By Jim Caple
Twenty-five years ago Thursday — and a mere century after Thomas Edison developed the lightbulb — lights finally went on at Wrigley Field for the first scheduled major league night game in the ballpark’s long history.
Rick Sutcliffe, the Cubs’ starting pitcher on Aug. 8, 1988, calls that night: “Easily the biggest event I was ever part of. I pitched a lot of opening days. They were all special. They all meant a lot. There was never an empty seat. But the thing about opening night, we knew — or we thought — there was never going to be another one.”
Well, as you remember, or will be reminded of as you read on, Mother Nature had a say in that. Here, in the words of some of the principals involved and die-hard fans in attendance (including yours truly and his pals), is the story of the fight for lights at Wrigley Field and the night the Cubs turned them on.
U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley is a lifelong Cubs fan who was living in Wrigleyville in the early 1980s when the Cubs first proposed adding lights. Thus started what he says was his first community political-action issue.
Mike Quigley: When I went to my first Cubs game, I had never seen baseball in color. My parents didn’t have a color TV. It was 1969. I went
There was something magical about it. I think as a kid, I respected that history. It was like I was in a museum. And I know they don’t like that term but it was something that connected me to something bigger than myself, something older than myself, something that has always been there and will always be there. That’s why I didn’t like night baseball at first.
Jeff Katz (current mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y.): The first time I went to Wrigley, in 1985, there was a vendor who looked like a cross between Dennis Eckersley and Gary Mule Deer. He wore a Cubs cap with the “C” sewn on backward and he was hawking beer. Someone asked for a Bud Light and he said, “No lights at Wrigley Field.”
The Tribune Company bought the Cubs in the summer of 1981, and the team began pushing for lights at Wrigley later that year. General manager Dallas Green led the push.
Dallas Green: It was a very difficult time. The tradition and legacy of Wrigley Field and that area was very difficult to overcome. What I tried to do was convince the community and the [community] commissioners that part of the reason the Cubs were not as successful as they should be was because they played all day baseball games and baseball had changed to the point where night baseball was the norm, and that unless we had lights we had a chance to fail and not be able to sustain a pennant race.
Quigley and other neighborhood residents worried that frequent night baseball games would significantly damage a largely residential neighborhood. Among those residents was Beth Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bleachers, a bar across Sheffield from the center-field bleachers.
Beth Murphy: People were afraid of their quality of life being affected. There was no knowledge of what night games would mean to the neighborhood, but there was a worry it would affect people trying to get home, people trying to park. It’s the same arguments as today [about remodeling Wrigley]. It’s parking. Traffic, quality of life. Those were the main concerns. People live in this neighborhood, and I think that fact is lost on people when they look around — that Wrigley Field has a big effect on their lives.
Quigley: People ask: “What’s the biggest difference between night baseball and day baseball?” My belief is the proclivity for more of a frat-boy event at a night game. There is a lot more drinking and idiots running around. It’s still a small percentage, but it doesn’t take much of a percentage for somebody to cause problems.
Green: The worst part people don’t realize is the travel. That’s why I instituted the 3:05 p.m. start times. We would come from St. Louis, which can’t be more than a couple hundred miles away. But by the time you play a night game in St. Louis and get on the plane and come to O’Hare and get our guys to bed, it’s still 2 or 3 in the morning before they hit the sack. If the next day is a day game, they have to get up and back to the ballpark [in the morning], and that eventually wears on them to the point where they’re just not competitive anymore.
Meeting in their homes, Quigley and other neighbors formed Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine — CUBS — in opposition. In addition to the name, the group produced yellow T-shirts with the red Wrigley Field marquee and the words “No Lights at Wrigley” across the chest. The T-shirts became so popular and identifiable that Rob Lowe wore one in the Chicago-based rom-com “About Last Night.”
Quigley: What people forget is the Cubs said, “We’re going to have night baseball and we don’t care what you think about it. We don’t need to do anything.” They even talked about artificial turf and 60 or 70 night games a season. The neighborhood wasn’t nearly as strong or high quality as it is now, so we had some concerns. CUBS was literally formed under the shadows of Wrigley Field.
Green: I had two or three open meetings with the community which turned out to be shouting matches more than anything else.
