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It's been 20 years since Wrigley got lit up for the first time
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe makes an offering to home plate during the first night game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988.

 

Cubs legends Ernie Banks and Billy Williams acknowledge the crowd before tossing out the ceremonial first pitches for Wrigley Field's first official night game, 20 years ago Friday.

 

Fan Matt Rocha expresses excitement at the first night game at Wrigley Field on August 8, 1988.

 

Cubs fan Harry Grossman, 91, punched the button switching on the lights that evening 20 years ago at Wrigley.

 

Wrigley Field is aglow for the first night game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988.

 

Fans rejoice after a Ryne Sandberg home run during the first night game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988 against the Philadelphia Phillies. The game was suspended on account of rain, making the first official night game Aug. 9 against the New York Mets.

 

 

Cubs legendary broadcaster Jack Brickhouse meets with fans during the first night game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988.

 

Special "first night game" programs and scorecards are for sale on Aug. 8, 1988 at Wrigley Field.

 

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Published: 8/7/2008 12:06 AM | Updated: 8/7/2008 12:23 AM

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As life-changing moments go, the Cubs historic first night game at Wrigley Field on 8/8/88 fizzled.

Oh sure, the crowd, adorned with celebrities, was buzzing at the prospect of electric bulbs illuminating the old ballpark and lighting the way to a brighter Cubs future. The players and coaches, weary of endless day games, were thrilled. The vendors were pumped. Some neighbors and purists decried the lights as a dark omen. And the media couldn't get enough of all the stories.

Then came that moment when 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan old enough to remember watching Tinker and Evers and Chance lead the Cubs to the 1908 World Series championship, proclaimed, "Let there be lights!" and pushed a button that lit the six banks of lights.

The only problem was that the summer sun was still shining so brightly at 6:10 p.m. that those new lights had no effect. That didn't stop 40,000 fans from soaking up the moment.

"I remember the chant, 'Let there be lights!' and the massive flash bulbs going off," says Matt Rocha, a fan from South Elgin who lined up outside Wrigley at 6 a.m. to make sure he and his older brother Randy got front-row bleacher seats to the historic game.

"I never understood why people were taking pictures of the lights going on," says Scott Sorn, a longtime beer vendor who was working that game. "That didn't make much sense."

Spectacle overwhelmed sense that night _ from the WGN-TV reporters wearing tuxedos to the appearance of an aging Morganna the Kissing Bandit, who, slowed by gravity, was busted by security guards long before she could buss her intended target Ryne Sandberg. Thanks to a homer from Sandberg, the Cubs were ahead 3-1 when Mother Nature voiced her opinion in the middle of the fourth inning.

"That first night game, it was rained out, and that's about all I remember," says die-hard fan Carol Colacicco, now 72, of Mount Prospect. "But it was so exciting."

And a little nerve-racking for Arlington Heights resident Bob Ibach, the Cubs director of public relations/publications from 1981-89.

"That whole night was a blur to me," recalls Ibach, who spearheaded the move to bypass a celebrity in favoring of letting a die-hard fan turn on the lights.

"I was making sure Harry got there and could push the button and turn the lights on," says Ibach, who now runs Ibach & Associates PR firm and is an owner in the Continental Baseball League in Texas.

"I remember all the secret meetings," Ibach says. To thwart vandals, the lights were constructed in a warehouse behind a nearby Brown's Chicken. Flatbed trucks hauled them to the park under the cover of predawn darkness, and helicopters swooped in to lift the 33-foot steel towers in place.

"It was like a scene from 'M*A*S*H' _ all the helicopters descending," Ibach says.

In the weeks leading up to the game, some lights were broken, probably by gunshots, he remembers. Police manned nearby rooftops on the night of Aug. 8 because "they thought somebody might shoot out a light."

Some drunken fans (and a few giddy Cubs players) slid across the tarp during the rain delay, but the first night game was not the Armageddon some feared.

"The first night was huge. The next day, the actual first night game, was more like back to normal," recalls Sorn, 42, a Chicago school teacher who is now in his 28th year as a vendor. "The first night game people really went nuts. Now, we're just used to them."

The neighborhood is bustling every night.

"I love the night games," says Colacicco, who started going to Cubs games with her mom in 1945. "We used to always sit behind (Cubs star) Andy Pafko in center field. He was always my favorite player."

As a kid, she and her schoolmates would get out of Immaculata High School in time to run to Wrigley for day games.

"Andy Frain (ushers) used to let us in about the second or third inning," Colacicco remembers. "We'd be sitting in the bleachers with our hot, wool, Navy blue uniforms."

Now, she can be on time for night games.

"There are two things I'm never late for _ church and a ballgame," Colacicco says. Night games are more convenient for most fans, she says, including her five kids and nine grandkids who were "baptized" Cubs fans.

"Actually, the first night baseball game at Wrigley was a women's game back in the 1940s during the war, when they brought in portable lights," says Ibach. Nights at Wrigley have seen boxer Jack "Raging Bull" LaMotta knock out Bob Satterfield; wrestlers from Gorgeous George to Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers; the Harlem Globetrotters; a rodeo; political and Jehovah's Witnesses conventions; and even skiing and a ski jump.

As fans on Friday look back on the 20th anniversary of the official first night game, they should know it wasn't Wrigley's first nocturnal ballgame that summer.

"Some of the Cubs upper management, who thought they were ballplayers, actually played the first night game at Wrigley Field," Ibach says of a 10 p.m. secret test of the lights. One exec donned a full uniform, and "a couple balls almost conked him in the head," Ibach adds.

But that 8/8/88 night game was special.

Scalpers charged exorbitant prices that now are considered face value. Suburban entrepreneurs Joe Witry and Elmer Silha minted silver coins ($24.95 each) commemorating the event.

"We sold 22- or-23,000 of them," remembers Silha, now 86 and living in Winchester House health care center in Libertyville. "With the price of silver today, they're probably all gone."

Somewhere in a box in his attic, Rocha has one of those coins among his souvenirs of the first night game.

"I had to be at that game because of the history," says Rocha, who still has his $4 bleacher ticket autographed that morning by Cubs favorite Ron Santo. Rocha became a "celebrity for a day" by virtue of his homemade hat that featured miniature replicas of the light stanchions.

"I was interviewed by a gazillion print reporters," remembers Rocha, whose headgear earned him TV immortality as one of director Arne Harris' famous hat shots. Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone "said I looked a little lightheaded."

Now a union painter in Westmont, Rocha managed to save his hat despite the sudden downpour that flooded Wrigley that night.

"Going down those ramps, the water was more than ankle deep," Rocha says.

The rain washed out the game, but not the concessions. Dr. Leah Mooshil Durst, medical director of the Friend Family Health Center affiliated with the University of Chicago, was a beer vendor that night.

"It was a pass-out," Durst recalls, meaning that vendors could stand in one spot and pass out beers to lines of customers instead of having to walk the park to hawk their wares. "I cleaned up in tips."

A daughter of legendary sportswriter Joe Mooshil, Durst saw a new side of Wrigley that night.

"I remember thinking how great Wrigley Field looked in lights, and I recall it was a well-behaved crowd - a lot of 'suits'" Durst says.

Night games, and "suits," now are as normal at Wrigley as ivy or the scoreboard. Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood are thriving.

"I'm an old ballpark fan," says Ibach, who grew up in the Bronx buying 50-cent tickets to Yankee Stadium. "I was kind of hoping in my heart that night baseball would never come to Wrigley. But now, I think it's for the best."

In fact, "I'm more of a night-game person now," Ibach says. "But for families, there is nothing like a day game."