A Short Flight


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On April 11, 1969, Major League Baseball made its debut in the city of Seattle to a raucous crowd of 17,000 fans. On a pleasant, sunny, breezy sixty-degree day in the hastily renovated Sick’s Stadium, the expansion Seattle Pilots defeated the Chicago White Sox seven to nothing. Gary Bell, the ace of the pitching staff, threw a complete game. Heck, he even helped his own cause by smacking a two-run double in the sixth inning. Don Mincher, the cleanup hitter and proverbial slugger of the lineup, belted a long home run in the third. All was right in the Pacific Northwest, at least for the day. As the Seattle Times put it in the next morning’s headline, “Twas a Perfect Day, for Weather and Score.”

It was not to last. The Pilots arrived in a city that wanted — some would say needed — a professional sports franchise to solidify its status as a major league city in 1968. They were met with much fanfare, but a myriad of issues, ranging from political conflict to poor draft strategy to clogged toilets, doomed them. In their only season in the American League, the Seattle Pilots finished at the bottom of the AL West division with a record of 64 and 98, thirty-three games out of first place. On April 1, 1970, less than a year after that “Perfect Day,” the Seattle Pilots were no more. They became the first (and still only) Major League Baseball franchise to declare bankruptcy and only expansion team to last a measly one season.

On April 1, 1970, days before the season was scheduled to start, the team packed up their bats, gloves, equipment, and moved to Milwaukee. It happened so quickly that there wasn’t even time to get new uniforms. The Pilots’ name and logo were ripped off and replaced by “Brewers.”

This is the story of a baseball-mad city, America’s western expansion, and how being shortsighted can lead to financial ruin. This is the, albeit short, story of the Seattle Pilots.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, New York had three teams; the Yankees in the Bronx, the Giants in Manhattan, and the Dodgers in Brooklyn. Major League Baseball was an east coast league, dominated by cities with hot, humid summers and cold, bitter winters. In 1958, that all changed.

When the Dodgers and Giants finally made their way to California (Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively) in 1958, they became the first major league baseball teams to move west. It signaled a change in the baseball and American landscape. Until that point, St. Louis, with their clubs the Browns and Cardinals, was the furthest west Major League Baseball’s domain extended. But as the population blossomed out on the west coast and Americans moved further away from urban centers, there was less of a need to have three teams in New York and two teams in St. Louis. Fans were spread out across the country. Baseball’s migration was America’s migration.

But that didn’t mean, for all those years without major league baseball, fans in America’s temperate climate didn’t want their baseball. The Pacific Coast League had filled that void. Founded in 1902, the Pacific Coast League thrived due to its location. They played longer seasons and more games because of the weather, therefore ensuring more revenue for the teams and an extra few months of salary for the players. The season would sometimes start as early as mid-February and last as late as December.

While the American and National Leagues were many of the players’ ultimate goals, the Pacific Coast League wasn’t a bad alternative. In fact, in 1952, the Pacific Coast League became the only minor league in history (and still, to this day) to be given the “Open” classification, considered a step above Triple-A. Kenneth Hogan in his book, The 1969 Seattle Pilots: Major League Baseball’s One Year Team, said that “the PCL had been thought for years as a third major league by many fans and players alike.” Baseball legends Joe DiMaggio, Paul Warner, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams made their hay in the PCL.

In other words, to be considered a top-notch city in the PCL was to be thought of on nearly the same level as, say, a Cincinnati. Only after the PCL’s 1946 attempt to become a major league and cut into the American and National leagues’ “exclusive territory” did the leagues decide they had to do something about the PCL. Determined to expand their market to the west coast, MLB sent the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 to compete for, and ultimately win, the west. A decade later, with MLB having already sent another team to California (the California Angels in 1961) and two teams to Texas (Texas Rangers in 1961 and Houston Astros in 1962), baseball was ready for one more team out west. And this time, it would be in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle was incorporated as a town on January 14, 1865, several days short of four months until General Robert E. Lee’s surrender that ended the Civil War. From the very beginning, Seattle was a crowded port city that specialized in fish and timber. In fact, the term “Skid Row” may have come from the line of timber mills on “Mill Street” and the logs that skidded down the street from one mill to the other, waiting to be chopped. Later, during Prohibition, this same street would be condemned by Seattle moralists for its plethora of brothels and speakeasies. This term would become associated with any street that had a seedy underbelly.

