Thu, April 10, 2014

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: America’s Pastime Played in Alaska

by Katherine Ringsmuth
It’s that time of year again, when umpires across the nation cry the long-waited phrase, “Play Ball!” We, far northerners, have gone to great lengths to bring the game of baseball to Alaska and its surrounding Arctic environment. However, few images of the game from the far north capture baseball’s more traditional themes, such as rebirth, pastoralism, and of course, the ‘boys of summer.’
“Winter at Herschel Island ca. 1984. Note the baseball and soccer fields made
by whalers to pass the time during the long Arctic winter. New
Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.


For example, in the late 19th century, a famous painting of icebound whalers at Hershel Island who spread ashes on the sea ice to form a baseball diamond and played the game at 40 below. Nome miners scraped away soggy vegetation from the surface of the tundra, then placed hundreds of burlap bags and dirt atop in order to shape a diamond that overlooked Dry Creek. Other unique stories of Alaska baseball include those of the famous Midnight Sun game played now for over a century in Fairbanks and the Ketchikan teams whose game were called due to high tide rather than nine innings. Besides mining for copper, Kennecott employees fielded baseball teams that played on a glacier. And, when thousands of military personnel came to Alaska during World War II, they played baseball in the remote reaches of the Aleutians Islands.
The postwar years brought one of the game’s greats to Alaska: Satchel Paige. The exhibition game was played in Anchorage in 1965. Paige made his visit to Anchorage one year after the great Alaska earthquake, and rumor had it that legendary pitcher might manage a team named for the natural disaster. Alaska artists such as Sydney Lawrence, Fred Machatanz and Rie Muñoz maintained connections to baseball in their early careers, even Alaska pilot Bob Reeve and his wife Tilly were fans of the game.
“Metlakatla Baseball Team,” Sir Henry S. Wellcome Collections,
ca 1856-1936, National Archives, Alaska Pacific Region. Anchorage, AK


Collectively these stories tell us that Americans might have brought the national pastime to Alaska, but we Alaskans made it our game. By looking at Alaska’s ball fields, diverse players and chilly, soggy and often icy playing times, one quickly gets the impression that the northern environment and climate played a significant role in transforming the national sport into something uniquely Alaskan.

This image of whalers playing baseball appeared in Albert G Spalding’s 1911 book, America’s National Game, in which the sporting goods seller proclaimed, “That Base Ball follows the flag is abundantly proven…It has been played by our soldiers and sailors wherever they have carried the stars and stripes.”  Spalding Baseball Collection, New York Public Library.


“Game at Kennicott,” History Files, Wrangell Saint Elias National Park and Preserve, Copper Center, Alaska.


“Kennecott Baseball Team, 1930.”  Courtesy of Geoff Bleakley.
Fourth of July Game in Anchorage in 1915. Photograph by Sydney Lawrence. Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.


H.C. Jackson’s article, “Play Ball at Midnight Showing How Fans Are in Evidence in Central
Alaska on the Longest Day of the Year”
appeared in Sunset Magazine in June 1913.


Young Fans at the Chinooks baseball game at Chugiak, Alaska, in July 2013.