Fifty-four years ago, four teams played Knik Little League’s first games ever.
On Saturday, May 6, local fans will hear the call of “Play Ball!” Players, officials, coaches and fans from dozens of teams will gather at Eagle River Lions Park at 6:30 p.m. on Friday for opening ceremonies.
According to league president Patrick Mullen, the earlier separate opening ceremony will shorten what has been an extended opening day in the past. After gathering and standing through the long opening event, the young players had to then prepare for their individual games. This year, their first games will begin as scheduled at the Eagle River Lions complex, the opening exercise having been completed the evening before.
Those games now include many levels of play in both baseball and softball for boys and girls age 4-18. Levels go from tee-ball for the neophytes to seniors for high school ages.
Organized baseball’s beginnings in the community began in the 1950s when Bud Fillmore, Stan Nickerson and Clyde Carry helped develop a field at Eagle River Elementary and another later on the Chugiak Carnival Grounds. They played as part of a league in Mt. View.
Knik Little League was chartered in the fall of 1963, a team from Eagle River and another from Chugiak having played their final game that season with the Katmai League in Mt. View. Informed that more Anchorage teams were filling that league’s rosters meant that Chugiak-Eagle River would have to form its own league, supporters jumped at the chance.
Eagle River Lions was a major benefactor and club president Del Spellman was elected president of the new league.
Financial support was offered by developer and philanthropist Glenn Briggs, owner of Eagle River Shopping Center. Sponsors of the first four teams were Eagle River Lions, Far North Fuel, Eagle River Shopping Center and Peters Creek Fuel.
Because of the expansion, the required four teams were able to accommodate all of the boys who turned out in the spring of 1964. There were not enough players to form a minor league division, with that not coming until a couple of years later.
In the new league’s second year, its all-star team made it to the finals in the district tournament, losing the district title to the Nunaka Valley team.
Since then, Knik teams have won many state championships in both baseball and softball. Its first state title came in 1968. The Golden Anniversary of that event will be celebrated by a gathering of several members of that team on July 14 at Lions Park in Eagle River.
Last season, more than 500 players were signed up. The lineup of teams included 10 in T-ball, eight in Coach Pitch, seven Minor League teams, eight Major League, two Intermediate, three Minor Softball, two Major Softball and one Junior Softball.
For anyone considering becoming involved with the volunteer youth program, this writer strongly encourages participation.
It is a great character-builder. Working with the youngsters is rewarding. When they succeed, you succeed. When they come up short, it makes you want to learn how to encourage them to accept the challenge of figuring out how to do better. The game has rules. It teaches accountability.
And, importantly, the Little League organization emphasizes good sportsmanship. The post-game “Good game” comment is acknowledgment for participation, win or lose.
Never having played the game myself, I dropped my 9-year-old son off for his first game in 1962, then left to work in the yard. Steve was so excited when he came home that evening, he enthusiastically recounted every play. He had even been able to play an inning. It made me want to attend the next game to see what had made him so excited.
Hunk Petranovich, Matanuska Electric’s meter reader and tender of lines for the area, was manager-coach. Saying, “I need a scorekeeper,” he handed me the scorebook. After my protest of ignorance of the game, he said he’d tell me what to write down.
A week later, give or take a couple of days, he announced after the game that Marie, his wife, had too much for him to do at home. He would have to give up the team. I looked around to see which father would step forward. It turned out I was the only on there.
After a lot of reading, a bunch of watching—and thanks to some really good kids—the team finished the season in a comfortable position.
Two years later the Knik all-stars came out runners-up in the district championship. The loss was due entirely to my inexperience. I had failed to teach the catcher what to do if a runner attempted to steal second with two out and the bases loaded in the sixth and final inning. Had I made sure he threw the ball to the pitcher rather than try to throw the runner out at second, all runners would have had to go back to their base. Instead, his throw intended to get the final out went into the outfield and we lost the game by a run.
There is a 12-year age difference between our two sons. Both went through Little League, Babe Ruth and American Legion Baseball. Each played on two state championship teams. Steve’s Babe Ruth team in 1967 ended up one game short of the World Series, losing out to the Oregon state champions in the “if-necessary” game.
Their teams’ successes came from the players’ own deep dedication to the game, ingenuity and insight on the part of the players, and excellent devotion to practice.
All four of our children have been involved in sports, all of them as players and coaches, Steve retiring just this year as a basketball coach at West and Ole as an official with USA Track and Field. While still in high school, No. 2 Daughter Sherri coached the 1975 Knik Softball state championship team managed by Carol Monroe in that year’s Northwest Regionals.
By chance becoming a scorekeeper led me to a lifetime of baseball involvement. But don’t let that dissuade you from wanting to be involved. Whether one game, one season or half a century, it’s worth every minute. My greatest thrill is still being called “Coach” by former players; the large number who themselves have become coaches in itself is a source of pride.
Thank you, Abner Doubleday, for giving us the game. Opening Day is May 6, 2018, at Lions Park in Eagle River. PLAY BALL!
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.