Sunday, August 8, 2010

Let There Be Lights

The early years of high school football in Michigan had featured many exciting contests as teams pursued the state's mythical state championship. Huge crowds would gather for some of the state's top showdowns and regional rivalries.

From the beginnings of the sport in the late 1800's, prep football games were reliant on daylight. Due to this fact, games were traditionally played on Saturday afternoon. Thanksgiving Day contests were also popular. This remained true for larger schools throughout the 1920's.

However, the college game was growing in popularity. Schools like the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, with large new stadiums competed with high schools for fans. In addition, the depression years were hard on sporting event attendance at high schools across the state. School officials were faced with new challenges as crowds began to dwindle. School officials began to look for new ways to draw the people back to the prep game.

Beginning in the early 1930's, a number of high schools began to change their schedules, shifting their games to Friday afternoons. At parochial schools, Sunday afternoon contests were quite common. A handful of schools in the state began to install artificial lights. Slowly, high school games made the move to Friday nights. The novelty of football "under the floodlights" had the desired effect, as once again, large crowds gathered to watch their local squad compete.

The lighting of high school gridirons continues today, and with much the same controversies and successes. After a successful test with portable lights during the 1997 season, Dearborn community schools added permanent lights at Dearborn, Edsel Ford and Fordson in 1998. The schools joined the fray at a cost of more than $350,000. Livonia Franklin and the Grosse Pointe schools installed lights in 1997 amid pockets of resistance from various members of the community.

But who was the first high school to play under the lights? The answer to that question has been lost in time, but the pursuit of an answer continues.

The first baseball game under artificial light occurred on September 2, 1880 when two Boston area department stores, Jordan Marsh and R.H. White, squared off in a 16 - 16 tie in Hull MA, before 300 spectators. The event was sponsored by Boston's Northern Electric Light Company, with the goal of selling street lights. Thomas Edison had perfected William Wallace's prototype for an electric light only a year before. On September 28, 1892 in Mansfield, PA, Mansfield State Normal and Wyoming Seminary played to a 0-0 tie in the first football game under the lights.

The Des Moines, Iowa Demons of the now defunct Class A Western League became the first baseball team in America to host a game under permanent lights. They defeated the Wichita Aviators 13-6 on May 2, 1930.

For many in the Midwest, their first introduction to a game under the lights came courtesy of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Barnstorming throughout the area, the team carried a portable lighting system beginning in 1930. "People came from miles around to marvel at the electric curiosity," writes Janet Bruce in The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. "The team and the lights brought between three and twelve thousand spectators to every game."

A few months later in Michigan, the Vikings of Jackson High School hosted St. Johns High in one of the state's first gridiron contests under the lights. On Thursday, September 18, more then 1,000 fans showed up for the Vikings' team practice session and a final test of the 58,000 watt lighting equipment that had been installed at Withingham Stadium. The following night, approximately 4,500 attended as Jackson rolled to a 26-0 victory behind the running of Charlie Brown and Don Vaughn. The crowd was double that of the 1929 home opener.

A host of dignitaries, including mayor Milo Hulliberger, Superintendent of Schools, Harold Steele, and Ralph Carolyn of Consumers Power were on hand for the dedication ceremony. Harry Waha of the Junior Chamber of Commerce - the organization responsible for the purchase of the lights - was also in attendance.

The same evening in Lansing, the Big Reds of Lansing Central downed East Lansing 20-0 under 16 huge, newly installed floodlights at Pattengill field. An estimated crowd of 7,000 showed up for the town's first ever night contest. On Saturday night, Lansing Eastern and Albion battled to a 7-7 tie before approximately 5,000 in the city's second nocturnal game.

The success at the gate inspired others to pursue light for their fields. Benton Harbor, under new head coach Bill Moss launched the 1936 season under the lights before the largest opening game crowd on school record. A number of coaches from opposing squads paid a visit to Filstrup Field, both to scout the squad and to check out the floodlights.

Grand Rapids fired up the newly installed lights at Houseman Field on Friday, September 18, 1936 as the Detroit Lions played their annual Blue-White game, their final training contest of the pre-league season. The Lions, who had spent Thursday afternoon visiting with local students at the eight Grand Rapids area football fields, celebrated the end of camp before a crowd of over 5,000. The White squad, sparked by a 29-yard touchdown by Glenn Presnell, former All-American from Nebraska, defeated their teammates 7-0. A week later, Grand Rapids Central and Mt Pleasant faced off in the city's first ever night contest. The same night Godwin traveled to Lowell for another evening contest.

