"The entire citizenship of Anchorage…welcomes the All-Anchorage baseball team back home [from Seward] and wants them to know that the city is behind them from now on until the last man is out in the ninth inning of the final game." —The Anchorage Daily Times 1916
Summer is finally here. Time for umpires across the country to open a new season with two, long-awaited words: “Play Ball!”
In the few decades after the Knickerbockers faced the New York Nines in Hoboken, New Jersey to play the first organized game in history on June 19, 1846, Americans have gone to great lengths to bring baseball to the Far North. From the late 19th century onward, fans from Nome to Valdez, Onalaska to Ketchikan have embraced the game. But freshly cut evergreen fields and youthful ‘boys of summer’ rarely sparked reminiscences of baseball in the polar region. Few of us Alaskans wax nostalgic for a bygone age. We carved diamonds from wilderness. We played ball at midnight and transformed fields from ice and snow. Instead, we in the Far North play a more rugged brand of baseball.
Winter Baseball. c. 1980s. Terrence Cole, Fairbanks, Alaska.
One of the first places in the Far North to which Americans brought baseball was Herschel Island, located in the Beaufort Sea, just off the coast of Canada. Off the coast lay one of the last refuges of the Bowhead whale, prized by a late 19th century industrializing society for the baleen, blubber and oil. Throughout the 1890s, icebound whalers at Hershel Islands spread ashes on the sea ice to form a baseball diamond on which they played the game at 40 below—literally, to pass the time. The so-called Hershel Island League competed throughout the winter, which culminated with the “Arctic Whalemen’s Pennant.”
Arthur James Allen, a whaler and trader stationed at Hershel Island during the winter of 1895, wrote that “nines” from the whaling towns of New Bedford, New London and Martha’s Vineyard came to compete. On this icy diamond, all were equal. Ship rank was set aside, and sailors could “boss” or “coach” captains without fear of retaliation. Apparently, conditions did not encourage good defensive play. In one game the Roaring Gimlets vanquished the Pig Stickers by a score of 62 to 49.
Another eye-witness to baseball at Hershel Island was Brig Gen. Frederick Funston, who arrived at Hershel Island after a snowshoeing trip across northern Alaska in 1894. “All winter regardless of blizzards and bitter cold,” wrote Funston, “the games went on — three or four each week.” Funston wrote an essay describing the Whaler’s Baseball League for Harper’s Round Table in 1899. It was reproduced by Albert G. Spalding in his 1911 book, America’s National Game.
Spalding, the founder of the sporting goods and manufacturing company, featured the illustration, “Baseball in Alaska,” in the popular America’s National Game. The image showed the whalemen playing on the ice in Native garb. Together the article and image revealed Funston surprise of witnessing “typical Base Ball cranks [fans]” from the Bering Strait region and Point Barrow. “I saw the crowd of several hundred people watching our national sport at this far away corner of the earth,” wrote Funston, “only twenty degrees from the pole, and thousands of miles from railroads or steamship lines. Emphasizing the unexpected, Funston described this crowd as “more widely cosmopolitan than could have been found at any other place on the globe.” Perhaps most bewildering to the general, was his observation that the game drew “Esquimaux of all ages.”
Baseball in Alaska. 1911. New York Public Library.
Observers like Gen. Funston, and later Spalding, assumed baseball to be newly introduced to the indigenous people of the Far North. This was not exactly the case. Before Americans brought their version of baseball northward, Alaska Natives played a game described as a mix of cricket, dodgeball and baseball. People living in the Arctic regions call this game anauligatuk or anau. People inhabiting the southern areas of the state call the game laptuuk. In general terms, Alaskans refer to this game as “Eskimo Ball” or “Aleut Ball.”
The Indigenous version of baseball likely came to Alaska through two different routes: The Russians introduced to the Unangax (Aleut) and Alutiiq people of coastal Alaska an ancient batting game called “Lapta,” which dates back to the 14th century. By the late 19th century, Sámi reindeer herders from northern Scandinavia introduced to Inupiat, Inuit, and Yupik people a game they call “Lapp Ball.” The two versions likely came from the same Siberian source.
Historically, indigenous baseball is tied to colonization, but generations of Alaskans passed down this game and shaped it into their own cultural expression. They may call it lapture, in Ouzinkie and lapchuq in Akhiok. In Nanwaluq they call it peqeq, which means to bat. But wherever indigenous baseball is played in Alaska, “the game creates a feeling of togetherness,” as one bystander observed, “which participants—players and spectators alike—share.”
When Americans came to Alaska to explore, mine, fish, or work on the railroad, they brought with them baseball. In turn, baseball—the “American pastime” and manifestation of American values and identity—helped transform isolated work camps into American towns. During the Gold Rush era, Nome miners scraped away soggy vegetation from the surface of the undulating tundra, placed hundreds of burlap bags a top the permafrost, and then piled dirt atop the bags in order to craft a playable ball field that overlooked Dry Creek. Historian Terrence Cole described the Nome field as “one of the most unique parks in the world.”
In Anchorage, Artist Sydney Lawrence photographed a baseball game on July 4, 1915, the year the railroad town was founded. At least one hundred spectators lined an area from first base to third. Behind the perfect diamond and the spacious outfield stood tent city, and behind that, the seemly impenetrable Alaska wilderness.
