Baseball at the Top of the World

I first heard about the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks in August of 2020. Tom Seaver had just died, and while reading one of his many glowing eulogies I came across an odd note on his resume: in 1964 and ‘65, he had played for the Alaska Goldpanners, a team in the Alaska Baseball League. This struck me as incredible. I am from (and currently live in) Alaska, and I consider myself a relatively big baseball fan. Yet somehow, aside from a few hazy recollections of Bill Lee talking about the Goldpanners in a later inning of Ken Burns’ Baseball, the ‘Panners and the ABL had escaped my awareness and curiosity entirely. But if at one point they had talent like Tom Seaver, they must at least be worth looking into.

A quick bout of googling followed, and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read the league’s list of notable alumni. The list includes, but is not limited to: Dave Winfield, John Olerud, Mark McGwire, Graig Nettles, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. Barry Bonds in Alaska! Also Rick Monday, the #1 pick in the very first Major League Baseball Draft, whose voice (along with the great Vin Scully) I listened to for hours while learning to love baseball as an Alaskan transplant to California in the last decade. The image of these people, many of them Hall of Fame-tier players, getting off the airplane in Fairbanks or another northern city and emerging into the strange glare of Alaska’s summer sun is too bizarre and perfect to ignore, and deserves a place in the general public’s understanding of Alaska as a baseball state.

The organization’s website confirms what you might reasonably assume from looking at the long list of Alaska Baseball League players who went on to achieve great success in the majors: “No other amateur sports organization in the world has had more players drafted into the professional ranks.” I have found nothing whatsoever to counter that claim. They claim 1,184 MLB draft picks in their 60-year history, 126 of them first-rounders. No single college or semi-pro team anywhere even comes close.

The question, of course, is: why? What drew so many of the sport’s greatest names to the frozen expanses of “The Last Frontier”? (This is unrelated to anything, but it has always delighted me that Alaska shares a motto with outer space. “Alaska: it might as well be Mars”). Alaska is a long way from anywhere these guys played. Alaska is a long way even from itself—the state covers nearly as much ground as half of the continental United States. As a kid growing up in Southeast Alaska, it was easier for me to get to Seattle than it was to get to Fairbanks or even Anchorage. Maybe that’s why I had never heard of the ABL. With the Mariners so close, there was no need to look up to what seemed like nearly a foreign country even to me.

One major reason for the ABL’s stunning alumni list and outstanding success in the MLB amateur draft is Seaver himself. Following his success in the majors, the league gained notoriety as a place for college players to stay in shape and maybe prove themselves to scouts during its convenient June-July season. But then: how did Tom Seaver end up there? Why are people playing high-level semi-pro baseball in Alaska in the first place? What kind of a lunatic would start a league in a state twice as big as Texas with a smaller total population than San Francisco? To answer that question, I believe you have to look at the stunning story of the Alaska Goldpanner’s appearance in the 1962 National Baseball Congress World Series.

This story, along with the history of the ABL, begins with a man named Red Boucher. A 20-year Navy vet and sporting goods store owner, Red loved baseball and had connections to several major league players from his time in the Navy. During his first year living in Fairbanks, he accepted what turned out to be a bad deal from a group of financiers looking to start a baseball team. When the deal fell through, Red ended up on the hook for the cost of uniforms, which he had designed himself, and equipment. Despite this bad turn of fortune (some might say judgment), Red didn’t quit. Instead, he got to work calling in favors from old Navy buddies who had ended up working in and around the major leagues and was able to wrangle six college players up from the University of Arizona.

I love this. Moving somewhere new, getting scammed, and turning it into the opportunity of a lifetime is about as Alaskan as it gets. None of those six players would end up in the major leagues, but together they formed the nucleus of a team that would go on to make Alaska baseball history.

