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Lassen, Leo H. (1899-1975)
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Leo Lassen was a sportswriter and publicist who became a living legend as a baseball radio broadcaster in his hometown of Seattle. He covered the city’s Pacific Coast League teams from 1931 to 1960. His glory years coincided with those of the Seattle Rainiers when they played at Sicks' Seattle Stadium. Baseball was the biggest game in town, and Lassen was its voice. His distinctive rapid-fire delivery, packed with detail and baseball knowledge, was known throughout the city. His broadcasting career ended with a salary dispute and he withdrew into private life, never returning to the ballpark where he had earned fame. A lifelong bachelor, he spent his retirement caring for his mother and tending his roses at his Wallingford home. He died without any surviving family members but with legions of fans who remembered him with appreciation and affection.
From Newspapers to Broadcasting
Lassen was born on July 5, 1899. His mother’s name was Minnie Lassen (1870-1968). His father is not mentioned in newspaper accounts of his life. Little is known about Leo’s early childhood, except that a playmate shoved him to the sidewalk when he was about six, leaving him with a crooked left arm. The family moved into a house built for them in 1906 on the corner of Rainier Avenue S and Alaska Street. By 1917 the house had been converted into a funeral home (the Columbia Undertaking Company, currently known as the Columbia Funeral Home), and the Lassens were living in Seattle’s north end. Leo attended Lincoln High School. He tried out for the baseball team but wasn’t good enough to make it.
He was, however, able to parlay his love of sports into newspaper jobs. As a teenager he worked as an office boy at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1918, he became a sports reporter for the Seattle Star. He was promoted to sports editor the next year. The Town Crier, a Seattle cultural publication, printed one of his poems in 1922. It was titled "Mood" and showed his sentimental side, lamenting the grayness of winter and the parting of a "chum." Around 1925 Lassen moved into a two-story frame house on Latona Avenue, where he would live the rest of his life.
Lassen became the Star’s managing editor in 1928. Two years later, in the throes of the Great Depression, he and others at the Star were laid off. He got a job operating the International News Service bureau in Seattle and also worked as a publicist. He soon landed as a client the Seattle Indians baseball team of the Pacific Coast League. It was a relationship that would change his life and ultimately leave his mark on Seattle.
The Indians needed a radio broadcaster for the 1931 season. Several applicants auditioned without getting the job. Then team owner Bill Klepper had an idea. "Why not you?" Klepper asked Lassen. "You know this game, and you could talk the leg off a chair" (Raley, 208). Lassen had no radio experience and his somewhat grating voice was hardly ideal. But times were tough and Klepper was cash-strapped, leading some to think his publicist got the job because he cost less than an established play-by-play man. Whatever the owner’s rationale, Lassen fit comfortably into his new role. "I went down to the station (KXA), sat down, and broadcast my first game. It was a road game, a re-creation," Lassen said. "From the first, it never bothered me a bit" (Brougham, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1975).
Home games for the Indians were played at Dugdale Field, a ballpark with a double-deck grandstand on the corner of Rainier Avenue S and S McClellan Street. Away games were covered by telegraph, with an operator at the ballpark sending messages to a Seattle radio studio where Lassen would embellish the bare-bones account.
Re-Creating the Action
Re-creations, as such broadcasts were called, were common throughout Lassen’s career. They started in the 1930s. An operator at the ballpark would send messages in Morse code to an operator at the radio station, who would translate the dots and dashes for the broadcaster. The telegraph eventually gave way to Teletype, which sent the messages in words instead of code and went directly to the broadcaster. Still, the reports were cryptic, leaving much to the play-by-play man’s imagination. Seattle sportscaster Rod Belcher, who re-created hundreds of sports events in the 1950s, wrote in a 1979 Seattle Times article that the messages had to be short so that the viewing operator at the game could keep up with the action. Belcher provided this example of what might arrive at the radio station: "Seattle third. Smith up, bats right. S 1 C (strike one, called) -- S 2 Foul -- B 1 low -- Hit -- Smith singles to left. ..." As Belcher put it, the idea for the broadcaster "was to make it all come alive by sheer personal creativity."
Lassen excelled at that. He was an astute observer and a baseball expert. He knew the players’ mannerisms and could plausibly predict what they would do in given situations. He did not use recorded crowd noise or the contrived sound effects favored by others, such as slapping a thigh to simulate a pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt, or snapping a rubber band on a matchbox to approximate the sound of a hit. He would, however, sometimes fabricate scenarios at the ballpark to fill time unexpectedly created by technical delays. If the telegraph lagged, he might invent extra foul balls or an argument at home plate. But if the lag continued, he would solemnly tell listeners, "I will not give you an incomplete or inaccurate report of this game. Until the report comes to me correctly ... uh, it’s back to the studio for a brief interlude of music" (Belcher, The Seattle Times, 1979).
