J. L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs won the Negro National League pennant in 1929, and when the Stock Market crashed on October 24, it did not bode well for his team. The league had just had the lowest gate receipts in the league’s history.
The white team owner considered abandoning the league and making his club a touring independent team. But a radical idea was soon born, as he devised a plan to not only allow players to play night games, but perhaps pique the interest of fans so they would come to his team’s games out of curiosity.
He purchased a lighting system portable enough that it could be taken to ballparks across the country.
Wilkinson took on Thomas Baird as a partner, and mortgaged nearly every asset he had to fund the venture. Giant Manufacturing Company in Omaha, Nebraska, constructed the towers, floodlights, and generator at a cost of between $50,000-$100,000. The telescoping poles had five or six lights, and when fully extended were only 50 feet high. The generator used 15 gallons of gasoline an hour and was very noisy.
Before the Monarchs began their travel schedule, the lights were rented to the touring House of David team. The first night game played by the Monarchs took place in Enid, Oklahoma, when they played Phillips University on April 28, 1930.The system was introduced in Monarchs games all across the south. Wilkinson even rented the lights to Shreveport in the first night game in the history of the Cotton States leagues.
Nashville’s Wilson Park, located at the end of Second Ave., South near the Nashville & St. Louis railway track, was one of the earliest ballparks for the unique lighting to be used. The home ballpark of the Nashville Elite Giants, Wilkinson’s Monarchs played a two-game series on May 14 and 15.
The Nashville Tennessean announced the event in a May 13 article.
“The baseball fans of Nashville as well as the idly curious will have a chance to see what night baseball is like when Nashville Elite Giants meets the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most famous negro teams. Wednesday night at 8 o’clock out in Wilson Park. The Monarchs, owned by J. Leslie Wilkinson of Kansas City, Mo., are pioneers in his field, having created a mild sensation in baseball circles all over the country with their undertaking.”
The next day, increased space described the game to take place that night, probably just as Wilkinson presented it to the newspaper.
“The equipment used in this event is of a new creation, designed by several of the leading engineers in the United States. The lighting equipment, with its contributaries [sic], when assembled, is a systematic mammoth affair of its own. The 90 kilowat [sic] generator and 240 horsepower marine gas engine, which is of special design and made to order, is said to be positively the largest Electric power plant in the world on wheels.
“The giant flood lights, which encircle the entire baseball park, are designed expressly [sic] for this type of outdoor amusement, illuminating each and every part of the baseball park. The series of poles and towers, that support the giant flood lights are similar in construction to a jack knife or a fire department with its extension ladders. They have telescoped poles and towers that extend 40 to 50 feet in the air, elevating the giant flood lights so they light the playing ground as well as the sky.”
With no game detail or report of the score the following day, the trial of night play was generally acceptable.
“Although only about a thousand fans, numbering many white persons, turned out for the game, those present got a big kick out of the contest. Many went away from the park amazed at the lighting system which made it possible for an outfielder to see the ball as good as if he was playing in the day time.”
On May 16, the newspaper gave a final score of the second game, 8-1 in favor of Kansas City. It included a reference to a future Hall of Famer, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, who was a pitcher-outfielder for the club.
“…Rogan, hard-hitting centerfielder of the Monarchs, did most of the hitting for the Kansas City aggregation, getting two two-baggers out of the four times he was at bat.”
Nashville’s club included two home-town products, 44-year-old shortstop-second baseman-outfielder Joe Hewitt, and Leroy Stratton. Hewitt was born in Nashville in 1885, had played Negro League baseball since 1914, and managed the 1923 St. Louis Stars, a team which included future Hall of Fame member “Cool Papa” Bell. Stratton was born in Nashville in 1895 and would become manager of the Elite Giants in 1931.
The Monarchs would continue to Hopkinsville, Kentucky with their lighting system, while the Elites would be hosting Memphis in a four-game series in Nashville.
Although the illumination experiment would continue, temporary stadium lighting would soon be a thing of the past. Lights were added to Nashville’s Sulphur Dell in 1931, and major league clubs would soon follow as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field was the first to add lights in 1935.
-  John Horner, “Know Your KC History: The Monarchs Shine a Light on Baseball’, https://www.kclibrary.org/blog/kc-unbound/know-your-kc-history-monarchs-shine-light-baseball, retrieved May 15, 2017.
-  Earl Nash, “Negro League Team Used Lights Years before MLB”, http://bosoxinjection.com/2013/12/18/illuminating-past/, retrieved May 15, 2017
-  Horner.
-  Horner.
-  Rives, Bob (2004). Baseball in Wichita. Arcadia Publishing, p. 27.
-  Joe R. Carter, “Baton Rouge Wins From Reds of Alexandria in First Night Ball Game in Shreveport”, (Shreveport) Times, May 9, 1930: 15.
-  “Nashville Elite Giants in First Night Game,” Nashville Tennessean, May 13, 1930: 10.
-  “Negro Diamond Teams To Battle Here Tonight: Nashvillians to See Their First Night Game”, Nashville Tennessean, May 14, 1930: 10.
-  “Night Baseball Game Here Gives Fans Big Thrill,” Nashville Tennessean, May 15, 1930: 15.
- “Elite Giants Bow To Monarchs in Second Night Tilt,” Nashville Tennessean, May 16, 1930: 19.
-  Peterson, Robert (1970). Only The Ball Was White. Gramercy, p. 347.
-  Plott, William J., The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951. McFarland & Co., p. 81.
© 2019 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.