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‘Let There Be Light 1st
NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — The sports headline on the March 27, 1930 edition of the Kansas City American read “MONARCHS FIRST TEAM TO PLAY BALL BY FLOODLIGHT”.
Just over a month later on April 29, the defending world champions of the Negro Leagues would go where no professional baseball had ever gone before.
That night, the Kansas City Monarchs defeated Phillips University 12-4 in an exhibition game played in the town of Enid, Oklahoma. But the game’s outcome pales in comparison to its place in baseball history.
It is believed to have been the first professional baseball game played under lights.
The historic contest would come five years before Major League Baseball played its first night game. On May 24, 1935, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 at Crosley Field.
A crowd of just over 3,000 fans saw Hall of Famer Wilber “Bullet” Rogan go 2-for-4 with a double and two runs scored in the Monarchs’ win. Pitcher Chet Brewer, who got the win for K.C., would reply that “It was a beautiful site”.
According to Negro League historian John Holway, primitive night games had been played as far back as 1880. In 1927, the Lynn, Massachusetts franchise of the New England League supposedly played a contest under the lights.
J.L. Wilkinson, the long time owner of the Monarchs, had previously experimented with arc lamps and kerosene lamps for Monarch exhibition games as far back as 1915.
However, engineers could not get their poles high enough.
Then in 1929, Wilkinson would mortgage his home while getting additional funding from the Giant Light Manufacturing of Omaha to make portable lights. Said Wilkinson, “What talkies are to movies, lights will be to baseball”.
While modern baseball fans take night baseball for granted, the concept of games being played under the lights was more than radical for the 1930′s.
“People would come out to see if we could really play ball under the lights”, said former Monarch player and manager Newt Allen.
“It was hard for the players at first, but when you began to play under them regularly, the only hard part was when a fly ball was hit. You’d have to wait for it to come out of the dark to catch it”.
According to Wilkinson’s son, Richard, the lights were on cables and telescoped steel poles with a truck under each light. One was placed behind first base, another behind third base, and one in the outfield.
Each pole had six 1,000 watt bulbs and a 100-kilowatt generator on the Monarchs’ team bus.
The team continued to barnstorm around the country, but with the lights K.C. would become one of baseball’s most watched teams of the era.
The Monarchs not only traveled through the state of Missouri, but also Kansas, Texas, Iowa, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma.
During one six-game tour, the Monarchs were averaging just over 15,000 fans a night. While that may seem to be a small crowd compared to today’s standards, it was more than enough for Wilkinson to pay the fees incurred by K.C.’s traveling light show.
So much so that the team dropped out of the Negro Leagues in 1931 and began an extensive barnstorming schedule. They wouldn’t return to league play until 1937. The team would then go on to win five Negro League titles in the next six years.
While the Monarchs’ legacy of winning left an indelible mark on the history of the Negro Leagues, their contribution of night baseball is something that literally brought the sport out of the dark ages.
NOTE: The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and The Kansas City Monarchs: 1920-1938 all contributed to this story.