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"LET THERE BE LIGHTS"

8/7/2008
Ed McGregor

I remember it rained. A lot. The joke that night was that God didn't want this game being played. Think about it: How much does it have to pour to postpone the first night game at Wrigley Field? Well, it rained that hard in the fourth inning on Aug. 8, 1988.

The Cubs were beating the Phillies 3-1, so that was yet another lead they lost. They were already a hopeless 13 games behind the Mets in the NL East, but that hardly mattered to anyone. The lights were the story of Chicago baseball in 1988. I was an intern in the Cubs' publications department that summer, and I watched them go up, starting on April 7, when a helicopter flew above Wrigley to hoist 33-foot-high steel towers into place on the roof.

The project took more than three months to complete because construction was done only when the team was on the road. Finally, on July 25, the Cubs tested their $5 million investment with a nighttime practice at Wrigley. Don Zimmer's fourth-place squad took batting practice and shagged fly balls under the moonlight—and 540 brand-new GE floodlights. I was taking pictures that night, a few of which are in the First Night Game program. (It now sells on eBay for a disappointing $10. Mine has to be worth more; it's signed by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.) Tickets for the practice were sold and proceeds went to the team's charity, but there were only a couple thousand people present to see the first night baseball at Wrigley Field. The highlight was a home run derby featuring Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.

I can't recall who won.

What I remember most from that summer is Harry Grossman, the 91-year-old Cubs fan who "turned on" the lights. Harry had sent a letter to the team earlier in the summer about how he saw the Cubs play in the 1908 World Series. My boss passed the letter on to the marketing director, and Harry, a charming and funny guy, became a celebrity in his golden years.

On Aug 8th, a couple of hours before the skies opened up, Harry stood behind home plate, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and cameras, and counted down to the historic moment. Then he said, "Let there be lights,"--it was the slogan printed on all the merchandise, including Harry's T-shirt--and pushed a button on a box that didn't appear to be connected to anything. Meanwhile, I'm sure the electrician was flipping switches somewhere in the bowels of Wrigley. Anyway, Harry lit up along with the ballpark and there was a buzz not often felt on the North Side.

Dallas Green, the Cubs' president from 1981-87, had always argued that day games wore the team out, that lights were required to win a championship. Twenty years and no rings later, Lou Piniella is saying the same thing. Sort of. He's using the same argument, only now he's stumping for night games on Fridays and Saturdays, which are still banned by city ordinance to ease neighborhood congestion. Says Piniella, "It would help the situation from a winning and losing standpoint."

Or at least that's his scientific prognosis. As they say in Wrigleyville, It's Gonna Happen. Playing night games on the weekend, that is.