Cubs Classics: The first night game at Wrigley Field
As part of 1980’s Week, Marquee Sports Network is airing the first night game in Wrigley Field history Tuesday night at 7 p.m. The first few innings of the rained-out contest from Aug. 8, 1988 and the tarp-sliding fun will air first, with the full official game on Aug. 9, 1988 following immediately after.
The first Chicago Cubs night game was set to be played on Aug. 8, 1988, under the lights installed early that season.
As we look back on that historic event, we remember the game was started but rained out in the early innings due to a summer downpour that lasted all evening. The opponent was the Philadelphia Phillies (the Cubs were leading 3-1 with Rick Sutcliffe pitching in the 4th inning). Subsequently, the first official Cubs night game was moved to Aug. 9 with the Cubs hosting the New York Mets.
“I had hundreds of people asking for tickets to that game,” said Sutcliffe, now a contributor to Marquee Sports Network and ESPN. “I remember it was like 100 degrees that night. Watching the way the ballpark looked, it just magically lit up.”
The broadcasters wore tuxedos (except Harry Caray, who said “no”) and Bill Murray, George Will, commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and Mayor Edwin Sawyer were all in attendance.
The 8/8/88 rainout included players Greg Maddux, Al Nipper, Jody Davis, and Les Lancaster all doing belly flops in full uniform on the Wrigley Field tarp during the two-hour delay. Although the fans loved it at the park and on TV, it incensed manager Don Zimmer and all four were minimally fined by GM Jim Frey.
“This was the biggest event in my career; the build-up was like a World Series game,” said Sutcliffe, who gave up a home run to Phil Bradley, which was wiped out. “I had some foundation seats that I bought back from the Cubs and took care of maybe 50 friends.”
What many do not know is that the Cubs, who were the last team to get lights in their ballpark, had planned to install those standards under the direction of Owner Philip K Wrigley in early 1942.
The Cubs planned to have their first night game in 1942, but Dec. 7th, 1941 changed that thinking and history for the Cub franchise. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was the literal game-changer.
Baseball under the lights was a new concept in the early ’40s. The 16 teams played a maximum of 7 night games until World War ll began. At that point, for moral purposes, President Roosevelt and his staff felt baseball should continue and believed more night games would be a nice diversion after people worked 12-hour shifts for the war effort.
Mr. Wrigley, noting our country’s need to make ships and munitions for the battle that eventually included war with Germany and Italy as well, pivoted and sent all the steel and transformers he had acquired to Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago. The $155,000 worth of material (present value close to $3 million) was repurposed for the greater good of the country.
MLB continued to increase night games after the war. In 1948, the Detroit Tigers became the second-to-last club to install lights at Briggs Stadium. Wrigley stubbornly decided that day baseball for the post-war families and the eventual baby boomer generation was better entertainment during the day in the sunshine. With the advent of television, he allowed all his home day games to be seen by young children and mothers at home attending to their growing families. He was very concerned about the neighborhood and its nighttime peace and quiet, as well.
Returning to 1987: I was having a conversation with one of the carpenters at Wrigley Field on a September day in 1987. After talking about the team for a while, he told me he needed to go up on the Wrigley roof to take some measurements. I asked for what purpose and he casually said, “oh, the Tribune company is considering putting lights up next year.”
Going into shock and reporter mode at the same moment, I made the proper moves to preserve this scoop and confirm the story without it getting out or leaked by Tribune sources. The $5 million dollar project was started in April of 1988 and completed in time for a Tribune company preview event in mid-July.
8/8/88 was the event of the decade for the Cubs who were able to schedule 18-night games beginning in 1989, as an initial deal with the city of Chicago and the neighborhood was for 7 night games in 1988. Wrigleyville was just going through regentrification. Five hundred sixty media credentials were printed and tickets went for as high as $1400 a seat in the club box area. Movie and TV stars converged on the Friendly Confines.
Right-handed pitcher Mike Bielecki made his first start as a Cub, facing the always difficult-to-hit Mets left-hander Sid Fernandez in front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 36,399 fans on Aug. 9. Lenny Dykstra flew out to Mitch Webster on an 0-1 pitch for the first official at-bat in a Chicago Cubs night game. Dykstra was the man to drive in the first runs and hit the first home run, with his longball off of Bielecki in the 5th into the right-field bleachers. That home run scored Wally Backman ahead of him.
Rafael Palmeiro’s 5th-inning triple plated Vance Law with the Cubs’ first run. Chicago broke the game open in the bottom of the 7th with 4 runs. The rally included 4 RBI hits: Jody Davis’ double and run-scoring singles from Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Andre Dawson. The final score was 6-4 in favor of the Cubs, with Frank DiPino the winner in relief. Fernadez took the loss while Goose Gossage (in an abbreviated season with the North Siders) registered his 12th save.
The first night game was anti-climatic after the build-up of 8/8/88 and the rain out. Since that night almost 32 years ago, the Cubs now have the OK for 48 nighttime events. That number includes concerts and games with a new agreement from the city and Alderman Tom Tunney.
8/8/88 is the biggest game that never occurred in Wrigley Field history.
Bruce Levine is a contributor to Marquee Sports Network and a baseball analyst for 670 The Score.