Murphy: If it hadn’t been Dallas Green leading the charge, they would have gotten lights a lot earlier. But he was very confrontational at neighborhood meetings and not really understanding of the neighborhood process. Not understanding why the neighbors would have any opinion about lights in their neighborhood.
Green: I’m not very tactful at times. I just told them I don’t know how many general managers or presidents of baseball teams have come to talk to you about what’s going on in the game, but you better start listening as a group because you guys are reaping the benefits of everything we do. If you’re business people, you obviously gain business because the Chicago Cubs play in your neighborhood. The neighborhood, I know, gets a little rough at times after games and that kind of stuff, but we would obviously try to work that out. We really hit solid opposition. Neighbors were screaming about people peeing on their lawns. And that parking was a mess — parking was and is a mess. We understood all of that. But Wrigleyville has reaped the benefit of the ballpark being where it is. There is no question about that.
Quigley: What I tell people is we fought the most powerful corporation in the city at the time, the Tribune Co., and they weren’t afraid to use the newspaper to beat the hell out of us. … The bottom line was there was no one to deal with. The Cubs were saying, “It’s our way or the highway — screw you.” It wasn’t until they changed tack and became more involved and tried to solve some of these problems that they got what they wanted.
When the Cubs won the NL East in 1984 to reach the postseason for the first time since 1945, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn said that if they reached the World Series, the Chicago home games would have to be played elsewhere in order for them to be played at night. The Padres rendered this a moot issue by rallying from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Cubs in the best-of-five National League Championship Series.
Green: We got at least some support after we won in 1984 and it looked like we would lose home-field advantage [in the World Series]. It looked like television wanted prime time and we couldn’t supply that because we had no lights. That was as much as anything to spur the community into action. That was the first time we won in 40 years and the first time we went to the playoffs. Obviously, we didn’t win, but it did show the community they needed to think about the opportunity to put lights up.
In 1985, Circuit Court Judge Richard L. Curry banned lights at Wrigley Field, issuing a 64-page ruling that was framed by the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The two sides continued to argue and negotiate. Eventually, the parties compromised. The city would allow lights at Wrigley, but the Cubs were strictly limited to 18 night games per season.
Quigley: It was the only way they would get the city council and general assembly to change their mind. We passed a law. We defended it all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court — they really didn’t have an option. They were smart enough to realize that becoming a good neighbor — and they have become a good neighbor — was their opportunity for night baseball.
The Cubs began installing the lights in April 1988, airlifting them in. They turned them on for the first time in July, and the Cubs held a charity batting practice under the new lights later that month.
Murphy: We watched the helicopters bring them in. They just hovered there and they installed them. … I’ve grown used to the lights now, but it was like it became daylight in the neighborhood. It was like seeing a meteor. It was something very special. We were just awed when they tested the lights. And they tested them a lot. There was this glow. I know there was a feeling, too, that a tradition was being violated, but I think they did a nice job with what they did with the lights.
After the Cubs announced that the first night game would be played on Aug. 8 — 8/8/88 — the team placed 8,000 tickets on sale. The ticket sales began at 8 a.m. That was 6 a.m. in Seattle, where I was working at a suburban newspaper. I worked until midnight the night before the tickets were made available, then stayed up all night in the newsroom writing a feature story. I phoned the ticket line promptly when it opened. So did 1.8 MILLION other fans. Somehow, I got through and bought tickets for myself and my friends, Boog (Luke Esser) and Sarge (Dan Lepse). I felt as though I’d won a lottery. We then bought plane tickets, and a couple weeks later flew to Chicago for the game.
Dan Lepse (Sarge): There was a line outside the center-field bleachers, and a guy was walking around asking, “Do you have any extra tickets?” And a guy three people ahead of us said, “I have one.” And the guy popped five crisp $100 bills into his hand. For one bleacher ticket! I remember looking at you two. I knew there was no price I would have taken for my ticket — I had to be in that game — but you and Boog, I was a little less confident about.
Rick Sutcliffe: I had to get, like, 84 tickets for that game. I was lucky that I had 50 Foundation seats that I gave away every game I was with the Cubs, so I was able to buy them back from the Cubs and hold on to them and give them to all the family and friends who wanted to be there.