Additionally, in 1910, William Boeing, wanting to take advantage of the available timber, bought a shipyard on the Duwamish River where he planned to make airplanes. He officially named it “Boeing Airplane Company” in 1917. Soon, Boeing became one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world. Seattle remained their corporate headquarters until 2001, when they moved to Chicago.

The businesses that employed these tough characters wanted an activity to occupy these men other than drinking and women. So, as was the case in other American cities during the Gilded and Industrial Age, they created baseball teams. To encourage them to participate (and to get the best players), they paid them. This was the beginning of professional baseball in Seattle. On May 24, 1890, the Seattles defeated the Spokanes 11 to 8 in the city’s first pro game.

For the next 47 years, baseball was quite an attraction for Seattleites. The Seattle Reds, called that due to their scarlet hats and socks, won the first baseball championship (in the new Pacific Northwest League) in Seattle’s history in 1892. The league folded, but a newcomer to town, Daniel “D.E.” Dugdale, made sure Seattle wasn’t without baseball for long. On his way to Alaska to join the masses for the Klondike Gold Rush, he stopped in Seattle and never left. A former player himself, he brought baseball back by creating the Seattle Braves. According to Kenneth Hogan, Dugdale is “the father of Seattle baseball.” The team became a stable of the league, to the point when they were considering a move into the fledgling and popular Pacific Coast League, the president of the Tacoma club, J.J. McGinnity, was quoted in the pages of Sporting Life magazine in 1915 saying, “We are not going to break up; neither will we allow Seattle, one of the best paying cities in the circuit, to drop out and join the Coast League.”

An arsonist burned down the stadium D.E. Dugdale built in Seattle, Dugdale Park, in 1932. Two years later, D.E. was killed when he was run over by a City Light (to this day, Seattle’s electrical provider) truck. By the end of the 1937 season, the players’ checks weren’t coming. The team, both financially and on the field, was in dire straits. Fortunately, New York Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert convinced local Seattle brewery president Emil Sick to buy the team who, according to Los Angeles Times writer Frank Finch, had “a bankroll that would clog one of the spillways in the (at the time, recently constructed) Hoover Dam.”

Sick was never a baseball fan, but had been advised that a baseball franchise was a good investment and a chance to sell a lot of beer. Emil Sick purchased the team for one hundred thousand dollars on December 17, 1937. Calculating for inflation, today that is the equivalent to about 1.6 million dollars. Unfortunately, the team had previously acquired 150,000 dollars in debt, which was only revealed to him after his purchase. He had his work cut out for him. Sick immediately regretted the decision.

Sick, as a businessman, knew it wasn’t just about the product, but how the product was presented. So, he went to work rehabbing the image of Seattle baseball. He renamed the team to the Seattle Rainiers, the name of his brewery, but also was a call back to the majestic Mount Rainier that was about eighty miles south of the city. He hired the immensely popular manager, Jack Lelivelt, away from their archrival, the Los Angeles Angels. Most importantly, though, he began construction on Seattle’s cathedral of baseball, Sick’s Stadium. It cost him 350,000 dollars to build (if you are keeping track, that’s now 600,000 dollars Emil Sick has sunk into the team, ten million today.) It opened on June 15, 1938, as the finest field in the Pacific Coast League. The Seattle Rainiers immediately became the best drawing team in the PCL and the number one minor league team in the country in attendance. Sick was hailed as a Seattle savior and was named by the nationally recognized Sporting News as the minor league executive of the year.

Sick’s Stadium didn’t just play host to baseball games, but boxing matches, religious events, and music concerts as well. And no concert was bigger than when Elvis Presley arrived to play at Sick’s Stadium on September 1, 1957. As the next day’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer discovered, “what the guitar-tootin’ singer has reduces a large segment of teen-agers to a screaming mass of humanity.” It was said a 14-year-old ukulele-playing fan watched the King from a hill overlooking the stadium because he couldn’t afford a ticket. His name was John Hendrix, but everyone called him Jimmy. Thirteen years later, in July of 1970, Seattle-native Jimi Hendrix played at Sick’s Stadium. Two months later, Hendrix would die from a drug overdose. Sick’s also saw 1956 Olympic champion Pete Rademacher “sadly overmatched” by Floyd Patterson in 1957 and “Cold-Eyed” Sonny Liston win by decision over Eddie Machen in 1960.