For the next two years, the Panners played—and beat—anyone who could muster up a team. Starting with local military leagues (the most serious players in Alaska at that point) and proceeding to local teams from surrounding towns and villages, they racked up a 24-7 record by 1962. Along with this record, they had also garnered a reputation for begging for funds that earned them the nickname “the Panhandlers.” At this point, Red decided to enter them in the National Baseball Congress World Series, a flashy move that no one really expected to pay off. To everyone’s surprise, they accepted his bid. The community helped supply Red with the $7,500 it would cost to take the team there, but one thing he didn’t figure into the total cost (intentionally or not), was how much money it would cost them to stay if they started winning. They didn’t come up with enough money to pay for hotels for the entire trip if they ended up going deep. Still, this was mostly a stunt anyway. The Goldpanners weren’t even seeded, they were total unknowns. There was no way it would be a problem.

Naturally, the Goldpanners started off by winning. They beat the Greeneville Tennessee Magnavox (I love these team names) narrowly, 5-4. Next, they lost to the Milwaukee Falks in another close game, 6-5. The National Baseball Congress is a double-elimination tournament, so they stayed in. In quick succession they rolled over the Winooski Parkers of Vermont, the Hollandale Hi-Boys of Mississippi, the Cherokee Chiefs of Oklahoma, the North Platte Plainsmen of Nebraska, the Ponchatoula Louisiana Athletics, and finally met the Wichita Kansas Dreamliners on their home turf for the championship game of the tournament.

Throughout this incredible winning streak, they started to run low on funds. According to Lew Freedman (from whose fantastic book Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball Stories from Alaska I learned much of this account), legend has it that devoted fans would roll a wheelbarrow through bars in Fairbanks to raise money to keep the team housed. Not knowing if they would win or be sent home on any given day of the tournament, they would often check out of their hotels in the morning, only to check back in again after winning.

Red Boucher and the Goldpanners were able to scrape together enough money to stay in town, winning the hearts and fandom of everyone at the tournament thanks to their scrappy, aggressive play and Boucher’s larger-than-life personality and gift for self-promotion.

At last, they faced the Wichita Dreamliners, who were ascendant at this point in their NBC career and made up of nearly all former professional players. The Goldpanners played hard and pulled ahead initially but ended up losing 7-6 in the ninth inning on a close play at the plate. Red immediately challenged the Dreamliners to play in the following year’s “Midnight Sun” game, an ingenious promotional move that would set the standard for teams coming from all over the United States to play in their annual exhibition game played at night on the longest day of the year, without lights. This tradition of teams from outside Alaska coming to play in this game continues today.

Even though they lost, the Goldpanners returned home as heroes. They had made a legitimate name for themselves in the world of semi-pro baseball at a real national tournament and drawn the attention of college scouts and players. That team brought home more accolades than any other team in the history of the tournament: National Non-Pro Team of the Year, Most Aggressive Team, Best Young Team, Best Dressed, Most Popular Player (John Stapp), and of course—Team Travelling the Farthest.

Their success at this tournament planted a seed that would grow into the Alaska Baseball League and would eventually result in a phone call from USC’s baseball coach two years later asking Red to try out a young pitcher named Tom Seaver to see if he’d be right for USC. Tom Seaver’s massive success would in turn open a floodgate of unbelievable college talent that would make the ABL something like a pre-draft farm league for all of MLB.

None of the players on that 1962 team made the majors, but their remarkable play along with the support (financially and otherwise) of their hometown made them legends. To me, this is what baseball is all about. The thing that gives anyone from anywhere the chance to measure up and show what they can do—the real version of what Major League Baseball sells.

I think Tom Seaver must have seen something of this in Alaska baseball. He played two seasons with the Goldpanners in 1964-5, even though he had already made the USC team and didn’t need to play the second year. In 1967, after winning Rookie of the Year playing for the Mets, he returned to Fairbanks to sign autographs and pay tribute to the league that helped earned him his ticket to the majors. I am so curious what he thought of Alaska, a place about as far from his hometown of Fresno as baseball could have taken him, but nevertheless a place where they knew and played the sport well. I want to know what he was thinking as his plane lifted off the runway and the massive expanse of the interior stretched under him on his way back to New York, halfway across the world.

Special thanks to Dermot and Henry Cole, who provided me with invaluable resources and helped me fact-check this account. Anyone interested in learning more about the Alaska Baseball League should pick up Lew Freedman’s incredible book Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball Stories from Alaska.

Featured photo: https://www.pannervault.com/

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