The Fits and Starts of Early Seattle Baseball
Baseball got its start in Seattle in 1890, when the state of Washington was less than a year old. For two years, local fans cheered on the "Seattles" of the Pacific Northwest League (PNL), culminating in the capture of the 1892 pennant. Following that thrill, the league folded.
Four years later, ex-big-leaguer Daniel E. Dugdale (1864-1934) came to Seattle to give local baseball a second chance. He bought the franchise, and renamed the team the Seattle Braves. Unfortunately, the summer of 1896 proved to be one of the wettest in Seattle history, and most games were cancelled due to monsoon. Once again the league folded, leaving only Dugdale’s Seattle team and Tacoma to finish out the season. They played 34 games together, and Seattle snagged the championship by winning 18 of them.
Still, baseball held a tenacious grasp on wet fans. By 1903, two teams played ball in Seattle, the Braves and the Siwashes. The Siwashes were part of the outlaw Pacific Coast League (PCL), and by 1903 the PNL had grown to 10 teams.
Dugdale left the baseball scene for a few years, and in 1907 was hired as chief operator of the Siwashes, who had left the PCL to join the Class-B Northwestern League. Rechristened the Seattle Turks, they went on to win pennants in 1909 and, as the Giants, won again in 1912. With baseball fever sweeping Seattle, Dugdale built a stadium in Rainier Valley.
The House That Dugdale Built
The eponymously named Dugdale Park opened on September 9, 1913. Built with a double-deck grandstand, it was considered one of the finest ballfields on the West Coast. The Seattle team went on to win pennants there in 1915 and 1918. In 1919, they rejoined the PCL as the Seattle Rainiers and were renamed the Seattle Indians in 1922, and as such won the city's first PCL championship in 1924.
To the delight of Seattle fans, exhibition games were also played at Dugdale Park. In 1924, Babe Ruth played with local ballplayers in an all-star game sponsored by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. With nine at-bats, he swatted three home runs out of the park.
On July 4, 1932, a fire swept through the ballpark and burned it to the ground. It was at first attributed to the careless use of fireworks, but three years later, serial-arsonist Robert Driscoll confessed that it was one of 115 fires he had set during his illuminating “career.”
The franchise moved to Civic Field, now the site of Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center. Even before they moved, the Indians had been playing less-than-stellar ball. Conditions at Civic Field -- a grassless expanse of dirt and rock -- didn’t improve things. In the sun it was a baked desert. Rain turned it into a mud pit.
Owner “Bald Bill” Klepper wasn’t much help either. One time he switched a night game to a day game but told only the players and umpires. One fan showed up. Needless to say, the Indians did not make a lot of money. Indian fans suffered through five wretched seasons. Then beer baron Emil Sick arrived, and saved the day.
“You Will Be A Big Man In This City And You Will Sell Lots Of Beer”
Emil G. Sick (1894-1964) was born in Tacoma in 1894. His father was a brewer who had come to America from the Rhineland region of Germany. When Emil graduated from Stanford in 1919, prohibition was taking hold in the States. Sick went to work at his father’s brewery in Canada.
Starting off as a secretary, he worked his way up to middle management, and in 1934 became president of Associated Brewers of Canada. When the people of the United States saw the error of their ways and repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, Sick returned to slake the thirst of beer drinkers in the Pacific Northwest. He founded Sick’s Century Brewery and smaller breweries in Washington and Montana. In 1935, he merged with Rainier Brewery, founded in 1883 by Andrew Hemrich.
An incessant demand for more beer in post-prohibition America made Sick a wealthy man in the midst of a nationwide economic depression. His wealth brought him in contact with many prominent local citizens, one of whom was labor leader Dave Beck. Beck was a baseball fanatic.
Beck had been offered ownership of the Indians for free, but had no interest in running a team and not enough money to pay the players. He consulted with his friend Emil Sick. Beck convinced Sick that it was his civic duty to save the team from bankruptcy. Beck told him, “You will be a big man in this city and you will sell lots of beer.”
Ka-ching! Music to a beer baron’s ears. Sick bought the franchise for $100,000 and started construction of a new stadium at the old Dugdale Park site on Rainier Avenue. Mount Rainier loomed above the stands (soon to be filled with fans drinking Rainier beer), and Sick renamed his team the Rainiers. A new chapter in Seattle baseball history began.
The Rainier Golden Years
The stadium was built of concrete and steel for a cost of $350,000. Choice seating and a playing field devoid of dust and boulders made it a tremendous hit with fans and players alike. Twelve thousand fans showed up for the inaugural game on June 15, 1938, including a few who watched the game for free on the grassy knoll just over the left-field fence -- “Tightwad Hill” -- as it became known.
Both the stadium and the new Rainiers were a pleasure. Sick had hired manager Jack Lelivelt, who in 1933 and 1934 had won pennants for the Los Angeles Angels. Edo Vanni and Mike Budnick, well-known ballplayers, were signed to play, but the brightest star on the team was an 18-year-old pitcher from nearby Franklin High School -- Fred Hutchinson.