The Seattle Rainiers, with its crowds, sparkling stadium, and history of winning, attracted a proud collection of baseball talent to the Pacific Northwest during their prime PCL years. Hall of Famer Earl Averill graced the Seattle outfield in the final years of his playing career. Detroit Tiger All-Star and local Seattle hero Fred Hutchinson began his career with the Rainiers. So did, future stars Claude Osteen and Vada Pinson. Hall of Famer and legendary San Francisco Seals (and, most notably, Joe DiMaggio’s) manager Lefty O’Doul took the reins of the team for a season. He quit because he wanted to take care of “business interests, but would be back in baseball if a good spot opened up.” (He never did and opened a San Francisco restaurant in his name. It’s still there.) Baseball legend Roger Hornsby coached the Rainiers for a season as well in 1951. He left when he was offered a job with the St. Louis Browns. The Seattle Rainiers was a minor league franchise with major league credentials. This wasn’t lost on anyone when the majors finally did come calling prior to the 1968 season.

In 1967, the legendary and very colorful owner of the Kansas City Athletics, Charles O. Finley, was searching far and wide for a new home for his team. The team had moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia, from the east to the midwest, in 1954. But after thirteen years of battling local politics, Finley finally had enough of Kansas City. He visited Seattle, knowing their rich baseball history, and was impressed. Well, with everything but Sick’s Stadium. Since the stadium had been built 30 years prior, modern marvels like television, a national highway system and even improved indoor plumbing had come into existence. Yet, Sick’s Stadium, despite being the best of its day, never updated. Upon leaving the stadium, Finley commented, “It’s aptly named.” He passed on Seattle and moved the team to Oakland instead, where he built his own stadium.

As is the case more often than it should be, politics and dollars played in a hefty rule in a far-reaching decision. When Finley told the American League of his decision at the 1967 league meetings, this angered several prominent members of the board, including Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri (a Democrat who ran against John F. Kennedy for the 1960 presidential nomination, only to lose when he refused to speak to a segregated audience). Symington threatened, if his state’s biggest city didn’t get another baseball team to replace the moving A’s, that he would introduce legislation that would revoke the league’s antitrust exemption and challenge the reserve clause (a clause that kept players under contractual control of the team). The owners, fearing the ramifications of this, immediately awarded Kansas City an expansion team. In order to not create an uneven amount of teams in American League, they had to add a second team. Seattle was the choice, finally ready to become a major league city with a major league team.

Senator Symington was still not happy. Despite an earlier agreement that the teams would begin play in the 1971 season, three years from that point, the Senator wanted a team in K.C. now. So, with once again politics playing a role, the owners revised their earlier decision. The new American League franchises Kansas City and Seattle would throw their opening pitch in April 1969. Seattle, if they were ready or not, had baseball coming in 18 months.

There were several other reasons why Seattle was awarded a franchise besides their rich baseball history. By 1968, it was the third largest city in the west. The last thirty years had brought a population boom, driven largely by the economic success of the growing aerospace giant Boeing. The city had led the Pacific Coast League in attendance for 14 straight years, proving that there was a rabid fan base in Seattle. Major League Baseball was also impressed with the passion of the Soriano brothers. Dewey Soriano had been Emil Sick’s general manager with the Seattle Rainiers. He knew the game and the city as well as anyone. He formed Pacific Northwest Sports Incorporated with his brothers, Max and Milton, in hopes of convincing the MLB to bring a team to their home state. While they had the passion, the love of the city, and the baseball acumen, they didn’t have money. So, they recruited William Daley to be the chairmen of the team’s board. Daley had been the owner of the Cleveland Indians from 1956 to 1962 and presided over a decidedly mediocre time for Cleveland baseball (a record of 564 and 527 over seven seasons.) In return for providing the financial backing, Soriano gave Daley 47 percent ownership of the franchise. Dewey and his brothers only had 34 percent. This would later prove to be a crucial detail.

