“Instead of sitting down to a midnight game of base-ball” observed the genial sourdough at my side as we found places in the bleachers, “you’d be going home from the theatre at this time of the night. I mean if you were back in the States, in place of being in central Alaska.”
“It certainly seems strange to me” I affirmed as I glanced at the women and children filing into the grand-stand, and the others, with the word “fan” written all over their countenances, who were crowding in beside us. “I can’t realize that it is almost 11 o’clock.”
“It’s fortunate for you and the other chechacoes (Tenderfeet) who came in today that your steamer arrived when she did. Usually the first boat of the season doesn’t reach Fairbanks until about June 25th. Here in this camp we hold, that besides seeing a freeze-up and watching the ice go out in the spring a chechaco must sit through a midnight ball-game before he can class as a sourdough.”
“I never have heard of such a thing as playing ball in the middle of the night. It’s something new, isn’t it?” I asked.
“New nothing. Why, ever since the Fairbanks camp was struck in 1902, or as soon afterward as we had suitable grounds, to be exact, we have been playing ball at midnight on the longest day of the year.”
“Do you ever play?”
“Doesn’t every American play ball? But it has been years” sighed the sourdough. “Still,” he brightened as he spoke, “I guess I did my share last night, at the Midnight Shoot, toward starting the Festival of the Midnight Sun aging properly.”
“An indoor match?” I inquired.
“Not much it wasn’t. A match held on a regulation army range, over the 200, 300 and 500-yard distances. Ever squint through rifle sights at the witching hour of twelve?”
“Possibly in a shooting gallery.”
“Yes, in a shooting gallery or behind a jack-light in the bow of a canoe. I mean under the open sky by the aid of the light God gives us here in the North. Well, it’s something different. Why, it was a little peculiar even to me, long as I have been here. You see,” he explained, “this was our first shoot, although hereafter it will be a regular part of the Festival. For my part I never knew those new Springfields could make so much noise or start so many echoes going. That was because it was so still, I suppose. I guess all the boys of the club enjoyed the novelty of shooting for cups and prizes when the rest of the country was asleep.
“Did you win?”
“No,” disgustedly. “Bad luck to a few wisps of mist! You see, we fired the first rifle at 10 o’clock and all was lovely for me at first. At a quarter past twelve we stopped for lunch and I was feeling fine then, for with the two ranges past I was running nip-and-tuck with the high ones. Then about 2 o’clock in the morning came my turn on the 500-yard butts and just at that minute a wall of fog or mist drifted in from a bit of marshy ground and practically shut off the targets. Might as well try shooting through a house in hopes of finding the target behind it.”
“What’s that?” as the crowd in the grand-stand started a rattle of hand clapping.
“The little one is Queen of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden North, an order that will have charge of these festivals in the future. That other auto just coming up carries the present Queen of the Festival and her maids. That means the parade and doings down-town are ended and they will be willing to start this game going. No,” and he subsided with a grunt of disapproval as several dignitaries of the city of Fairbanks stepped onto the grounds. “I forgot about their dedicating the Park tonight. They’re breaking ground for the Alaska Semi-Centennial Exposition to be held here in 1917 when we’ll celebrate Alaska’s first fifty-year period under the American flag.
“See this fellow in the light suit warning up off here to the right?” My informant was paying no attention to the speech-making on our left. “That’s Leonberger of the Signal Corps who is pitching for the Eagles — the best twirler in the camp.”
“Wins everything?” I inquired politely.
“Wins nothing. It doesn’t matter how good a team there is behind him, the Eagles can’t win. It looks as though there was some sort of a jinx on them. But there isn’t. The difference in the playing lies in the spirit of the nines. Dad Stroecker, captain of the Van Dycks — they’re the ones in the dark red suits — puts the pep in his men. He keeps them gingered up even if the score is going against them so they have come to look for a balloon ascension on the part of the Eagles and a batting rally on their own. And it comes every time. In some inning the Eagles are sure to blow up.”
“Are those fellows still talking?”
My friend looked around. “It seems to me they are talking a lot of time turning a few spadefuls of dirt. Play ball!” He raised his voice to a shout and the others around us took up the cry. “Ah, I thought that would help start ’em!”
“Crack!” the Eagle at the plate met the first ball fairly and sped away to first.
“No use running, young fellow” grumbled the fan at my side. “That’s smack in center’s mitts and he never dropped one in his life.”
I watched the ball as it curved to the field. How easily the eye could follow it! Surely this could not be the middle of the night. I looked at my watch. It was 11.15.
“It will be 1 o’clock or after before the game is finished” observed my companion as he saw my movement. “Did you note I called the turn on that first man up?”
I nodded, for I was more interested in the crowd than in the actual play. Around me were some, like my friend, who could see nothing but the game and who would suffer the pangs of the damned if their team were losing. But there were others, old-timers, who were there because it was a habit, and they are were willing to yell themselves hoarse over any bit of good playing. Sprinkled through the crowd were chechacoes, like myself, present because of the novelty of the thing.
And it was a novel thing — that sitting through a midnight baseball game, particularly if one forgot the game for the moment and chanced to think of the hour of the night. As the innings passed, the sensation of strangeness grew on me Over all was the light of early evening back in the States; high above floated a number of fleecy clouds; while from the north, where the sun skimmed along behind the row of hills a few miles distant that shut off the horizon, there came a ruddy glow that might be from the open doors of Vulcan’s forges. And yet it did not feel like evening and sunset at home, for one could not help but note the suspension of insect and bird life. About all this daylight scene there was the stillness of midnight.
Into my musings there came the words of my companion
“Some year” he was saying, “we have regular legal ball, and next you wouldn’t know it was base-ball if it wasn’t labeled. The kind depends on who drifts in, for you know the population of a placer camp is changing constantly. Now this year I have been swearing after each fiasco that I won’t go to another; but I do; I’m right here at the next game.”
“Latitude doesn’t seem to make much difference with the fan. doesn’t it? Hello! What are they stopping for?”
“Midnight, I guess. They always call a halt on the stoke of twelve to give the camera-men and kodakers a chance to snap the players and the crowd. Yes, look at ’em.”
“Now you Eagles!” vociferated my bleecher-mate when the last shutter had closed. “Show ’em the luck has changed. I knew it!” and he lept to his feet. “A clean one,” as the sphere, coming from the end of the bat with cannon-ball velocity, started on a gradual rise over the infield.
“Ur-rgh!” He sat down with an inarticulate roar. “Robber! That was as pretty a hit as I ever saw, and Wood, the short, spoiled it. Did you ever see anything like that catch? Turned and ran behind third, jumping and spearing that sizzler with a back-hander as he ran. That man Wood has no business here. He ought to be playing league ball instead of wasting his talents in his brother’s bank” and again my sourdough friend’s face showed disgust in a superlative degree.
“That catch will take the ginger out of the Eagles; mark my word. The balloon will now start upward.”
“What did I tell you?” He was still grumbling an hour later as we filed out of the grounds. “Those Eagles couldn’t win a game if they were playing against an empty field. Something would happen.”
My companion’s plaint, however, passed me by for the most part. I was noting the beautiful cloud effects overhead and along the horizon on three sides. Also I was listening to the first stirrings of the birds after their brief period of quiet, and as I listened I mused on this wonderland where the sun is so careless about his sleeping hours.
“Do you suppose” I asked myself, “that the folks at home will believe you if you write them of sitting through a midnight base-ball game?”