Opinions

Fun and Games Under the Midnight Sun

Happy Boy came out during the seventh-inning stretch, almost exactly at midnight. This time I knew who was inside the suit. I don’t know her name, but she had been sitting in front of me until the fifth inning. At that point, someone from the stadium walked up and spoke to her briefly. She rose from her seat and went to prepare. Another woman sitting near us told us with pride, “She’s Happy Boy.” It felt like discovering you had been sitting next to a celebrity, which in a way it was. People at Alaska Goldpanners games love Happy Boy. Getting to wear the Happy Boy suit at the annual Midnight Sun Game, the most famous and best-attended baseball game in Fairbanks, was a big deal.

After the Goldpanners made the third out in the top of the seventh she emerged wearing the suit: a big mascot head with a grey beard, hat, and overalls; a cartoon version of a prospector (or Goldpanner).  I always find mascots made to resemble human beings vaguely unnerving. I much prefer a Gritty, Philly, or Mr. Met—absurd, inhuman creatures who live only to entertain. Still, I couldn’t deny the charisma of this woman’s performance. She danced not to the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but the local choice, played at every Alaska Goldpanners game: Happy Boy. Why the Goldpanners, a collegiate summer league team based in Fairbanks Alaska, chose that particular song as their anthem, I will never know.

Happy Boy in his natural habitat. Pray he never escapes.

Something about choosing your own song to play during the seventh inning stretch instead of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” feels vaguely sacrilegious, like making up your own lyrics to church hymns. It also makes sense for the place. Alaska and Alaskans take pride in doing things differently. Living in an environment that seems designed to kill you at nearly every turn will give you a certain sense of pride. The desire to live in a place so entirely different from the continental United States draws a certain type of person to Alaska as much as its stunning and raw natural beauty.  

Fairbanks has hosted the Midnight Sun Game since 1906, just three years after the first-ever World Series. The game starts at 10:00 pm on or around the summer solstice and is played (usually past midnight), entirely without the aid of artificial light. Like many things in Alaska, the reason for playing the game essentially boils down to: “because we can.”  The tradition started as a bet between two local taverns, borne out of Alaska’s three foundational pillars: boredom, opportunity, and alcohol. Over the last century, it has grown into a world-famous event that feels more like a state fair than a collegiate summer league game.

Before 1960, the game was played mostly by Fairbanks teams representing local businesses. Afterward, the tradition was taken over by the Alaska Goldpanners, a collegiate summer team and foundational (though not current) member of the Alaska Baseball League. The Goldpanners are largely responsible for turning the game into the major event it is today. They have played the Midnight Sun Game in their home park every year except for 2020 when the global pandemic caused them to cancel their season. In order to keep the tradition alive, two local teams took up the mantle: the Eielson-Brewers and the BlackSpruce Pirates. Local teams stepping up to save the tradition means that there has been a midnight baseball game played in Fairbanks every year around this time for 116 years.

The Goldpanners play their home games, including the Midnight Sun game, in Growden Park, a field built on the banks of the Chena River. You can feel the love for the team and its history the moment you walk in. One of the first things you notice is the large posters, printed to look like vintage baseball cards, advertising a few notable Goldpanner alums. Tom Seaver and Steve Kemp adorn the concession stand.

The concession stand, with the stadium’s facilities visible in the background.

Opposite that, above a set of the venue’s original chairs (taken from Seattle’s ill-fated Sick’s Stadium), are five posters: Terry Francona, Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Jason Giambi, and Mike Boddicker.

Shout out to all the Mike Boddicker stans.

The number of Goldpanners drafted into the Major Leagues is astounding, adding another element of wonder to this strange event: you very well might be watching future major leaguers play baseball at midnight.