On October 9, Ann Arbor High School officials illuminated Wines Field for the first time, squaring off against Lincoln High of Ferndale. Comprised of 60 1,500-watt bulbs mounted on ten 52-foot poles surrounding the field, the system cost approximately $6,000. On hand for the event were Richard Remington, well-respected football official whose gridiron all-state selections for the Detroit News were considered the official squad in Michigan, L.L. Forsythe, principal at Ann Arbor High School, and Charles C. Forsythe, director of scholastic athletics in the state of Michigan.

The evening contest proved to be a real test for the equipment, as a fog settled over the field following a drizzling afternoon rain. The game ended in a 6-6 deadlock.

A report in the Ann Arbor Daily News stated that Remington felt "it was one of the most satisfactory lighting systems under which he had ever worked."

Charles Forsythe addressed the crowd over the public address system, and said the Ann Arbor system was "the best he had seen in the state." According to Forsythe, 13 fields in the state were now lighted: Albion; Ann Arbor; Coldwater; Detroit; Dowagiac; Grand Rapids; Iron Mountain; Ironwood; Jackson; Kalamazoo; Lansing; Lowell; and Monroe. Additional newspaper reports indicate that there were others. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, Niles and St. Joseph both had lighting plants in 1936.

The decision to add lights to an existing stadium was not always a popular decision. In 1937, Muskegon traveled to Benton Harbor for their first game under the lights. It was a huge event, as around 1,500 local fans made the trip to watch the contest.

"As I recall, the lights were too low," stated Rudy Kolenic, a halfback with the '37 Big Reds. "There was a lot of mist on the field, and it was hard to see. We called it the swamp land." Despite conditions that, according to Muskegon Chronicle sports editor Jimmy Henderson, were "far less effective for play than sunlight," Muskegon downed their Southwestern Conference rivals, 19-0.

Muskegon played their second night game in the fall of 1939 - again against the Tigers of Benton Harbor. Another large group followed the Big Reds south, and again, Muskegon emerged victorious.

The games had proven two things to the Muskegon officials. First - the Big Reds could still play football under what many considered inferior artificial light. Second - night football attracted people. The decision to light Muskegon's Hackley field was made.

Although located on the school's campus, the stadium is surrounded by many private homes. Fears about the effect on the surrounding neighborhood, worries about increased crime and the school's break with tradition were all cited as reasons not to light the field. The high cost of the job was also mentioned. The price was tagged at $4,000 - a huge sum of money in an era when adult tickets were 60 cents per game.

School officials went about the task of selling the project to a skeptical public. They circulated fliers to "Patrons of the Big Reds" requesting that 600 supporters of the project respond by purchasing season tickets in advance, at the reduced cost of $2.50 for five home contests. Four of the games were to be played at night. The fifth game, Muskegon's traditional season ending showdown with crosstown rival Muskegon Heights, remained on Saturday afternoon. The campaign was a success and lights were installed during the summer of 1940.

On September 20, 1940, a record season-opening crowd of 7,500 fans packed Hackley Stadium for the debut of Friday night football in Muskegon. The fans enjoyed a 22-0 Big Red victory over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The same evening, 5,000 turned out in Flint for Northern High School's 18-7 victory over Toledo Catholic Central played under the lights at Atwood Stadium. The Flint Journal reported that this was "the first nocturnal grid clash here since 1930 when General Motors Tech and St. Michael and St. Matthew made use of an earlier version of a lighting plant." The following night, 3,200 gathered for Flint Central's 33-12 win over Caro also played under the artificial illumination at Atwood.

The process of lighting gridirons continued throughout the forties and fifties. The majority of suburban schools erected in the late fifties and sixties included money in their budgets for halogen gridiron lights. First installed at a high school in the Cleveland, Ohio area, the produce case a stronger light, more closely replicating natural illumination. Today, prep football under Friday night lights is the norm rather than the exception.

The original version of this article appeared in the MHSAA's 1998 Football State Championships game-day program.


Anonymous said...
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Mr.H said...

Great blog--happened on to it serendipitously and forwarded the link to the coach at the high school (AA Pioneer) where I teach (history). Thanks for the great stories!

--Steve Hathaway

Chris said...
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