From the Pages of Vine Line: Let there be lights

Today marks a monumental day in Chicago Cubs history. While 8-8-88 gets the proper hype for being the first game under the newly installed lights at Wrigley Field, a postponement due to rain actually pushed the first full game to the next day. Therefore, today actually marks the 25th anniversary of the first completed night game at Wrigley Field. The following feature can be found in the July issue of Vine Line. For stories like this and more all season long, be sure to subscribe today.

It’s not often you get that Opening Day or postseason feeling during a mid-August game. That time of year is usually reserved for the baseball doldrums. The All-Star break is over, and it’s a little too early to get excited about the divisional races—especially in 1988, when only four teams reached the postseason.

But Game 111 for the Chicago Cubs, set to be played on Aug. 8, 1988, was one for the ages at the Friendly Confines. An estimated crowd of 40,000 was on hand, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, and 109 newspapers and magazines, 38 radio stations and 49 TV crews—including the Today show, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight—packed the venerable stadium. The announcers wore tuxedos (except for Harry Caray), and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to toss out the first pitch.

At 6:06 p.m., the festivities came to a head when 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1906 and the team’s oldest season ticket holder, stood on the field with ball girl Mariellen Kopp and Hall of Fame announcer Jack Brickhouse and bellowed the fateful words that propelled Wrigley Field into the modern era:
“Three … two … one. Let there be lights!”

Viewers from around the country watched in awe as Grossman flipped the switch and six banks of lights—three each on the left- and right-field rooftops—slowly glowed to life at Wrigley Field for the first time. The famed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there to help mark the occasion, broke into the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Witnessing the field lit for the first time was pretty cool, but also a little eerie to me because it was so different,” said Ben Hussman, a longtime Cubs fan and high school history teacher at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., who traveled from Iowa to watch the game with a friend.

Though the lighting ceremony was high theater, there was also a game to be played, as Cubs ace Rick Sutcliffe was set to take the mound against a fifth-place Phillies squad under ominous clouds for the first home night game in franchise history.

Things got off to a fast start. After nearly being blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Sutcliffe surrendered a long home run over the left-field bleachers on the fourth pitch of the game to Phillies leadoff hitter Phil Bradley.

In the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Morganna the Kissing Bandit—a fixture at many major sporting events in the 1970s and ’80s—ran onto the field to try to plant one on Cubs star Ryne Sandberg, but security was ready for her, and she never sealed the deal. Ryno, apparently motivated by his close encounter, then blasted a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead. The North Siders added another run in the third inning when Rafael Palmeiro singled home Sandberg.

Only, as far as the record books are concerned, none of this ever happened.

Midway through the fourth inning at about 8:15 p.m., a torrential rainstorm washed into Chicago and washed out the game. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially put an unceremonious end to the first night game that never was.

Apparently the excitement of the event was too much for some people. During the delay, as many as 13 Cubs fans ran out onto the field to slide on the tarp—one unlucky reveler was even taken to the hospital after running into the third-base wall. Around 9:30 p.m., the Cubs got into the act as well, as Jody Davis, Les Lancaster, Al Nipper and Greg Maddux all took their turns making a giant slip-and-slide of the infield tarp. The fans were arrested; the unrepentant Cubs players were merely fined.

Of course, countless jokes about God not wanting to have night baseball at Wrigley Field followed, but the Cubs proved the doubters (and the heavens) wrong when they played their first official night game at the stadium the following evening, a 6-4 victory over the Mets. Frank DiPino picked up the win in relief of starter Mike Bielecki, left fielder Palmeiro went 3-for-4 with a triple, and right fielder Andre Dawson drove in two runs.

To understand the importance of the lights going up, it’s essential to know the history behind the event. This was the first time a big league ballpark had added lights since Tiger Stadium (then called Briggs Stadium) in Detroit did so on June 15, 1948. It was also a deeply controversial decision that divided the city between supporters of modernization and traditionalists who believed day baseball at Wrigley Field should last forever.

But this wasn’t the first time lights were attempted at the Friendly Confines. A series of concerts, rodeos, circuses and a combined boxing/wrestling match were held at the stadium under portable lights in the early to mid-1900s.

Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and treasurer Bill Veeck started looking into installing permanent lights at the stadium in the early 1940s. In the fall of 1941, Wrigley went so far as to order light standards for the park to be installed in early 1942. The material for the lights was stored under the Wrigley Field bleachers, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Wrigley donated the 165 tons of steel, 35,000 feet of copper wire and other equipment to the U.S. war effort.

“We felt that this material could be more useful in lighting flying fields, munitions plants or other war defense plants under construction,” Wrigley said.

Later, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis requested more night baseball games, the Cubs looked into using wooden poles and secondhand equipment to erect lighting for the 1942 season, but those plans were rejected by the War Production Board.

Throughout the 1940s, Wrigley tried to find a way to add lights to his stadium so more people could see the games after the workday was over, but to no avail. He even initiated talks with the White Sox about playing a limited number of night games at Comiskey Park, which had installed lights in 1939.

Although adding illumination to the Confines was always on the table, the organization didn’t resume serious talks about it until 1982, shortly after the Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley family. In March of that year, General Manager Dallas Green publicly stated that lights needed to be installed at Wrigley Field “or we’ll have to think about playing in another ballpark.”

In August 1984, with the team making a surprising playoff push, MLB announced the Cubs would lose home-field advantage in the World Series if they got that far because they couldn’t play night games. Under the typical AL-NL rotation, the NL club was set to host Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the World Series. Without lights, however, network TV commitments would force Game 1 from Wrigley Field to the AL home park.

Baseball owners feared a $700,000 loss in television revenues per club as a result of World Series games played in the daytime. In subsequent years, the Cubs explored the possibility of playing night World Series games at Comiskey Park or St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.

Finally, on Feb. 25, 1988, after years of arguing, cajoling and negotiating, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance, 29 to 19, that allowed the Cubs to play night baseball at Wrigley Field—if they complied with a substantial list of terms. The deal permitted the Cubs to play eight night games in 1988 and 18 per year from 1989-2002.

On April 7, 1988, a helicopter lifted the first of three towers onto the roof along the third-base line, and crews began working every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most of the project was completed in June and July when the Cubs were on the road. When the team was at home, work had to stop at 10 a.m.

On June 20, 1988, the Cubs held a press conference at the park to announce a slate of seven night games for the current season, the first of which was to be held on Aug. 8. After commitments were met to season ticket holders, dignitaries, front office personnel and the like, there was only a limited number of available seats left for the night opener.

The team decided to hold a phone lottery on June 28 for the remaining 13,000 tickets to the historic contest. During the three-and-a-half-hour lottery, the Cubs ticket office fielded more than 1.5 million calls.

The lighting system was tested throughout July, leading up to a Cubs Care event on July 25 that debuted the $5 million system to the public. That night, the club held an informal workout for the team and a home run contest featuring Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, with Ken Holtzman and Fergie Jenkins pitching. Approximately 3,000 fans, including then-National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti, were in attendance.

“I think the future of Wrigley Field is secure and assured because of the installation of this modern convenience,” Giamatti said.
The rest is Cubs history. Day baseball at Wrigley Field hasn’t gone away; it has just been augmented. Now the team can finish day games that stretch into the twilight, play nationally televised games on ESPN, host the All-Star Game (which it did in 1990) and maintain home-field advantage in the event of a postseason berth. Night baseball now feels normal, but a quarter of a century later, fans still remember what it was like to see the stadium lit up for the first time.

“[It was] a big relief, because I knew night baseball would help the Cubs be more competitive, and because it would be easier for more Cubs fans to go to more games during the week,” said Walt Denny, owner of an advertising and public relations firm in Hinsdale, Ill., and a season ticket holder since 1984.

Fans traveled from all over to attend the game and watched around the country on the WGN broadcast. The fact that the game was ultimately rained out didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans or the players who were there that night. And it didn’t erase the memories of what was one of the most important nights in modern Major League Baseball history.

“I remember thinking that the most beautiful place to watch day baseball was now the most beautiful place to watch night baseball,” Denny said.

Twenty-five years later, it still is.

—Gary Cohen

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