"April hath put a spirit of youth in everything,” as Shakespeare noted, and that hasn’t changed in the intervening 400 years. Spring’s a season we Far Northerners can almost taste when April rolls around. And as the English writer John Drinkwater noted, “And not a girl goes walking,/ Along the Cotswold lanes,/ But knows men’s eyes in April,/ Are quicker than their brains./” More than love stirs young men’s fancies, though, because, as nice as springtime in Alaska is, summer’s better, especially this year as we gradually return to societal normalcy with Goldpanner baseball returning to Growden Field this month. I’ve possessed ‘Panner season tickets since coming to Fairbanks to run the public library thirty years ago, and upon my arrival it was quickly pointed out that Noel Wien Library resides upon a former runway back when Weeks Field was the town landing strip that extended all the way to where Growden Park is today.
Howard Hughes landed near the present-day library building to refuel during his round-the-world flight on July 13, 1938. Bruce Haldeman, a local historian par excellence, told me how Hughes, who once said, “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire,” was flying a plane with special compartments filled with ping pong balls so it would float if it crashed in the ocean.
While fueling was underway, a Pan Am employee named Clyde Smith opened one of the compartments spilling ping pong balls out on the runway, and the crowd scrambled for souvenirs. Clyde was personally rebuked by Hughes, who warned the onlookers not to keep any samples. He was ignored, of course, and his lack of grace contrasted sharply with the fresh memory of Will Rogers, whose widow was present. During Rogers’ and Wiley Post’s stopover in Fairbanks before flying to their doom outside Barrow, Rogers strolled around town handing out silver dollars to the kids he encountered.
UAF’s Rasmuson Library has a brief online silent film clip of Hughes’ Fairbanks visit Rasmuson Library Film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-9VKFwKxAk), and, for contrast here ‘s a clip of Rogers and Post kissing babies, meeting sled dogs, and generally gallivanting around 1935 Fairbanks at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmX94TyvvV0.
Spring training is the season’s high point for many of us, a moment when every team just might win it all. By the end of May, all hope is usually lost, at least for us long-suffering fans of the Texas Rangers, who just set an all-time club record for most consecutive road games lost (15 and counting). Nonetheless, even when the season’s awash in despair, great baseball books abound to revive and strengthen one’s love of the national pastime. Consider Peter Morris’ excellent “But Didn’t We Have Fun: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870” that describes the evolution of the bases. Originally, they were four-foot high posts driven into the ground and caused loads of injuries. So, the posts were supplanted by large flat stones that led to new kinds of injuries and were replaced by sand bags.
Morris also laid out the evolution of pitching. In the earliest rule books pitchers were primarily fielders and threw softly and underhanded – their arms had to be stiff and extend no higher than six inches above the ground – the idea being to be a gentleman and allow the batter to hit.
The ball was 10 inches in circumference and weighed 10 ounces, while modern balls weigh between 5 and 5.25 ounces and are 9 inches round. “Only pitching or tossing the ball to the bat was allowed and no throwing of any kind,” Morris wrote. “Though strikes were in the rules, they were rarely called … It was frequent to see a pitcher deliver 50 or 60 balls to the batsman before the latter selected one to strike at.” Baseball soon grew more competitive. By the mid-1850s throwing fastballs was recorded, with newspaper accounts describing the Knickerbockers, the first American baseball team playing under rules crudely similar to modern ones, whose pitcher, Richard F. Stevens, “sends the ball with exceeding velocity,” and since Steven’s uncle owned the Elysian Fields, where the Knickerbockers played, he pitched the way and when he wanted.
This brings us to another great baseball book, “Hit By Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays, and the Fatal Fastball” by Molly Lawless.
It’s an excellent nonfiction graphic novel about the day, August 16, 1920, when Chapman, the gregarious, popular shortstop for the Cleveland Indians was hit in the head by a fastball thrown by mean, disliked Yankees pitcher Carl May. Chapman died, and May, who had a reputation for throwing at batters, became a pariah, with most teams refusing to play if he pitched.
It’s a true American tragedy, and Lawless paints the entire picture knowledgeably and sympathetically.
Fans still sing “Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack, I don’t care if I never get back,” but they’re merely boasting. How many would stick around to watch an 8-and-a-half hour game? The answer is 19. On April 19, 1981, the International League’s Pawtucket Red Sox (including Wade Boggs) and the Rochester Red Wings (with Cal Ripken, Jr.) began a minor league game at 8:25 p.m. with 1,740 in attendance. In the bottom of the ninth inning Pawtucket tied the game at 1-1, and they continued playing. Most leagues, including the International League have curfew rules where games must be postponed due to lateness.
Unfortunately, the umpire, Dennis Cregg, had a copy that was missing that section, so they played on despite growing exhaustion.
When Wade Boggs tied the game at 2-2 in the 21st inning, he said, “I don’t know if the guys on the team wanted to hug me or slug me.”
The weather was miserably cold, and the players built fires out of broken bats and the wooden bleacher seats, and it was so windy that normal home runs were blown back onto the field.
When finally reached by telephone at 4 a.m. on Easter Sunday by the Pawtucket publicity man, a “horrified” Harold Cooper, the league president, stopped play after the 32nd inning. 19 fans had stuck it out and were rewarded with season tickets. Play was resumed two days later, 5,746 fans and 140 reporters attended, Pawtucket won in one inning and 18 minutes, and umpire Clegg never attended another baseball game.
It’s all reminiscent of Ernest Thayer’s famous poem, “Casey At the Bat,” that begins, “The outlook was brilliant for the Mudville nine that day. The score stood four to two, with but one more inning to play.” Thayer invented Casey for the San Francisco Examiner, after being hired by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper’s new twenty-something publisher, who had edited the Harvard Lampoon, and whose father gave it to him upon graduation. Hearst brought along three fellow Lampoon editors to the Examiner, including Thayer, who contributed regular humor pieces, including “Casey at the Bat,” published June 3, 1888.
It went unnoticed until it was republished in the New York Sun several weeks later and attributed to “Anonymous.” This version was clipped out by Archibald Gunter, a novelist who collected interesting newspaper articles for book ideas.
When Gunter read in August 1888 that the New York and Chicago baseball teams planned to attend a performance by his friend, comedian De Wolf Hopper, he gave a copy of “Casey” to Hopper for his act, and the poem was a huge hit.
Hopper performed it regularly thereafter, and although three separate scoundrels subsequently claimed authorship, they couldn’t prove it.
Five years later, Thayer returned East and attended Hopper’s show, heard his poem, and afterwards gave the comedian royalty-free performance rights.
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice composed “Casey’s Revenge” in 1908 that’s suited to baseball season’s first blush, when every team’s a contender.
“Oh somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun;/ And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun;/ And somewhere over blighted loves there hangs a heavy pall;/ But Mudville hearts are happy now – for Casey hit the ball.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.