Red Barber recalls a time when people thought night baseball would never work.
He should know. Not only was he there, he broadcast the first night game in major-league history.
"I know most of the people in baseball did not think night ball would be successful," Barber told UPI in an exclusive interview. "They didn't think the lights would be good enough. There were a lot of old liners who said baseball was meant to be played in the daytime. The moment the lights came on, everyone was convinced."
Barber, "The Old Readhead," spoke via phone from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. He apparently understands how many lives he has touched in his years of broadcasting major-league baseball. For instance, when the interviewer mentions how familiar that voice is, Barber simply says, "Thank you."
He says he spends his time housecleaning with his wife Lylah, writing a monthly column for the Christian Science Monitor, and doing a weekly four-minute program for National Public Radio. He also took a few minutes to discuss baseball history.
Barring rain, on Aug. 8, the Cubs and Phillies will play the first night game in Wrigley Field, ending that ballpark's niche as the only big-league park without lights. More than 53 years have passed since May 25, 1935, when the Phillies visited Cincinnati's Crosley Field for the first major-league game played at night.
"This was the first sports event that was on the Mutual Network," Barber said. "The Mutual Network was being formed with WLW in Cincinnati, WOR in New York, WGN in Chicago, WXYZ in Detroit. Al Helfer, he and I were the radio fellows in Cincinnati. For this night game I did it for the network and he did it for the local station in Cincinnati."
Larry MacPhail, president and general manager of the Reds back then, has since gone into the Hall of Fame for his promotional acumen. He scheduled seven night games that year, one against each opponent in the National League. Crosley Field had hosted night baseball as early as 1909, but never on the major-league level.
Rain washed out the first try in 1935. The next night proved to be a good one for baseball. Lee MacPhail, Larry's son who went on to be president of the American League, was still in school at the time. To mark the occasion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw a key in Washington that turned on the lights.
"I remember one thing," Barber said. "Dolf Camilli played first for Philly, hit a long drive to center. Sammy Byrd, playing center, went up against the concrete wall to catch it. He hit one of his knees, and that gave him a bad knee. He decided not to stay in baseball, turned to pro golf and did quite well."
Paul Derringer started for Cincinnati, and Joe Bowman for Philadelphia. The Reds won 2-1. Barber says in those days, no one expressed concern over the possible effect of night baseball on the neighborhood.
"No concern at all because it was not in a residential area particularly anyhow," he said. "Crosley was down in the basin, pretty much a commercial area, and low income apartments, and right along the railroad tracks, and in those days you had a lot of railroad traffic."
That was 53 years and a baseball era ago.