The glory of the Midnight Sun Game

Can you think of anything better than baseball in the middle of the night?

June 21st, 2021
Photo via Alaska Goldpanner Baseball

It’s a 3 1/2-hour flight or a 39-hour drive to the nearest Major League stadium in Seattle. Little League can’t start until the snow has finally melted off the field at the end of April. And yet, every year on the summer solstice, Fairbanks, Alaska, becomes the center of the baseball universe, offering the kind of game that kids on summer vacation can only dream about.

It’s the Midnight Sun Game, when the Alaska Goldpanners take the field at 10 p.m. local time -- 2 a.m. ET -- and play through the middle of the night while the sun stays up, shining down on the field. Yes, it's the stuff that baseball dreams are made of.

(Click here to watch the game's livestream on the Goldpanners YouTube channel, or check back for the embed on this page when the game begins on Monday night/Tuesday morning.)

While the Goldpanners might draw a few hundred fans to Growden Park on an average night, that number explodes for the Midnight Sun Game.

"We're expecting 3,500 to 4,000 people, which is the the upper tier of attendance draws at any one single thing in interior Alaska," Henry Cole, the secretary for the Goldpanners said.

Cole went to so many games as a child that he considers the voice of summer to be the Goldpanners' PA announcer. Though Fairbanks is most definitely a hockey town, and few may follow the team as closely as he did, the passion for baseball is always there.

"If you could somehow poll everyone, a couple thousand people would call themselves a Goldpanner fan before any other baseball team," Cole estimates.

"We play a schedule and have expenses that most semi-pro teams can't afford," John Lohrke, the Goldpanners' president and GM, said. "I think we're just in a good size of a town. It's not too large of a city, where we'd rather watch a Minor League team or the Major Leagues. And we're not a small enough town where we can't get help from the business community. So, it's really a niche in that middle. And then the Midnight Sun Game -- that takes it to a new level with attracting people from all over."

While the game takes place on Monday this year -- the actual summer solstice -- the entire weekend is a revelry for the townspeople. There are parties, street festivals and a famed 10K fun run. When the sun is up all night, there's reason to celebrate.

While the locals spend all year looking forward to the all-night sun, it's a definite adjustment for the college players who have joined the team.

Catcher Alton Gyselman, a freshman at Yavapai College in Arizona, has been doing his best to get used to the new digs with blackout curtains in his bedroom. "It just feels like a different time of the day," Gyselman said. "It'll be like 11:30 at night, but it feels like seven. It throws your whole clock off."

Cleveland manager Terry Francona, a Goldpanner in 1978, agrees. "By the time you get back to the house, sometimes it looks like 3 in the afternoon. Literally," he recently told's Mandy Bell. "It wasn't just that day. But that was the hardest thing, trying to fall asleep when it's bright out."

The first Midnight Sun Game in 1906.

The game is a baseball tradition like few others, with the very first iteration taking place in 1906 when Fairbanks was a small goldrush town. That day -- or, night -- saw the Eagles fall to California, 7-4.

"Tell this to your friends when you go outside," The Fairbanks Daily Times wrote the next morning. "Say to them that on June 21, while you were in Fairbanks you attended a game of baseball that started at 11 o'clock at night and ended at 12:30 the morning after."

That is certainly big news when it would take nearly 30 more years before the first MLB night game was played.

"Crowd present at Ballgame" was the headline the Fairbanks Daily Times printed the next day. Talk about burying the lede.

The contest featured a rotation of local Fairbanks-area teams until 1960 when the Goldpanners became the annual host. Their streak continued unbroken until last year when the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the event. Players still took the field, however, as the local adult league staged an All-Star Game under the endless sun. But it just wasn't the same.

For instance, it's unlikely that any of those players will become big leaguers. Meanwhile, 205 Goldpanners have gone on to play in the Majors, with David Fletcher, Mike Tauchman and Francona among the active alumni. Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield went from Fairbanks to Cooperstown. (Hilariously, there was even some concern at the time if Winfield could stick as a full-time outfielder.)

Dave Winfield, fully bundled up, back in Alaska as a member of the Yankees in 1984.

While you might get a glimpse of a future Hall of Famer out there on the field, the one thing you won't see is any artificial light. They've never used any in the history of the game and wouldn't be able to even if they wanted -- the stadium lights haven't been operational since 2003.

Still, the evening can get a little dim as the sun hovers just over the horizon, and opposing managers have complained in the past. Some of the players have, too.

"I said, 'You guys are crazy. I have to see this'" José Cruz Jr., who played for the Goldpanners in 1993, remembered. "That was amazing. It's 10 p.m. and the sun hasn't gone down. It was a little bit dark. I was glad when it was over. There's nothing like it, not even close."

Francona knows the game is a big deal and understands the passion for it, but got a little nervous when he took part.

"The problem was it was overcast. I mean, it was dark," Francona said. "And they weren't going to turn the lights on because it's the Midnight Sun game. And I remember thinking, 'Man, somebody's going to get killed.' I don't think anybody got any hits because nobody could see ... But it's really cool. I mean, shoot, when you're 18 years old you don't care what time you play."

That's simply part of the charm of the game -- one that the fans adore. It's not going to end any time soon.

"If I was to turn [the lights] on during the Midnight Sun Game, I think I'd probably be [attacked]," Lohrke said. "Because it's just not gonna happen. It's just not gonna happen."

The Midnight Sun Game is undoubtedly the highlight of the season, when Growden Park is pushed to its capacity and every team employee and volunteer has stretched their duties, but it's an experience to remember the rest of the season, too.

The players, not long out of high school, are often interrupted while raking the field for the next day's game by young fans hoping for an autograph or a photo. They're given a chance to explore Alaska's natural beauty while improving their baseball skills at the same time.

And the crowd is always into the action. Forget "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Fairbanks fans sing "Happy Boy" by the Beat Farmers instead, with everyone blowing on kazoos.

Lohrke doesn't prepare his new players for the tradition. He likes to see their surprise when it happens for the first time.

"They come out of the dugout and they look up into the crowd, like, 'What the hell is going on?'" Lohrke said with a laugh. "It's a minute-and-a-half of just silly, stupid stuff. The fans just go crazy. And the next thing you know, we're a week into the schedule and now the players have got kazoos. They're coming out of the dugout and they're facing the crowd during the seventh inning stretch. It's all this big minute-and-a-half lovefest."

Additional reporting by Mandy Bell. Design by Tom Forget. Photos courtesy Alaska Goldpanner Baseball.