“Hutch” had a stellar season with 25 victories, a .781 winning percentage, and a 2.48 ERA. More than 16,000 fans showed up on his 19th birthday (August 12) to cheer him on as he won his 19th game. Throughout the season, fans shattered previous attendance records. At the end of the year, the team finished in second place, quite a way up from the basement they'd inhabited the year before.
The next year Hutch went on to the majors. Sick sold him to the Detroit Tigers for the astounding sum of $50,000 (and four players) when two years earlier Joe DiMaggio had fetched only $25,000 from the Yankees. Hutch spent 10 years in the big leagues, with a 95-71 winning record and a 3.73 ERA. Local fans couldn’t have been happier.
The Rainiers continued their romp without him, winning pennants for the next three years in a row. The team included a colorful bunch of characters including Jo Jo White, Gilly Campbell, Dick “The Darning Needle” Gyselman, and Bill Schuster, otherwise known as “Schuster the Rooster” for his habit of climbing the grandstand screen and crowing like a barnyard fowl. Another lovable mug was Bill Stump, a decent shortstop who had trouble remembering outs. After each play, the second baseman had to hold up one or two fingers to keep him on track.
Adding to this festive atmosphere was announcer Leo Lassen, also known as “The Great Gabbo.” With turns of phrase like “Mount Rainier is a big ice-cream cone over Franklin High tonight, folks” and “Hang onto those rocking chairs,” he became a Seattle institution. He was also a master of huckstering products with calls like “He’s as safe as a Silvertown Tire.” Schoolboys throughout the city performed Leo Lassen routines for stunt nights, concocting their own bizarre “Lassenisms.”
After their three-year pennant streak, World War II intruded, and many of the players were called off to fight. The next championship wasn’t until 1951, under the management of baseball legend Rogers Hornsby. Nevertheless, from 1938 to 1952, in terms of attendance Seattle was the nation’s number one Minor League team. Many of these fans drank Rainier Beer at the games which, along with owning a well-loved team, made Emil Sick a very happy man.
The End of an Era
1n 1955, local hero Fred Hutchinson returned home to join with high school chum Dewey Soriano, who was now the Rainiers’ general manager. The two Franklin High grads rebuilt the team and won yet another pennant. Hutch left the next year to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, but returned in 1959. By this time, the heyday of the Seattle Rainiers was coming to an end.
Increasing television coverage of Major League baseball caused attendance to drop. In 1961, Sick sold his team to the Boston Red Sox, but retained ownership of the park. He passed away on November 11, 1964. Sadly, Fred Hutchinson died the very next day at the young age of 45, after a long bout with cancer. A decade later, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was built in his name, and went on to achieve world-wide prominence.
A year after the death of Sick and Hutchinson, the Red Sox sold the franchise to the California Angels. The Angels renamed the team to the Seattle Angels, and the Rainier era was over.
Sicks' Stadium (briefly) Enters the Big Leagues
Seattle longed for a big league team, and in 1967, Major League owners awarded one to Dewey Soriano and his brother Max. 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 Yastrzemski came to Seattle to urge voters to pass a bond issue to fund a new stadium.
On February 13, 1969, voters passed part but not all 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.
Meanwhile, Sicks' Stadium was expanded for use as a temporary home (another stipulation by the American League). The stadium originally seated 15,000 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, then to 21,000 seats.
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 6,000 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 caught their first glimpse of the game at the third inning.
Little did the fans know, but by the next year the Pilots would be gone. Faced with rising costs and low attendance, the Soriano brothers found themselves in over their heads. Delay after delay hampered the construction of the Kingdome, and in the interim, Sicks' Stadium was woefully inadequate. Visiting players showered at their hotels due to low water pressure, and when attendance exceeded 10,000 the toilets stopped flushing. Before the 1970 season began, the Pilots were sold to Milwaukee and renamed the Milwaukee Brewers.
The White Elephant
After its brief appearance in the Major Leagues, Sicks' Stadium limped along. Up until 1976, it was the home of a new Class-A team, also named the Rainiers. It wasn’t the same. There were more empty seats than filled ones. Even Tightwad Hill was bereft of fans.
Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both performed rock concerts at Sicks' in 1970, and in 1976, future Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura held a wrestling match to the delight of all in attendance. Meanwhile, the stadium fell deep into disrepair, and was soon referred to as a “white elephant."
When the Kingdome was completed in 1977, the older ballpark entered into the world of ghost baseball. The ball park became a purgatory of weeds and broken slats ringing the grandstand. Plans were developed to turn the site into a shopping mall, a photo plant, an Indian cultural center, an industrial complex. In 1979, the wrecking ball brought Sicks' Stadium to an end.
In the 1990s, a hardware and garden store chain opened a new facility at the site. In front of the entrance is the original location of home plate, denoted by a plaque, plate, batting box, and a silhouette of a baseball player lining up for a shot.
Beyond that, only memories remain.