First Night Game
Professional baseball has a rich history and tradition in Des Moines. However its most enduring legacy can be traced to a game 70 years ago in which the final score was meaningless, but its impact was staggering.
On May 2, 1930, the first night professional baseball game, played under permanent lights, was held at the Western League Park at Sixth Avenue and Holcomb. The Des Moines Demons defeated the Wichita Aviators 13-6 before a crowd of nearly 12,000. The evolution of night baseball in a previously daytime only sport had begun.
"One hundred forty six projectors diffusing 53,000,000 candle-power of mellow light and the amazing batting of Des Moines' nocturnal-eyed players made the opening night of the local baseball season a complete success Friday night," wrote Sec Taylor in the May 3, 1930 Des Moines Register. "Baseball was played successfully after dark on an illuminated field and the Demons won 13-6 in a contest that was normal in every respect so far as the playing was concerned."
Night baseball was an innovation born out of improved technology and economic necessity. College football had demonstrated the practicality and effectiveness of night sporting contests in the late 1920s while the Depression forced baseball's operators to look for an alternative to afternoon games. Dire economic straits resulted in people working longer hours and spending less. Attendance subsequently dwindled.
The man brave enough to initiate the night baseball experiment was Lee Keyser. Keyser began his baseball career in St. Louis, selling scorecards at Sportsman Park for the short-lived Federal League team. When the league collapsed, he moved to Des Moines in 1920 where be purchased half-ownership of the Des Moines Demons. Like most minor league franchises, the Demons had suffered declining attendance by the end of the decade. Keyser was convinced that the minor leagues needed a new innovation or marketing strategy to offset its downward financial plight. He kept coming back to the idea of night baseball as the cure.
Keyser informed his fellow colleagues at the 1929 winter meetings that his club was making preparations to play the first professional night baseball game on May 2, 1930 in Des Moines. The baseball world collectively waited and focused its attention on Des Moines.
The Des Moines entrepreneur left nothing to chance, opting for an expensive and time-consuming approach to constructing his light towers. The galvanized iron towers were 10 feet square at the base and were anchored in approximately 10 feet of concrete. Each tower rose 90 feet above the diamond. The system was estimated to have cost more than $22,000.
As the workers raced to install the lights prior to the Demons' home opener, several onlookers charted their progress. The Register reported that people would drive to the stadium each day to view the light towers rising above the grandstand. Newspapers across the country carried Associated Press reports of the lighting installation.
Baseball fans weren't the only ones to notice to lights illuminating the ballpark each evening. Housewives in the vicinity of the stadium reported a surge in egg production in their henhouses. The chickens had been kept awake each night as the engineers regularly tested the lighting system.
As May 2 approached, Keyser attempted to attract national attention to Des Moines. He invited Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and a host of baseball dignitaries including Branch Rickey of the Cincinnati Reds. NBC even agreed to broadcast the game nationally, but because of previous programming commitments, the broadcast could not start until 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. Keyser pushed back the start to accommodate NBC, allowing the network to broadcast the final five innings, lasting until 1 a.m.
Keyser addressed the nation over NBC when the network joined the game in progress. "My reaction to night baseball is glorious and wonderful," he boasted. "The players are happy, the crowd is perfectly satisfied and it means that baseball in the minor leagues will now live."
The Des Moines owner was so satisfied with the logistics and the crowd size, he immediately rescheduled the following day's game to a night game. More than 1,200 fans showed up, a far cry from the previous night's 12,000, but more than double the previous year's average of 600.
Other observers were equally impressed with the results. C.C. Slapnicka, a Cleveland scout, was quoted in the Register as saying, "I did not see a man flinch from any ball either batted or thrown. The playing of both teams indicates that everything can be done under artificial lights that can be done in daylight games. I believe that night baseball will spread over the entire country and that it will prove to be the salvation of minor league baseball."
Slapnicka's prognostications proved accurate almost immediately. In fact, Omaha and Decatur announced that they would get a lighting system as soon as possible. Night baseball became almost commonplace by the end of the 1930 season. At least 38 teams in 14 minor leagues adopted night baseball that summer.
The majors weren't quite as expedient. But as the Depression kept cutting into profits, Rickey and his Cincinnati ball club became the first major league team to play under the lights on May 24, 1935. By the time the United States entered World War II, 11 of the 16 major league teams had installed lights. Following the war, four other teams made arrangements to play night baseball. Only the Chicago Cubs resisted and did so until 1988.
Over the past century, two events had dramatic effects on the game: integration and night baseball. Des Moines played an integral role in the latter, changing the sport for the better during an impressionable time. Lee Keyser's vision allowed Des Moines to be at the center stage of an innovation that remains undaunted even today.