Although Lassen never told listeners he was at out-of-town games, the richness of his descriptions led many to believe that he was. That included some hockey and University of Washington basketball games. The broadcaster recalled with amusement one encounter with an incredulous fan after a broadcast. Lassen had just re-created a UW game against Stanford that was played at the Cow Palace, an arena in San Francisco. He left the radio studio and went to the Washington Athletic Club. Someone there pointed him out to a fan. The man was sorry to see him. He told Lassen, "I just bet someone $20 that you were at the Cow Palace" (Anderson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1973).
From Indians to Rainiers
On Lassen’s 33rd birthday, July 5, 1932, Dugdale Field was destroyed by fire. There had been a post-game Fourth of July fireworks display the previous night. The fire was not noticed until after midnight, and firefighters were unable to save the 29-year-old structure. Forced to find a new home field, the Indians settled for Civic Field, sometimes called Civic Stadium, at the corner of 5th Avenue N and Harrison Street. It was a dirt high school football field, a joke as a baseball park. It had telephone poles on the field, cockeyed dimensions, and no press box. Lassen did his broadcasts out in the open, behind home plate. The field was so rocky that former groundskeeper Bill Kinney said "It was like playing on Aurora Avenue" (Raley, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1999).
Their sorry home field was an apt symbol for the state of the Depression-era Indians. The franchise was bankrupt. In December 1937, Klepper sold it to local brewer Emil Sick (1894-1964), who vowed to give Seattle a first-class team and a first-class stadium. He named the team the Rainiers, after his brewery; hired a proven manager in Jack Lelivelt (1885-1941), and began building a stadium where Dugdale Field had been. The result was a $350,000 structure with a sleek Art Deco façade. The scene was set for success, both for the franchise and its radio voice.
The Rainiers played their first game at Sicks’ Stadium on June 15, 1938, drawing 12,000 fans. Lassen was installed in a press box attached to the grandstand roof and reached by a steel ladder. In addition to his play-by-play accounts, he was writing about the games for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, something he started with the Indians and continued for 14 seasons.
With a new owner, new stadium, and a sensational homegrown rookie pitcher, the Rainiers thrived. Fred Hutchinson (1919-1964) was fresh out of Franklin High School, which was visible over the right field fence. He had an astonishing total of 25 games won. One of the biggest came on August 12 when he earned his 19th victory on his 19th birthday. The crowd overflowed the grandstand and sat three-deep along the outer edges of the field. The Rainiers were so popular early in Sick’s ownership that they led the nation’s minor leagues in attendance in 1939 and won three straight league championships (1939-1941).
The team’s success naturally meant more people were listening to Lassen’s accounts on the radio. His voice, often described in negative terms, was ubiquitous when the Rainiers were playing. "It was an honest voice, crackling through thousands of screen doors on hot summer nights while sprinklers played on the lawn," Don Duncan wrote in a 1965 article in The Seattle Times. "You could not escape it, so you listened to the love affair between a bespectacled bachelor and a game called baseball.''
Among those listening were the residents of Hooverville, the collection of shacks that sprouted south of downtown during the Depression. As Duncan wrote in 1989, "‘Mayor’ Jesse Jackson had a radio in his ‘executive mansion’ and he hooked it to a loudspeaker. The voice of Leo Lassen, Seattle's ‘Mr. Baseball,’ rang out over shantytown."
Legendary Post-Intelligencer sports editor Royal Brougham (1894-1978) summed up Lassen’s hold on the city in a column published in 1975: "It was bad etiquette to telephone a friend between the hours of eight and 10 p.m., the caller being informed -- ‘Call later, Leo is on the air.’ " John Owen, who came from Montana and succeeded Brougham at the Post-Intelligencer, wrote that he could barely understand Lassen when he first heard him on the radio. Nonetheless, "On summer evenings you could follow the progress of a game while walking through any residential area in Seattle. Lassen's voice projected from almost every open window or front porch" (P-I, 1994).
His style was part of his allure. Unlike modern broadcast teams of two or more, Lassen was alone with his microphone. He packed his accounts with every tug of a cap or wiggle of a bat. He knew the rules as well as the players, managers, and umpires, and explained them in a way listeners could understand and appreciate. When the action was fast, so was his voice; for a quickly turned double play his words flew like an auctioneer’s. He liked to set the scene, perhaps referring to "a Grandma Moses sky," or noting that Mount Rainier was out and looming behind Franklin "like a big ice cream cone." Listeners came to know and anticipate his pet phrases, often embellished with "oh baby!" If a batter fouled a pitch into his foot, Lassen would say, "If you’ve never been hit by a foul tip, you don’t know what you’ve missed." If the game was close heading into the ninth inning, it was "hang onto your rocking chairs." Most famous of all was his home run call: "It’s a high fly ball to left field. Back-back-back, b-a-a-ck … and it’s over!" He signed off with a humble "uh, this is Leo Lassen speaking. I hope you enjoyed it."
