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Seattle Indians: A Forgotten Chapter in Seattle Baseball
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In mid-1920 the Seattle Giants baseball club (previously also known as the Rainiers and the Purple Sox) became the Seattle Indians. After winning a pennant in 1924 the Indians began a slide that carried into the Depression years. In 1932 arson forced the Indians to relocate to a dirt football field on lower Queen Anne. Trying to keep a second division baseball team solvent during the Depression proved to be a near impossible task. In September 1937 the team finally collapsed in an incredible season finale. In December of 1937 Seattle brewer Emil Sick (1894-1964) purchased the team. He brought in a successful manager, invested in talent and built a new stadium. Sick’s team, named the Seattle Rainiers, were born in Rainier Valley, on the very place where Daniel Dugdale (1864-1934), 25 years earlier, located his Seattle Giants, the predecessor of the Indians.
The Seattle Indians At Civic Field
Daniel Dugdale, a former big league ballplayer, arrived in Seattle in 1898 on his way to Alaska. He never left the city. Over the next 20 years he built up several teams, organized leagues, won five pennants, and built two stadiums.
The second of his ballparks was built in 1913 as a new home for his 1912 champions, the Seattle Giants. Dugdale Field was located at Rainier Avenue and McClellan Street among the Italian truck gardens in Rainier Valley. The double-deck wooden grandstand could seat 15,000. It was built in five weeks!
After winning another pennant in 1918, Dugdale gave up control of the team. The Seattle baseball club entered the Pacific Coast League in 1919. For a while the Giants continued to be competitive. They were renamed the Seattle Indians in 1922. The team won the Pacific Coast League pennant in 1924.
In 1924 a Little World Series was arranged between the champions of the American Association and the Pacific Coast League champions. The St. Paul Saints came west to play the Seattle Indians in a nine-game series. St. Paul won the first game but the balance of the series was canceled due to “inclement weather” (Zingg). This was a portent of things to come. The success of the 1924 season did not carry over and the ball club gradually drifted into the second division, finishing there 10 times in the next 13 years.
Disaster struck Dugdale Park on the Fourth of July, 1932 when wooden stands burned to the ground sometime after a fireworks show. Rainier Valley folks could not agree on the cause, fireworks or arson. Eventually Robert Driscoll confessed that torching Dugdale Field was one of 115 fires he had set about the city. The Indians were homeless.
When the Indians returned from the next road trip a temporary baseball park had been found. As it turned out, Civic Field was neither temporary nor a baseball park. Civic Field was built in 1928 as a football stadium for high school and semi-pro football teams. The stadium was part of a development that included the Civic Auditorium and was located where the Seattle Memorial High School Stadium now stands in the Seattle Center.
The field had no grass. Dan Raley wrote a piece in a special section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer commemorating the opening of Safeco Field. He quoted former Queen Anne High School player Edo Vanni: “If a horse got stranded out there, he would have starved to death. It was nothing but rocks.” Raley went on to quote former Civic Field groundskeeper Bill Kinney: “It was like playing on Aurora Avenue” (Raley).
Edo remembers joining kids from the Queen Anne area and scurrying around the field from time to time picking up rocks to help the grounds crew. Players of that era said it was like playing on a highway. One visiting infielder refused to play on that surface and sat out an entire seven-game series.
A sharply hit ball would roll forever across the hardpan, all the way to the 450-foot center field fence or into the gooseberry bushes 360 feet away down the right field line. Unless, of course, there had been rain, then the field turned to mud.
By 1932, the Coast League was playing many of their games under the lights, so lighting had to be provided at Civic Field. For light standards large telephone poles were situated on the playing field just outside the foul lines. The poles provided a physical and mental hazard to anyone chasing a foul ball. Even then large parts of the field remained in the dark, especially toward center field where Bill Lawrence (1906-1997) pulled fly balls down out of the night.
For batters the most distinguishing feature of the converted football stadium was the distance to left field, about 265 feet down the line. Right-handed batters, especially Seattle outfielder Mike Hunt (1907-1997) loved to hit at Civic Field. In 1936 Hunt and teammate Freddie Muller (1907-1976) tied for the Pacific Coast League home run title with 30 each. Mike Hunt led the League again in 1937 with 39, knocking bricks off the Civic Auditorium located just beyond the left field fence. Hunt’s career dropped dramatically when the team left Civic Field after the 1937 season.
Dan Raley provides further evidence of Civic Field’s right-handed bias. He researched the results for Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999) and Ted Williams (1918-2002) at Civic Field. The right handed DiMaggio bated .411 at Civic Field while with the San Francisco Seals. This included 13 extra base hits and 4 home runs. In 1937, Ted Williams, a left handed pull hitter with the Sand Diego Padres, was 3 for 25, all singles, batting .104 (Raley).
