When Las Vegas’ Triple-A minor league baseball team became a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate in 2001, the team was rebranded, trading its long-time Las Vegas Stars nickname for a new identity as the Las Vegas 51s. The club’s logo became an oversized gray alien head, complete with double-stitching as though its rubbery skull had been made by Rawlings. It was the kind of joke that MiLB loves, and a winking reference to the eternally mysterious Area 51 Air Force installation 80-ish miles north of Las Vegas, which has been the subject of countless UFO- and alien-related conspiracy theories for more than a half-century.
In 2018, the 51s became an Oakland A’s affiliate and were reinvented again as the Las Vegas Aviators, an homage to record-setting pilot, longtime Vegas resident, and isolation enthusiast Howard Hughes. (This was probably also because the team is owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation). But even though the local minor leaguers don’t have little aliens stitched on their hats anymore, America’s favorite pastime still has a connection to Area 51: The diamond-shaped field that can be seen in Google Maps images of the secretive site.
“Doesn’t it look like Area 51 has a baseball field,” a recent post on Reddit’s r/ufo subreddit said. “It’s the Groom Lake Bears vs the Papoose Lake Lizards.” Actually, at one point, it was more like the Area 51 8-Ballers against the Area 12 Mets, two real-life teams featuring employees from the facility who slugged it out during the Mercury Softball Association’s annual Slow-Pitch Playoff Tournament. No, seriously.
Although it seems that some amateur alien-hunters discovered the field just recently, while scrolling through those satellite images, it’s been a fixture at the base for more than 50 years. “The Area 51 softball field was established around 1964 during Project OXCART, the development and fielding of the A-12 spy plane,” Peter Merlin, an author and aerospace historian, told VICE. “The 8-Ballers were primarily OXCART project and support personnel. Other Area 51 organizations such as EG&G Special Projects, [along with] Nevada Test Site organizations, also had softball teams.”
In September 1965, the Bulletin Board, a weekly newsletter for workers at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Test Site—a sprawling location west of Area 51 that is now known as the Nevada National Security Site—noted the 8-Ballers’ recent tournament win. (Merlin explained that the 8-Ballers’ name “almost certainly” was a reference to the pool hall phrase “behind the 8-ball,” which means that someone is in a difficult or precarious position.)
“The powerful Area 51 8-Ballers captured the 1965 Slow-Pitch Play-Off Tournament with a 14-4 victory over the Area 12 Mets Monday night,” the report read. Noting that “The championship game marked the fifth win without a loss for Area 51," the reports explained that the "Area 12 Mets deserve a great deal of credit for their fine showing, as they finished the highest of any team from the Mercury League.” (Area 12 is part of the Nevada Test Site, so of course they got an extra shoutout in the employee newsletter.)
In his book, Area 51: Images of Aviation, Merlin explained that the softball field was only one of several recreation facilities that were available to workers at the site in the 1960s. “To occupy non-duty hours, OXCART project pilots converted House 6 into a bar and established a running poker game,” he wrote. “Other recreation facilities included a three-hole golf course, a movie theater, gymnasium, basketball and squash courts, a fishing pond called ‘Slater Lake,’ and a softball field.” The field appears to have been a popular amenity: Merlin wrote that in 1987, a team called the Ballpark Franks won the annual softball championship.
But seeing a softball field on a military base isn’t anything extraordinary—and neither is the bar, the gym, the swimming pool, running track, or the other rec offerings that are available at Area 51 or at any other Air Force installation. “Force Support Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) resiliency and readiness programs provide the necessary building blocks essential to retention, resiliency, squadron readiness, and trust among Airmen,” the Air Force wrote on a website detailing the benefits that are available to active-duty service members.
It listed a number of the MWR clubs that can be found at Air Force facilities, including assorted arts and crafts classes, bowling centers, and an Auto Hobby Shop. (VICE has reached out to Nellis Air Force base for more information about the Groom Lake installation—what civilians refer to as Area 51—at the Nevada Test and Training Range, but we have not yet received a response.)
There are some signs that Area 51’s softball field must still have a grounds crew. “An examination of overhead satellite images of Area 51 shows that the softball field appears to be well maintained,” Merlin said. “This suggests that the tradition started by the 8-Ballers during OXCART, and continued by the Ballpark Franks and others two decades later, continues unabated. There is nothing special about the softball field at Area 51 other than the fact that it is located at America's favorite ‘secret’ base. The simple fact that it is there capture's people's imaginations because they think of Area 51 as some sort of mysterious and exotic place. It is, in fact, a very typical Air Force base that just happens to host highly classified programs.”
And it apparently turns out some decent softball players, too.