In the Oscar-nominated film, “City of Gold,” narrated by Pierre Berton, Dawson City is depicted as a small northern community with colourful gold rush origins. By the 1950s, however, all that remained were the numerous decrepit abandoned buildings, old-timers sunning themselves in front of the Occidental Hotel, and children playing baseball in Minto Park.
When I arrived in Dawson 25 years later, everyone was still playing baseball. I joined the Parks Canada ball team. Someone designed a special T-shirt that the team sported when they went onto the field. I hit my one and only home run playing ball in Minto Park in 1978. It felt great to play ball on warm summer evenings.
Baseball has been played in the Yukon for over 125 years. The first ball game was played in February of 1894, by whalers wintering over on Herschel Island. When one of them found a cache of bats and balls, a league consisting of seven teams was quickly formed, and a field laid out on the irregular icy surface of Pauline Cove.
The players were garbed in heavy winter gear. The baseline was laid out using ash from the ships’ stoves. With the irregularities in the ice surface, no one knew where the ball was going to bounce. During mid-winter, the games were shortened due to the short period of daylight in the far northern community. They played regardless of the temperature. One game was played when the temperature dropped to -45 C. Another game ended in a blizzard where visibility was so limited that it was impossible to find shelter. Five men perished in the storm.
The whalers took the game seriously. One man stabbed another during an argument over where to lay out the playing field.
Nobody thought to bring sports paraphernalia with them when thousands stampeded to Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush. For the ball game played on the Fourth of July, 1898, bats were hewn out of abandoned boat masts, and balls were concocted from whatever was available.
The game was played in ankle-deep sand on a sand bar in front of town. One can only imagine how the base runners struggled around the diamond, or how many makeshift baseballs ended up being hit, or overthrown, into the Yukon River. The teams? The Sourdough Stiffs beat the Cheechakos by a score of 9 to 8.
A few days later, another game was played in the midnight sun on King Street, in front of the Pavilion Dance Hall. Before a crowd of five hundred, the two teams battled it out. One player was so popular with the crowd, they cajoled the umpire into granting him four strikes. A donkey wandered into the field of play and stood on the pitcher’s mound until one of the players mounted it and rode it off the diamond. The game continued into the early hours of the morning, and no one bothered to record the final score. In these early games, the newspaper coverage focused more upon the antics, rather than the technical details of the games.
Pick-up matches continued in Dawson over the following years, played on a diamond located in the Mounted Police parade square at the south end of town. A baseball league was organized in 1904, and the playing field was relocated to the newly established Minto Park, still the site of baseball in Dawson City today. Special holidays served as opportunities for baseball games or tournaments to be organized. Victoria Day and the Fourth of July were popular dates for such events. When the territory adopted Discovery Day as a holiday, it too became the occasion for baseball.
Baseball games became rallying events for various groups. The civil service versus the bankers; teams sponsored by businesses, miners versus townsfolk. Different communities assembled teams to do battle against each other. Dawson played games with teams from Eagle, Alaska. Whitehorse played baseball games with a team from Skagway. In 1902, for example, the Skagway team came to Whitehorse by train, where they defeated the home team by a score of 6 to 3.
Whitehorse reciprocated by taking the train to Skagway the following Fourth of July. Skagway again beat Whitehorse, by a score of 6 to 5 by default at the top of the eighth inning. It is possible that the game was ended prematurely because the visiting team had to catch the 9:30 p.m. train back to Whitehorse.
Changing times are reflected in the changing circumstances. In 1938, a Fairbanks team flew to Dawson City, for the Discovery Day celebration, where they defeated the home team in a close game, by a score of 5 to 4. Newspaper was still the primary means of transmitting the news, and readers could enjoy the descriptive play action written up the following day.
Size did not matter; even Carcross took great pride in fielding a local baseball team. The summer of 1939, they trounced the Nowland’s Placers team in Atlin by a sizeable margin — 37 to 17. A short time later, the Atlin team came to Carcross seeking revenge. By the top of the seventh, the Atlin team was leading Carcross by a score of 6 to zero. But Carcross struggled back, scoring two in the bottom of the seventh, followed by another run in the eighth.
Keeping Atlin off the scoreboard in the ninth, Carcross came to bat, and with runners on second and third, the batter, Clarke of Carcross, hit a double, and drove in two runners, bringing the Carcross team within one run of their opponents. Atlin, however, exacted sweet revenge for the thrashing they had received a short time before. With runners on second and third again, and two men out, the last batter went out and the final score posted was 6 to 5, in favour of the visiting Atlin team.
During the war, teams were formed along military lines. In may of 1940, a civilian team challenged the enlisted men in Whitehorse. The enlisted men quickly took a lead; at the end of the first inning, the score was 2 to 1. There was no scoring in the second inning, but the enlisted men broke out in the third with six runs. The final score: 8 to 2.
In the 1950s, softball reigned in Whitehorse, with both men’s and women’s fastball leagues. In the 1980s, however, fastball faded from the scene and was replaced by slow-pitch baseball. According to John Firth in his definitive book “Yukon Sport,” by 2013, Softball Yukon had grown from less than a hundred players on a dozen teams, to almost 1,500 players on 70 teams.
After more than 125 years, the tradition continues, and baseball is alive and thriving in the Yukon.
Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. Michael is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org