Ballplayers up and down the Coast League hated playing at Civic Field. However Seattle’s Depression-era kids loved the place for one obvious reason. “The place leaked like a sieve,” remembered Seattle’s favorite son Emmett Watson (1918-2001). As a manner of pride, no self respecting kid paid their way in (Watson).
Years later Emmett Watson talked to “Dutch” Reuther (1893-1970) who managed the 1936 Indians. As Watson recounted it, “Reuther told me how the owner, Bill Klepper, gave him all the gate receipts to hide from the sheriff, due at the ball park to collect back admissions taxes.” Watson quoted Reuther, “I had all those damned dollar bills stuffed down in my baseball pants when I was coaching third base.” Reuther’s recollection foretold the eventual fate of the Indians (Watson).
In an interview with Dick Dobbins, Seattle Indians player Paul Gregory (1908-1999) described another episode in the 1930’s scrabble for cash, pay, and gate receipts. “We had gone about a month and a half without a pay day and we had a big day on a Sunday with a big crowd. We went out and took infield practice, then we all went back into the clubhouse and put on our ‘sit clothes’ and went up and sat in the stands. Klepper came rumbling down wondering what was the matter. We explained to him that we hadn’t been paid and weren’t going to play unless we were. So he sent us back to the clubhouse and brought two or three sacks of money down and paid us off. I often said that was the first and the shortest strike in baseball” (Dobbins, p. 112).
Following the disastrous end to the 1937 season, Bill Klepper’s run as owner of the Indians was over. There would be a new ownership in Seattle and, hopefully, a new ball park. Outside of Mike Hunt, no one in the Coast League was sorry to see Civic Field replaced.
Amazing Finale of the Seattle Indians
Seattle Indians second baseman Eddie Fernandes used the old "hidden ball" trick to tag out George Murray of the Sacramento Senators as Murray wandered off the base. The unusual play was not even close to the most remarkable event at Civic Field, which occurred on September 19, 1937. The final out of the 1937 Season did not prevent Sacramento from winning the 1937 Coast League pennant. However it did signal the end of the Seattle Indians baseball team. And what a tempestuous ending it was.
“G-Men Seize Ball Game Cash,” cried out the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the next day. Royal Brougham’s article described how a half dozen federal agents demanded the gate receipts while threatening to take down box office door. Meanwhile, around the corner the roar of motorcycles, sirens screaming, announced the arrival of a squad of State Patrolmen. According to Brougham one patrolman yelled, “The Feds beat us to it; lets grab the bleacher gates.” The race for cash was on. Federal and state authorities sought to collect for thousands of dollars of unpaid admissions taxes, long past due.
Yet someone had beat the Feds and State Patrol to the punch. Seattle Auditorium and Civic Field general manager William “Wee” Coyle (b. 1888) had been a star quarterback for one of Gil Dobie’s (d. 1948) great University of Washington teams. Coyle knew that the Indians’ back rent was due. Using his skills of yesteryear, Coyle beat the G-Men to the till and grabbed a handful of bills. According to Brougham, he sprinted away shouting “The City’s got the rent money, now you fellows can fight for the rest.”
Another entry in the race for gate receipts was Sacramento manager Bill Killefer (1887-1960). He came rushing up from the field demanding “Hey, what’s going on here? How about the 40 percent of the gate that belongs to us?” No one listened and he was later seen scouting the grandstand for a lawyer (Brougham).
Perhaps the most memorable performance of the day was not second baseman Eddie Fernandes, “Wee” Coyle, or assorted law officers. The man of the day was roly poly “Kewpie” Dick Barrett (1906-1966), Seattle Indians' pitcher. His contract included a $250 dollar bonus if he won 20 games in the 1937 season. He had 18 wins when he took the mound for the first game of the season ending doubleheader. Barrett shut down Sacramento on four hits and won his 19th game, 4 to 1.
Leo Lassen reported the clubhouse drama for the P-I. Indians' owner Bill Klepper appeared in the clubhouse between games and ordered the Indians manager, Johnny Bassler (1895-1979) to pitch Marion Oppelt in the second game. Klepper wanted assurance that he would not have to pay Barrett the $250 bonus. Bassler’s answer was “I’m running this ball club and Barrett is going to pitch!”
“This will cost you plenty” was Klepper’s reply. The team held a short meeting and assured Barrett that they would win number 20 for him (Lassen).
Barrett had been injured in the first game when a line drive cracked off his foot, yet he took the mound for the second game. Barrett held Sacramento to two hits and won 11 to 2. “Kewpie Dick” had become an Iron Man that day earning his bonus. If anyone was deserving of a bonus it was “Kewpie” Dick Barrett. Starting in 1935 Barrett was a 20-game winner in seven of the next eight seasons. He was often the Pacific Coast League leader in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. He also set the minor league career record for walks at 2,096. As legendary Seattle broadcaster Leo Lassen put it, “Roses are red, violets are blue. Barrett is pitching, it’s three and two.”
The year 1937 ended in financial ruin for the Indians. They finished the season in the second division again. Yet, given Depression conditions and an under-financed owner, the fall of the Indians was not sudden.
