseball considered suspending play for the duration of the war. President Roosevelt insisted not only that the games go on, but that more night games be played so factory workers could get their minds off their problems. Ironically, Cub fans who worked the day shift were out of luck.

Though this will be the first night baseball game at Wrigley, it won’t be the first night game. Playing under portable lights and on a portable court, the Harlem Globetrotters defeated George Mikan’s All-Stars 57-51 before 14,124 witnesses Aug. 21, 1954.

Owner Wrigley always feared consistent night activity at the ballpark would be detrimental to the neighbhorhood. Yet, from 1934-1954, he occasionally rented it out for night-time events, including professional wrestling, boxing and exhibition basketball. The wrestling and boxing cards were illuminated by permanent lights attached to the upper deck. Such lighting wasn’t sufficient for baseball.

To Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, the basketball exhibition seemed almost as big an event as what will unfold tonight. A Lake View High graduate, he had grown up poor in the shadows of Wrigley Field. As a boy, unable to afford even a bleacher ticket, he often had sneaked into Cub games.

“His dream even before he started the Globetrotters was to someday own the Cubs,” Eloise Saperstein says of her father, who died in 1966. “He would have given his right and left arms for that. It was a very special night for Abe Saperstein, even though there was a very small article in the paper.”

Previously

Mike Schmidt didn’t like being “a guinea pig”

Bill Murray, Harry Caray, and the first night homer (that didn’t count)

Prepping for the big night with more cops, TVs in Grant Park

Rick Telander on how the fight for lights prepped the Cubs for what’s to come

Timeline of the fight for lights