Photo by Sydney Laurence, Anchorage, July 4, 1915 baseball game. FIC Photograph Collection, B1982.046.14
As transportation improved and the formation of baseball associations became commonplace, rivalries emerged among communities, such as Anchorage and Seward. Teams were frequently supported by local fraternal clubs and professional organizations. The entire town turned out for games, particularly the 4th of July tournament, which for nearly every Alaska town was the centerpiece of the national celebration. Community spirit spread as rivalries formed across the Territory.
Baseball was equally an important vehicle for bringing transient miners, fishermen, and railroad workers together, and transforming their work camps into communities. Mining camps and salmon canneries with racially diverse employees used baseball as a way to address conflict and built camaraderie among crews. Missionaries brought baseball even further into rural Alaska, introducing the game to Native youngsters, in part, to assimilated them to the Protestant ethic and American culture.
While the game helped to “Americanize” towns across the Territory, the extreme northern environment also began to set Alaska baseball apart from its national counterpart. Since the first pitch in 1906, teams have assembled in Fairbanks to compete in the famous Midnight Sun Game. Fairbanks’ long, midsummer days allowed for the game to be played under the natural light of the midnight sun. Witnessing the unusual, late-evening start time was considered an Alaskan rite of passage, as journalist H.C. Jackson explained in a 1913 article for Sunset Magazine:
“Here in this camp we hold that besides seeing a freeze-up and watching the ice go out in the spring, a chechaco [sic] must sit through a midnight ball-game before he can class as a sourdough.”
Photo by Candy Waugaman, Midnight Sun Game, Fairbanks Alaska, June 21, 1939.
In southeast Alaska, baseball’s themes of rebirth and renewal were not just underscored seasonally but twice a day, as Ketchikan teams competed on a diamond built on the tideflats where Ketchikan Creek flows into the Tongass Narrows. Though fans were accustomed to the game’s unhurried rhythms and timeless pace, the mighty Pacific Ocean was not. Matches that went too long were often called on account of the rising tide rather than nine innings, and each time the baseball field was made new.
Photo by John E. Thwaites, Crowd watching baseball game, Ketchikan. 1919. University of Washington.
The U.S. military was another important baseball conduit, transporting the game to the farthest reaches of the Territory. Forts and bases often built fields and supported teams. During World War II, as thousands of military personnel descended upon Alaska, baseball brought a modicum of normalcy to soldiers in the Aleutian Islands, stationed far from familiar home towns. Along with weapons, artillery, and other necessary armaments for battle, the enlisted men considered baseball gear a priority. Ball fields helped to make the transition to battle. Playing baseball helped soldiers to cope with the pressure of war.
The postwar years brought one of the game’s great stars to Alaska: Satchel Paige. Pitching his way to stardom in the segregated national Negro League, Paige became the oldest rookie in the Major League after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Paige played in a four game exhibition series at Mulcahy Stadium in 1965, one year after the great Alaska earthquake, and rumor had it that legendary pitcher might manage a team named for the natural disaster. Paige’s promise to start building the new Anchorage Earthquakers “the minute he left Alaska” never panned out, but his presence in Alaska attracted new fans of the game.
The founding of the Alaska Goldpanners by Henry Aristide “Red” Boucher and Don Dennis in 1960 was followed by the organization of several other teams which together formed the amateur Alaska Baseball League. Though some have come and gone — remember the North Pole Nicks or the Valley Green Giants? — the Alaska Baseball League now consists of the Alaska Goldpanners, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the Peninsula Oilers, the Anchorage Bucs, the Mat-Su Miners, and, most recently, the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks. Over the decades, Alaska’s collegiate summer league has proven to be a spawning ground for major league ballplayers. According to Lew Freedman, author of Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball Stories from Alaska, some of the best Major Leaguers played under the midnight sun: Graig Nettles, Dave Kingman, Rick Monday, Bob Boone, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Dave Winfield, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Harold Reynolds, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds. Most came into their own under the tutelage of renowned coach, Jim Dietz.
Dave Winfield, Alaska Goldpanners Baseball Card.
Whether in New York or Alaska, baseball’s most important ambassadors today are our kids. By the 1960s, American Legion had organized teams for boys 18 and under. The Babe Ruth program for boys age 13-16 sent the first Alaska team to the Northwest Regional tournament in 1968, likely the first Alaska baseball team to play in a competition outside the state. Little League since has provided teams for boys and girls throughout Alaska. Not only have little leaguers represented Alaska at the national level, but these kids remind us why baseball makes us better people—the development of patience, teamwork and good sportsmanship. Kids transcend the pure emotion of the game. That it is simply joyful to play.
Knik Little League All-Stars (11-12 yr olds) from Eagle River, Alaska. Alaska 2014 State Champs
William “Billy” Smith, III. Courtesy Pro Image Sports Photography
The intersection between baseball and Alaska has left a legacy. Within those familiar diamonds, new arrivals encountered a unique northern landscape, which over the years, transformed the game into something distinctively Alaskan. Collectively, these stories tell us that Americans might have brought the national pastime to Alaska, but we Alaskans, like Walt Whitman once wrote, made it our game.
Perhaps it is true that when summer ascends, we Alaskans tend to worry more about sockeye salmon returning safely home than base runners. But the game is still beloved in the Far North because baseball, like the Last Frontier itself, is about heroes, renewal and second chances. “Baseball,” writes sports historian John Thorn, “served as a beacon, revealing a path through the wilderness.” Indeed, the game was brought, played and passed on to the next generation by dissimilar people filled with similar hopes and dreams, who in the end, see salmon and ballplayers with the same goal: They both want to complete a cycle, get home safe, and score.
Richard & Mary Culbertson, St. Paul Baseball Team, September 21, 1921. Alaska State Library