This leads to another important element of the Midnight Sun game, arguably more important than the bizarre daylight-at-night: the baseball is good. In this year’s game the Goldpanners took on the Everett Merchants, another team made up of college players looking to stay sharp and maybe be seen by scouts over the summer. There were impressive diving catches, great pitching performances, and one particularly close play at the plate that brought the audience to their feet (the runner, a Goldpanner, did not score).

Both teams played well. Starting at 10:00 pm sharp, German Fajardo, pitching for the Goldpanners, and Jared Maxfield for the Merchants dueled one another until the bottom of the fourth inning when Marco Pirruccello hit a single to drive in Chase Rodriguez for the first of three runs for the Panners. Fajardo, a Freshman from Arizona State University, went on to pitch a total of seven excellent innings, allowing only two hits, one walk, and no runs while striking out nine. Buddie Pindel, a Junior at the University of Hawaii, took the ball and completed the shutout, throwing the last pitch of the game at 12:45 am, minutes before Fairbanks’ official “sunset.” The sun rose a few hours later at 2:58 am, without it ever really getting dark. The Goldpanners won, 3-0.

This meant that the sun never technically set on the game. This is not always the case. Contrary to what I had assumed based on the name, the sun does occasionally set on the Midnight Sun Game. More than 100 miles below the arctic circle, Fairbanks does not experience twenty-four solid hours of direct daylight at any point during the summer. Still, it never really gets dark. The sun might dip behind the horizon momentarily, but the hazy arctic glow remains.

Hazy arctic glow is not usually considered satisfactory for a baseball game, however. In the past players and teams have complained – a visiting Taiwanese team once refused to continue playing after sunset, the only forfeit in the history of the game. In more recent years visiting players and coaches have complained to no avail: the lights have never once been used in the entire 116-year history of the game. Nowadays the team couldn’t turn on the lights even if they wanted to: they (the lights) haven’t worked for many years.

More than a good game, it was a good show. The carnival-like atmosphere included food trucks, live music, and giveaways—one prize that caught my attention was 100 gallons of heating fuel, the most Alaskan prize I can imagine.  And of course, there was Happy Boy, dancing along to the surprisingly unsettling lyrics of the song after which he was named.

All of this, to me, elevates the game above being a regional curiosity, a box to check off on your weird baseball tour of America. The Midnight Sun Game has real history, real meaning, and is so perfectly, uniquely Alaskan that it almost feels strange for non-residents to attend (still go and check that box though, I highly recommend it).

After Happy Boy’s song ended, another tradition commenced, this one more specific to the Midnight Sun Game. The Sweet Adelines, a local women’s chorus, walked onto the field and sang Alaska’s state song. Most people I know who aren’t from Alaska don’t know their state song, but for some reason Alaskans all do. We love it. I’ve always felt much more stirred from hearing “eight stars of gold on a field of blue…” than I ever have from “O say can you see…”  There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but I think the main one is that “Alaska’s Flag” is a straight-up better song than the National Anthem. Both are problematic in their own ways, but at least Alaska’s state song is catchy. I took off my hat. Everybody stood up and sang along. The Sweet Adelines nailed it.

Being in the stadium at that moment felt something like how I imagine baseball used to feel in the days when the fans in the audience knew the players and their families, back when every game was a kind of novelty in its own way. At the risk of sounding too much like one of the old guys in the stands I am so rapidly becoming, it’s how I think baseball is “supposed” to feel—personal, regional, specific to a time and place while simultaneously outside of all that.

It’s possible I’m imagining something here that never really existed. It’s also possible that the absolute strangeness of hearing Alaska’s state song at midnight, in broad daylight, during the seventh-inning stretch, broke time and space for a moment. Good baseball can do that, and this was some of the best I’ve seen.

View from the press box leaving the game at 12:50am

You can watch the Goldpanner’s recording of the Midnight Sun Game here (Happy Boy comes out around 3:01:30, with the Sweet Adelines following): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCzq2zbuhgU

Finn Straley

Finn Straley is a writer from Southeast Alaska. You can follow him on Twitter at @finnstraley.

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