By Gerry Foster
One of the movies in 1960 was North to Alaska, starring John Wayne. The theme song from the movie was sung by Johnny Horton. The lyrics of the chorus, “north to Alaska go north the rush is on” have been repeated, not only by gold seekers but also by thousands of baseball players since 1960.
College players travelled north, responding to an opportunity of playing summer baseball in the far north; coincidentally, the same year the movie hit the big screen, a barnstorming baseball team was established — the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks.
In 1974 the Alaska Baseball League was formed and has been in operation ever since. Players from throughout the lower states have been going to Alaska. When I met last summer with John Lohrke, current President of the Goldpanners, I asked him about college players coming to Alaska in the summer from such great distances to play ball. He responded by saying, “we tell them that they will likely never get to see Alaska otherwise.”
It has been said that the success of the Panners program in player development has far exceeded that of any other team in history. Supporting this comment is the fact that over 200 players from Fairbanks teams have ended up playing in the Major Leagues.
Their rosters have produced an astounding 126 first-round picks in the major league draft. These include major league stars Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Michael Young, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi.
An interesting annual feature in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is only about 250 km from the Arctic Circle, is the annual Midnight Sun baseball game. On June 21, just a few days before this Alaskan team makes their Grand Forks International debut, the 112th Midnight Sun game will take place at Growden Park in Fairbanks.
The game begins at 10:30 pm and ends around 1:30 a.m. No artificial lights are used. Its theme is Celebrating the coming of Summer. Someone described it as, “Baseball’s most natural promotion.”
When you think of Alaska, gold, snow and sled dogs come to mind but most would not think of baseball. Ben Goldfarb, a freelance environmentalist journalist, in reference to Alaska, wrote, “There may not be a more baseball-crazed society outside of the Dominican Republic.”
Last season the Fairbanks team made a decision to leave the Alaska Baseball League and play an independent schedule. This created an opportunity for them to attend the Grand Forks International.
This Alaska baseball organization has won the National Baseball Congress World Series six teams, which ties them with the Santa Barbara Foresters for most national championships. The NBC in Wichita, Kansas began in 1935.
Our theme at the upcoming GFI is Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday and Canadian Baseball history. In 1904 a baseball team from Whitehorse in the Yukon, challenged a team from Skagway, Alaska. They played a two-game series. The Alaskans were favoured but the Yukoners, playing on the Queen’s birthday, upset them 10-9 in Whitehorse. On the 4th of July in Skagway it was an 8-5 result for the Whitehorse team.
Over a century later the Goldpanners from Alaska will come south to Grand Forks and participate in the 36th GFI.