Nights, Lights, Football!
Nearly four years ago, during Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens led the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 28-6.
The teams had just emerged from the locker rooms after a punishingly long halftime and began the third quarter. After one minute and thirty-one seconds, all seemed right. Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones returned the opening kickoff one hundred and eight yards to pad the Ravens’ lead. They looked poised to win a second Super Bowl and send their star linebacker, Ray Lewis, off into the bayou with a celebration fit for a retiring king.
Then, one second later, the lights went out.
The auxiliary power hummed to life, but it wasn’t enough to resume the game. That would take another thirty-four minutes, thirty-four minutes to wait as football lost its lights.
We take it for granted, football and lights.
Plugging in—or installing what must be a most impressive circuit breaker—led to bigger stages and grander theater, bigger dollars and higher drama.
And rarely does the birth of something die so quickly. Usually it limps along in some primitive form, dragging its knuckles until it can finally walk upright and marvel at the opposableness of its hairy thumbs.
But that was sort of the case with night football in Mansfield, Smythe Park, in late September 1892, on a field littered in cow shit.
The lights came on and, just as quickly, went out.
It’s not enough to know that it happened. Sometimes, in the case of night football in the sleepy town of Mansfield, how and, more importantly (with a careful arrangement of letters) who becomes the greater mystery.
Night football was going to happen. It’s not Monday Afternoon Football. Friday Night Lights would just be...Friday?
Imagine back to your youth. A good many of you likely played a sport when you were little. I know I did. I was lucky, though I didn’t know it at the time. I played competitive baseball and soccer, but ninety percent of those games and practices took place under the boring, photonic beams of our nearest star during solstice hours.
On that rare night, I’m thinking back to 1992, I was twelve years old with a wad of grape Bazooka Joe bubble gum the size of a golf ball in my mouth, and our game was—wait for it—under the lights. The magic and majesty of it all. All those bulbs, all those unassuming moths flying right up to death row where opportunistic bats picked them out of the sky, it created an elevated stage for all of us.
I can tell you how it felt, but you already know. We were faster. We were better. We were stars, dammit. That same year, 1992, in a town some 400 miles away in Mansfield, PA, Steve McCloskey, sports information director at Mansfield University, was hard at work recreating a similar sense of wonder.
He had broached the idea to his boss, Dennis Miller, of a celebration for the first night football game on its 100th anniversary. Miller thought it over, returned to McCloskey and said, “I sold it to the AP. Now make it happen.”
My understanding, and the understanding of many, of that first night football game went like this: The Great Mansfield Fair was coming to town. Thomas Edison’s newly merged company, General Electric, wanted to light up the world. GE wanted to showcase the light bulb. It put a generator on a train. That train arrived in Mansfield. Some industrious player on Mansfield’s football team ran up to GE officials and asked, “Can we play a game under the lights?” To which the GE official said, “Sure, whatever, kid.” The player grabbed his team, found an opponent at the snap of a finger, and the game was on.
I was wrong. Real wrong.
This much we do know: It was not spontaneous at all. It was not a sandlot game played among friends. It was long orchestrated, and if you really think about it and rub a couple of neurons together, that makes perfect sense. Of course it had to be planned. GE wasn’t going to conjure up an entire light fixture in a few hours. Mansfield wasn’t just going to court a worthy football team in the time it takes to send a modern-day text message.
Archives of the Mansfield Advertiser turn up clues. Newspapers of this style are cramped margin-to-margin with tiny newsprint and fascinating news of the day. For instance one such paragraph read, “The archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria is a proficient amateur railroad man. He knows how to run a locomotive and to make up a train of cars.” (Then you think: the man has exactly twenty-two years left to live before the world gets thrown into Armageddon.) Close to that may be a small one-panel cartoon of two men paddling a canoe with the man in the stern holding strong while the man in the bow tumbles overboard into the river. Inscribed below is a poem titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe”: Voyagers on life’s sea,/To yourself be true,/And whatever your lot may be,/Paddle your own canoe.
