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Let there be lights

ON a cool May evening in 1935, the visiting Philadelphia Phillies lost 2 to 1 to the Cincinnati Reds in a game that was unspectacular but full of portent. It was the first night game ever in the major leagues.

Now, 53 years later, the Phillies are about to travel here to Chicago to play the last team to adopt night baseball. On Monday, the Chicago Cubs will host their first home game ever played under artificial light.

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Baseball aficionados are already waxing nostalgic.

``This has to signify the end of an era,'' says Lloyd Johnson, executive director of the Society for American Baseball Research, headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. Since the Cubs began playing at Wrigley Field in 1916, the ballpark has not used lights for its games.

``Wrigley Field,'' adds longtime Cubs fan Emil Rothe, ``is the last of the Mohicans.''

In a sport increasingly dominated by big business, it seems less than remarkable that the Chicago Cubs are finally giving in to the demands of modern-day baseball. Night games should attract more fans and fatter checks for prime-time TV coverage, it is argued. No, what's most amazing is that this mostly mediocre team has held out for so long. For exactly 40 years, in fact, the Cubs have been the only team in either league to hold day-only home games.

A fluke of war, an intransigent owner, neighborhood opposition, and perhaps even the lackluster seasons themselves worked to keep it that way until now.

Early last week, the Cubs and their fans got a peek at the future. The team held a night practice under Wrigley Field's new $5 million lighting system. About 3,000 fans plunked down $100 apiece to witness the event. The money will be given to charity.

But the real historymaker comes Monday, when the Cubs take on the Phillies. It will be the first of seven night games this season. Next year, the club will host 18 night games.

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Back in '35, the idea of a night game was mostly novelty, baseball historians say. But even then it had its business argument. The Great Depression had reduced attendance at baseball games. Radio had begun to broadcast games live. And with so many people working during the weekday games, owners were looking to try something different.

``They were trying to find ways to boost attendance back up,'' says Bill Deane, senior research associate with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. And night games, already common in the minor leagues, looked as if they might attract an after-work crowd.

But it took Larry MacPhail, the flamboyant president of the Cincinnati Reds, to actually try out the idea on that chilly evening of May 24. Three years later, MacPhail brought the innovation to the Dodgers (then of Brooklyn, now of Los Angeles). And World War II pushed the trend even further.

``The one factor in there that was very important was the upheaval of World War II,'' says Frank V. Phelps, a baseball historian. Since much of the sport's male audience was going off to war, owners had to find new fans. And since an increasing portion of the potential female audience was working in factories during the day, the prospect of night games looked more and more attractive.

Across town from the Cubs, the Chicago White Sox had installed lights in 1939. Ray Nemec saw his first night game there in 1942.

``I was impressed,'' recalls Mr. Nemec, who was a Cub fan even them. ``But it's funny. It didn't bother me that the Cubs didn't have lights.''

By 1948, even the Detroit Tigers had thrown in the towel and instituted night baseball, becoming the last team to install lights - except for the Cubs, of course. The Cubs' move to lights was to be delayed for 47 years because, of all things, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In late 1941, P.K. Wrigley had ordered standards for lights to be put up in the ballpark, so the Cubs could begin playing night games in the 1942 season. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, the United States government asked for donations of scrap steel. Out went Wrigley's light standards to help the war effort.

``I don't think the amount of steel he had made very much difference,'' Mr. Rothe says. ``But it did give Mr. Wrigley a reputation as a patriot.''

After the war, Wrigley stuck to the tradition of day baseball, saying the game was meant to be played in the sunshine.

``He just didn't do anything,'' says Eddie Gold, who has written six books on the Cubs. ``One of the things he noticed was they didn't need lights to draw [crowds].''

In fact, despite mostly lackluster seasons, a drought of World Series victories since 1908, and not even a pennant since 1945, attendance for Cub games held up well. And attendance improved in 1984, when the usually mediocre Cubs won the National League East division. This sparked speculation about how baseball would accommodate the Cubs day-game tradition with television's push for playoff games at night.

As it turned out, the Cubs lost in the playoff games. But baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth made it clear that in any future playoffs, the team would have to schedule night games or play all its games out of town.

By this time, the Chicago Tribune had bought the club from the Wrigleys and began to press for lights at Wrigley Field. Despite the opposition of a vocal neighborhood group that was worried about crime, excess noise, and garbage from night games, the corporation was finally successful.

In February, Chicago's City Council voted to allow night games, while giving the neighborhood group some help, such as issuing stickers to guarantee residents parking on the street and limiting alcohol sales at the ballpark.

When the Cubs announced several weeks ago that their first night game at home would be held Aug. 8, fans lit up the switchboards to try to get tickets.

One Chicago couple even hooked up their automatic-dialing computer to a phone and placed 1,200 calls during a three-hour stretch to try to get through, but they had no success.

Jon Daniels is one of the more fortunate baseball fans. Although he is a St. Louis Cardinals fan, the Chicago accountant and his wife were invited to attend the historic baseball game by a business associate.

``One of the things I like to do is witness baseball history,'' Mr. Daniels says. ``Since this [game] fits into this category, I am looking forward to it.''

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