There’s something about a night game, especially in our nation’s capital. The excitement of the crowd as they arrive at the stadium after the work day is finished; the way the steam comes off the grill for the ballpark food in the cool night; and the way the lights highlight the teams colors and make the players feel like they’re the center of attention. There’s something about a night game. For me, a night game makes me feel like the game is the only thing going on in the entire world. It’s like you’re the center of the universe, you’re the only thing that matters. You’re not thinking about work, politics, or even what you’re going to have for dinner that night. You’re thinking about the game, the moment. But fans and players haven’t always been able to have these sentimental feeling about night games. Because the first night game didn’t take place until the 1930s.
D.C. actually had a part in the first Major League Baseball night game, even though the game wasn’t played in D.C. The game took place at Crosley Field in Cincinnati on May 24, 1935, where the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1. The 25,000 fans that awaited the start of the game were given the pleasure of viewing the first evening game when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt symbolically switched on the lights in D.C. After FDR turned on the lights, the first MLB night game began 500 miles west of the capital.
“Baseball has been called the national pastime and rightly so because it stands for the fair play, clean living, and good sportsmanship which are our national heritage. That is why it has such a warm place in our hearts.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 5, 1936. One year after FDR turned on the lights for the first Major League Baseball night game.)
The victorious Reds also went on to play a night game with at least every team in the National League for the 1935 season. Despite the positive increase in attendance, which was the sole purpose of having evening games, the Reds finished the season well under 500 at 68-85. As a result of the successful attendance for the 1935 season, other MLB teams began to follow suit and install lights.
The first ever Minor League Baseball night game took place in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 2, 1930. The Des Moines Demons defeated the Wichita Aviators 13-6. The Minor Leagues, Negro Leagues, and Amateur Leagues all had night games before the Major Leagues caught on in 1935.
Since the 1930s, some artists have found night games to be a special experience as well and have documented them. Two such paintings are in our nation’s capital.
The first painting is Baseball at Night by Morris Kantor and is currently on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This painting depicts a night game at the Sports Centre at the Clarkstown Country Club. The game under the lights, between two unidentified minor league teams, took place in Nyack, New York, in 1934. The Russian artist chose to show the field in smaller proportions in order to magnify the importance of the crowd, the lights, the radio booth, and the landscape. He clearly captures how much is involved in the event besides just the game. From a fan’s point of view, especially in an amateur league, it’s not just about the players. It’s about the whole experience of being under the lights. Kantor, who painted this during the Great Depression, understood that a night game brought people together after long days to support their home team. There was a sense of community and allegiance. The lights provided more accessibility to America’s national pastime.
The second painting is Night Baseball by Marjorie Phillips, and it is currently in storage in the Phillips Collection. This painting depicts a night game that took place in the summer of 1951 at Griffith Stadium in D.C. The game, which probably took place between August 13 and 15, was between the Washington Senators and the visiting New York Yankees. The Senators are shown in the field while the Yankees are up to bat, and the only player who can be clearly identified is at the plate: the iconic slugger and media star Joe DiMaggio. The painting captures the excitement and anticipation of a night game by focusing on the moment right before the pitcher releases the ball. Marjorie herself was not a big baseball fan, but she did accompany her husband (Duncan Phillips) and their son on several trips to Griffith Stadium, where she sketched scenes from the games. In this particular game, possibly the beauty of the night game and Joe DiMaggio caught her eye enough that she wanted to record it, and eventually paint Night Baseball.
Like Marjorie and Morris, I was amazed at the beauty of a night game. Although it was a cool, misty April night at Nationals Park, the poor weather didn’t stop the D.C. crowd from pouring in after a busy work day. I quickly saw the steam coming off the grills, and the aromas of the ballpark food increased my appetite. As my wife and I took our seats, I could clearly see the Nats in red, white, and blue colors that glowed from the night lights. The bottom half of the first inning rolled around, and the power-hitting first basemen Ryan Zimmerman (Zimm) took the plate for the Nationals. There was one man on and two outs, and when Zimm connected with the next pitch, I knew he felt like he was the center of attention as he blasted a home run to put the Nats ahead 2-1. When he launched that home run over the left field wall, all I could think of was the game, the moment. Nothing else mattered. Maybe that’s how Morris Kantor felt at that night game at the Sports Centre at the Clarkstown Country Club and how Marjorie Phillips felt as she peered down across the diamond at Joe DiMaggio stepping up to the plate. And maybe one day someone will take out their sketch of Zimm hitting a home run in the bottom of the first under the lights at Nationals Park and paint Lighting up our national pastime in our nation’s capital.