Someone was in fact adhering to this sea-faring ethos. The Advertiser reads, “Normal school foot ball [sic] enthusiasts are endeavoring to arrange a game to be played by electric light with the eleven from Wyoming seminary, near Scranton.”
That appeared three full weeks before the big game. This game was premeditated, night-football-in-the-first-degree.
Steve McCloskey sits at a round, wooden table at Mansfield University, a few floors up in the communications office. The stairs creak. The elevators make him uneasy. McCloskey wears a polo shirt, shorts too as the day is that-kind-of-mid-summer-hot, a ball cap. He looks like a ten-handicapper cooling down for lunch in the clubhouse as he makes the turn for the back nine.
Before him are papers and certificates of authenticity proclaiming that Mansfield was the site in the equation of night plus football.
“No one knew, so you could say it,” says McCloskey about claiming night football as their Patient Zero. “We had more established facts and it matriculated to the point where we’d get newspaper clippings where someone would say [their place] is the birthplace of night football and we’d respond with a document.”
When these other folks lay down their claim and received the gentle tap on the shoulder from MU, the reply, according to McCloskey, goes something like this, “They’d say, ‘Oh, the first night football...west of the Mississippi.’ There’s still magic to the first no matter what it is. We had the legitimate first.”
But that wasn’t always the case. I mean, yes, they’re always the first, but how do you prove you’re the first? How do you do so in such a way that you’re not like the people “west of the Mississippi?”
That’s where the importance of a man like Chester Bailey comes in. Bailey passed away at one hundred and three in 2015, but not before he flicked the lights on Karl Van Norman Field in September 2013, a fitting honor for the man who was pivotal in letting the world know where night football began.
Some forty years ago, Bailey wrote to Jim Campbell, librarian and researcher for Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, and mailed Campbell documentation about the fair of 1892, football and lights. On February 14, 1973, Campbell replied:
As a former resident of Selinsgrove, it was nice to hear from a fellow Central Pennsylvanian...not to mention receiving the fine clipping reprints.
Coincidentally, we received also yesterday a medal from Westville, Illinois claiming the first night football in the U.S.A. in 1928. I’d say they are a little behind the times in Westville. As authentic documentation, we've filed your clips in our “Football’s Firsts” file...thank you.
We appreciate your offer of further information, but feel that since there is now a college football Hall of Fame, and we’re strictly pro, the proper place for such information is there. Address: 17 E. 80th St., N.Y., N.Y.
Along with the letter came a certificate, signed by director Dick Gallagher, saying, “This is to certify that the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has with pleasure and appreciate accepted the gift of Clippings Documenting first U.S. night football game played at Mansfield, Pa., September 29, 1892.”
Five days after receiving this letter from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Bailey dashed off another letter, this one to The National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame in New York City. In a month’s time, March 22, 1973, Stuart D. Ludlum, assistant secretary, replied:
Thank you very much for your letter of February 19th covering football at Mansfield. Thanks too, for the copies of clippings.
I remember seeing an indoor professional football game in Philadelphia in the early 1920s, but I had no idea that a night game under lights was played back in the 1890’s. That’s a fascinating bit of football history.
We appreciate your interest and will welcome any further material you may come across.
These were the seeds planted so that in due time the world would know who lit up night football.
You can envision photographs of prime suspects, newspaper articles linked by pushpins and colored string. Three people topped McCloskey’s list. We needed to solve this cold case once and for all.
These three were the likely culprits, the ones responsible for the orchestration of the first night football game. One was John L. Cummings, the liaison between the Edison Electric Company and a Philadelphia company that had the Thomson-Houston dynamo (which would merge, at the behest of J.P. Morgan, to make General Electric), a generator weighing 4,300 pounds inside of which were miles of copper wiring. Twenty lamps of 2000 candle power and five 64-candle incandescent lights were the headliner of the fair. More trains were scheduled to bring people in from nearby towns to see electricity, not football.
Cummings might have been the guy to flick the switch. He might also have been the showman, the step-right-up-and-witness-the-future-right-before-your-very-eyes guy.
