In 1969, baseball was not new to Seattle. Minor league ball was played in Seattle between 1890 and 1892 and then continuously between 1898 and 1968. The Pacific Coast League fielded a team from 1903 to 1906, and again beginning in 1919. The most popular Minor League team was the Seattle Rainiers, originally named for the mountain. In 1921, the Rainiers were renamed the Indians, but when Emil Sick, owner of Rainier Brewing Company, bought them in 1937, he changed their name back to the Rainiers. He also built them a ball field -- Sicks' Stadium.
Hall of Fame ball player Rogers Hornsby and local legend Fred Hutchinson managed the Rainiers during the 1950s and led the ball team to championship pennants. But, by the 1960s, after Sick sold the team, interest waned and attendance fell off.
Fortunately for Seattle, Major League baseball owners were looking around for locations to place new expansion teams. Seattle was in an economic boom, due to Boeing’s successes in the aerospace industry. That made the Northwest an untapped market of fans and their money. The closest cities with Major League home teams were San Francisco and Kansas City.
In 1967, Major League owners awarded an American League franchise to Dewey and Max Soriano. Dewey had been general manager of the Rainiers, and president of the Pacific Coast League. His brother Max served as legal counsel for the Pacific Coast League. The Soriano brothers hired William Daley, former owner of the Cleveland Indians, to help with the business of running a ball team.
The House that Sick Built
The American League stipulated a condition on the franchise: the promise that a new, domed stadium would be built within three years. Sicks' Stadium may have been a nice place to watch Minor League ball, but a Major League city needed a Major League ball diamond. Sports legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Carl Yazstremski came to Seattle to urge voters to pass a bond issue to fund a new stadium.
On February 13, 1969, voters passed parts of Forward Thrust, a campaign that would have funded 12 areas of capital improvement including rail transit, parks, and sewage facilities. Rail transit failed but 63 percent of the voters wanted a Kingdome. Little did they realize how long it would take to build an indoor stadium and how soon after that it would be torn down.
Meanwhile, Sicks' Stadium was expanded for use as a temporary home (another stipulation by the American League). The stadium originally seated 11,000 fans, far too few for a Major League team. Bids to expand the stadium to 28,500 seats came in too high. Reluctantly, the League agreed to reduce the planned capacity to 25,000 seats, then to 21,000.
Work began on Sicks' Stadium in early 1969 during one of the worst winters the region had seen in half a century. Heavy snowfall brought construction to a near halt. By April 11, opening day, only 6000 seats had been added, putting the seating capacity at a mere 17,000. As the Pilots took to the field, some fans had to wait outside while their benches were being installed. Some of them didn’t see the game until the third inning.
During the year before the first game, Dewey Soriano was building a team. First he hired Marvin Milkes as general manager. In the first round of the 1968 player’s draft they picked up Don Mincher (1B), Tommy Harper (3B), Ray Oyler (SS), Gerry McNertney (C), and Buzz Stephen (P). Other players chosen in the draft included Gary Bell (P), Steve Barber (P) and a young minor league outfielder from Portland named Lou Piniella.
On April 1, 1969, one week before the season opener in Anaheim, California, Milkes traded Piniella to the Kansas City Royals. Soriano almost fired Milkes for this decision. Piniella went on to win American League Rookie of the Year. In the 1990s, Piniella would return to the Northwest as manager of the Seattle Mariners.
In the season opener on April 8, 1969, the Pilots beat the California Angels 4-3. When they arrived home on April 10, Seattleites greeted the team with a parade and a crowd of 500 fans. U. S. President Richard Nixon added congratulatory telegrams to the celebration. In the home opener on April 11, the Pilots shut out the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. Pitcher Gary Bell only gave up 10 hits. Ecstatic fans rushed the field to congratulate him.
No Joy In Mudville
Off the field, there was little joy. Early on, Soriano and Daley realized that they were in over their heads. Inadequate seating made for inadequate ticket sales and low attendance. Fans resented the resulting rise of ticket and concession prices. Also, visiting teams loathed Sicks' Stadium because of the low water pressure. They had to take showers at their hotels after the game. And for the fans, when attendance reached 10,000, the toilets wouldn’t flush.
As for the construction of a new stadium, delays begat more delays. Twelve sites were considered. The leading contender was the Seattle Center, a landmark that preservationists wished to see left alone. They campaigned to save the Center, and that put the final decision on hold.
By the end of the season, rumblings could be heard that the team would move. The owners, bitter and vocal about stadium woes, heaped much of the blame on the city, without mentioning their own financial instability. In September, Daley complained in a press conference that “Seattle has one more year to prove itself."
This comment alienated fans even further. Attendance dropped. The Pilots played the final game of the season on October 2, 1969. It was a dreary evening, and 5,473 wet fans showed up to watch the Pilots lose 3-1 to the Oakland A’s. They ended the season in last place with a record of 64-98.
It was apparent to the American League that the Pilots needed new owners. Fred Danz (1918-2009), owner of a local movie theater chain, offered to buy the team. League owners met and agreed, but with continuing concerns about the need for a new stadium, which was already delayed into 1971. Danz raised $10 million, but a week before Christmas, the Bank of California demanded immediate payment for money the Pilots owed them for start-up costs. Danz couldn’t raise the extra $4 million and the deal fell through.
Meanwhile, Bud Selig, a Milwaukee businessman, wanted to buy the team. Efforts by Washington state Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson and State Attorney General Slade Gorton to keep the team in Seattle had prevented Selig from doing so. When the deal with Danz fell through, the American League stepped in on March 17, 1970, and voted to move the team to Milwaukee.
Spring training had already begun in Tempe, Arizona. On April 1, 1970, the Pilots were ordered to go to Milwaukee. There they were renamed the Brewers. A week later, they played their first home game in Wisconsin. There was no time for new uniforms to be made, so they wore old Pilots uniforms with the old logo removed and Brewers name stitched over it.
If You Build It, They Will Come
The Pilots were gone, but problems remained. In 1970, the City of Seattle, King County, and the State of Washington sued the American League. They requested $32 million in damages resulting from the loss of the Pilots.
Acting for the plaintiffs, Seattle attorney (and future federal judge) William L. Dwyer (1929-2002) argued that the League had supported and sponsored Seattle's financial commitments (i.e. the vote for the new stadium under Forward Thrust) in order to get the Pilots franchise into Seattle. They felt that moving the Pilots nullified this deal, and that the League should make up the some of the cost.
Meanwhile, work continued on the stadium. On March 26, 1976, the Kingdome opened for business near Pioneer Square, south of downtown Seattle. There was still no baseball team to move into it, but a new football team, the Seattle Seahawks, would begin playing home games in the fall. The Kingdome could also be used for musical events and trade shows.
Enter the Mariners
The lawsuit dragged on until 1976. At the trial the American League offered to give Seattle a new baseball franchise in return for dropping the suit. The details were ironed out over the next year, and the Seattle Mariners became the new home team.
On April 6, 1977, the Mariners played their first home game in the Kingdome. Seattle finally had a stadium of Major League caliber, and it was domed, just as some folks originally wanted it. Ironically, in fewer than two decades (1995), decisions would once again be made to create another, even newer stadium.
This time it was the Mariners who were threatening to leave town. In 1995, in order to keep the franchise, recommendations were made to build an open-air stadium with a retractable roof. Work began in 1997 and the new Safeco stadium was completed in 1999. The Mariners played their first game (they lost to the San Diego Padres 3-2) on July 15, 1999.
On March 26, 2000, the Kingdome was reduced to rubble. Once again, baseball games are won and lost under blue skies.