THE NORTH POLE NICKS
They were more real than Santa
SANTA CLAUS swinging a bat. When the T-shirts appeared in the early 1980s as a promotional item for the North Pole Nicks, they produced chuckles. Who else had Santa Claus for a mascot?
If baseball fans laughed when they heard about the Valley Green Giants, they merely shook their heads in disbelief when they heard about the North Pole Nicks. They play baseball at the North Pole?
Of course, the North Pole Nicks were not located at the North Pole. The North Pole Nicks were located in North Pole. North Pole, Alaska, a genuine community with something on the order of a thousand-plus people, situated roughly fifteen miles from Fairbanks’ Growden Park. Although the mythical Santa Claus did not reside in this North Pole, there was a famous Santa Claus House that enticed tourists to the neighborhood with the aim of convincing them he really did. It was the grandest landmark in town.
The Nicks (short for Saint Nick, naturally), like so many of the Alaska teams, were the brainchild of Don Dennis. The more teams the growing population could support, the better for all, was the notion. And if the people of the Mat-Su Valley found long-distance management distasteful, at least in the case of North Pole, it would be right-around-the-corner management help. The Nicks would play their home games at Growden, sharing the field with the Goldpanners. That meant many fewer dark nights at the stadium during the height or the busy summer season. Though given the fact that it was Fairbanks in summer, dark may not have been the proper word.
North Pole Nicks. You had to give the founders points for cleverness. Even if the place was real some baseball fans didn’t believe it. Still, when they asked, “North Pole?” there was great satisfaction in being able to reply, “Yeah, that’s where we’re from.”
John Lohrke came to North Pole from Santa Clara University in 1980 to help get the new club going and ended up becoming general manager, a year-round resident or Alaska, and everything from a radio voice to the statistician for the team. Now president of the Peninsula Oilers, Lohrke said the North Pole Nicks’ name got attention wherever the team went.
“Especially when we went to Wichita,” said Lohrke. “We played it up. Santa Claus as our mascot and our colors were red and green in 1985. We were voted best-dressed. It’s hard to match the nickname.”
Baseball was big in the household when Lohrkc. who now works for a car dealership on the Kenai Peninsula, was growing up. His dad. Jack, was a Major League infielder with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies between
1947 and 1952.
“My dad knew enough about baseball and summer ball and college ball that he felt it was great this kid who just graduated from college was going to do something in the game,” said Lohrke.
Lohrke’s involvement in Alaska baseball stemmed from his involvement with Jerry McClain, then the Santa Clara coach. McClain was the Nicks first coach and urged Lohrke, who worked in the school’s sports information office, to join him for the adventure. It didn’t matter what his title was supposed to be, the thinly staffed Nicks needed help on all fronts, so Lohrke did everything from handle the public address system to color analysis with play-by-play man Lowell Purcell, the long-time Fairbanks broadcaster.
Lohrke roomed with one of the team’s assistant coaches, so he knew all the team signs. That made for some slick broadcasting prognosticating in key situations.
I had Lowell thinking I’m a genius,” said Lohrke. It was a fun time, starting something from scratch, building it. Dennis really made it all happen, though. He ordered the uniforms and provided the gear so the Nicks could play. He planned their initial schedule, booked them in the ballpark.
“The first year we helped guide the development of the team,” said Dennis.
Ralph Seekins, a prominent Fairbanks businessman, shifted from the Goldpanners’ board of directors to the Nicies’ board of directors. Dennis recruited McClain to manage because he’d already managed in the league with the Miners.
“They started on a shoestring,” said Dennis, who sounded wistful about that period of Fairbanks-area baseball. “Those were the wonder years. We had a game out here every night.”
The Goldpanners operated the concession stands and gave the Nicks thirty-five percent of the gross.
“We could mother hen them when they were here,” said Dennis.
Originally, when all games were at Growden, the Goldpanners had a season-ticket offer that included Nicks’ season tickets, too, for just $15 additional.
Purcell can vouch for the feeling of operating day-to-day without much money. His wallet kept reminding him that he was not employed by IBM.
“We were totally underfunded,” said Purcell. “I was hoping I’d get paid at the end of the season.”
