<
>

THE FIRST NIGHT AT WRIGLEY: AN ORAL HISTORY

8/8/2008
Chicago Cubs/Stephen Green

The 1988 Cubs were managed by Don Zimmer, their ace was Rick Sutcliffe, and current ESPN The Magazine senior editor Ed McGregor was working for them. All three were in the house when the lights first flicked on at Wrigley Field—Sutcliffe threw the first pitch of the game—and we've gathered their perspectives together for an oral history on the event.

GOING INTO THE GAME, DID YOU REALIZE THE MAGNITUDE?

RICK SUTCLIFFE:
I don't think any of us really realized the magnitude of it until it got closer. A lot of times as a player, you get the sense of how important a regular-season game is based on how many ticket requests you get. That game was off the charts; I was filling ticket requests for guys like Bill Murray and Mark Harmon.
(You can read the entire interview with Rick Sutcliffe right here.)

DON ZIMMER:
I remember reading the papers and all that; people thought the lights would disturb housing, and there'd be issues with fans coming to and leaving the ballpark and all that. It was almost a tradition that no one wanted lights, though. Ernie Banks used to say to me, "Isn't that a beautiful scoreboard at Wrigley? And we're the only team getting to play during the day!" Ernie thought it was great. When it happened, though, I liked it. It was a good change of pace. You play day, day, day, day and here comes a night game popping up.
(You can read the entire interview with Don Zimmer right here.)

ED MCGREGOR:
On July 25th, there was a nighttime practice at Wrigley to test out the lights. I remember there was a home run derby featuring Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson. The lights were becoming the story of Chicago baseball in 1988.
(You can read Ed McGregor's entire first-person account of the game right here.)

WHAT ARE YOUR STRONGEST MEMORIES FROM THE GAME ITSELF?

ED MCGREGOR:
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.

RICK SUTCLIFFE:
Before the game, people from the Hall of Fame or MLB—I'm not sure which—came to talk to me. I almost never talked to people before games. So they say, "The first pitch of this game, we want to put it in the Hall of Fame." I say back, "You're telling me you want me to throw a ball?" I go talk to Eric Gregg, who was working home that night, and I'm like, "If this is six inches high or low, will you call it for me?" He seems to be in agreement, so I go out and I throw a fastball away, not really high or low. It's about six inches outside. Gregg just looks at it and goes "Ball!" I see him the next year and I ask, "What the hell happened with that pitch?" He goes, "As you were winding up, I realized the whole world was watching that pitch, so I didn't want to be the ump who missed it."

That was the first time I can remember ever throwing a pitch and literally, it seemed like everyone in the ballpark was taking a picture. Harry Caray said it seemed like there was an explosion. Damon Berryhill throws the ball back to me, and I can barely see it from the glare in my eyes. So, of course, my second pitch Phil Bradley hits it out of the park. I guess in the booth, there's dead silence, and Bill Murray is up there with the guys, and he just goes "TURN 'EM OFF! THIS ISN'T GONNA WORK HERE!"

WHAT ABOUT THE RAIN DELAY?

RICK SUTCLIFFE:
When it went to delay, it was just an unrealistic delay. All during that time, I'm throwing balls against a wall to stay loose. I must have thrown 400 pitches that night—not full velocity or anything, but if that game had been delayed for hours, I was going to come back out and get the decision.

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.

DON ZIMMER:
Some guys were out there sliding around on the tarp, because Bull Durham had just come out that summer. There's a rumor I fined them. I don't remember that; if I fined 'em, it was probably a joking thing. I've never fined a player. I've had discussions with players, but I've never fined one.

OUT OF ALL THE PLACES YOU'VE SEEN OR PLAYED BASEBALL, WHERE DOES WRIGLEY FIELD RANK?

RICK SUTCLIFFE:
There's no comparison. My first pitch ever was at Dodger Stadium, and I opened up Camden Yards, but nothing comes close. The game doesn't even matter at Wrigley—I mean, people do care about winning and losing—but you're hanging out with 35,000 of your best friends. Sometimes in the 7th inning, they'd raise their beers and sing along with Harry, and you'd see people look over at their friends and go, "What's the score anyway? We winning?" Every game you play there is like a movie that ends way too soon.

DON ZIMMER:
I get this question all the time. I still say Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. If someone in baseball is listening to my answer, they'll say "You old SOB! You're an old-timer!" All the new parks and this and that. I still love Fenway and Wrigley; that's the way I answer and I catch hell sometimes for it. People will tell me "You old goat!" I still get a thrill walking into those two parks, though—all these years later.

HOW IMPORTANT IS NIGHT BASEBALL FOR WRIGLEY FIELD AND FOR YOU TO HAVE BEEN THERE WHEN IT BEGAN?

RICK SUTCLIFFE:
Everything was different once those lights went on. I heard a rumor Ronald Reagan wanted to come, but the Secret Service couldn't guarantee it. I mean, there was excitement everywhere. It's one of the biggest baseball events I've ever been involved with.

DON ZIMMER:
Myself, I thought it was great. It was a limited schedule at first, and they kept adding onto it. For me, some of the things I've been in—World Series, playoff games, tie games for championships—well, whenever I talk to people and reflect on my career, that game is always one of the things I mention. I was the first guy to manage a night game at Wrigley Field. That's amazing.

ED MCGREGOR:
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.