There are strange
things done in the midnight sun...That would make your blood run cold.
There sure are.
Baseball, for one. When Robert W. Service wrote those lines at the turn of the
century, the Bard of the Yukon was talking about such mundane matters as life,
death and cremation—not about runs, hits and errors. Presumably Service did not
know that baseball was to be played just around the glacier—in the gold-rush
camp at Fairbanks—and that people would keep playing it morning, noon and
midnight for the next 75 years. Well, they did and they do.
Morning and noon
aren't all that remarkable, perhaps, but every year, on the longest day of the
year—and it's really long in Fairbanks, which is only 160 miles south of the
Arctic Circle—the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks play a barnstorming team from
Japan, Canada or the Lower 48 in a curious exhibition called the Midnight Sun
Game. It starts at 10:30 p.m. on June 21 and can last until nearly 2 a.m. on
June 22. Sometimes it's played in full daylight, sometimes it's not.
Last June's game
was not. The 71st renewal of the exhibition, with Red Deer, Alberta as the
Goldpanner opponent, began in bright twilight as the sun dipped toward Chena
Ridge northeast of the city, and it ended in flaming triumph, both for the
Goldpanners and the ascendant sun. But from the fourth through the seventh
inning a lot of blood ran cold. Thanks to a formation of dense, purple clouds
along and above the ridge, the middle innings might just as well have been
played in a mine shaft. That accounted for many of the 11 errors committed by
Fairbanks and Red Deer, but no one could explain how the teams accumulated a
total of 28 hits, many on pitches that could not be seen from the stands.
demonstration of the quality of Alaska baseball, the game was a travesty, but
seen for what it was—a rite of spring, the equivalent of a dance around the
Maypole in less northerly latitudes—it was a rousing success. The 4,000
spectators, only a few of them tourists, were enchanted, the Goldpanners won
12-11 and the club sold a lot of beer because the game took so long. All in
all, it was an apt way for Fairbanks residents to celebrate their delight at
emerging from the long, black winter, during which temperatures drop to 60�
below and ice fogs sometimes cancel the city's scant hours of daylight.
The Midnight Sun
Game also exemplifies Alaskans' respect for tradition, the first such game
having been played in 1906 by gold rushers whose only diversions were the Three
B's (booze, bawds and baseball), and their faith in certain frontier virtues
(bravery, for example) not demonstrated all that frequently in the Lower 48.
Anyone who is afraid of things that go bump in the night could not have
survived those middle innings. Though it was as dark as any June 21 in a
decade, no one even considered turning on the lights. Nobody ever has. Another
great traditionalist, the late Phil Wrigley, would have loved Fairbanks.
would have loved the town because it and several other Alaskan locales have
become greenhouses for major league baseball. In the last 13 years, nearly 70
players who have taken part in Alaska's summer collegiate baseball program have
made it to the majors, and several are performing prominent roles in the
current pennant races in the major leagues, among them Yankees Graig Nettles
and Chris Chambliss, Boston's Bill Lee, Philadelphia's Bob Boone, Oakland's
Pete Broberg and Cincinnati's Tom Seaver. Sixteen of the Alaska alumni have
gone to the big leagues after apprentice stints with the Anchorage Glacier
Pilots, but an incredible total of 47 played their Alaskan ball in Fairbanks, a
pleasant town (in summer, anyway) of 55,000 souls that is nestled in the
eastern end of the enormous Tanana Valley, deep in Alaska's interior.
On any July or
August evening one can look in all directions from the roof of the Goldpanners'
stadium, Grow-den Memorial Park, and see games in progress on 11 diamonds, not
counting the Panners' own. No other sport competes for the time or money of the
Fairbanks citizenry. Alaska's small population does not encourage costly
sponsorship of satellite TV sportscasts; as for participatory sports, tennis
and jogging are just now making a timid entrance. Baseball may no longer be No.
1 in the Lower 48, but it has never been anything else in Fairbanks.
For more than a
half century the game's presence there was an even better-kept secret than it
is now. Word of it still might not have reached the outside world had a
volatile, flame-haired French-Irish high school dropout named Red Boucher not
appeared in town in 1958. Boucher, who had spent most of his life in either a
Catholic orphanage or the U.S. Navy, founded the Goldpanners, inaugurated the
summer collegiate program, became mayor of Fairbanks and, only 12 years after
his arrival, was elected lieutenant governor of Alaska.
the start of last June's Midnight Sun Game, which was played in his honor, this
"living legend" offered his explanation of the Panners'—and, by
inference, his own—rise to glory. The words flowed like hot lava from a volcano
that, at 57, is still in nearly constant eruption. "The program is
love!" Boucher declaimed. "Love of family! Love of community! Love of
country! Patriotism, inspiration, loyalty, pride, self-reliance"—here
Boucher paused for a breath—"yes, and apple pie and mother! All that
baloney! Only I don't think it's baloney!" Neither do most Alaskans.