The first Nicks team gathered in San Francisco and played some games against the Humboldt Crabs. The players had a sense of amazement that they were on their way to an honest-to-goodness place called North Pole. Repeatedly, anyone affiliated with the club had to assure doubters that North Pole was indeed a real town, not just a patch of ice squeezed onto the very top of maps. Santa Claus was a help in his own way, sort of a symbol that everyone could identify with if they believed the place existed or not.
“It was ‘North Pole?’ ” said Purcell. ” ‘Oh, Santa Claus.’ There is a North Pole.”
The first season went well. The Nicks were pretty solid, but like the Valley Green Giants before them, they couldn’t cope with the Goldpanners most nights.
“The Goldpanners won the national championship,” said Lohrke. “We played them fourteen times and lost ten of fourteen. But the first night we played them and beat them.’
McClain coached the Nicks for two years and was succeeded by Dan Cowgill, who years later took over the Goldpanners. In 1983, Mike Gillespie assumed command. Gillespie ran the club through 1985. then became head coach at Southern Cal, where he won the NCAA title in 1998.
Lohrke, who came to North Pole on somewhat of a lark, was approached by Dennis near the end of the 1980 season and offered the job of general manager. He returned to California at season’s end, then moved to Alaska March 1, 1981, and has been a resident ever since. He was twenty-four years old and giddy.
“You get to run a baseball team,” said Lohrke. “I just had seven or eight years of bliss.”
One of Lohrkcs tasks was helping to recruit against the better-known Goldpanners, Glacier Pilots and Oilers, as well as the Giants-turncd-Miners. Another Alaska team, the Anchorage Bucs, was forming, and also about to start crowding the marketplace. College coaches knew the older teams reputations, but the North Pole Nicks? Lohrke sold the Nicks as being part of the league with those other teams.
That made it OK, he said.
And the Nicks did more than OK. Although the Nicks’ run ended after the 1987 season, there are still some former North Pole players in the majors. Chicago Cubs’ all-star first baseman Mark Grace is the Nick who has done the greatest things. But Todd Zeile, Eric Karros, Luis Gonzalez (who had an all-star season in 1999), Steve Finley and Chad Kreuter were all still active in the big-time as the century turned. Kreuter, a catcher for the Kansas City Royals, married Gillespie’s daughter.
Kreuter, who played for the Kansas City Royals in 1999, was given a summer job as a pro at the par-3 Arctic Acres golf course. Gillespie told him his kids were coming for a visit and asked Kreuter to give them putting lessons. Kreuter thought he was being drafted into a babysitting job and wanted to duck it. But when he slyly approached one of the little brothers and asked to see a picture of his sister, he was sold. Turned out Sis was about twenty years old, roughly his age, and he liked Kelly’s looks so well he suddenly became eager to help her with her swing.
Nice little romance story there, but more amazing was that North Pole
had a place to play golf.
“We called it the North Pole Country Club,” said Kreuter.
Heck, when he and other players first were told they were going to play baseball in North Pole, they wondered if people even lived there.
“People don’t think there is such a place,” said Kreuter. “You say it’s near Fairbanks and you build from there.”
Kreuter played two seasons for the Nicks. His second summer he and several other players were assigned the task of building a duplex that was to be auctioned off to raise money for the team.
“By the end of the summer, we knew how to handle hammers and saws,” said Kreuter. “We called ourselves “The Hammer Crew.” In (act, the carpentry lessons continue to pay off for Kreuter. Not so long ago he built his own deck using the skills developed in Alaska.
Gillespie signed on to manage North Pole after being prodded by Cowgill, whom he knew from California.
“I knew nothing about it,” said Gillespie, speaking from his Los Angeles office fifteen years after he journeyed to Alaska for his first North Pole season.
“I felt like a pioneer.”
When he was told the team was called the North Pole Nicks, Gillespie said, “I thought they were kidding.” Gillespie found that any time he mentioned his Alaska team people were skeptical about the name.
“They’d go, ‘Sure,’ ” he said.
Even in 1985, when the best Nicks team showed up for the NBC tournament, a place where Alaska teams were known and appreciated, it was the same old thing. People didn’t think the name was serious. Of course the way that team competed it didn’t take long to recognize those guys were more serious than the IRS.
