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Submarine pitch: Remembering the first softball game at the North Pole

An American nuclear submarine crew plays softball in the snow at the North Pole in August 1960. (Mariners Museum and Park)

When my grandfather, John Galuardi, worked at the General Services Administration, he helped oversee the move of Navy offices to Crystal City in Virginia. He told me there was a box in an office containing a baseball bat used by the crew of the submarine USS Seadragon to play a ballgame at the North Pole. I was hoping you had some insight as to where the bat is nowadays. It seems to me that such an artifact might be in a museum somewhere.

Cody Galuardi, Slingerlands, N.Y.

The bat is in a den in the Prattville, Ala., home of Jim Steele. Well, one bat is anyway, and it is not the bat that was in the office of Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy.

The father of Jim Steele was George Steele II, the first captain of the USS Seadragon and its commander during the historic 1960 voyage through the Northwest Passage.

“The ballgame was definitely a highlight of that trip,” Jim told Answer Man.

The nuclear submarine was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and destined for service in the Pacific. The Navy decided to send it through the Northwest Passage, parts of which would be covered in ice.

As Jeanne Willoz Egnor, curator of maritime history and culture at the Mariners Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., wrote in a blog post: “the only one way to find out whether a submarine could make the passage was to try.”

The Seadragon was fitted with special equipment, including sonar to ping off the ice above and a light meter to help determine ice thickness. The gear and the skill of more than 100 crew members under Steele allowed the Seadragon to become the first submarine to make an underwater transit of the Northwest Passage.

After reaching the North Pole, the Seadragon surfaced in open water, its hull and sail dark against the white ice. The game had been planned in advance as a way to celebrate and blow off steam.

“We were blessed with a clear blue sky overhead, warm sunlight, and little or no wind,” wrote a young Seadragon officer named Alfred Scott McLaren in his 2015 book “Silent and Unseen.”

The large ice floe comprising the field was as close as possible to the geographic North Pole. The mound was placed at the North Pole. The line from home plate to second base and into center field ran along the Greenwich Meridian.

A batter circling the bases after a home run would go through 24 time zones. The position of the international date line meant hitting a ball into right field was hitting it into the next day. A line drive into left field would stay in today, but throwing it to first base might entail throwing it into tomorrow.

Wrote McLaren, “Double and triple plays could take several days to complete.” And according to the brass plaque affixed to the bat in the Alabama den of Jim Steele, the crew beat the officers by a score of 13 to 10.

How is it that Rickover also had a bat in his office? The answer can be found in an interview George Steele gave to Paul Stillwell of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1986.

Steele said that after completing the voyage, he was awakened by a call from Rickover. Steele was in Waikiki celebrating with his family. He was a little hung over. “I can tell you that three mai tais is about right, but four mai tais is one too many,” he told Stillwell, before snapping to attention at the sound of Rickover talking.

What was so important? Rickover said, “Get all the baseball equipment that you used at the North Pole, put a label on each item to the effect that it was used at the North Pole. Get it all on the next plane to me in Washington. I’m going to give it to congressmen, and it is going to do a lot of good for the nuclear power program.”

Steele replied, “Aye, aye.” After hanging up, he called the Seadragon duty officer and told him to lock up all of the Arctic softball gear in the torpedo room. Then he called Seadragon executive officer John Riley and told him to scavenge as much used baseball gear as he could from the naval base at Pearl Harbor, enough to fill a panel truck.

Steele told Riley, “Take all the Arctic ball equipment and stick it on top of that pile in the torpedo room, and swish it all around together, rub it all up good, and then it is all going to be Arctic ball gear. Every man in the crew is going to have something, a ball or a glove or a bat. When they have theirs, the rest goes to Washington.”

As Steele told Stillwell for the oral history, “And that is what I did. It took over an hour of signing.” He continued, “So at a party when I left the ship, the chief of the boat came up with a big grin bearing a softball bat bearing a brass plaque, and he said, ‘Captain, the crew wants you to have this real, genuine bat used at the North Pole.’”

The interview transcript follows that with laughter.

Jim Steele said, “My dad knew there were going to be people that wanted memorabilia.” Jim is certain he has the original bat. “That I know from what dad told me,” he said.

As for any other North Pole bats and balls floating around out there, who can say?