Leaving the Booth
The Rainiers won another pennant in 1951 with a Hall of Fame player, Rogers Hornsby (1896–1963), as their manager. They enjoyed another popularity boom in 1955 when Hutchinson was coaxed back as manager for a single year and captured the Rainiers’ fifth Coast League championship, all with Lassen describing the action. Still riding that wave, the team held a special "Leo Lassen Night" at the ballpark in 1956. Former players returned to take part in the salute, and Lassen received several gifts, including a new, two-tone Chevrolet.
But the Seattle sports scene was changing. In 1955 all Rainier home games were televised locally on KVTW. Lassen was still beloved, but no longer the only connection between the team and its fans. And the Pacific Coast League would soon lose its perch atop baseball in the West. In 1957 the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants announced they would be moving to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, for the following season, bringing Major League Baseball west of St. Louis for the first time. The appeal of minor league baseball began to wane.
When radio station KOL gained broadcast rights for Rainier games, Lassen was deemed somewhat outdated and less important than he was when radio ruled the airwaves. Instead of keeping him on the payroll year-round, as he had been, the station offered to pay him only during the baseball season and for roughly half what he had been making. Lassen refused the offer and resigned shortly before the start of the 1957 season. He was replaced that year and the next by Belcher, who had several years of re-creating major league games events under his belt but nonetheless was a bit daunted by the prospect of following Lassen. Belcher said later that he didn’t want to sound like Lassen but couldn’t help it sometimes, because of years of hearing him on the air.
Lassen returned for the 1959 and 1960 campaigns. But then Sick sold the Rainiers to the Boston Red Sox, who planned to use the Seattle club as a farm team, and KOMO obtained the broadcast rights. After a salary dispute, Lassen resigned again, this time for good. He was replaced by a rising talent, Keith Jackson, who later became ABC-TV’s leading college football broadcaster. But the Rainiers’ era was ending. By 1963, their attendance had dropped below 1,700 per game. Hutchinson and Sick both died in 1964. After the 1964 season, the Los Angeles Angels bought the team and changed its name to the Angels. The Rainiers were no more.
A Lonely Retirement
Lassen never returned to the stadium where he had gained fame. He had been gregarious as a local celebrity, speaking to civic groups and enjoying post-game outings with sports writers and other friends. Emmett Watson, a ballplayer turned newspaper man who socialized with Lassen, wrote in 1991 that the broadcaster "was an appreciative but not a compulsive drinker; he didn't drink often, but when he stalked Old Crow it became an endangered species." The social side of Lassen disappeared when he retired. His pride was wounded by what he considered a lowball offer. After he left the broadcast booth, he largely withdrew from public life.
He cared for his mother, Minnie, until she died in 1968, nearly blind at age 98. He nurtured the rose gardens in the front and back yards of their Wallingford home, continually transplanting and experimenting with new varieties. He read histories and listened to classical music. A small dog kept him company. When the Post-Intelligencer’s Lenny Anderson visited Lassen at home in 1973, the 73-year-old ex-broadcaster still could recall in great detail games played many decades earlier. He found fault with the current play-by-play men, mainly for not giving the score often enough.
Lassen was inducted into the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. By then, Seattle had experienced one season with a major league team, the Seattle Pilots, who played at a hastily renovated Sicks’ Stadium in 1969 and were moved from spring training to Milwaukee after the franchise was judged underfunded and its ballpark inadequate. In 1977, the city would land an American League expansion club, the Mariners, and house them under a concrete roof in a massive new structure called the Kingdome. But Lassen didn’t live to see it. He developed respiratory problems and was in and out of Ballard Community Hospital before dying there on December 5, 1975, at age 76.
Remembering a ‘Legend’
The news ran across the top of the Post-Intelligencer’s sports section the next morning, under the headline "Lassen, Seattle Baseball Legend, Dies." The story, by Royal Brougham, began:
"His was the best known voice in the community for three decades. He created an entire dictionary of baseball terms. He was Mister Baseball. Leo Lassen died in the dark hours of early morning alone in the hospital room. A lonely man, he has no living relatives, and only a handful of close friends. But the pioneer broadcaster of the Seattle Rainiers had tens of thousands of admirers who knew him only as a voice."
Vince O’Keefe of The Seattle Times wrote that Lassen was "perhaps the best-known figure in Seattle’s baseball history." A memorial service was held on December 9, 1975, at Crown Lutheran Church, where the organist played a slow, somber version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
The Times’ Don Duncan, who had written several lengthy pieces about Lassen when he was alive, had summed up his impact this way in 1965:
"He never rose to the heights of elective office. He has a crippled left arm and a face you wouldn't recognize if he sat next to you on the trolley. And yet his rather metallic, nasal voice -- for which you had to acquire a taste, as you do for green olives -- dominated the Seattle scene so completely for so many years that it became a part of the family."