“That was a good club,” said Gillespie. “It was an outstanding team. That team played defense anybody would have been proud of.”
The 1985 Nicks put such players as Zeile, now with the New York Mets, Grace, and Andy Stankewicz, another future Major Leaguer, on the field and advanced to the NBC championship game.
Grace, then attending San Diego State, swung a mean stick. He batted .367 with 52 RBIs in the regular season and was even better at the tournament. That summer he was called “Amazing Grace,” or “Saving Grace.” Then a centerfielder, Grace joked about the Wichita heat and humidity, even when the Nicks played late-night games.
“It must be ten o’clock at night and I’m still hot,” said Grace, who missed the point. He was hot all of the time that season.
Glacier Pilots coach Jack O’Toole, doubling as a scout for the Montreal Expos, adored Graces swing.
“I fell in love with Mark Grace,” said O’Toole. “I got on the phone and said, ‘There’s a guy here who could be in the majors right now.’ He made a little splash in Wichita.”
Before one NBC game, when the managers met at home plate, they were blessed with a visit from a pro-Nicks Santa Claus.
“We thought that was pretty funny,” said Grace.
Purcell said Grace was the true standout of the era.
“We’d just marvel at his power,” said Purcell, although Grace is not known for hitting home runs in the majors. Purcell loved Stankewicz’s desire, too. “He always impressed me. I never saw Andy walk anywhere. He would run up to the plate. He would run back to the dugout. I thought, ‘This kid is going to make it somewhere.’ “
Stankewicz did, playing third base for several big-league organizations. Gillespie remembers the 1985 bunch very fondly.
“That was a fun group to work with,” he said.
Dennis was impressed with how Gillespie motivated the Nicks, using the pretty-much-true angle that the Nicks were underdogs against older, richer franchises.
“Gillespie was good at playing the chip-on-the-shoulder,” said Dennis.
“The Big Bad Pilots. The Big Bad Goldpanners. He sold the poor, country
cousin beating Fairbanks.”
One of Lohrkes favorites was Steve Finley, now in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lineup, and he stayed in North Pole only half of the 1986 season.
“A great kid,” said Lohrke. “He loved living with the family he had, he was leading us in hitting. And then he got a call from the national team to play for them. He said, ‘I can’t pass it up.’
‘Zeile stayed a lot longer. He played rwo years for the Nicks and said Grace, Kreuter, and Gonzalez remain good friends from those days. Playing in Alaska also helped mature him and polish his talent.
“It was definitely a good baseball experience for me,” said Zeile.
And like so many of the young men who go off to the north for what amounts to baseball summer camp, it was a pretty playful time, as well. Zeile went fishing, and took pictures of moose and caribou. He traveled to Denali National Park and was impressed by the major red salmon run in the area.
“They were stacked on top of each other,” said Zeile.
Zeile also saved a souvenir Nicks jacket and hat. The hat features an ‘N”,
the jacket, Santa Claus.
In two seasons with the Nicks, Zeile had two jobs, park maintanence and bus driver. He much preferred driving the bus. The bus was called The Blue Goose and Zeile’s job on the day of home games was to drive house-to-house picking up the players.
“It was an easy job,” said Zeile.
After the early years shakedown, the Nicks sought more independence from the Goldpanners. Up went Wright Field at Newby Park. Or Newby Field, as the place was commonly called.
Most stories about Newby are not flattering. Newby was never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Camden Yards or Safeco Field, the new Major League gems of the 1990s. For that matter, Newby was not going to be mentioned favorably in comparisons with any other park around the Alaska Baseball League.
Dave Foreman, the Pilots official who can be blunter than Howard Stern, summed up his view of Newby: “All the rain water drained to the infield. The fences were like a half mile out there. I think they built the mound out of sand. They had a Little League backstop.”
Steve McFarland, a several-season Pilots manager, said two things stand out in his mind about road trips to North Pole. The players always went to the Santa Claus house for a little side tourist trip, and merely finding the field required a map and compass.
“I just remember driving out there in the middle of nowhere and there was this field in a forest of trees,” said McFarland.
When the field was built, the outfield fences were apparently accidentally measured from the bases rather than home plate. That factored an additional ninety feet into the distances, making the distance for home runs more-or-less impossible. Hence the impression left with Foreman that the fences were a half mile away. They almost were. Pretty soon adjustments were made.
