YORKTON - Imagine it’s late June 1906.
You check your pocket watch.
It’s 9 p.m., time to head to the local ball field, to get a good seat for the big game that will start in an hour or so.
But wait, this is decades before lights are installed at any baseball diamond, and it typically is already dark before the first pitch is to be tossed.
In this case that is not an issue.
The game is in Fairbanks, Alaska and in late June the sun really never completely sets – so it’s play ball.
Time warp to June 21, 2022, and the 117th edition of the Midnight Sun Game is scheduled, with the first pitch at 10:30 p.m., and still no lights.
“For much of the year they’re covered by snow, making the sport seem like an odd fit here. Their home plates are about 198 miles from the Arctic Circle, after all. There’s a town close by called North Pole. Hockey and curling make sense. Fishing. Hunting. But on summer nights like this that almost literally lasts forever, America’s pastime makes its home, too,” wrote Will Geoghegan, who chronicled his visit to the game in ‘Summer Baseball Nation: Nine Days in the Wood Bat Leagues’ reviewed in Yorkton This Week June 15.
“I still get exited about it,” said John Lohrke, general manager of the Alaska Goldpanners, the team which now hosts the long-running game.
Lohrke said his excitement comes from watching people who look forward to the game each year, in essence “looking at it from a fan perspective.”
Of course as a team official the game is also a big job.
“It’s a stressful night for us putting it on,” said Lohrke, who noted on a good night they have 800-plus fans at a Goldpanners’ game, but for the Midnight contest 3,000 attend, many showing up a couple of hours ahead of the first pitch.
“They want to get their seat, want to be part of it.”
Interestingly the game has a slim tie to the Montreal Expos and to Yorkton too.
“The game’s attendance record was set in 1967, when fifty-two hundred people watched future Major Leaguer Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee pitch against a team from Japan,” wrote Geoghegan. “Lee, (a former Expo who has played a game in Yorkton), came back forty-one years later, in 2008, and pitched in the Midnight Sun Game again. Somehow, at sixty-one years old, he went six innings and got the win. The stands were filled again, with an announced crowd of forty-nine hundred.”
The game is now part of a bigger celebration of the solstice, with events in the community, added Lohrke, who explained markets and food spots start to close in the evening and people naturally make their way to the baseball field a mile away to ready for the game.
The game is allowed to happen because of where Fairbanks exists in the world, “a mere 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun is just beginning to set in the north as the game begins. When it ends about three hours later, the sun is rising, also in the north,” writes Bob Eley at www.alaskasportshall.org
“The ‘High Noon at Midnight Classic’ was first played in 1906 and attracted local teams until the Goldpanners picked up the tradition during their inaugural season in 1960 under the direction of Alaska Sports Hall of Famer Red Boucher.
“Teams from all over the world, including Japan in 1967 and Taiwan in 1984, have played in the game, and so have some of the game’s greatest players, including Hall-of-Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield.”
The game has become a ‘bucket list’ add for many baseball fans, including author Geoghegan.
“The reward for single-digit temperatures in the fall, four-hour days in the winter, mountains of snow, and a thaw that comes sometime in mid-May are these endless summer nights,” he wrote. “Baseball and summer nights are a natural fit, of course, and the sport’s pioneers in Alaska realized years ago what their long nights could allow them to create on the diamond. According to historic accounts, teams of locals representing two area bars—the Eagles Club and the California Bar—gathered for the first Midnight Sun Game in 1906. Legend has it they played to settle a bet. The California Bar won.
“If it began as a novelty and caught on as a curiosity, it has lately become legendary. ESPN cameras have filmed it. Countless magazine stories have waxed poetic on it. A documentary has captured it. Baseball fans have tacked it onto bucket lists. Local fans have kept filling the stands.”
Lohrke said they sell tickets every year to fans from across Canada and the U.S, adding recently a travel agent called having people wanting to visit Fairbanks this summer but only if they could get tickets to the game. He assured they would have them.
Even COVID did not end the annual tradition.
“In 2020 the Goldpanners pulled out of the contest due to the coronavirus pandemic and local amateur squads played the game instead, with a local American Legion Baseball squad facing the local town team baseball squad,” noted Wikipedia.
So does the notable game help the Goldpanners, a team stocked by college players for a summer of ball, attract hopefuls because they will experience something unique?
“I’d like to say yes,” said Lohrke, but he added college players aren’t choosing where they will play summer ball, a decision made by their coaches based on what they want the player to gain in terms of summer baseball.
But, for many players through the years, a summer in Alaska and playing in the Midnight Sun Game are career highlights as they look back on their time in baseball.
“So many players say that was the highlight of their baseball career, playing in Fairbanks,” said Lohrke.