In 28 seasons, Lassen broadcast roughly 5,000 games. He went off the air in 1960 but the memories endured. Two weeks after his death, a letter writer to The Seattle Times expressed the feelings of many: "I was an avid Rainiers fan by radio each week," she wrote, "but after he left the air I lost interest. It just wasn’t the same without Leo." Indeed, in 1977 when the Mariners introduced their lead broadcaster, Dave Niehaus (1935-2010), who similarly would endear himself to Seattle and even make the Baseball Hall of Fame, people were still talking about the Rainiers’ voice. "All we heard about was Leo Lassen," said Ken Wilson, Niehaus’ first broadcast partner. "It was, essentially, that you guys will never be as good as Leo Lassen" (Stone, Seattle Times, 2008).
When The Seattle Times ran a list in 2001 of people who had shaped Seattle, Lassen was on it. In 2002, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department named a cluster of softball diamonds at Lower Woodland Park the Leo Lassen Fields. The small plaque there is his only memorial -- except for the memories of those who fervently listened to his broadcasts. Among those who appreciated Lassen most was Edo Vanni (1918-2007), a Seattle native who was the last of the original Rainiers. He was a rookie outfielder their first season and manager for their last one. He said about Lassen,
"If it wasn’t for him baseball would have had a real problem in Seattle. He’s the one who sold baseball to the town. He had you hanging on every pitch" (Raley, 207).
Don Duncan, "Portrait of a Baseball Immortal," The Seattle Times, March 21, 1965, p. 49; Historical Sites, "Summary for 4567 Rainier Ave," Seattle.Gov website, Department of Neighborhoods websites accessed February 24, 2011 (http://web1.seattle.gov/DPD/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=523); Dan Raley, Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 204-218; Royal Brougham, "Adieu, Leo," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 10, 1975, p. F-2; Lenny Anderson, "Lassen Turns Back the Clock," Ibid., April 15, 1973, p. G-1; Rod Belcher, "Baseball’s Days of the ‘Re-Creation’," The Seattle Times Magazine, July 8, 1979, pp. 4-5; Raley, "The Game: From Reds to Ruth to Rainiers: City’s History Has Its Hits, Misses," Post-Intelligencer, July 14, 1999, p. C-14; Duncan, "Toughing It Out -- Days in the Lives of Hoovervillians," The Seattle Times, May 14, 1989, p. 14; Duncan, "An Inspired Hall of Honor Nomination: Leo Lassen," Ibid., April 26, 1987, p. K-5; Brougham, "Lassen, Seattle Baseball Legend, Dies," Post-Intelligencer, December 6, 1975, p. B-1; John Owen, "Rainiers Baseball Was Staccato Stage For Leo Lassen," Ibid., June 10, 1994, p. B-2; Emmett Watson, "A Giant Behind the Microphone Learned From the Master," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1991, p. B-2; Vince O’Keefe, "The Voice is Silent: Leo Dies," Ibid., December 5, 1975, p. C-1; Duncan, "This is Leo Lassen Speaking ...," The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, May 27 1973, p. 8; "Post-Mortem," Seattle Times, December 19, 1975, p. D-4; Larry Stone, "My Oh My Forever," Ibid., July 27, 2008, p. D-1; "MetropoList 150: People Who Shaped Seattle," Ibid., October 14, 2001, p. A-16; Gina Kimm, "Softball Honors Baseball’s Voice," Ibid., August 15, 2002, p. B-5.
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Leo Lassen calling a home run at a Seattle Rainiers game, Seattle, 1949
Courtesy Community Audio
Leo Lassen (1899-1875), Seattle, ca. 1960
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Leo Lassen (1899-1975), Seattle sports announcer, 1930s
Lassen family home (1906), 4567 Rainier Avenue S, Columbia City
Courtesy Rainier Valley Historical Society
Sicks' Stadium, Rainier Valley, Seattle, 1938
Sicks' Stadium Scorebook
Leo Lassenís press pass for the Seattle Rainiersí first season, 1938
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Leo Lassen, right, with Rogers Hornsby, Seattle, 1951
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Leo Lassen, left, with Rainiers players Ray Orteig and Artie Wilson and fans, Seattle, ca. 1953
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Leo Lassen (1899-1875) in his rose garden, Seattle, ca. 1973
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Leo Lassen at awards ceremony, Sicks' Stadium, Seattle, 1956
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection
Plaque at Leo Lassen Fields, Lower Woodland Park, Seattle, February 2011
HistoryLink.org photo by Glenn Drosendahl