Murphy: The game was like a World Series game — not that we would know anything about that.
Fans at the game included actors Bill Murray (a huge Cubs fan) and Mark Harmon. Among the giveaway items was a white painters cap that read, “First Night Game.” I still have mine in the closet, which is quite a feat given my wife’s attitude toward my old caps and T-shirts.
Ninety-one-year-old Harry Grossman, who had attended Cubs games when they were world champions and saw Tinker, Evers and Chance turn double plays, ceremonially flipped the switch to turn on the lights.
Ed McGregor (an ESPN editor who was a Cubs intern in 1988): Harry had sent in a letter — back when people still sent in letters — sometime that season. He was 90 or 91 and he had seen the Cubs play in the 1908 World Series. The marketing group contacted Harry, who was a great guy. They cooked up this scheme that he would be the guy who turned on the lights. He became an instant celebrity. They had him out on the field that night. The ball girl was holding this piece of plywood with a box that had a red button on top. I don’t think it was connected to anything, but Harry thought he was actually turning on the lights. But an electrician somewhere was probably trying to connect it all.
Sutcliffe: I never talked to anybody the day I pitched — I barely talked to my wife. And all of a sudden, the Cubs tell me the Hall of Fame people want to talk to me. I’m against it, but I go, “All right, what do you want?” They say, “Well, we want the first ball, the first pitch, to go to the Hall of Fame.” “So?” “Well, here’s what we’ve done. We’ve talked to the home plate umpire [Eric Gregg] and there is going to be a generous outside corner.”
And I’m like, “What are you telling me? Are you telling me right now … that you’re worried about the ball being fouled off or whatever and you guys not having it? You’re saying if I throw the pitch four or five inches outside and it’s not high or low, that he’s agreed to call it [a strike]?” And they go, “Yeah.”
Phil Bradley (the Phillies’ leadoff hitter): Eric Gregg had a big strike zone – I’ll just put it that way.
Although not big enough. With so many flashbulbs popping that he was partially blinded by the glare, Sutcliffe threw his first pitch exactly where he wanted — four or five inches outside. And … Gregg called it a ball.
Sutcliffe: A year later, I run into Eric Gregg. He admitted to me that he agreed to call it [a strike]. But as I’m winding up and he sees everyone in the park taking pictures, he goes, “The whole world is watching this pitch. I’m not going to miss the first pitch.” And, excuse me, but he f—– me.
Bradley, who said he was unaware of the first-pitch deal, eventually homered off Sutcliffe in that at-bat for the first home run at a game under the lights at Wrigley Field.
Sutcliffe: I throw a changeup and Phil Bradley hits a home run. There’s a hush in the crowd. Steve Stone and Harry Caray don’t know what to say. And Bill Murray goes, “Turn the lights off! If Phil Bradley takes Sutcliffe deep, it’s not going to work.”
After Mitch Webster singled to lead off the bottom of the first, Ryne Sandberg stepped into the on-deck circle. Morganna, the amply breasted “Kissing Bandit,” then hopped onto the field and headed toward Sandberg.
Ryne Sandberg: All I know is, I was put on Morganna’s Top 10 list and I was No. 1 on her list in a Sports Illustrated article after our ’84 playoff season. … My first at-bat, I get introduced and I’m walking up to home plate and it’s a little bit louder roar than I was expecting. And I’m like, “It must be a night game thing and a lights thing.” Well, I look up and from the right-field corner running in is Morganna the Kissing Bandit. Everybody is cheering, and I’m standing up there with Lance Parrish, the catcher from the Phillies, and the umpire. I’m just standing there not knowing what’s going to happen or what I’m going to do.
But by the time she gets to first base, she’s running so slowly, the security comes and takes her off the field by first base. The whole stadium booed the fact that she didn’t get to home plate. At that moment, any pressure or attention that might have been on me was all gone for whatever reason. I hit the second pitch for a two-run homer to give us a 2-1 lead on Kevin Gross.
The Cubs extended the lead to 3-1 in the third inning. All they had to do to win the first night game was hold on to it and get in at least 4½ innings to make the game official. But the weather that day was very hot and very humid, a warning that a thunderstorm was on the way.