Lohrke gently admitted Newby beginnings were “funny and embarrassing.” But he was also struck by how much local pride and excitement there was when the Nicks had a field to call their own and how thrilling it was when the Goldpanners came to their park for the first time.
Fans and team management were loath to let any victory over the “big-city” Goldpanners get away from them, thus resulting in a strange scene at one rain-drenched 1986 game. It was a close game in the sixth inning when a rain delay was declared.
“The Panners took their cleats off and got in their vans,” said Lohrke.
“We go, ‘Wait a minute.’ We poured some gasoline on the field and lit it. We scorched that field. We just had a bonfire for twenty minutes. We dried it out. We had to rake it like crazy. It wasn’t pretty, but it was playable. They had to put their cleats on and we ended up beating them.”
Newby may not have been a palace, but it was home and Purcell claims that in its heyday it was a nice place. That heyday has passed, though, and when Purcell, still a major sports broadcasting figure in Fairbanks, traveled the short distance to Newby for a high school game a few years ago, he felt a little sad. The scoreboard didn’t work. The press box he used in the past was a concession stand.
Lohrke always maintained a wry perspective.
Once the Nicks and Pilots had a misunderstanding over the starting time of a July 4 game. Lohrke was sure the game was scheduled for 7 P.M., so he sent the team off on the bus early in the morning with the idea they’d arrive in Anchorage in plenty of time. The phone rang at 11 A.M. It was the Pilots calling, asking where the Nicks were for the soon-to-start afternoon game.
“I said, ‘I can’t get them there any faster,” ” said Lohrke.
Lohrke was doing radio when Newby opened and the team president threw out the first ball. Lohrke was amazed to see the ball thrown from the plate to the mound and he blurted over the air, “Are we a rinky-dink operation, or what?”
Then they cut to a commercial. Players and coaches stared at the backwards scene and shook their heads.
Lohrke evolved into the Nicks’ one-man gang. The on-field season lasted about two months, but his season was never ending. He oversaw everything, which was a blast. As he reached his thirtieth birthday, though, Lohrke began thinking he needed a career that offered a little more money.
“With non-profits, its usually a few people doing the work,” said Lohrke. “I don’t want to sound selfish, but with North Pole it was me.”
Simultaneously, the Nicks ran into financial trouble. The team had a great run at the NBC crown in 1985 and returned to the tournament in 1987.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have gone. The Nicks lost two straight on the very costly excursion.
“They let emotion get in their way,” said Dennis. “The last trip to Wichita they were out of there in sixteen hours.”
Lohrke tried to arrange a smooth management transition. He hired a manager, recruited a team. Everything was set.
“We would have been all right in 1988,” said Lohrke. “We got to within six weeks of the season and the people of North Pole said, ‘There’s no way we can afford to field a team.’ “
That was the most tumultuous summer in Alaska baseball history. Money was tight all over. In the end, the Anchorage Bucs, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the Mat-Su Miners and the North Pole Nicks fielded no squads in 1988.
The Goldpanners and the Oilers played a schedule against non-Alaska teams. All of the other franchises returned to the league, strengthened, in 1989.
The North Pole Nicks went out of business.
“Unfortunately,” said Gillespie, who still laments the club’s passing and said with nostalgia he still checks the weather reports for the area. It was a monumental effort on the part of a few community members. John Lohrke was kind of the guts of that team. Trying to shoestring it together, it was a battle.”
Lohrke went to work for Ralph Seekins, who owns Alaska car dealerships, and moved more than five hundred miles south to the Kenai Peninsula. Once established in his professional life, he rekindled his connection to Alaska baseball and by 1998, at forty-one, he was president of the Oilers.
The Nicks, though, will always occupy a special place in his heart. “It was just a hobby and I had a ball,” said Lohrke. “I dearly loved it.”
He doubts the same kind of run-the-whole-show, take-a-team-from- paper-to-the-field experience of North Pole is in the cards for him again.
“I have no desire to start the Alaska Indians or the Barrow Bruins,” said Lohrke. He paused. “You never know, though.”
Especially not in Alaska baseball.