February 27, 2019
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Grand Salami.
Over the life of the print edition of The Grand Salami, Gary West did a number of book reviews as the magazine's resident baseball librarian. Below is one from 2013 examining a chronicle of how Seattle got to be a big-league team with the Seattle Pilots.
Thanks to Ball Four, several team-dedicated websites, and the memories of local baseball fans, the on-field history of the Seattle Pilots is well-documented. Not so well-documented, however, is the off-field history of the franchise that existed for just one season, 1969. While the team was bad, the failings of the players paled in comparison to the ineptitude and clumsiness of the front office. Add in a woefully inadequate stadium, shoddy financing, and lukewarm-at-best civic support, and what results is a story of duplicity, arrogance, apathy, and backroom dealings worthy of a soap opera.
That story is now told in a new book, Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics by Federal Way-based historian Bill Mullins. Well-researched and gleaned from many interviews with people who were there, Becoming Big League details the emergence of Seattle as a major city after the highly successful 1962 World’s Fair. Quoting Mullins, “(Seattle) was a big city that did not quite realize it was a big city.” Many local boosters felt the next step in being considered a “big league” city would be to secure a Major League sports franchise. Mullins writes of several half-hearted overtures from the National Football League and the fledgling American Football League, as well as brief flirtations with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Athletics. All of these were ultimately derailed, primarily due to one lingering problem—the lack of a suitable stadium.
A major stadium was pitched to Seattle as early as 1960, but wasn’t approved until February 1968, as part of the Forward Thrust initiative. That came after the award of an American League franchise in late 1967 (and after an extensive publicity campaign led by American League president Joe Cronin and big league stars of that era like Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski).
The stadium, however, was only one obstacle. Mullins writes that there were three requisites for a city to support a franchise: A suitable stadium, measurable public support, and adequate financing. At the time the franchise was awarded, none of the three existed, nor would they exist during the brief tenure of the Pilots. This three-headed monster, combined with the rapidly-deteriorating quality of the Pilots’ on-field play, combined to ultimately doom the franchise.
the Pilots, and Stadium Politics
By Bill Mullins
University of Washington Press
348 pages, $19.95
Purchase as paperback
Purchase as e-book
There were several attempts to save the Pilots after the 1969 season, led by local booster Ed Carlson and local media/entertainment magnate Fred Danz; those ran into the same problems as the effort to first secure the team did—a sub-standard stadium, public apathy, and a lack of support from civic leaders. After several “false positives” indicated the team might stay in Seattle, the team was ultimately sold to a Milwaukee group headed by Bud Selig (who was in backroom negotiations to buy the franchise for much of early 1970). The sale consummated on, appropriately enough, April Fools Day, 1970.
For many Seattle residents, the book will bring back memories of the men (and, as Mullins emphasizes, they were all men) who stood on opposite sides of the debacle. Efforts of local boosters like James Ellis, Joe Gandy, Dewey Soriano, and Edo Vanni would run into the ambivalent, wet-blanket attitude of mayor Dorm Braman (and later his successor, Floyd Miller) as well as the outspoken opposition of political gadflies like Frank Ruano (a lifelong opponent of publicly-financed stadiums right up through Safeco and CenturyLink Fields). Soriano, for his part, was an enthusiastic enough and well meaning supporter, but it soon became apparent that neither he nor his brother Max had the acumen or wealth needed to successfully operate a Major League franchise. Mullins writes that the Pilots, at times, “seemed to be run on a Visa card.”
keep its franchise. A city that
cares more about its art museums
than its ballpark can’t be all bad.”
—Jim Bouton, Ball Four
Mullins also writes about the post-Pilots years and the efforts to finally build a stadium and secure a new team. Cost overruns, several delays, and the local economy (this was the time of the infamous “Boeing Bust”) provided roadblocks, as well as the lingering perception that Seattle still wasn’t quite up to being “big league.” However, the efforts of several influential local politicians, as well as a lawsuit against the American League filed by Seattle attorney William Dwyer, finally forced the league to grant Seattle a new franchise that would ultimately, in 1977, become the Mariners.
Interspersed throughout the book are several chapters detailing the Pilots’ on-field play. Starting from the first spring training, this entertaining synopsis of the season details the Pilots’ early season rise to third place in the newly-formed AL West to their ultimate mid-season crash-and-burn, and concludes with spring training 1970 and the ultimate morphing of the Pilots into the Milwaukee Brewers. Also included in the book are historic photographs from local sports historian Dave Eskenazi and from the Museum of History and Industry.
For many fans who were around to see the Pilots firsthand, this book will be a great reminder of what we had and how it was lost (in fact, you’ll learn several things about the entire debacle that you didn’t know before). For younger fans, it’s a revealing and biting look at the often dubious relationship between politics, civic pride, and sports. Bill Mullins has done a fabulous job connecting all three to make this a book that anyone interested in local baseball and/or history will enjoy.