As pile of beer cans grows, McCarthy softball gets more entertaining

Nancy Lord

McCARTHY -- The regular softball game between Team 1 and Team 2 began under a bruised sky in the already dimming light of mid-August. The spectacular, copper-filled mountains that lured miners into the Wrangells more than a century ago loomed over us as bat struck yellow ball with a metallic crack and yet another hit flew into bushes past third base. The batter took first base, according to local rules.

With every run, there were shouts of “Mark it!” and someone at the bench would put a slash mark by the team name. After five runs for Team 1 (another local rule, measuring an inning by either three outs or five runs, whichever came first), the fielders picked up their beer cans and trotted in for their at-bat. They slapped hands with the players taking the field. “Good game. Good playing.”        

Three large dogs romped across the field.

The players were bearded and pony-tailed, men and women, McCarthyites as well as seasonal workers and visitors, come together in a Friday-night tradition that extends back to the days when the competition was between McCarthy and Kennicott, the homesteading and service town at the foot of the glacier and the company town 5 miles upvalley. According to M. J. Kirchhoff’s “Historic McCarthy: The Town that Copper Built,” both towns had ball fields but the McCarthy field, donated to the community in 1914 by homesteader John Barrett, was preferred because of the available “liquid gladness” to be enjoyed there. Miners and mill workers at the lower Kennecott camp, where a bunkhouse near the old mill building is currently being restored by the National Park Service, hiked down for games between the McCarthy Tigers and the Kennecott Bear Cats. The Bear Cats — a mix of mostly new immigrants from Scandinavia and beyond — were younger and fitter than the motley McCarthy crew and generally won.  

Now, amid our small crowd’s cheers, a man in a porkpie hat who had just been speaking German with his friends got an infield hit and made it to first base. When the next batter hit a fly ball, he ran to second. “Run back!” his teammates yelled as the ball was caught in the air. Puzzled, he stood on second until the intricacy of fly-ball rules was explained, and then he trotted back to the bench. 

In McCarthy, America’s favorite pastime was still befuddling foreigners trying to embrace it, and “liquid gladness” was still lubricating an evening’s entertainment. If Team 1 and Team 2, established at the game’s start by counting off from a circle, weren’t competitive in the way that the two towns used to be, they surely still represented some of the old McCarthy can-do, make-do free spirit.

The pitcher, in a skirt and sandals, lobbed in a pitch and watched the slugged ball fly over her head. “Can of corn!” someone yelled, and an outfielder made the catch.

In general, there were more dropped balls and bad throws than expert plays. One man’s single became a home run when he just kept running and the ball never caught up to him.

Team 1 had dozens of slash marks on the score sheet, Team 2 not so many. The pile of crushed beer cans grew higher. No one was sure how many runs had come in during one inning and someone said, “If we don’t mark them, we can just keep playing.”

They played on, one dog sleeping in the infield, the shortstop making a great line-drive catch, the second baseman falling down with the ball while the baserunner ran all the way home. The man in the 1998 First Place Valdez Summer Solstice Softball jersey tried to keep his team’s batting order straight but someone had disappeared into the bushes.

Tourists next to me said they’d never been anyplace they loved as much as McCarthy. They didn’t hide it. Another hit, and great peals of laughter rang out.  

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include “Fishcamp,” “Beluga Days,” and “Early Warming.”