Major League Baseball placed several conditions on the new owners and the city of Seattle. First off, they were told they needed to update Sick’s Stadium; the facilities, concessions, and the seating. Sick’s only held 11,000 fans, but MLB wanted 30,000 seats. Secondly, the MLB wanted a domed stadium due to the Seattle’s well-documented rainy weather. This required the passing of a 40 million dollar bond proposal by the voters of King County, always a risky proposition. Thirdly, provided the bond proposal passed, the domed stadium would need to start construction by December 31, 1970 in order to get this new team out of Sick’s Stadium as quickly as possible. They never did meet this third requirement because, by then, the Pilots were no longer in Seattle.

The ownership group agreed to meet these requirements and, at first, things went okay. The Sorianos and Daley brought in baseball celebrities like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Carl Yastrzemski to travel around the county and show off their star power to voters. It worked. The 40 million-dollar bond proposal, lumped in with the Forward Thrust ballot initiatives aimed at other civic projects, like community centers, improved highways, and the Seattle Aquarium, passed in February 1968 with 62 percent of the vote. Improvements to the stadium couldn’t start until after the 1968 season due to the Seattle Angels, still a member of the PCL, having a lease to play in the stadium. Due to the delay and not having enough time, it was requested that the number of seats asked for be reduced from 30,000 to 25,000. The American League agreed, but wasn’t too happy about it. Additionally, a budget had been set to make the improvements at 1.18 million dollars (about 8.5 million today). Estimates came in and all were at least 65 percent above the set budget. After much negotiation, and agreeing to have “less costly lighting, restrooms the smallest that would pass code, interior walls made out of plywood, and no built-in utilities for concession stands,” they finally settled on a budget at 1.5 million. Not only that, due to the constant bickering, work didn’t begin until late November 1968, 18 weeks before scheduled opening pitch.

Despite all the issues with the stadium, the team needed to get the fans excited about the team and that began with their image. A contest was run to name the team and the Pilots won out, defeating the Green Sox, Kings, Rainiers, and the Mariners (which would become Seattle’s team name the second time they would get Major League Baseball). The players were selected through the expansion draft, relying on a strategy on picking veteran, often past their prime, players with the hope the team could compete immediately. Players like Don Mincher, Tommy Harper, Gary Bell, Tommy Davis, Jim Bouton (the writer of the infamous baseball tell-all book, Ball Four), and Steve Harper were all former All-Stars. The operative word there is “former.” They devised uniforms and hats that, to this day, are extremely popular due to the fact that they were ridiculous looking. The hats had a giant gold ‘S’ with gold braids on the bill, or as the military called them, “scrambled eggs.” Jim Bouton, in his book, said that it made the players look like “goddamn clowns.” They had a theme song, written by local broadcaster Rod Belcher and performed by “Doris Doubleday and His Command Pilots” called “Go, Go, You Pilots” with lyrics like, “Go, Go, You Pilots! Go out and build a dream!”

Finally, that “perfect day” arrived and the Pilots defeated the White Sox on opening day. From that point forward, though, things were far from perfect. The conditions of the stadium were not major league, including water pressure that was so low, toilets couldn’t be flushed during the game. Despite these problems, tickets prices were among the highest in the majors. The public bickering about the stadium, the bond initiatives, and the general uneasiness between the city of Seattle and the Seattle Pilots turned off many fans. Oh, and the team stunk. For the first three months of the season, the Pilots weren’t very good with a 34 and 39 record, but they weren’t horrible. In July and August, in what is traditionally called the dog days of summer and the baseball season, was when things went south, the team compiling a 15 and 42 record. On August 31, they were 49 and 81 and sat 29.5 games out of first place. By that time, attendance was dipping fast. On a September 4th game against fellow expansion team Kansas City Royals, only 3,958 fans showed up to watch. This was not what the American League had in mind when they gave Seattle a team.

