WASHINGTON-On the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized John Lohrke of Fairbanks, the general manager of the minor league baseball team Fairbanks Goldpanners, who fielded more than 211 players who have been major leaguers since the team’s founding in 1960. John is a lifelong baseball fan as the son of Jack “Lucky” Lohrke, a World War II veteran who later played for the Giants of New York and the Philadelphia Phillies. John has long championed the teams that make up the Alaska Baseball League and the Goldpanners, which attract budding college students from across the country. This Tuesday, at the summer solstice, the Goldpanners will play their most famous “Midnight Sun” game, known to baseball fans around the world. John was recognized as part of Senator Sullivan’s series, “Alaskan of the Week”.
Tribute to John Lohrke
Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Missouri. And I will only mention here in the Senate his leadership on so many issues that we will truly miss. Perhaps he will reconsider his decision to leave this august body, which will be much less — much less an institution that thinks seriously about these difficult questions after his departure. So I want to thank Senator Blunt for all that he has done. He is a very good friend of mine, so he will be missed.
Today is Thursday, and once again it’s an opportunity for me to talk about our Alaskan of the week.
Now I know our pages – new pages, they’re really going to realize this is probably one of the most exciting and interesting talks of the week. Some of our friends in the media even like it because it’s the end of the week. I can brag about Alaska and talk about someone doing something really great for our state, maybe their community, maybe the country, maybe the world, right?
We have all kinds of people doing this.
I always like to talk a bit about what’s happening in Alaska first.
So it’s amazing how quickly the seasons go by as it’s almost summer solstice in the state. This is when the sun rarely sets over any part of Alaska and the state is filled with life, filled with energy. You can feel it when you go up. Hopefully we will have lots of tourists this summer. I know we will win a lot. Many people want to travel to Alaska, especially after the pandemic. You can feel it in the air when you’re there, that feeling of energy and excitement.
So our tourists are there now. They see spectacular scenery, wildlife, glaciers, our salmon-choked streams. They will be able to travel thousands of miles of state and federal parks, climb mountains, fly in the sky, and some are even there to watch baseball. Yes, baseball.
Now maybe not the Braves, but still good baseball. Now I know this is going to sound strange to some people. Now wait a minute. Going up to Alaska to watch baseball is probably not the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they think of Alaska.
But fans of American baseball know that Alaska has played a fundamental role in the American pastime. They know how important Alaskan summers are and have been for decades, taking young students with raw but exceptional talent and turning them under the midnight sun into seasoned professional Major League Baseball players.
This is the Alaska Baseball League, one of the premier amateur collegiate summer baseball leagues that everyone plays anywhere in America.
Let me name a few–and I mean a few–who came through the Alaska Baseball League. It has produced some of Major League Baseball’s best-known stars, including Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield and Randy Johnson, to name a few.
The Alaska Baseball League is sometimes made up of five teams, sometimes six – two teams in Anchorage, one in Palmer, one in Chugiak-Eagle River, one in Kenai.
And then there’s a team, a very famous team, in Fairbanks – the oldest and most legendary of them all – that I’m going to focus on today.
These are the Fairbanks Goldpanners; and the team’s general manager, who is our Alaskan of the Week, John Lohrke, brings the magic of baseball to Alaska.
So, first, a few words about John’s background. He was raised in a baseball family. His father, Jack Lohrke – Lucky Lohrke, as baseball fans may know him – was a World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach 6 days after D-Day, fought his way through the Europe, has survived numerous near-death experiences in combat. and even at home; hence the name “Lucky”.
After the army, Jack played baseball as a third baseman for the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies.
After Jack Lohrke retired, his family moved to California, but, as I said, baseball is in the blood of the Lohrke family.
Our Alaskan of the Week, John, had an older brother, who was drafted by the Red Sox, and John himself entered the game administratively. As a student at Santa Clara, he began helping his college team behind the scenes.
In 1980, the Santa Clara coach traveled to Alaska to coach the North Pole Nicks. John thought that sounded good and asked if he could come. He did, he fell in love with Alaska and stayed, like so many others in our state.
He led the Nicks for 7 years, then was president of another team, the Oilers, on the beautiful Kenai Peninsula in Alaska; then he was back upstate, where John remained involved in baseball as a Goldpanners board member.
In 2016, he became chairman of the board, and now he’s the general manager of the Goldpanners in Fairbanks, the person responsible for making it all happen. And what responsibility and what a team and what a history and what a legacy of excellence John has been part of.
Since its founding in 1960, the Goldpanners have had over 211 players go to the major leagues. Isn’t that remarkable, 211 players? A major league pipeline from Fairbanks, AK. Who knew? And that doesn’t include the countless others who have gone on to become coaches, general managers or scouts.
The current Cleveland Guardians coach played for the Goldpanners. The current Red Sox pitching coach is also a Goldpanner alum. As I mentioned, the Goldpanners are one of the main pipelines in the major leagues.
One of the highlights of the season in Alaska, something happening very soon – in fact, this Tuesday – is when the Goldpanners play their most famous game. It’s the Midnight Sun game, and it’s played every summer at the summer solstice.
The tradition of Midnight Sun gambling in Fairbanks goes back a long way. The first of these games was played in 1906. Americans have been playing midnight baseball in Alaska for over 100 years, and now the game is famous around the world. It’s a must-play game for baseball fans across America. Thousands of people, many from around the world, will gather for this game on Tuesday, as they do every summer in Fairbanks.
Now, this game is the culmination of a dizzying array of activities taking place in Fairbanks. Right now parties, street festivals, a famous Midnight Sun Run. Fairbanks – a big city. My wife was born and raised there – is known for her spirit, her generosity, and on the summer solstice weekend that spirit explodes. I will go there tomorrow. I’ll be taking part in some of these festivities, including attending a Goldpanners game and maybe, as I usually do, joining the many runners in the Midnight Sun Run, where I’ve been known to trail everyone runners. We’ll see what happens.
But for Tuesday night’s Midnight Sun game this year, the Goldpanners will take on the San Diego Waves. The game starts at 10 p.m. in Growden Park and continues until the early hours.
With Fairbanks just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun just starts to set a bit north at the start of the game but never drops completely below the horizon, and by the end of the game the sun actually begins to get up again.
As one sportswriter said, “It’s the stuff baseball dreams are made of.”
And it never gets dark. And throughout its century-old history, artificial lights have never been used, not once.
John Lohrke, our Alaskan of the Week, understands how important this particular game is to the broader baseball culture, not just Fairbanks and the interior. He understands how important the Goldpanners team is to all of Alaska, to Fairbanks, but to baseball at large.
Since his early days as manager, he has invested more money in the stadium to spruce it up. There are lots of photos of some of the great oldies I mentioned earlier in my remarks. He is in constant contact with members of the business community who help sponsor and support the team.
He is responsible for finding accommodations for the 24-member team and coaches, many of whom are talented athletes who come to Alaska from the lower 48s for the summer.
He is responsible for transportation needs. He is in charge of ticket vendors and sales and the beer garden. He’s responsible for making sure it all goes well for Fairbanks, for the team he loves, and for the love of baseball.
“I love Fairbanks,” he said. “And I love baseball. It’s in my blood” and that’s where it’s at.
So thank you to all Goldpanner players and the community supporting the team. Thank you, John, for all you do to bring us together and keep baseball alive. Congratulations on being our Alaskan of the week.
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