Herschel Island, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada's Yukon Territory, is an unlikely setting for the great American pastime. For one thing, it's not in the U.S. For another, it snows there every month of the year. And for yet another, there's scarcely a place on the island flat enough for a ball field. The only flat places are either bog-ridden or occupied by old coffins that have been pushed up by permafrost. Even so, this treeless chunk of tundra once had its own highly competitive baseball league—the most wintry of all winter leagues.
During the 1890s, rather than steam back to San Francisco or New Bedford, Mass., Arctic whaling ships spent the winter at Herschel Island's Pauline Cove. By doing this, a captain could lengthen his harvest of bowhead and other types of baleen whales by at least a month and also get a jump on the next season.
But staying the winter meant seven or eight solid months of killing time. The whalers needed some sort of diversion so that they wouldn't drink themselves into a prolonged stupor or desert their ships. When, in early 1894, a few bats and balls were discovered in one of the ships, a gentleman named Hartson Bodfish, first mate of the Newport, decided to turn Pauline Cove's frozen surface into a ball field. Ash from the ships' furnaces marked the baselines. An old sail became the backstop. And on Feb. 19 the first game of baseball in the Arctic was played—officers versus crew. The temperature at game time stood at -20°F.
There was such enthusiasm after this first chilly contest that a four-team league was immediately formed. The teams were named the Arctics, the Northern Lights, the Herschels and the Pick-ups. Rules decreed that each game be played "regardless of weather" and that rank lose its privilege because captains, officers and crew were all the same in the eyes of league officials.
Because of irregularities in the field such as ice hummocks and frost heaves, the games were usually high scoring. Very high scoring. On March 13, nearly a month after the first game, the newly formed Nonpareils (who replaced the Pick-ups) beat the Herschels 81-12. They beat the Herschels again on April 20, though the score was closer, 38-31. Then on May 4 the Herschels walloped the Arctics 85-10. They also bashed the Northern Lights, 37-6 and 25-3. ("The Northern Lights," Capt. George Leavitt wrote in his log, "are a darn poor club.") The Nonpareils were the winners of the first annual Arctic Whalemen's Pennant, a piece of canvas nailed to a broomstick.
The whalers took their baseball seriously. On April 11, 1895, an argument over where to lay out the diamond resulted in a fatal stabbing of one crewman by another. And on March 1, 1896, a Sunday, Capt. Albert C. Sherman of the Beluga reported in his log: "Four degrees above zero. A large crowd on the baseball field but as usual a small one in the church."
Sadly, the following year the Arctic took its revenge on those who presumed to sport in its midst. March 7 started out unseasonably mild, only a degree or two below freezing. A game had progressed to the bottom of the second inning when a blizzard struck and the temperature plummeted to -20°. Visibility was nonexistent. By the time the storm passed, five men had frozen to death—three ballplayers and two Eskimo spectators. Another man, a Norwegian crewman, was able to crawl back to the Wanderer, where the ship's crew chipped 15 pounds of ice from the hood of his parka.
Eventually Herschel Island was doomed, along with Herschel baseball, as women lost interest in having an 18-inch waist. To achieve that measurement, the whalebone corset had been the garment of choice. But by 1920 stiff corsets were a thing of the past. So too, nearly, were bowhead and many other types of baleen whales, having been harvested virtually to extinction. By 1910 Herschel had reverted to its former status as an Arctic backwater, inhabited only by Eskimos.
Today it is not even a backwater. Not a soul lives year-round on the island's ice-covered shores. Only a few visitors find their way there each year. Those who make the trip see the ghosts of time: rusting metal, boats left high and dry, abandoned buildings, pushed-up coffins. A colony of black guillemots nests among the rafters of the old Anglican church. Off in the empty distance Arctic foxes bark shrilly, but no other sound disturbs the deep and abiding silence.
No other sound, that is, except the calving of icebergs. Their crack! is not unlike the ghostly reverberation of hits that split the air a century earlier.
Lawrence Millman has written a number of books on travel and exploration.