Baseball at night? It’s hard to imagine that something that has been commonplace for at least a couple of generations was at one time considered a risky and almost sacrilegious proposition. In Detroit, there had been the occasional ball game played under the lights, but each time it was considered a mere novelty, not a milestone moment.
In 1896, the Tigers drew a small crowd to Bennett Park for a season-ending benefit game against a squad of Western Leaguers, while in 1930 the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League experimented with a night game against the Kansas City Monarchs at Hamtramck Stadium. Both times a portable lighting system was used, and both times players, umpires and spectators complained about the poor illumination and hazardous visibility.
But times were changing, as was the technology, and by the 1940s even staunch traditionalists like Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs realized they were becoming dinosaurs. In 1948, 13 years after Cincinnati’s Crosley Field hosted the first night game in the majors, Briggs finally installed lights at Briggs Stadium. He had resisted the innovation until only the Tigers and Cubs played their entire schedule in the daylight.
Briggs’ son, Walter “Spike” Briggs Jr., had campaigned for the change since joining the front office in 1936. According to some reports, the elder Briggs had been talked into installing lights for the 1942 season, but the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 caused him to scrub the plan. Briggs diverted the steel he had ordered for the lights to the war effort, secretly pleased that the game would continue to be played in natural, not artificial, light. “Baseball belongs to the sun and the sun to baseball,” he continued to argue after the war.
When he finally changed his mind three years after World War II ended, Briggs’ only stipulation was that the lighting system be the finest available. On the night of May 10, 1948, the system was tested for the benefit of the press. Sitting in his wheelchair, Briggs threw the switch to illuminate Briggs Stadium. The eight steel towers that rose 150 feet in the sky contained 1,458 giant incandescent bulbs, bright enough to allow groundskeeper Neil Conway to read a newspaper at second base.
Six weeks later, on June 15, 1948, fans began arriving at the ballpark at 6 p.m. for the Tigers’ first night game at home. “There was a lot of excitement,” third baseman George Kell recalled years later. “Almost like a carnival. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize the size of the crowd at first. In fact, I got a call from the front gate that some friends of mine from Arkansas were in town and wanted to watch the game. I told them they shouldn’t have a problem getting seats, but they were told the game was sold out. I went out on the field and looked around, and when I saw the size of the crowd, I got a chill. Just packed in there.”
Unfortunately, nobody knew exactly when to turn the lights on and start the game. The chilly Tuesday evening forced the Detroit and Philadelphia players to huddle in their dugouts. Many in the crowd of 54,480 drank copious amounts of hot coffee. Everyone waited for the sky to fade to black so the lights could take full effect.
When the lights finally were flipped on at 9:29 p.m., a brief silence fell over the assemblage, followed by a collective Ooooh! Thanks to three outstanding fielding plays by Kell and Hal Newhouser’s two-hitter, the Tigers trimmed the Athletics, 4-1. Night baseball was off to a smashing start in the Motor City.
“For some reason I can’t explain, all the action looks faster under the lights,” marveled Lyall Smith of the Detroit Free Press. “Runners appear to rip down the base lines and every ball that starts from the bat seems headed for the stands.”
The introduction of night games substantially boosted the gate, with 14 dates in 1948 averaging about 45,000 fans, including 56,586 for an August 9 contest with Cleveland. Attendance records were set three straight summers, topping out at 1.9 million in 1950, a record that stood for nearly 20 years.
The Tigers regarded night games as special events and restricted their number to 14 each season until 1957, when seven more were added to the schedule. Three more were added in 1960. Although the novelty of playing under the lights soon wore off, its convenience continued to make the games attractive. Evening crowds in Detroit averaged roughly 30,000 through the end of the 1950s, well above the league average.