Or maybe it was Professor S. E. Sprole, Mansfield’s football manager at the time. Could it have been he who tapped Cummings on the shoulder at one point and asked if maybe the football team could play under the electric light?
Or was it John McGuire, the team captain, who thought up the plan? McGuire played on the inaugural team in 1891, the team that played Wellsboro High School at the same fair only in the morning. Mansfield won, for those interested.
As buzz grew that the Thomson-Houston dynamo was making the rounds of the county fairs, maybe it was McGuire, who played the fair the year before, who wanted to promote his football team when the big draw—the electric light—promised a crowd of unprecedented numbers.
There’s something else too. Not quite a smoking gun, but something that connects McGuire, in theory, to the opponent of this night football game.
McGuire wasn’t going to waste this historic event on the town twelve miles down the road. McGuire, if it was he, had his eyes on the day’s leviathan.
Gail Smallwood, associate director of communications at Wyoming Seminary College Prep School, sent me a lot of material on the Sem football team. Sem was, in modern-day parlance, a big deal back then.
Its football team was one of the best in the nation at that time, so when it came to courting an opponent to play the first night football game, someone reached out to the Sem.
Wyoming Seminary fielded its first team in 1884, fifteen years after Rutgers University and Princeton University played the first intercollegiate football game. A year later, Sem branched out to start competing against other prep schools as well as colleges. After a few seasons, Sem started incorporating more of a regimen for its players: regular practices, training programs, and eating at its own training table in the dining hall. They declined cake and disallowed the use of tobacco.
Dr. Levi Sprague, the school's fourth president, went on what, today, we would call recruiting trips to the nearby mines looking for the strongest boys of the lot to play football. We hear of football saving certain young men from the slums. Football, even in the 1880s, plucked men from the mines.
By 1891, a year prior to its inclusion in the night football game, Sem had defeated scrub and junior varsity teams from Bucknell, Princeton, Lehigh, and Lafayette. The editor of the Opinator, the school newspaper, wrote, “Our boys have fairly proven themselves superior to all known school teams outside the college.”
Mansfield Normal School fielded its first team in 1891 and had won three of its four games, but it wasn’t in the same class as Sem. It made sense to reach out to the premier school in the area to play a night game.
And what makes John McGuire so intriguing was this: He was from Wilkes-Barre, a city two miles from Wyoming Seminary. McGuire likely went to Sem games growing up and saw this team’s rise to regional/national prominence. They must have been his backyard heroes. He probably knew people who knew people on the team. No amount of research has turned up any familial connection between McGuire and any Sem players, but there needn’t be that bridge. The mere fact that he was from that area, that he likely grew up watching that team dominate, then went to the State Normal School and joined its nascent football program, it makes perfect sense that he would harpoon the day’s big fish.
“I do know McGuire was the captain and I do know he was from Wilkes-Barre,” Steve McCloskey tells me. “He had to be the catalyst to getting them. To get Sem here, you would think there would have to be a reason to come this far.”
McGuire played on the 1891 team at the fair against Wellsboro. A year later, Mansfield doesn’t schedule Wellsboro again because, “You weren’t going to waste the game under the lights with Wellsboro,” I say.
“That was the thing,” says McCloskey. “When you say that, that really is, we could have played anybody under that situation. That’s what makes McGuire’s background and where he came from such a natural link.”
And the “anybody” of the day? That was Wyoming Seminary.
McCloskey notes that Sem was a nationally recognized team, so why else would it travel ninety miles west to an unproven program that it should categorically stomp into the ground? “For them to come here,” says McCloskey, “was so abnormal. There had to be a reason and there had to be an established [schedule]. ‘We’re playing under the lights if you want to come and play.’”
We sit back and nod our heads. Having gathered these facts, these few things we know are true, these little data points, it seems logical to connect those dots from Cummings to McGuire to Wyoming Seminary.
