The green light for bright lights
“The rigid volunteer rules of right and wrong in sports are second only to religious faith in moral training, and baseball is the greatest of American sports.”
— Herbert Hoover
“Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
America was coming through its worst economic crisis ever. The world had erupted into war and now, through the attack on Pearl Harbor, America had been pulled into that war as well. Every able-bodied person was going to be needed for the war effort. It was not a time for fun and games.
And so the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to propose a halt to baseball for the duration of the war. It wouldn’t be the only sporting event to pause — the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup were on hold as well. Roosevelt’s response not only led to the continuation of baseball during the war, but it also changed the sport forever.
To begin, Roosevelt made it clear that he had no authority to make a final decision but that the call on whether baseball would continue fell to Landis and to the owners, stating, “What I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view.” He then noted that the war would have a profound impact on the nation.
“There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before,” he said. “And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” The war effort would take tens of thousands of men away from home and would result in the employment of thousands and thousands more men and women.
Of course, if they were to use their leisure time to take in a ball game, it would be difficult to do so during the day since they would be working “longer hours and harder than ever before.” Roosevelt continued, therefore, “Incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”
Night games were certainly not foreign to baseball at that point. The first night game had been played in late May of 1935 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. By the time Roosevelt wrote to Landis in January of 1942, baseball had a rule in place that provided that each team could play up to seven of their 72 home games at night. In response to his comment, that limit was doubled, and the following season the American League removed the limit all together.
Where the war giveth, the war taketh away, too. The need to allow workers to see games may have led to more being played at night, but it also led to a tradition against night games. The Chicago Cubs had planned to install lights at Wrigley Field in 1942 but donated them to the war effort instead. When they tried again two years later, metal shortages prevented the lights from being installed. The Cubs did not play a night game at Wrigley until August of 1988.
Roosevelt encouraged players to enlist or to respond to draft notices, which they did, stating, “As to the players themselves, I know you agree with me that the individual players who are active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality to the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport.” But the value of the national pastime, both major league and minor league teams, was clear to Roosevelt. “Here is another way of looking at it,” he said, “if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”
Roosevelt’s missive is known as the “Green Light Letter.” In reality, it was the green light for bright lights and another example of the influence of government, politics and war on the American sporting life.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and is thankful for night games, as he nearly melted at a day game in Pittsburgh over the Memorial Day weekend.