The First Night Game at Michigan & Trumbull was Played in 1896

The Detroit Tigers hosted their first night game on June 15, 1948, a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia, right? Well, yes and no. That contest was the first official league game played at night at Michigan and Trumbull. But 52 years earlier, the club had a similarly illuminating experience at The Corner, though the result never made it into any kind of record book.

Detroit Tigers fans at Bennett Park circa 1907.

On September 24, 1896, George Vanderbeck’s Tigers (then a member of the Western League, which four years later would evolve into the American League) concluded their first season at Bennett Park with a send-off doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. These end-of-season benefit exhibitions were a common feature of baseball back then, designed to give fans a last glimpse of their heroes while providing a little pocket money for the players before they split town for their off-season homes. They certainly weren’t meant to be taken seriously, with the program usually including such activities as foot races, ball tosses, boxing exhibitions, and players made up “in fantastic costumes.” Anything to draw a crowd.

On this particular Thursday in 1896, the Tigers were enjoying a 13-4 lead after eight innings of the opener when, with dusk approaching, “Umpire Campau called the game to allow the linemen to put up the electric lights for the night game,” reported the Free Press. By now a baseball game played under portable lights was considered a novelty, not an historic first. Since 1880 at least seven other such games had been played, including one earlier in the summer of 1896 in Wilmington, Delaware. The manager of the Wilmington team was Ed Barrow, later an executive with the Tigers and New York Yankees. “You could hardly see the outfielders,” he remembered. For improved visibility, Barrow said, the teams used a softball.

The first night game at Bennett Park electrified few Detroiters. Portable lights had been used as far back as 1879 at other local venues, including Recreation Park and Boulevard Park, for concerts and other non-baseball events.

The number of arc lights temporarily strung around Bennett Park is uncertain. One newspaper reported 75, another said 54. The lights’ power is unknown, though it’s safe to assume that they provided about the same illumination as in previous attempts—which is to say, not nearly enough to make a batter step into a fastball with confidence.

No score or other details of the game were given for this first stab at night baseball in Detroit, though one daily termed it “an amusing and financial success.” Players from both teams probably groped around in the semi-darkness for a couple of innings or so, giving the 1,200 fans a few laughs before leaving town with “a tidy little sum” and no sense of the history they had just made.

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