Emil Sick Rescues Seattle Baseball
The day after the remarkable ending of the 1937 season, there were rumors appearing in the papers speculating about who might take the Indians off the hands of owner Bill Klepper and co-owner John Savage. There was a rumor that Yakima sportsman Shirley Parker and Seattle fight promoter Nate Druxman might be interested. It would not be easy in the Depression years to find someone with the means to take over the ownership of a failed baseball club.
Roscoe C. Torrance (1899-1990), in his biography, “Torchy,” laid out his recollection of how Seattle baseball found a savior, Seattle brewer Emil G. Sick. Torchy claimed he first talked to Paul Pigott (1900-1961) of PACCAR, but was told the timing was not right. Next Torchy approached Dave Beck (1894-1993), head of the Teamsters. Beck recommended Emil Sick. In Torchy’s words “Emil Sick went to a brewers meeting in New York where Jake Ruppert (1867-1939), owner of the New York Yankees, suggested that it would be a good asset for the beer business for Sick to buy the ball team in Seattle” (Torrance). Certainly Jake Ruppert understood the synergism between beer and baseball.
Torrance recalled that Dave Beck also approached Emil Sick with the idea of buying the team as a civic duty. “You will be a big man in this city and you will sell lots of beer” (Torrance). Emil Sick bought the argument and set out to buy the team.
On December 16, 1937, Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlines succinctly laid out Emil Sick’s plan:
Sick Acquires Control Over Baseball Club
Will build $150,000 Plant for Indians
Lelivelt Choice for Manager
Wants 6 New Men
The article added that Colonel Jake Ruppert, owner of the World Championship New York Yankees, would aid Sick in strengthening the team but would have no financial interest in the project. Sick’s plan as announced in the P-I came to be and proved to be sound.
Jack Lelivelt (1885-1941) had been a very successful manager of the Los Angeles Angels during the 1930s and his leadership was critical to the coming success of the Seattle baseball Club. The 1937 Indians had finished in sixth place and needed an infusion of talent. New players would come from the Yankees, from trades, and from high school ballfields in Seattle. Freddie Hutchinson (1919-1964) from Franklin High and Edo Vanni from Queen Anne High became local heroes.
A man of his word, Emil Sick soon made plans to build a new steel-and-concrete stadium to be located in Rainier Valley almost upon the ashes of old Dugdale field. He would call the new stadium Sicks' Seattle Stadium. The new stadium was built at a cost estimated at $250,000. The new park at Rainier Avenue and McClellan Street was a gem. The comfortable covered grandstand was close to the field of play, a lawn of green grass. There was seating for 15,000, not counting those who looked in from the cabbage patch over the left field wall. Under the leadership of Emil Sick and Jack Lelivelt, Seattle was primed to launch one of the most remarkable runs in the history of minor league baseball. One last move was made to ensure Seattle fans that there was indeed a new era in baseball.
Dick Dobbins's interview with Edo Vanni pointed out how the Raineirs took optimum advantage of the marriage of baseball and beer. Vanni recalled “They had a blue law in Seattle at that time and you couldn’t sell beer on Sundays. So we never pitched Hal Turpin on Saturday night because he’d pitch a ball game in an hour and 20 minutes. They’d pitch Dickie Barrett and he’d pitch a 3 hour ball game and that would be their best beer night. Turpin would pitch the Sunday afternoon” (Dobbins).
With Emil Sick’s purchase of the team, the name was changed from the Indians to the Rainiers. Hereafter headline writers up and down the Pacific Coast would refer to the team as the “Suds.”
Dick Dobbins, The Grand Minor League: An Oral History of the Old Pacific Coast League (Emeryville, CA: Woodford Press, 1999), pp. 112, 116; John Spalding, Pacific Coast League Stars: One Hundred of the Best, 1903-1957 (Manhattan, Kansas: Ag Press, 1994); Paul Zingg and Mark Mederios, Runs Hits and an Era: the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1958 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 43; Bill O’Neal, The Pacific Coast League, 1903-1988 (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1990); Torchy Torrance and Bob Karolevitz, Torchy! (Mission Hill, SD: Dakota Publishers, 1988), p. 73; Emmett Watson, Digressions of a Native Son (Seattle: Pacific Institute, 1982), pp. 81, 82; Royal Brougham, “Funds Taken For Taxes, State, City Get Share,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 20, 1937, p. 16; Leo Lassen, “Seattle Ace Wins Bonus,” Ibid., September 20, 1937, p. 13; Royal Brougham, “Sick Acquires Control Over Baseball Club,” Ibid., December 16, 1937, p. 1; Dan Raley, “The Game: From Reds to Ruth to Rainiers: City’s History Has its Hits, Misses,” Ibid., Special Section Opening of Safeco Field, July 14, 1999, p. C-14; Ron Richardson interview with Edo Vanni, September 2004.
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