As the season wore on, it became evident the team was losing money, though not millions like some pessimistic projections showed, but closer to the half million dollar range. Still, money is money and losing it is never a good thing. It became evident more money was going to be needed in order for the team to stay afloat and the Soriano brothers had to turn to William Daley. In a 1979 interview with the Associated Press, Max Soriano said, “Sure, he had the money to do so, but I don’t think he was a careless person with his dollars. I think he looked at it as the odds being too much against Seattle being a viable franchise until a new stadium was built…I’ve never told anybody this, but Daly wanted to leave Seattle as soon as the first game ended.” In early September, William Daley took to grandstanding and told the Pilots fans that if they didn’t come to games, he would be forced to sell the team. Mayor Floyd Miller (who was actually an interim mayor and never elected) responded by saying he would evict the team if they didn’t put up a bond guaranteeing they would pay the rent on Sick’s, for the Pilots had refused to pay in June. National news reports started coming out that the Pilots were moving at the end of season, most likely to Dallas. In the final month of the season, attendance plummeted to only about 4,500 fans on average a game.

Around this time, a Milwaukee ownership group led by a young, millionaire, car salesman named Bud Selig (yes, current commissioner of Major League Baseball) was looking to buy a team and move them back to the cheese state of Wisconsin. In 1966, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, despite Bud Selig arguing against this by saying “a baseball team owed it to its community to remain loyal, and not seek new homes, because the loss of a baseball team meant the loss identity.” So, when the Pilots own financial troubles arose, Selig jumped on the chance to move the team from Seattle to Milwaukee, in a twist of irony. After secret negotiations, a deal was struck during game one of the World Series in Baltimore. An ownership group led by Bud Selig was going to buy the Pilots for 10.8 million dollars.

Yet, this was not the end. Everyone, the league, Selig, and the Sorianos, denied the team had been sold and even that any negotiations had ever happened. The plan, as it always had been, was to keep the team in Seattle. But the money trail said otherwise. The American League asked if there were any ownership groups in the area that would be willing to buy the team and keep them in the city. One group came forward, but when the Bank of California demanded immediate payment of a four million loan, the proposal fell through. No one in Seattle wanted to pay for the team and the millions of dollars of debt. The residents of Seattle were heartbroken, knowing that they were about to lose the team they worked so hard to get. The Tacoma News Tribune wrote that the loss of the team would be a “severe blot on the Northwest’s image as a major league territory.” Finally, in March 1970, the Pacific Northwest Sports Inc. filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the Pilots, making them the only major league sports franchise to declare bankruptcy. The state of Washington got a temporary injunction to prevent the move, but it wasn’t going to last. During the last days of spring training for the 1970 season, trucks holding all of the Pilots equipment sat and waited to hear where they should drive. Would they be going to Seattle or Milwaukee? On April 1, 1970, a judge declared the Pilots bankrupt and ordered the selling of the team to the Selig group. This was six days before opening day.

The Seattle Pilots only lasted one season, but have endured as a visage of expectations never met. Latching a sports franchise to the well being of a city has always been a way for supporters to get citizens to embrace the team, but what happens when it goes wrong? Luckily for Seattle residents, the city endured. In a show of confidence, they continued with their plan to build a domed stadium in the city. The Kingdome was completed in 1976, albeit a few years late to save the Pilots. It became home to an expansion NFL franchise, the Seattle Seahawks (who won their first Super Bowl last year). Baseball returned seven years later, with America still determined to move west, in the form of the Seattle Mariners. Over 57,000 fans showed up on Opening Day 1977 to the Kingdome to watch baseball and enjoy the new, modern stadium.

Today, there are six teams that can be considered “west coast,” not to mention teams in Colorado and Arizona. America’s pastime, like the population, has spread out to every corner of the country.

Sick’s Stadium was demolished in 1979. Eventually, a Lowe’s Home Improvement store was built where the stadium once stood. Inside of the store, there are still marks where the bases once sat and a sign reading “Historic Site of Sick’s Stadium” sits next to the parking lot. Sick’s Stadium is gone, but not forgotten, much like the Seattle Pilots themselves. • 12 May 2014


Matt Blitz is a writer based out of Los Angeles who's written for Atlas Obscura, CNN, Untapped Cities, and Today I Found Out. He's currently the head of Obscura Society LA. He does laundry on a regular basis. You can follow him on Twitter @whyblitz.