CHICAGO – What’s taken as normal now seemed very weird three decades ago. Back then, a flip of a switch and flicker of lights over Wrigley Field seemed sacrilegious, a dastardly act that sacrificed tradition in the name of money-fueled progress. Now it’s just another night at the Friendly Confines.
Time has a way of making the unusual feel comfortable – and 30 years has done the trick on the North Side.
Three decades ago Wednesday – August 8, 1988 – the lights went on for a baseball game at Wrigley Field for the first time. Today, Brad Rosen is the owner of Sports World near Wrigley Field. Back when the lights turned on he was 14 years old and working at the store.
“That was the first year Sports World was open on the corner here, we had a separate store half a block down and I remember there were a ton of people and enthusiasm; it was very overcast,” Rosen said. “On 8/7 they had a practice so they could adjust the lights for the team. They were hitting fly balls, it was dark in certain areas of the outfield.”
Not everyone was onboard. The Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine (CUBS) was a vocal group against the lights. The remnants can still be spotted around Wrigley Field. Cubs fan Frank Born lived in Chicago since 1956.
“There was a push to get the night games obviously but the local people weren’t for it because the extra traffic congestion and cars,” Born said.
It was the Cubs and the Phillies going under the glow of artificial illumination on a brutally hot and humid night where temperature was at 91 degrees just after 7 PM. Ninety-one year old Harry Grossman – a lifelong Cubs’ fan and season ticket holder – was the one who had the honor to hit the ceremonial switch. At his insistence, he led the crowd in a countdown to three, then had them yell “Let There Be Lights!”
It was quite a moment for the Cubs under the leadership of the Tribune Company, who tried to get lights installed at Wrigley Field since taking over the franchise following the 1981 season. Court fights and bad blood were common over the following years as the neighbors, keeping the team playing in the day despite the new owner’s hopes of changing that.
Finally the sides got closer to an agreement in 1987 and in November of that year, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington backed an ordinance that allowed 18 night games a year at the park. He would die in office weeks after announcing his support, but Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer led the passage the measure through the Chicago City Council in February of 1988.
Light standards were installed in the ballpark that spring for a debut on this steamy August night. WGN’s broadcast led in with the playing of “Night and Day” by Frank Sinatra, with shots of the lights and the crowd dressed in white for the occasion. Rick Sutcliffe threw the first pitch with a sea of flashbulbs as a backdrop, then allowed Phil Bradley to crush a homer onto Waveland Avenue just three pitches later.
“Turn ’em off! Turn the dang lights off!” screamed actor Bill Murray, who joined Harry Caray and Steve Stone in the WGN booth for the opening innings.
Ryne Sandberg responded with a two-run shot in the bottom half of the innings and the Cubs got another run in the third before Mother Nature interfered in the middle of the fourth inning.
In a summer remember for drought across the Midwest, the skies opened up like rarely seen that summer. The only highlight on the field that night was when Cubs pitcher Les Lancaster, Greg Maddux, Al Nipper, and catcher Jody Davis slid on the wet tarp to the delight of the fans.
Unfortunately they were fined for the action and the game was eventually postponed, pushing the first official night game to the following night. On August 9, 1988, with no rain in sight, the Cubs beat the Mets 6-4 and the era of night baseball was born.
Thirty years later, night baseball is an accepted part of the Friendly Confines just like the ivy. The Cubs have won a Wild Card playoff game under the lights (1998), a National League Division Series (2015), National League Pennant, and their first World Series victory in 71 years in 2016.
When the city ordinance first passed to allow night games in 1988, there were only 18 allowed per season. Now there are 43 allowed, including eight now used for concerts.
“The neighbors didn’t want it at all, but it seems like they’ve all changed their minds it’s added a lot to the neighborhood,” Cubs fan Brett Blumer recalls. “I was a little apprehensive; I enjoy baseball during the day better but I think it turned out really good.”
Yet none of today’s night games compare to the one played 30 years ago Wednesday. The glow of the lights will never look as bright, as unusual, and perhaps surreal as it did on that warm evening on 8/8/88.