Bill Stroecker, center, is the trumpetist for the Frigid-Aires, Growden’s house band, which runs through a set of jazz standards prior to each Midnight Sun Game. Stroecker’s father, Eddie, was the catcher in the very first Midnight Sun Game, in 1906, and Bill still serves as the president of the Goldpanners. Between Stroecker (who complained of “sticky valves” during his 2007 set), accordion player Rif Rafson, and bassist Karl Carlson, the Frigid-Aires have spent a combined 206 years in Alaska.
By Jim Caple
FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The Midnight Sun game is like most baseball games -except here the shadows are still creeping across the infield at close to 11 p.m.
“Nobody here knows if the lights have ever been turned on or not,” Alaska Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff said, squinting through the golden sunlight at the light towers at Growden Park. “The rumor is that they might not even work. I know they’ve never been on in the four years I’ve been here. You talk to the locals about the lights and they just laugh and say, ‘Yeah, we don’t know about them, either.'”
Unless they get serious about baseball in Scandinavia or some other place near the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks will continue to have the market on games under the Midnight Sun just as it has for the past century.
“It’s unique. We’re the only people that have it,” said Don Dennis, the Alaska Goldpanners’ general manager since 1968. “Nobody else can do it.”
That’s because nobody else who has almost 22 hours of daylight on the summer solstice plays baseball regularly. And the other five Alaska Baseball League teams, the nearest 300 miles to the south, simply don’t have enough light to start a game at 10:30 p.m. and play it all the way through without flipping the switch for artificial lights.
“‘The number of years the three of us have been in Alaska is 203,” Stroecker said, eyes alert for the missing band member. “And, apparently, one of us has Alzheimer’s.”
BY CLARK SPENCER
FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The sun was posturing, scraping the western horizon while making its slow descent to the north. A rainbow unfurled in the east. And Bill Stroecker was standing impatiently by the admission gate at Growden Park as fans lined up to celebrate a baseball happening like no other.
‘You enjoy every minute of this,” said Mr. Stroecker, who has lived his entire life in Fairbanks, ”because from here on out, it goes downhill a little bit every day.”
“There’s no program like it anywhere.”
DURING THE EARLY DAYS OF Fairbanks, baseball had an iron grip on the public’s attention.
There were no cars to get people out of town easily and no television stations to keep the kids entertained, so a trip to a ballgame was a favorite diversion.
“There were great players in those days too,” Bob Bartlett wrote in 1954. “Whether they could have made the major leagues is beside the point.”
Bartlett, a future U.S. Senator, said his favorite ballplayers included George Parks, who became governor of Alaska, and Ed Stroecker, who later served as president of the First National Bank of Fairbanks (now Key Bank). Stroecker was a great power hitter, Bartlett said.
BY MICHELLE EASTTY
The inconceivably dramatic history of the city of Fairbanks has been shaped by a multitude of forgotten characters, including frontiersmen, gold panners, and all-around scoundrels. The names of those who have made the greatest impact are remembered with honor and pride. One such name is that of Eddie Stroecker, “The Grand Old Man.”
An adventurer who came to Alaska at the turn of the century, Stroecker brought with him a passion for the game of baseball that is remembered to this day. He played in the earliest organized “base ball” games in Fairbanks, and is remembered as the father of Fairbanks’ annual midnight sun baseball game.
“Baseball seemed to mean more to him than anything,” said Eddie’s son, Bill Stroecker, who has perpetuated the legacy by serving as the Alaska Goldpanners’ board president for 34 consecutive years.
It was October 1904 when Eddie Stroecker and some friends floated on a hand-built boat to what was then the booming gold camp called Fairbanks. Before that, he spent winters working in Valdez and summers mining in the Copper River Valley. It was his knack for baseball that landed him a much-needed job in Valdez in 1901. “There was a saloon owner in Valdez who envisioned himself to be a pretty good pitcher,” recalled Bill Stroecker, from a story his father had told him. “He would go out with two other guys, a catcher and a batter, and the three of them would play. Dad was sitting on the fence watching when the batter hit a high fly ball. Dad ran over to catch it and the saloon owner said, ‘Now that’s a baseball player!’ and gave Dad a job in the saloon.”
Eddie Stroecker was an intense player, and played the catcher position with ferocious determination. Often the team captain, he and whatever local team he could pull together challenged military and business teams in the gold rush days of the early 1900’s. Stroecker was admired throughout the North for his aggressive baserunning and a Dawson newspaper suggested that he would have the makings of a professional player in the Lower 48.
As best as can be determined, the annual Midnight Sun Baseball Classic started in 1906 as a Summer Solstice celebration. The game has always been held at midnight, and in its 95 years has never once been played under artificial lighting. This became a primary facet of game tradition in 1964 when Growden Memorial Park, home of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, became Alaska’s first outdoor stadium with lights.
Stroecker is reported to have played in Fairbanks’ very first organized baseball game, and he is credited with being the driving force behind the inauguration of the midnight game tradition.
His stellar play was a constant draw for the event. Playing for the Athletics in the 1910 classic, he had two hits, scored a run and stole four bases in his team’s 11-8 win. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s account of the game states that “to the work of Eddie Stroecker more than to any other one person, is the victory of the Athletics attributable, as he put life and confidence into his team and made use of his head at all times in playing his team.” His outstanding play continued for years, and his was a routine presence in the Midnight Sun Game lineup until 1918.
It has been almost a century since Eddie Stroecker and his teammates started the unrivaled tradition of Fairbanks’ Midnight Sun Game. Bill Stroecker’s subsequent leadership in Fairbanks baseball presents a 100 year dominion for the Stroecker duo that is almost unimaginable. This summer, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks will be honoring the Stroecker legacy in Fairbanks history by recognizing with esteem the distinction of these two great men.
2000 GOLDPANNERS YEARBOOK & STATISTICAL RECORD