Henry Bollinger woke up at 5:30 a.m. last Friday and tried not to disturb his wife and two young boys. He stepped out into the early-morning chill of Oakville, Missouri, and drove north, stopping only for a cup of coffee on his way to Busch Stadium. Once there, he took the elevator two flights down to a concrete corridor located behind the right-field bullpen. It smelled like fresh sawdust. He opened a set of rusty red metallic doors and stepped into a windowless bunker of an office where he controls the 660 light bulbs that last week illuminated history.
Bollinger's friends call him Hank. He grew up in south St. Louis, the son of a hospital administrator and lab technician. He remembers watching Cardinals infielder Tommy Herr hit his 10th inning walk-off grand slam against the Mets in 1987 at the old Busch Stadium, prompting Bollinger and other jubilant fans to shower the field with giveaway seat cushions. After high school Bollinger took a few electrical engineering courses at Forest Park Community College, then he joined the union. Now 40, he says he's lucky to be the Cardinal's head electrician. "It's a dream job," he says, standing on the warning track at 8:30 a.m., gazing up at his 660 lights.
On a clear night, westbound travelers on Interstate 70 can espy two flickering embers at the base of the Gateway Arch as they drive over the train tracks in East St. Louis. As the travellers draw nearer to the river, three distinct beacons emerge, spilling golden beams onto a little brick ballpark and turning a black sky into a misty blue.
The architect Earl Santee called for the lights at the new Busch Stadium to be arranged along six vertical towers to give the field a more luminous shine. The towers hover 198 feet above street level, each equipped with 80 2,000-watt metal halide sport lights, twenty maintenance lights and ten emergency lights. Two weeks after the stadium's inaugural game in 2006, Albert Pujols, who worried he wasn't seeing the ball well enough at night, took batting practice with the emergency and maintenance bulbs turned on. Pujols said the extra lights helped his vision, and they've burned during night games ever since.
A poster inside Hank Bollinger's bunker celebrates the Local 1 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. After taking an apprenticeship after college, Bollinger landed a job with Sachs Electric Company. In 1999 he started working the microphones and video board for the Cardinals, who contract with Sachs. He was appointed union steward in 2004, and the following year he helped construct the new Busch Stadium. He says he makes an average salary based on union standards.
Bollinger replaces about 100 bulbs a year, each costing $350. He knows when a lamp needs replacing by scoping it through a welder's mask. Every other year, the Cardinals electricians test the strength of the lights by partitioning the field into a grid of 200 parcels; they position each lamp in a different direction so that every blade of grass gets its equal due. Bollinger's bulbs bathe each square foot of the field with 310 foot-candles of light -- well above the Major League Baseball standard of 250.
Baseball lights first came to St. Louis in 194o, when the Cardinals and St. Louis Browns split the $150,000 cost for 784 1,500-watt lamps to be installed at Sportsman's Park. The lamps were affixed to towers ranging from 120 to 140 feet tall, providing 174 candlepower of light per square foot. It was an era when nearly all the professional teams were experimenting with lights. The Great Depression had decimated ticket revenues, and owners saw night ball as a novelty. The experiment paid off, ushering thousands of new fans into the ranks.
On May 24, 1940, the Browns hosted the Cleveland Indians for the first night game in St. Louis, in front of 25,562 fans -- the largest home crowd at Sportsman's Park in a dozen years. The Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller beat the Browns 3-to-2, and Feller himself swatted the first homer of his career. A 10-year-old boy named Bud Kane attended the game with his dad. Years later Kane would reminisce about the lights in a column for the St. Louis Browns Historical Society newsletter. "The grass seemed greener, the infield smoother, the big scoreboard more spectacular, under the rich, soft lights," wrote Kane, who is now 82. "Before the game, we worried that the lights would be no good, and that Feller would kill somebody with one of his 100-mile-per-hour fastballs," he says now.
The lights can also be maddening. During a June 1 night game this year against the Giants, a short circuit blew out a bank of bulbs behind home plate with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning with the Cardinals at bat. Bollinger saw the lights go out on TV from his bunker. He leaped up and reset the breaker. The inning was postponed for fifteen minutes. Three weeks later, the lights blew again, causing another postponement. The problem was attributed to a bare metal bolt jamming into the wiring inside one of the stadium's junction boxes. "My stomach gets queasy thinking about it," says Bollinger. "My biggest fear is that a game will get canceled because of the lights."
For many baseball fans, the lights symbolize something romantic. But for Hank Bollinger, who arrives at the ballpark at 7 a.m. and gets queasy thinking about outages, the lights aren't much more than glass and wire. "I just hope they work," he says. "When they're on I'm happy. When they're off I'm not."
An hour before Game 7, Bollinger used his computer to fire up his 660 bulbs, sending 5,000 kilowatts of electricity crackling through the park. The lights radiated down on the 47,399 fans gathered in the stands. They radiated down on the ten championship flags waving in the autumn night. They radiated down on third baseman David Freese, whose walk-off homer the evening before capped one of the most exciting comebacks in World Series history.
Shortly after Allen Craig made the final out that culminated the Cardinals' historic 10-and-a-half-game comeback from August 25 -- after the confetti dropped and the fireworks exploded and the trophies were presented -- Bollinger stood on the field with his two sons and smiled. "I don't even have the words," said the 40-year-old union man from south city who changes ballasts and fuses for a living and says he has a dream job.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, when the fans went home and the car horns stopped honking and the sun began to rise over Busch Stadium, Bollinger went back to his bunker. Then he turned off the lights.