The Nights the Lights Went On in the Twin Cities

By Stew Thornley
Author of On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers

Lights at Lexington Park Lexington Park
The lights are installed in Lexington Park—1937

Although one was considered a pioneer of sorts when it came to night games, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were the last holdouts when it came to baseball under lights in the American Association.

By 1937, the Millers and Saints were the league’s only teams still playing exclusively day games at home. Finally, they decided to join the others and install lights at their stadiums: Lexington Park in St. Paul and Nicollet Park in Minneapolis.

(The Millers had played a game under temporary lights on June 29, 1931 against a House of David team, operated by Grover Cleveland Alexander, who pitched in the game and beat a squad of Millers and local semi-pro players. The first team in the American Association to play under lights was Indianapolis, in 1930.)

As installation of the equipment began in May, both teams set their night debuts for games in which they would be playing each other on back-to-back evenings in mid-July.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press described the arrival of night baseball at Lexington Park as “more of an occasion than the annual opening day, coming for the first time in all the history of baseball in St. Paul.”

The game would also be the first at home for Phil Todt as Saints manager. The popular first baseman became a player-manager ten days earlier when Gabby Street resigned the position.

But it was the lights that drew the fans like flies. More than 9,000 packed the stands at Lexington the evening of Thursday, July 15. Lake City and Mankato brought large delegations of fans to the game, the latter group arriving on a special train.

Before the 8:45 first pitch, a ceremony was held on the field that featured brief addresses by league president George Trautman and Thomas J. Hickey, president emeritus.

Four bulbs popped during the night, broken by sudden contact with curious June bugs, but the entire production received a nice review, even from the rival city’s newspaper. “The lighting system installed by owners of the St. Paul clubs impressed the scribes in the press coop and some 10,000 fans as virtually perfect,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune. “It was a simple matter to follow the course of the ball even in long drives to the outfield.”

Belve Bean held the Saints to five hits as Millers won, 6-1. Manager Todt kept the Saints from being shut out as he singled in their only run in the seventh inning. The game was considered a long one at 2 hours, 14 minutes. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that no one minded the long duration since the “night breeze was refreshingly cool.“

Cool turned to downright cold by the time the Millers played their first night game the next evening. Along with the sudden drop in temperature came a drizzle that began around seven and continued until shortly before game time at 8:45. The chilly weather kept the crowd down to 6,381.

President Trautman again had pre-game comments: “I’m going to make the same speech I made over in St. Paul last night. This is the finest night baseball lighting system I’ve ever seen.“

A big cheer greeted the lights, which were not turned on until just before game time because rain was considered to be hard on the bulbs. (One of the bulbs burst in the second inning, bringing a lament from Millers public relations man Fritz Hutchinson, “There goes six bucks.”)

While the weather was different, one thing similar from the previous night was the lack of Saints hitting. This time they were shut down by the Millers’ Jim Henry as they lost, 4-1. Dusty Cooke hit the only home run. His blast, according to the Pioneer Press, “penetrated the light ceiling and momentarily disappeared from view at the top of its arc before dropping over the right field fence.”

Baseball under the lights was off to a good start in the Twin Cities.

But although this was the first game played under artificial lighting at Nicollet Park, it was not the first night game at the site. In 1918, a pair of events led then-Minneapolis owner Mike Cantillon to consider playing games at night.

One was the World War, which had robbed the sport of some of its players and even more of its fans. Attendance was down throughout the major and minor leagues, including Minneapolis.

The other factor was the dawning of daylight savings time, which had gone into effect on March 31, 1918. With daylight now extended by an hour—meaning that during the weeks before and after the solstice it would extend past 9:00 in a northern city like Minneapolis—Cantillon figured that they could start their contests at 7:00 and get them squeezed in before the sun settled completely.

A season-high crowd of more than 1,200 showed up at Nicollet Park on Friday, May 24 for the first ever night game in the American Association.

The Millers continued with the 7 p.m. games during the week. The new starting time helped attendance somewhat and was directly responsible for a Miller win in June. Complaining of the lack of light, Columbus manager Joe Tinker pulled his team off the field prior to the start of a game, resulting in a 9-0 Miller forfeit victory.

The night games, and the season itself, ended abruptly that summer. Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder’s “Work or Fight” order and the ensuing ruling of baseball as a non-essential industry caused the American Association to shut down operations on July 21. The end of the war in November meant baseball would be back in 1919. For the Millers, however, it was the end of their first experiment with night baseball.

It would be another 19 years before professional baseball would be played at night on a regular basis in the Twin Cities.

Copyright 1994 Stew Thornley

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The Beginning and End of Nicollet Park

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Millers vs. Havana in 1959 Junior World Series

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