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What if the Cubs had installed lights in Wrigley Field in 1942?

The history of our favorite team might have been very different — and so might the neighborhood.

What if Cubs fans had seen this on the marquee in 1942 instead of 1988?
Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You’ve heard the story before, no doubt — P.K. Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, had decided to join his fellow team owners in installing lights at his ballpark. Wrigley Field was going to be lighted artificially in 1942, and Wrigley had gone so far as to have blueprints drawn up and steel ordered.

Then World War II intervened:

But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Wrigley called off the project in favor of proving his patriotism by donating the steel to the war effort’s defense plant. However, it ironically likely ended up as lighting for the local race track, which had begun holding nighttime events.

Now, that latter part I hadn’t heard. There were more attempts to play Cubs games under the lights during the war, as I chronicled in this article here in December 2013. A deal with the White Sox to play some night games at Comiskey Park in 1942 fell through, and an effort to install temporary lights on wooden standards was abandoned, as Wrigley told the Tribune:

“We anticipated the installation of a modern lighting plant as far back as a year ago,” Mr. Wrigley said. “Our intention then was to make it the finest of its kind, but the war situation naturally made it difficult to obtain materials and we abandoned the plan temporarily. The stories that we were opposed to night baseball, because it would destroy the beauty of the park for daytime baseball are without foundation. It’s our job to give the fans what they want, and if we find they want night baseball, they’ll have it.

“The entire national picture in relation to sports may shift to such an extent in the case of work hours that night baseball may yet become a demand. As yet I can’t see the night side of the game as a wartime measure. I was raised to regard baseball as an outdoor, daylight game where you went out and bought a bag of popcorn and absorbed fresh air and sunshine.”

As you know, as time went by Wrigley hardened his stance against night baseball at Wrigley Field, claiming he wanted to be a “good neighbor,” and it wasn’t until 11 years after his death and seven years following his family’s sale of the Cubs to Tribune Company that lights were finally installed at Wrigley Field in 1988. Night games have now been played at Wrigley for more than three decades and are part of the fabric and culture of Cubs baseball. Frankly, the city restrictions on the number of night games and days they can be played on are anachronistic and should be lifted.

But that’s not what I’m focusing on here today. Instead, I ask: What if Wrigley had decided to keep the steel he had bought for light standards and had proceeded with the installation of lights for the 1942 season?

One thing you have to remember about night baseball in the 1940s was that it was still somewhat of a novelty. It had only been in existence in the major leagues for seven seasons, since the Reds became the first team with lights in 1935 at Crosley Field. Many owners — as you can see by Wrigley’s quote above — still felt that baseball was mostly meant to be played in sunshine.

Teams were limited to seven night games a year by 1941, and an effort by some teams to expand to 14 the following year was opposed by many who thought it would “kill night baseball.” It eventually passed, and over time teams began to increase the number of home night games, discovering that fans who worked during the day wanted to come to games at night. Incidentally, in the early years of night games most of them started at 8:30 p.m. local time — the less-efficient bulbs didn’t light the field well and so it was felt better to wait until after it was nearly dark. Of course, you could do that in the 1940s with most games running two hours or a bit longer.

Mike Bojanowski, who grew up in the neighborhood around Wrigley Field and still lives there, and I have discussed this topic on many occasions. We agree that if Wrigley Field had night games beginning in 1942, the buildings on Sheffield and Waveland would likely have been torn down after World War II for parking for newly-mobile fans who had cars and lived in the suburbs, the new type of baseball fan rather than the stereotypical working-class guy who lived in the city and took the streetcar to the game. If that had happened, it would have changed the entire character of the neighborhood.

Night games might have made the Cubs a better team in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, as there’s a school of thought that says the Cubs suffered from day games in the summer heat while their competitors played in the evening when it was cooler, but it also would have made them a team with a ballpark very much like Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, the original Busch Stadium and others that were located in neighborhoods much like Wrigleyville. A Cubs team playing night games in a park surrounded by parking lots might have begun seeking a new ballpark elsewhere, as many teams began to do in the early 1960s. The lack of “neighborhood charm” would have likely become obvious by the late 1960s and there would likely have been pressure on the Cubs to move. As I noted earlier this week, there was at least one serious proposal to have them move downtown in 1967.

The conclusion I draw is that if lights had been installed in Wrigley Field in 1942, it probably wouldn’t have lasted until 1970 and the Cubs would have moved somewhere else. P.K. Wrigley’s stand against night baseball for his ballclub is, essentially, what wound up preserving Wrigley Field for us to enjoy in the 2020s, newly refurbished and renovated, an historical accident that’s paying dividends for our favorite team decades after its owner refused to go along with the then-modern trend of night baseball.