Putting the Game on Ice

Part of the SHORT STOPS series
Written by: Matt Rothenberg

In March 1953, the United States Navy icebreaker Burton Island joined the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind on a 47-day expedition, attempting to reach Nome, Alaska. Two tries were unsuccessful, due to thick ice in one area of the Bering Strait and the southward drift of an ice pack in another area.

Having reached an area of shore-fast ice in a bay along Alaska’s Saint Lawrence Island, crew members of the ships, using an empty cardboard beer case as home plate, participated in a pickup baseball game. In the shadow of the cliffs, the batter is set to receive a pitch as the fielders wait, each person’s dark clothing contrasting against the strikingly white snow and ice. The game-time temperature was well below zero!

The photographer is unknown, as are the participants’ identities. However, the coat of the catcher, whose back is to the camera, reveals a clue. Faint dark lettering shows “AGB,” a reference to the Burton Island, whose identification during its Navy tenure was AGB-1. We cannot be sure whether these are, indeed, sailors from the Burton Island.

Artwork that depicts a baseball game in Alaska held in 1894. BL-2540.93 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Baseball is hardly a recent phenomenon in Alaska – the sport has been played there for over 100 years. Alaska has hosted collegiate summer baseball teams for decades, counting Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield among the alumni. The annual Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks garners much media attention.

Baseball’s Arctic genesis may be traced to the mid-1890s at Herschel Island, just off the Yukon coast. Whaling ships would get trapped in the bay’s ice by November, and, using ashes, the crews laid out a baseball diamond. A full season of the Herschel Island League was played until the start of the summer whaling season in July. The league champion earned the Arctic Whalemen’s Pennant, and temperatures could often be as low as 30 to 40 degrees below zero.

In an 1899 issue of Harper’s Round Table, U.S. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, later a Medal of Honor recipient, recounted the origins, rules, and general goings-on of the Herschel Island League during his 1894 trek to the island. The Roaring Gimlets outscored the Pig-Stickers 62 to 49 in one of the earliest league games, with temperatures at 38 degrees below zero. Wearing fur parkas and mittens, it was not rare for fielding to be far from perfect, but the ice made sliding – and hitting home runs – a breeze.

Funston also described the native population’s involvement, noting they “tried a few games of their own, but rarely got beyond the first inning, usually winding up in a general melee and hair-pulling.”

Betting on games was not uncommon, and the matches drew a diverse and – both literally and figuratively – captive audience of sea-farers from throughout the world.

Though short-lived, the Herschel Island League broke the ice for baseball in the northernmost outposts of North America, where it is still played and enjoyed today.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the SHORT STOPS series