With excitement no doubt brewing, the Advertiser posted a schedule of “When the Sports Will Take Place.” On the morning of the Big Day, “The judges will begin their work at 9 a.m. Concert by the Mansfield band at 2. At high noon three grand balloon ascensions and parachute drops by two men and one woman, followed at 1:30 by opening of the base ball tournament—Arnot vs. Cherry Flats.”
In the evening, “Foot-ball contest by electric light in front of grandstand beginning at 7:45, Kingston vs. Mansfield S.N.S, followed by a grand display of reworks by the Consolidated Fire Works Company of Rochester, N.Y. at 10 o’clock.”
McCloskey and I soon walk past a giant rock from one of the nearby quarries donated by the Jones family to commemorate the date of the first night football game. A nearby street sign pays homage to Chester Bailey. You feel the heat of the day coming at you from above and below, that radiant summer air that bakes you from all angles.
McCloskey points out where the grandstands would have been. We walk out into the middle of the field and plant ourselves where the light post might have been for the football game. We look back up the hill to where the school is. He tells me to imagine the area devoid of trees because there were few back then, not like it is now. He gestures to where the train tracks ran, so we also picture where the Thomson-Houston dynamo must have been situated, certainly not far from the tracks given its massive weight. I ask him how he imagines that day and the time leading up to the fair.
“What I see is incredible excitement and again it wasn’t because of football. It was because the electric light was coming. People had heard of it, but nobody had ever seen it, so think about how incredible that was. They were adding extra excursion trains, an estimated 18,000 were at the game.
“I don’t know what the weather was, but I can imagine in my mind it was typical evenings in September here. Warm during the day, cool at night, causes fog in the morning and fog at night.”
On that day back in 1892, a pole stood in the middle of the field with four strings of lights draping down from it. Imagine a football game being lit from the radiance of a Christmas tree. And everywhere on the ground were spiked chestnut shells and “animal residue.”
Wyoming’s Opinator wrote, “The ground was in bad condition and poorly lighted, and was laid out on a baseball diamond and a race course. An electric light pole was placed in the centre of the field, and the ground was full of holes and covered with pebbles and butternuts.”
The pretension rising off the Opinator’s pages provides you with all you need to know about Sem’s place in the sporting world at the time. “Mansfield failed to gain through their usual rushes through the center, and tried the end but did not gain...The game was slow and tedious. Wyoming’s playing was quick and snappy and her interference fine. Wyoming made her gains around the ends aided by good interference. The Mansfield team was very heavy, averaging about 175 lbs. She played a close rushing game, but after a few good rushes was effectually blocked.”
You get a sense this person was a total weenie and writing this kind of prose protected him from the late-19th-century version of the most atomic of wedgies.
The game ended in a 0-0 tie after one half of play because “it was considered dangerous to play in such a feeble light and on such rough ground.”
This writer was clearly unimpressed by the electric light, his allegiance to Sem football so unbending in the face of such world-changing technology, he called such an invention, and the spectacle therein, “feeble.”
He did say the team had a “jolly good time.” So there’s that. There were fireworks.
And as the fireworks rained down, the fair-goers could look up and see the light bulbs firing off photons traveling to them at cosmic speed, carried to them on the same electromagnetic bandwidth as the light from Beetlejuice, Antares, and Polaris, but it was man-made, at arm’s length, before them illuminating the path to the new world.
Maybe there was something akin to awe as people boarded the trains, or climbed back into their horse-drawn carriages for the ride home, visions of football dancing in their heads.
Up on the rim of Karl Van Norman Field, McCloskey looks down over the bowl onto the field. A man runs around the track, clockwise.
Four giant poles spike up into the sky, which light the field for sprint football, field hockey, etc. There were four strings of lights off that pole in 1892 and now there are four poles at this field, a coincidence, McCloskey says.
It took another one hundred and twenty-one years for night football to return to Mansfield. When it did, both squads—Mansfield and Princeton University’s sprint teams—played a full game under perfect illumination.
Fireworks then filled the sky and fell down in sparkling dreadlocks until each little flicker burned out.