The recent sunny days have seen Chugiak-Eagle River boys and girls stretching their legs and warming up their arms in anticipation of baseball season. After all, the Major League season opened this week and fans all across the nation are pulling for their favorite team to end up in the World Series next fall.
Before we look at how we got here from there, let’s take notice of what’s happening now. On Saturday, Knik Little League will be holding a mandatory player assessment at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center for Minors players 9 years of age, Majors age 11-12, Intermediates age 13, and Juniors and Seniors age 14-16. (League ages are set by Little League rules; an age calculator can be found at www.KnikLittleLeague.com.)
The player assessment session does not involve tryouts, according to the league’s Web site. Players are assessed and will be assigned to teams in a way that provides as much balance as possible. Sportsmanship is heavily emphasized as the players are taught the basics of the game. The playing field is scaled down to two-thirds the size of a major league diamond, although home plate is a standard 17 inches in width. Pitchers are limited in the number of innings they can work and other rules are imposed to protect the young players. Youngest players hit from a tee and at the next level coaches pitch from the mound. Infielders and outfielders cover their positions on defense.
Opening day is tentatively scheduled for April 28 at the Lions Park complex, with league games to continue through June 18.
Knik Little League now has many teams for boys and girls, with some 450 players signed up last year. President is Patrick Mullen whose email is [email protected].
Knik was chartered as a separate league in the 1963 season, but its history goes back to 1958 when the Chugiak Little League team played in Anchorage’s Areawide League. First manager was Paul “Bud” Fillmore, Sr. and coaches were Roger Jonrowe and Stan Nickerson. Their first game was in Anchorage on Monday, June 9, 1958.
According to the Knik Arm Courier, the players were resplendent in “brand spankin’ new uniforms of gray trimmed in scarlet.”
Players on that first team were brothers Jerry and Danny Werre; Paul Fillmore, Jr.; Jimmy Hamilton; Kenneth Oates; Perry Hoag; Hank Tofson; Larry Shooshanian; Danny Ghelor; Dick Midyett; Carl Braendel; Danny Walker; and Rog Jonrowe. If some of those names seem familiar, their relatives are still around, including DeeDee Jonrowe, the famed Iditarod musher.
As the Alaska Little League program grew, more teams were added, including an Eagle River team to join the Chugiak team playing in the Katmai League in Mt. View.
By 1963 the Katmai League had reached its maximum strength of eight teams and more boys were wanting to play. As a result, the Chugiak-Eagle River teams were asked to withdraw and form their own league.
Because a league is required to have at least four teams, adding two new ones was not a problem. The young players had the full support of the Lions Club. Chugiak’s team was sponsored by Peters Creek Fuel and Far North Fuel sponsored the Eagle River team. Jim Wilken, a Lion and owner of Eagle River Pharmacy, came forward as did Glenn Briggs, also a Lion and owner of the Eagle River Shopping Center. Lion Del Spellman was Knik Little League’s first president.
A regulation Little League field was built on the Carnival Grounds at North Birchwood Loop and the Palmer Highway and had been used for local games before the expansion. Eagle River Elementary had a softball field, but it was too small to keep balls hit by the 12-year-old boys from striking the building. Permission was given by the Pippels to build a field on their farm. That field is now covered by the Carrs Shopping Center. Nearby Centerfield Drive pays homage to the highly popular sport that occupied so many boys and girls during prior summers.
Formation of Knik Little League coincided with Eagle River Lions’ acquisition of a 40-acre parcel of land on Eagle River Road. A Little League field was added there and became the home field for the two Eagle River teams. That complex has been expanded and now boasts of several baseball fields, tennis courts and a football field.
Over the years, Knik Little League has won several state championships and even has been represented in the Little League World Series. Girls’ softball was added in the 1970s and players from both boys and girls teams have gone on to be highly successful in high school competition.
Except for a two-year stint when Pony League Baseball was played at Oberg Field, there was no higher level of baseball for local players. That changed in 1966 when a Babe Ruth League team was formed for boys 13-15. The team sponsored by Peters Creek Fuel, in combination with players from the East High area, the following year became the first ever from Alaska to win a baseball game in regional competition. They were eliminated in the “if-necessary” final game—one game shy of advancing to the World Series. The following year, the local team won regionals and did make it to the Babe Ruth World Series.
The local Babe Ruth program some years later came to an end and players age 13-15 became part of Knik Little League.
Initially drawing players from Bartlett and Chugiak high schools, an American Legion Baseball team was formed in 1968, also playing at Oberg Field. At the time, baseball was not yet a high school sport. Those teams have won several state championships. The Chugiak and Eagle River high school baseball teams have continued a good tradition in the sport.
Alaska teams are handicapped by short seasons, but indoor facilities that allow workouts now provide some benefit. Games with competitive teams Outside also help sharpen player skills. With newer training methods, the short season is becoming less of a handicap.
While organized baseball came to Alaska later than in the Lower 48, the sport has long been represented here. Baseball games were held on the ice in the Arctic to allow whalers to let off steam prior to the Gold Rush of the late 1890s. In Nome, regular games were held as early as 1898 between town teams and soldiers from Ft. Davis.
Although in the early years baseball was the primary sport in Chugiak-Eagle River during the summer, soccer and football have become popular and now are also enjoying wide participation.
Chugiak Youth Sports Association for many years has offered basketball, soccer, volleyball, flag football and cheerleading at various locations.
Their office is located at 11925 Old Glenn Highway, Suite 103. They can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 907-694-6559.
Winter sports are also popular, with hockey, basketball and dog mushing all popular for children and adults.
Youth hockey is represented by Mustang Hockey Association which was formed in 1983. Their founding was in conjunction with the opening of the Fire Lake Recreation Center, now known as the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center, or more popularly the “Mac Center.” Its new name honors the popular Chugiak High School teacher and hockey coach who died in an aircraft accident in 1994.
The hockey organization offers programs in 10 age divisions for boys and girls. With 235 players registered in its first year, many times that number suited up this past season. Games are played September through March. Players may register online at www.mustanghockey.com where full information about the program can be found.
Joey Merrick is MHA president. Their email address is [email protected] and the telephone number is 694-7849.