Today marks the online release of a new documentary chronicling the storied history of the Alaska Baseball League from the first Midnight Sun Game in 1906, to the formation of the Fairbanks Goldpanners in 1960 up to the present.
The documentary, called "Touching the Game, Alaska," was filmed over the summers of 2006 and 2007 by the producers of "Touching the Game, The Story of the Cape Cod League," and it takes "a fascinating look at the Alaska Baseball League and its history as told by some of the biggest names in the game." The film, a two DVD set, is currently available at www.touchingthegame.com.
Director and co-producer Jim Carroll said the idea of doing a documentary on the ABL came up after the success of their movie about the Cape Cod League in 2003.
"We had some pretty good success with that and we sold about 10,000 DVDs, and it aired nationally on WGN Superstation," he said. "People liked it and said we should do the Alaska Baseball League. A lot of great players have played up there, but it's a totally different terrain and distance between the cities. I actually flew up for the Midnight Sun Game in 2005 to do some investigating. I liked the story, so we went from there.
"It was a lot of fun, and we had a lot of fun producing it."
The movie begins with the history of the Goldpanners and the Midnight Sun Game, played every year on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The first Midnight Sun Game was held in 1906 and picked back up in 1960 with the formation of the Goldpanners, formerly a travel squad that played teams from all over the United States.
The movie contains interviews with some of the baseball's all-time greats like Dave Winfield, Tom Seaver and ESPN Hall of Fame analyst Peter Gammons, among numerous other current and former MLB stars - even former Governor Sarah Palin makes a cameo appearance.
Anchorage got a team, the Glacier Pilots, in the late 1960s, and it went on to win the NBC national championship in 1969 as Alaskan summer league baseball was the best in the country for a stretch.
"Alaska and Cape were really the first leagues," Carroll said. "Before that, it was mostly barnstorming leagues. And then the Goldpanners got started in the 1960s and kind of took it from there, historically. There was period in the '70s and '80s when Alaska was the place for colleges to send their kids. Now, there are a bunch of different leagues around."
Juneau, Alaska's third largest city, was then considered for a team, but the excessive rainfall led to Kenai being chosen as the next to get a club, the Peninsula Oilers. Palmer's Valley Green Giants joined the league in 1976, followed by the Mat-Su Miners. The Valley Green Giants then moved to North Pole, where they were renamed the Nicks.
Finally, the Anchorage Bucs joined the league in 1980, and there are currently six teams - the Goldpanners, Bucs, Glacier Pilots, Miners, Oilers and the Athletes In Action Fire.
"The league has such an amazing history, and out here on the East Coast, there are people who don't even know it's nice in Alaska in the summer," Carroll said. "People have said to me, 'What do they do, clear the snow?' People out (East) really know so little about Alaska and the tradition of the league, and they don't associate Alaska with any sports.
"They just think bears and moose."
Carroll said he hopes people who see the film will gain a new appreciation and respect for Alaska and its baseball.
"I want them to appreciate the history, and to take from it what this experience is like for a young kid," he said. "Many of these kids are going to go on to the Minor Leagues, and the Minor Leagues isn't all it's cracked up to be as far as long bus trips and not-so-great hotels. I think the reason the Alaska league started was that some college coaches wanted to toughen up their boys a little bit and make them into men.
"I think there is a real growth aspect in baseball," he continued. "You're not just talented all through high school and you stay talented. You have to adjust to playing every night and taking long bus trips. I hope people understand the commitment and some of what these kid go through, and really appreciate the history."
Carroll said the toughest part of making the movie was adjusting to the extra amount of sunlight, though the people he met along the way made the experience more than worthwhile.
"Our cameramen didn't want to sleep because 'the light's too beautiful and I want to go out and shoot some more,'" Carroll chuckled. "The people in Alaska were some of the nicest people, and they really did a lot for us. We're appreciative of it, and we're hoping in the long run that this can help get some more tourists going to Alaska, some inland tourism. It would be great to see people head up there to see some of these games."