Bradley: I’m not going to say it was the most humid night I ever played, but it was extremely humid — to the point people wearing suits were sweating all the way through their suits. It was early August in the Midwest — you knew it had all the makings of a thunderstorm coming.
Sutcliffe: I remember the wind changing. It was blowing out as hard as could be; and then next moment, it’s blowing in. And it’s cold. I mean, it was a hot, muggy night to begin with, and I bet the temperature dropped 20-30 degrees.
The rain began to fall before the Cubs could bat in the bottom of the fourth. Actually, “began to fall” is not even remotely accurate. The rain poured as if in the Old Testament. Sitting in the center-field bleachers, my friends and I saw the rain approaching. It was like watching Niagara Falls head our way.
Lepse: It hit home plate and was like a shower moving toward us. It was like in the “Ten Commandments” with the bad special effects. If they made a movie of it and showed that image, no one would believe it. You could see people raising umbrellas as it was hitting them and coming our way, but in the outfield we were like [he channels Bill Murray in “Caddyshack”], “I don’t think the heavy stuff is coming for some time.”
I had time to go into my backpack. Get my raincoat out. Put it on. Zip it up. And then just — BAM!
Murphy: 1988 was the hottest summer up to that point, and we had a horrible drought. So when it started to rain, there was almost a sense of relief that it was finally raining. It was a deluge. It was not just a little rain. It was like God was speaking.
I remember I sat in the rain for a while because it was just nice that it was raining. But it just kept raining.
McGregor: During the rain delay, a few Cubs ran onto the field and started sliding on the turf. One of them was a young Greg Maddux, who was in the midst of his breakout season. He was seen as the future of the team, the latest hope to lead the Cubs to the promised land. And there he was doing belly flops on the turf. I don’t remember where Don Zimmer and GM Jim Frey were during the delay, but they probably fell off their chairs when they saw that. But the crowd loved it, and so did I.
Sutcliffe: What killed me is I had thrown four innings and we were hitting in the bottom of the fourth. To get the win, I’ve got to go out there for the fifth. And I told everybody, “No matter what, I’m going back out.” So I was throwing in a tunnel down underneath and I must have thrown for two hours. I’d sit for 10 minutes and go play catch. Sit for 10 minutes and go play catch. I probably threw 65-70 pitches in the game, and I probably threw another 200 trying to stay ready. It took me almost three weeks to recover from that start with my shoulder. It was only 3-1. It wasn’t that I just had to go out there and throw another inning — I had to be good. So it was stupid. But looking back on it, if we had started again and I hadn’t gone out there for the top of the fifth, I would have never forgiven myself.
Luke Esser (Boog): I recall huddling under cover with huge throngs of fans on the stadium ramps. A guy standing next to me who was hanging with a few of his friends, totally out of the blue, said menacingly to me, “You got a problem?” Since “The Untouchables” had been released a year or so earlier, I decided to avoid any confrontation with strangers who might be inclined to deal with problems in the Chicago Way and so I moved along.
Lepse: I couldn’t believe people were leaving the park. Yeah, they were probably smart that it was going to get rained out. But man, if it had cleared over and they resumed?
It did not clear up. Eventually, the game was postponed and all the stats were erased.
Sandberg: It’s one of the only homers, if not the only one of my career, that got erased. That two-run homer got washed out. That was disappointing, also. You can never get that back.
The Cubs’ next game — Aug. 9 — against the Mets would become Wrigley Field’s first official night game.
Brad Rosen (partner of Sports World, the merchandise shop across from Wrigley): I remember there was a debate over whether we should get some T-shirts printed up with “8-9-88” on them.
Bradley: You might not know this — after the game got rained out, our next stop was St. Louis, and our plane got hit by lightning.
Sarge, thinking ahead, had bought tickets for the Aug. 9 game as well, so he and I were there for what became the first official night game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs beat the Mets 6-4 in front of 36,399 fans — and amid much less fanfare. Few remember much about that game. It’s the rainout that lingers.
By the way, Rosen says the “No Lights at Wrigley Field” T-shirts are still a big seller.
(ESPN.com senior writer Jerry Crasnick contributed to this report.