On Friday afternoon April 11, 1969, Major League Baseball came to Seattle with the American League expansion Seattle Pilots debuting at Sick’s Stadium. After near misses with Indians and A’s considering a move to the Pacific Northwest Seattle finally had a big league team! Albeit 2 years ahead of schedule.
Seattle – will score a 7–0 over the Chicago White Sox as thirty-two-year-old righty Gary Bell tossed a complete game shut out for Seattle, he scattering nine hits, striking out six and walking four. Bell also helped his own cause by stroking a two-run double off Bob Locker in the bottom of the sixth. First baseman 1b Don Mincher hits the first Pilot home run in Sicks Stadium two-run HR off Joe Horlen in the third. Mincher’s homerun landed in an area where the seats were there were concrete footings but no seats installed.
The Pilots could not have hoped for a better start – after three games they were 2-1, they won there road opener vs the Angels and their home opener. They even drew several thousand more fans than the Angels did in there home opener on April 8.
Why Seattle and then what happened?
The move to the Pacific Northwest seemed logical, Baseball itself had been deep routed in Seattle and it was the 3rd largest city on the West Coast. They awarded the Seattle franchise to Brothers Dewey and Max Soriano were awarded an American League franchise at baseball’s 1967 winter meetings in Mexico City. Dewey and Max were long term baseball men and local to the area so it was a perfect fit.
“I was happy as heck,” said Dewey Soriano. “You don’t sleep very much, I’ll tell you that, because you want to get going and you want to get players that can really help your club.”
The problems started when Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri demanded that the Kansas City Royals, be ready for play for the 1969 season. Symington would not accept the prospect of Kansas City having to wait three years for baseball to return to Kansas City. Baseball had been played in KC for 84 straight years before the A’s left in 1967 and MLB granted him his wish.
Because of the short timeline the team was far less prepared off the field than on. One of the main reasons no team would move there was not the fan base or the economics of the area, it was the Stadium. As both William Daley and Charlie Finley noted Sicks Stadium was appropriately named when they scouted the area earlier in the decade. Neither wanted to wait the years it would take to build a new stadium.
Sick’s Stadium had been a minor league park for the Seattle Rainers since 1938 and was a fine minor league stadium that enjoyed a great fanbase. It was never meant to become a park for Major League baseball.
The franchise agreement was for Seattle was to have a domed stadium (The Kingdome) with 3 years of there debut, in the meantime, Sick’s Stadium needed to expand to 30,000 seats for the 1969 season. By opening day in 1969 less than 17,500 were actually in place. Poor weather and cost overruns were the reason given. The scoreboard was installed the night before opening day and seats were getting installed during the first game as thousands of fans were standing the first 3 innings that had assigned seats not yet installed. The seating grew through the spring, unfortunately, most of the new seats had obstructed views and the stadium maxed out at 25,000 seats.
There were no field-level camera pits, so photographers had to set up their equipment atop the grandstand roof. The clubhouse facilities were second-class. Also, no upgrades were made to the stadium’s piping, resulting in almost nonexistent water pressure after the seventh inning, especially when crowds exceeded 10,000. This forced players to shower in their hotel rooms or at home after the game. The visiting team’s announcers couldn’t see any plays along the third base or left field. The Pilots had to place a mirror in the press box, and the visiting announcers had to look into it and “refract” plays in those areas. By the middle of the season, it was obvious that Sick’s Stadium was completely inadequate even for temporary use.
Despite all these issues and some of the highest prices in the league, the Pilots drew 644,000 fans. In today’s game that seems uncompetitive. However, but it was more than the White Sox, Indians, Phillies or Padres brought out to the ballpark that season. The Padres didn’t draw more fans than the Pilots until 1974.
The real issue that was brewing was the brothers did not have the financial means to carry the team. So they turned to Cleveland Indians owner William Daley. Although Daley did fund then initially he turned off the faucet as he got a deeper look into the Pilots finances and was no longer willing to wait out a new stadium and the Soriano brothers ran into trouble fast. Daley started to make threats and creditors got nervous and the stadium being built came to a slow crawl.
“Sure, he had the money to do so,” said Max Soriano, “but I don’t think he was a careless person with his dollars. I think he looked at it as the odds being too much against it being a viable franchise until a new stadium was built and he didn’t know how long that was going to be.”
The brothers tried to sell to Local theater chain owner Fred Danz the sale was approved by the baseball establishment, but at Christmas, Danz got a reverse present from the Bank of California. They demanded immediate payment in full on the $4 million they had loaned the Pilots for start-up costs. Danz couldn’t come up with that money in addition to the $10 million he’d already raised, so the sale was nullified.
Westin Hotels president Eddie Carlson put together a non-profit corporation to buy the team, but American League owners voted against accepting his offer. After pressure from Washington’s powerful U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, the A.L. reconsidered, but by that time, Carlson’s group had disbanded and there was not enough time for him to bring it back together.
The Pilots became the only team in MLB History to go into bankruptcy. Tensions were tight during spring training with so much uncertainty as players, coaches, managers, and many others were not getting paid.
Then on March 31st, the team was sold out of bankruptcy court to a Milwaukee-based group lead by Car Salesman Bud Selig on March 31, and the team moved at the end of spring training for the 1970 season and became the Milwaukee Brewers.
They played their first game in Milwuakee on Aril 7th as 36,107 fans came to see their new team! BUT after only two years in Milwaukee, the Brewers’ attendance had slipped to well below what it had been in Seattle.
The Pilots are only 1 of 2 teams to play in a city 1 year, the other ironically was the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901, who became the St Louis Browns and is now the Baltimore Orioles.
Interest in the Pilots is much greater now than it was when the team existed. One reason for this posthumous fame is that most of their single season was chronicled in pitcher Jim Bouton’s classic book, Ball Four. Although much-maligned by those inside the game, Bouton was expelled from baseball for several years after writing this book. It is a great fun read on life as a baseball player.
(If you’re curious about Seattle MLB debuts, there’s also this post on the Mariners’ first game, in the Kingdome in April 1977 and this one on the Pilots’ first game ever. Or, check out the website celebrating the Pilots. Or, watch a promotional 17-minute videothe Pilots produced about their season-including footage of opening day at Sicks.)