“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.
“I recall that one fearful day for the opposing team when Ed Stroecker in three successive times at bat hit the ball so hard and so far on each occasion it was lost in the farther reaches of the outfield, which were not tended as properly, it must be admitted, as the outfield in Yankee Stadium.”
The baseball tradition of the Stroecker family is carried on today by Bill Stroecker, Ed’s son and another former president of the First National Bank of Fairbanks.
Bill has been president of the board of directors of the Alaska Goldpanners for most of the team’s existence. He said he never played baseball much — basketball was his favorite game as a youth — but he’s stayed active with the Goldpanners because “it’s a great civic function.”
“The effect on kids, I think, has been the greatest thing. The image that the Goldpanners set is very beneficial,” he said.
Stroecker can be found in attendance at many of the Goldpanner games, dispensing tickets or working at the beer stand. Like hundreds of other team loyalists, he often wears his red Goldpanner bookster jacket.
Because of the volunteer efforts from Stroecker and others, the closest thing to major league baseball this side of Seattle unfolds for six weeks every summer within the friendly confines of Growden Park.
The rosters of the Alaska teams are made up of top collegiate players from across the country. Part of the attraction for the fans is thinking about which players may have the potenetial to reach the major leagues, following the likes of Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield and others who have taken the field in Fairbanks in seasons past.
Stroecker has been on the Goldpanner board of directors since the mid-1960s, when former General Manager Red Boucher decided he needed a formal organization behind the club.
Stroecker said the board’s members do volunteer work to keep the park in shape, but there’s never been any question about why the Goldpanners became and remain successful: Two men are chiefly responsible.
The first is Boucher, a former lieutenant governor and former state legislator from Anchorage. When he lived in Fairbanks, Boucher “ran the team out of his back pocket,” and succeeded because he was a great showman, Stroecker said. The second is former News-Miner editor Don Dennis, who took over the team from Boucher in the late 1960s.
Dennis is a low-key general manager who wins because he is a great judge of baseball talent and devotes almost every waking hour of the summer to the team, Stroecker said.
The club is a nonprofit community venture that relies on ticket sales, businesses, labor groups and scores of individual supporters to remain in operation. The players stay with local families who adopt them for the summer. Many long-lasting relationships have been started through the “Summer Son” program.
Individuals can help by buying season tickets, for which the Goldpanners have never had a price increase. “It’s the best bargain I can think of,” Stroecker said. “There’s no program like it anywhere.”