Play ball! How night baseball came to Cincinnati in 1935

The story behind how GE and Cincinnati Gas & Electric illuminated the first major league baseball game

At precisely 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 24, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a Western Union telegraph key in the White House and an electric pulse traveled 500 miles over copper wires to a signal lamp near first base at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.

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As Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Larry McPhail illuminated Ebbetts Field. Photo courtesy of GE Reports.

When Cincinnati Reds President Larry MacPhail saw the lamp come to life, he flipped a switch and 632 floodlights towering above the stadium came on. A crowd of 20,422 let out a huge roar as a new era in major league baseball got underway: night games.

While they are common today, games played after dark haven't always been the norm. Prior to 1935, night games had been played only in the minor leagues: Teams discovered that even the Great Depression didn’t stop people from coming out, and that baseball under the lights often doubled or tripled attendance.

Seeing the success in the minors, MacPhail received permission at the December 1934 National League meetings to introduce night baseball in Cincinnati.

The Reds awarded the illumination contract to General Electric, and the company turned to Cincinnati Gas & Electric (now part of Duke Energy) engineers Earl Payne, Al Rutterer and Charles Young, along with technician Wayne Conover to design the layout.

There’s a science to lighting a baseball field. A mix of lumens, watts and strategic positioning help ensure that the field is not just visible, but optimally lit for players, spectators and broadcasters alike.

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A 1935 night game at Crosley Field, Cincinnati. Photo courtesy of GE Reports.

The GE and CG&E team began working in January 1935, with tools including slide rules, illuminometers (a device that measures all available ambient light) and Payne’s collegiate engineering textbooks from the University of Cincinnati. Among the puzzles they needed to solve: the number and combination of floodlights and spotlights, as well as the height and number of light towers.

They worked on the layout for nearly four months before the CG&E drafting department drew up the blueprints. GE erected the towers and installed the Novalux floodlights. Payne and Rutterer had to climb ladders up and down the 115-foot-tall towers numerous times to make modifications to the lighting array. So, add courage to creativity.

Finally, after several weeks of testing, it was time to play ball.

National League President Ford Frick threw out the first ball on that cool May evening. The Reds defeated the visiting Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 behind the six-hit pitching of Paul Derringer. Of course, the score was a historical footnote to what was achieved that evening. The reviews from players and fans were positive, and night baseball was here to stay.

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Crosley Field, Cincinnati, Ohio

After seeing the success in Cincinnati, other teams followed. Under MacPhail’s leadership, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn was the next park to embrace night games, in 1938. By 1948, all but one major league park had lights. The Chicago Cubs waited until 1988 to play under the lights at Wrigley Field.

Today, about 66% of all games are played at night. “Major league baseball was changed forever — in Cincinnati and later all over the country,” wrote Earl Payne's son Robert in his book "Let There Be Light: A History of Night Baseball 1880-2008."

As for Duke Energy and GE, the companies keep playing ball. GE turbines and other electricity-generating equipment are working in dozens of Duke Energy power plants across the Midwest, Carolinas and Florida.