Mon, April 01, 2013

Opening Day

By Katie Ringsmuth
“We have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball….Let us go forth awhile and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms….the game of ball is glorious.”
—Walt Whitman

Baseball players in Anchorage,
July 4, 1915 (UAA-hmc-0778-5-14)

April 1, 2013 is Opening Day, the start of a new baseball season. It’s hard for a historian not to love baseball, for our national pastime is steeped in tradition. In the PBS documentary Baseball, Ken Burns showed us that baseball not only commemorates history, but has also shaped it. As the Game’s popularity soared around the turn of the 20th century, the shared act of being a spectator of the sport helped teach newly arrived immigrants how to be Americans. Commencing the decade characterized as ‘the age of anxiety,’ the heavily favored Chicago White Sox, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, allegedly threw the 1919 World Series for money. The disgraced “Black Sox” marred forever baseball’s innocence (say it ain’t so, Joe) and set a tone of disillusionment felt by so many Americans in a post-war world. The Game’s greatest moment came when Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodger uniform in 1947, breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. In the 1980s, another Dodger phenomenon—Fernando Valenzuela—participated in the revolution that opened the Game to Latino players. By the 1990s, it was the Japanese phenomenon, Ichiro Suzuki who served as a link between East and West. Today’s team rosters consist of players linked to Europe, Africa, North, Central and South America, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Australia. Indeed, as Burns put it, “the story of the Game is the story of America.”
Likewise, baseball has left a legacy here in Alaska. Historian and baseball fan, Terrence Cole, notes that the formation of baseball associations was fairly common in Alaska. In 1908, for example, 1,500 people watched the opening day double-header of the Nome Baseball Association. In his article “Baseball Above and Below Zero: The National Pastime in Alaska,” Cole describes Alaska’s rugged brand of baseball, played on the rocky diamonds in Southeast Alaska, to the ball field on the frozen tundra at Nome, “one of the most unique parks in the world.” Cole admits that in order to sell papers, local journalists “slightly exaggerated” accounts of the game played under “blistering rays” in front of “crowds of wild fans,” but correctly argues that Alaska’s long-summer nights have nevertheless proven to be a spawning ground for major league ballplayers. Today, the semi-pro Alaska Baseball League attracts players from colleges throughout the nation, and 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: Tom Seaver, Mark McGwire, Dave Winfield, Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds (asterisk and all), even Satchel Paige played in a four game exhibition series at Mulcahy Stadium in 1965.
The intersection of baseball and Alaska also reflects the historic start of the city of Anchorage. Early this spring I redecorated my sons’ room using baseball motifs with an Alaskan twist. On visiting Alaska’s Digital Archives I discovered two photographs taken by famed artist Sydney Laurence of a baseball game in Anchorage on July 4, 1915. 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 seemingly impenetrable Alaska wilderness. In a second photo, a team of nine, a coach down on one knee, pose in pinstriped uniforms; a small anchor appears to be sewn on their left shirt pockets. The team is ethnically diverse, as are the fans situated behind the young ballplayers. There are women there, too. A few more tents occupy a lower hillside, while newly cut tree stumps serve as stadium bleachers.

Baseball game in Anchorage,
July 4, 1915 (AMRC-b79-1-83)

When I look at these photos I see an all-American town. I see a tent city, carved from the wilderness, founded by dissimilar people filled with similar hopes and dreams. I hope that when my boys look at these photos now hanging on their bedroom wall, they see the traces of past, but also continuity, for Anchorage remains as multicultural as baseball itself. It is still a city filled with hopes and dreams. And this is a tradition worth passing on to the next generation. So, with the lengthening light and the melting snow, let springtime bring to us the national pastime. Let’s get out and, “Play Ball…”