Hardball on Herschel Island
"Boarding Masters with their pleasant smiles
Tell poor Jack of whales and their fine times
Playing cards and Base Ball half their time
That is fine! That is fine."
-That is Love, by Hartson Bodfish, first mate of the Newport.
A thunderous gale tore through the American whaling fleet locked into the winter ice off the coast of present-day Yukon on February 20, 1894. Harston Bodfish, first mate on the Steamer Newport, kept daily temperature, barometric pressure and wind speed recordings in his logbook, but that day the wind ripped his anemometer off and broke it. Two men got lost in the gale. A whaler named Jack froze to death, carried back to the ship by his mate, badly frozen and barely alive.
The death of one of the whalers was ordinary, and earned little more than a few lines in Bodfish’s log. But what happened the day before was not. With a light breeze and the temperature a manageable -12 C, the whalers walked out onto the sea ice between the ships and laid out a baseball diamond, marking the base paths with ash from their stoves. A team of officers faced off against a team of boatsteerers. The officers, Bodfish noted, were beaten by one run.
A week after burying Jack, the captains of four baseball teams—referred to as “nines”—met and formed the Herschel Island Baseball League, setting down rules and regulations. The four original nines—Herschels, Northern Lights, Arctics and Pick Ups—would play on the ice throughout the winter.
Ten days after the league formed, the Arctics won a game against the Pick Ups, 13-11, played at a chilling -37 C. America’s pastime had officially taken hold in most unlikely of places.
One man burst into the forecastle of his ship in May 1895, shooting a man through the leg, before pointing the revolver at the boatsteerer, only to have the cartridge fail.
In the 1890s, American whalers began pushing further east into the Beaufort Sea in search of baleen whales, but the long journey and short, ice-free hunting season meant the expeditions weren’t profitable unless the whalers wintered in and got a jump on the hunt as soon as the ice broke. This meant up to nine months of inactivity while the ships were frozen into Pauline Cove, Herschel Island.
The crews were a rough bunch, shanghaied from ports around the globe—and probably none too happy to spend nine months in a veritable Arctic prison. Other than hauling ice, making repairs to the ship, and building some accommodations on the shore, the whalers didn’t have much to do but drink and fight. And they did.
Life was bleak. Furious storms battered the fleet during the winter, the blinding snow catching sailors by surprise. Death by freezing was common. Men also died from sickness, or simply “dropped dead” as Bodfish often noted in his logbook.
When the men stayed out in the cold too long and froze fingers, feet or limbs, they were sawed off unceremoniously under the influence of chloroform. Corporal punishment was prescribed for any sailors who acted out, whether for drunkenness, fighting, sodomy or simply mouthing off to an officer.
Some sailors tried to desert their ships, but with the next outposts hundreds of miles away, the sailors needed to stock up on supplies for the journey. This usually meant raiding the fleet for dog sleds, rifles, food and ammunition. Many deserters didn’t get far. They were often captured, frozen, or shot dead.
Back on the ship, some sailors simply went mad. One man burst into the forecastle of his ship in May 1895, shooting a man through the leg, before pointing the revolver at the boatsteerer, only to have the cartridge fail. The second mate of one ship was shot in the head by the third mate in a drunken row. Bodfish himself “gave the cook a licking” for thrusting a cleaver at the ship’s steward.
One Sunday in 1895 Bodfish felt it necessary to recollect the day’s sermon in his log. “As you sow, so shall ye reap.”
The whalers needed something to distract them from the winter’s turmoil, to keep them out of trouble. That thing was baseball.
"It was only by vigorous cuffings that they were taught that the spectators’ duties were limited to cheering and betting.”
After their initial games in 1894, the whalers kept a regular ball schedule, with teams playing as much as twice per day in all types of weather.
In fact, the rules of the league decreed all games must be played, regardless of conditions. Temperatures dipped below -40 C, blizzards flew and outfielders couldn’t be seen from home plate. The men played bundled in fur, with only their faces showing, catching frozen balls with their mitts as they slipped across the sea ice. “Muffs” (errors) were common, and scores usually measured in the double digits. Anyone who managed to catch a ball was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd—made up of hundreds of visiting Inuit.
American General Frederick Funston, who visited the whaling outpost in the winter of 1894, noted the Inuit present were smitten with a centre fielder “whose favourite method of stopping a hot grounder was to lie down in front of it,” allowing his bulky garb to take the blow.
Inuit came from settlements hundreds of miles away from Herschel and they were the loudest fans. “At first dozens of them would break over the line and try to hold a runner until the baseman could get the ball,” Funston wrote, “and it was only by vigorous cuffings that they were taught that the spectators’ duties were limited to cheering and betting.”
Inuit once borrowed the whalers’ equipment to try a few games of their own, but those ended in a “general melee of hair pulling” before the first inning was over, Funston wrote. In one game, Inuit players dragged an umpire from the diamond by his heels after he’d allowed a team a fourth out to try and even up the score.
The whaling crews included Chinese, European, Japanese, Malaysian, and African-Americans. Combined with Inuit and Gwich’in families, the baseball games reflected the mixed bag of the outpost. “One day I noticed that in a little group of eleven, sitting on an overturned sled watching a game, there were representatives of all five great divisions of the human race,” Funston wrote.
The baseball games had an equalizing effect, too. The league’s rules abolished ship rank on the diamond, so a lowly sailor could coach his captain, or maybe even shout him down—a welcome reprieve from the punitive ways on board the ships.
But, like everything else at the settlement, baseball brought with it violence and death. In April 1895, one man stabbed another with a common sailor’s knife in an argument over the layout of a baseball diamond. The wounded man required ten stitches and his assailant was put in irons for the next three months. Two years later, five men were killed during a baseball game when, with the weather unseasonably mild, a blizzard suddenly hit and the temperature dropped to -30 C. Men scrambled back to their ships but three sailors and two Inuit fans were lost and froze to death.
Eventually, these Arctic games made their way into the mythology of American Baseball. (The National Baseball Hall of Fame’s archive even keeps records of the games.) And they prove the game’s allure, even to destitute sailors trapped on a far-flung Arctic island. They’re homages to the game’s versatility, able to be played in the most hostile environment imaginable—not just on dirt, and grass, under sun and a light breeze—but on sea ice, in between idle ships serving only as vectors for snowy gales as crazed base runners slide into fur-covered defenders.
The original version of this article erred with regard to the date of the stabbing incident over the layout of a baseball diamond. It was in fact April 1895, not April 1985.