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Innings under the Midnight Sun: Museum exhibit links baseball with the history of Alaska

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 14, 2015

Anchorage has had a baseball field since before it became a city. The 1915 townsite map, laid out before land was auctioned off, designated the area abutting yet-to-be-built Sixth Avenue and C Street as public space. Four years before the settlement was incorporated, pioneers cleared the space and rolled it flat to create a diamond.

A 1916 photo of huskies pulling the roller is part of a new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, "Home Field Advantage: Baseball in the Far North." It includes historic uniforms, programs, bats, gloves, baseball cards and several photos. Some show the old city ballfield, which just happens to be on the same spot now occupied by the part of the museum where the exhibit is on display.

"Think of it, we're standing right where that picture was taken," said curator Katie Ringsmuth.

Ringsmuth, who grew up in Washington, is a Mariners fan and huge baseball enthusiast. "In fourth grade I used to say I was going to be the first woman to play in the major leagues," she recalled. "That didn't happen."

She met her husband playing in an Anchorage city league. They were married in a diamond on the Park Strip. Her sons play Little League. She cheerfully bundles in layers to watch play in Alaska's often chilly season.

"Baseball is different in Alaska," she said. "We don't think of it in a pastoral way. We play ball at midnight. On gravel. In the snow. Our boys of summer are fishermen."

But, as the exhibit shows, Alaskans have been toughing out games in the Last Frontier for more than a century. In the 1890s before the Klondike Gold Rush, whalers overwintered near Herschel Island in the Arctic Ocean. They organized teams and leagues, spread ashes on the ice to outline the diamond, followed strict rules and attracted crowds of intrigued Inupiat.

Wherever industry went in the early 1900s, baseball went with it. Mines and canneries formed teams, both as an amusement and as a way to defuse tensions. Missionaries taught the sport to their charges as a way to promote assimilation.

"Baseball is never just about baseball," Ringsmuth said. "Here it was about bringing America northward."

Various racial groups working mines and slime lines who might otherwise be at odds with one another met in friendly, often cross-cultural, competition. Baseball created nine innings of racial and social equality in Alaska long before Jackie Robinson broke professional baseball's color barrier in 1947.

An observer of the games off Herschel Island marveled at the multinational makeup of the teams drawn "from every continent" on Earth. A photo of a Ship Creek team at the first recorded game in the area, July 4, 1915, shows an African-American player. Women had their own leagues and old movies show them participating in coed games.

The pastime provided an opportunity to blow off steam without reprisals. The boss on a ship or a construction crew was just another player when the game was going on and had to follow the directions of the coach, who might be a laborer, just like everyone else.

"Alaskans came from all over the place," Ringsmuth said. "There was no unifying factor. Baseball provided it."

She had a taste of that when she spent childhood summers in Bristol Bay, where her father was the supervisor of a cannery. Natives, Filipinos and multi-ethnic workers from the Lower 48 all took a break from their work to play the game.

She likened the diversity shown in the early teams to Anchorage's current status as a city with 100 languages. Within the boundaries of the playing field was a separate world, 400 feet by 400 feet, where no one was judged by any other yardstick than their ability.

The same space provided a small taste of civilization in the middle of the vast northern wilderness. Players and fans went to extraordinary lengths to prepare the grounds. In gold rush Nome, thousands of burlap bags were set on an area where the tundra had been scraped off, dirt was set on top of the sacks and grass was planted. Bleachers and electric lights were set up. "It was a beautiful field," Ringsmuth said.

The exhibit has photos of people playing on sea ice and air strips, Aleutian tundra in Unalaska and glacier till in Kennecott. In Ketchikan they played on the tidelands; when the tide came it, the game was over. Fields were hacked out of forest and traced out on the snow.

"One of the most interesting things to me was the diamonds themselves," Ringsmuth said. "Something distinctly normal but in situations that were only found in Alaska."

And all over Alaska. The exhibit includes pictures of teams from Ruby, Nenana, the Pribilofs, all looking curiously alike in their formal lineups with proper uniforms and regulation equipment. No matter how new the settlement, somehow bats, mitts, catcher's masks and chest protectors and regulation balls seem to have been brought in the newcomers' luggage.

Ringsmuth noted the several photos of GIs playing during World War II and in the postwar years. "The military always made sure that baseball equipment was in the first shipment," she said. "Baseball helped the soldiers, young kids, cope with the stress of war. Seeing pictures of them playing baseball near the front made the folks back home feel better."

Not all of the equipment was by the book. One of the items on display is a hand-carved bat used in Valdez in 1898. It looks like a caveman's weapon. Navy men playing off St. Lawrence Island colored their balls brown so that they could find them on the ice.

And not all the play was according to Doubleday's rules. A similar but different kind of game, Aleut baseball or Lapp ball, was brought to Alaska by Russians and Sami and is still played in rural Alaska. "It screams for a dissertation," Ringsmuth said. The bat could be a driftwood stick. The ball was often hand made.

Such sports seem to be universal. Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna found evidence of stick-and-ball games, Ringsmuth said.

The modern era of baseball began in Alaska when the Fairbanks Goldpanners were formed in 1960, the first team of the current Alaska Baseball League. Much of the exhibit includes memorabilia related to the greats who at one time had a connection, however brief, with the sport in the 49th state. There's Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver's Goldpanners jersey, Barry Bonds' contract, a baseball signed by Satchel Paige, video and photos of Randy Johnson, David Winfield, Mark McGwire and Yogi Berra.

Additional video shows Barrow kids playing Lapp ball, the late broadcaster Dick Lobdell demonstrating how he "re-created" baseball games on the radio and footage of games of yore. One particularly astonishing display is the only known footage of the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, the infamous "Black Sox" scandal series. It includes a glimpse of a lighted reader board in New York City that let people "see" the game 1,000 miles away.

The newsreel was shipped to Dawson, but never sent back, Ringsmuth said. "Why would they? They just kept them in their library. But after a while they got concerned that the nitrates in the film might go off and burn down their town. So, being good Canadians, they dug a hole in the ground, covered it with water and made it into a hockey rink."

Miraculously, the permafrost preserved the film until it was excavated in the 1970s. The film was restored and archived until the 1919 World Series footage was rediscovered in the trove just last year. One clip shows an infield hit by the Reds. Chicago pitcher Eddie Cicotte makes no effort to go for it. To some it's photographic proof that Cicotte was throwing the game -- one of the most crucial moments in the annals of the sport.

"It's amazing, but it was the arctic environment that saved a piece of our history," Ringsmuth said.

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE will be on display through Nov. 1 at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.

CURATOR KATIE RINGSMUTH will deliver a free lecture about baseball in Alaska at the meeting of the Cook Inlet Historical Society at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21; enter through the doors on Seventh Avenue.

ALASKA BASEBALL LEAGUE play begins in Anchorage on June 12 at Mulcahy Stadium.

THROWBACK GAME. The Anchorage Bucs and Glacier Pilots will play their game on July 4 with some of the gear and uniform styles of 100 years ago in honor of the first recorded baseball game in Anchorage on July 4, 1915.

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