As dusk strolls through Bakersfield, California, just beneath the glare of the sunset sky and next to the Kern River lies Sam Lynn Ball Park, the oldest ball field in the California League. This is where one can attend the last game of the night in professional baseball.
While the rest of west coast games in the minors or major leagues begin no later than 7:35 PM (PST), the Bakersfield Blaze (Adv-A ball) are at the mercy of the sun to begin their nighttime home games. In late June and through July umpires occasionally have to wait until almost 8:00 PM (PST) 11:00 PM (EST) to yell, "Play Ball!".
In 1941 Sam Lynn Ball Park was built with home plate facing the western skies, directly in line with the setting sun. For the past 65 years the time of the first pitch in Bakersfield has been decided by one solar moment, the sun dipping below the centerfield wall.
Tim Wheeler has been the official scorer for Bakersfield for the past 11 seasons and, in the tradition of Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr., has not missed a night in over 800 consecutive games. To understand the reasoning behind the ill-conceived construction of Sam Lynn Ball Park, there is no better source than Mr. Wheeler.
There are many theories as to why Sam Lynn Ball Park was constructed in such an illogical way. The most popular story that has bounced around Bakersfield over the years has to do with the
repercussions of WW II. The speculation is that upon construction in 1941, the stadium lights were donated to the war effort allowing Bakersfield to play only day games. Thus, the direction home plate was facing would have no effect on the start time of the game. Tim Wheeler quickly debunks this theory, pointing out that Bakersfield’s inaugural game was on April 22nd, 1941, almost eight months before the United States entered WW II after the Pearl Harbor bombing (December 7th, 1941). Furthermore, if one were to look back at the game recaps from 1941 one would discover that the start time for Bakersfield’s first game against the Fresno Cardinals on April 22nd was 8:15 PM.
The New Deal
Another theory that has grown some legs has to do with the famous WPA (Works, Progress, Administration) projects initiated by Franklin Delenor Roosevelt in the 1940’s as part of his New Deal Plan to spur the economy and lift the country out of the Great Depression. It is a well known fact that many WPA projects were hastily put together with very little effort put into the planning stages. The main aim of these projects was to put people back to work as quickly as possible. Correct engineering was often a secondary thought. It was rather common for builders like Sam Lynn to disregard forces of nature like the position of the sun when constructing their projects. This theory might have some validity if you consider that an even more prolific WPA engineer, Robert Moses, obviously didn’t consider the sun when building many of the highways that connect Long Island to New York City. Anyone who has ever cursed the impotency of their car’s sun visor while driving from the Hamptons to Manhattan in the late afternoon might attest to this lack of forsight.
The Mushy Theory
Yet, another theory has to do with the close geography of the *Kern River to the ballpark. Supposedly, if home plate was planted in the correct place the stability of the ground would have been destabilized by the damp soil near the river. However, to this day the grounds crew occasionally tests water marks in left field and along third base to make sure the ground isn’t deteriorating. It is highly unlikely that the builders would consider the dampness around home plate a problem while not considering the same predicament for the rest of the field.
My favorite theory is the final one that Mr. Wheeler puts forth and might be the most likely reasoning behind this building planning travesty, "The construction supervisor knew absolutely nothing about the game of baseball!".
Much like the search for the Holy Grail, the mystery of why Sam Lynn Ball Park was built with home plate facing the setting sun will most likely never be known. This is because there are no building plans to be found anywhere. The truth might lie with Sam Lynn, but for him to answer this great question for us we will have to use a Ouija board, since he passed away three months before the opening of his namesake ball field.
Sam Lynn Ball Park might not be the most well-constructed ball field in baseball, and the team that calls it home might struggle to win games, but if you’re a baseball junkie and you need just one more inning before you go to bed, you can always catch the Blaze in Bakersfield where they play the last game of the night.
While most teams have the task of preparing their fields for the occasional rain delay, Sam Lynn Ball Park has always had to prepare also for the dubious sun delay. Over the years, when Bakersfield officials have started games too early, they have had to interrupt play for short intervals because of
the blinding sunset. In 1994 they constructed a sun screen over the centerfield wall that has mitigated the frustrating delays greatly, but still fails to be high enough to be full proof. Since 1996, when Tim Wheeler began compiling a sunset schedule for game starts, there have been no sun delays. The last in-game sun delay occured at 8:07 PM (PST) on July 3rd, 1996 in the bottom of the first and lasted a total of three minutes.
*Though the area of the Kern River next to Sam Lynn Ball Park is relatively calm, any baseball fiends thinking of fetching baseballs from the river – BEWARE! The Kern River is one of the most dangerous in California. It is often referred to as the "Killer" Kern River because 150 people have died in it over the past 25 years.
**Sunset photo of Sam Lynn Ball Park was taken by Blaze fan Frank Domingo.