Professional football, long second or even third or fourth or fifth fiddle to baseball behind horse racing, boxing, and college football, had grown greatly popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts — which ended in sudden death overtime and was subsequently dubbed The Greatest Game Ever Played — was seen as the moment when pro football took its place as the top dog in American sports. As the 1960s dawned, football was ascendent and baseball was in the process of falling off its perch as “The National Pastime.”
It would, in fact, fall off that perch and has basically remained off that perch, subordinate to the NFL in the national consciousness, in all but name for many decades. But as the 1960s dawned the Lords of Baseball tried to counteract the game’s slide in popularity and prominence by doing what it probably should’ve done years and years before: it began to expand.
In 1960, the American League voted to expand from eight to 10 teams, adding added a new franchise, the Angels, in Los Angeles. The league also awarded a franchise to Minneapolis-St. Paul, but Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith received approval to move the Senators there instead, where they became thew Twins, with the new expansion slot to Washington going to the new Senators, who would eventually become the Texas Rangers in the early 1970s.
Unlike today, the AL and NL were still run as basically separate and often competing entities in the 1960s, so the NL did not immediately match the AL’s expansion. The twin pressures of AL expansion, along with that threat from a potential upstart in the Continental Baseball League that we discussed a couple of weeks ago, changed the Senior Circuit’s mind the following year and it added two new expansion clubs of its own for the 1962 season: the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s, who would eventually become the Astros.
By the late 60s both leagues were ready to expand again, and this time they did it in a more coordinated fashion, with each league adding two more cities for the 1969 season: Montreal and San Diego in the NL and Kansas City and Seattle in the American League. The Montreal team took its name the 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67, as it was commonly known. The Padres adopted their name from the San Diego Pacific Coast League team which dated back to 1936. Contrary to what most people think the Kansas City Royals were not named in honor of the old Kansas City Monarchs Negro Leagues team but, rather, were named after The American Royal Livestock show, which was and remains a huge event in town.
On this date in 1968 the Seattle franchise chose its name: they’d be the Seattle Pilots. The same was inspired by Seattle’s long association with the airplane industry — the Boeing Airplane Company had been founded in Seattle in 1916 and was booming in the jet age of the 1960s — and because team owner Dewey Soriano was a part-time harbor pilot.
Dewey Soriano had played minor league ball and had been the president of the Pacific Coast League. Despite his baseball pedigree and his love for the game, his Pilots club was a profoundly undercapitalized operation. He ran the team along with his brother Max, who also had worked for the PCL. In order to add some liquidity and major league expertise to the operation they hired William Daley, the former owner of the Cleveland Indians, to help run the team and, more importantly, to put up a 47% financial stake in the team.
The Pilots were probably doomed from the start. As a condition of getting the expansion franchise, the city had to agree to build a domed stadium within three years — and a bond to that effect passed — but the Pilots would begin play in old Sick’s Stadium, which had been the home to the PCL’s Seattle Rainers. The place held only 11,000 fans and could only be expanded by 6,000 more before the inaugural Pilots season began. Just before the inaugural Pilots season began the team’s general manager Marvin Milkes traded away the best player who ever had a claim to being a Pilot: Lou Piniella. Piniella would go on to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award for the Royals.
The Pilots began play on April 8, 1969 and beat the California Angels 4-3. Their home opener was April 11, and the Pilots won again, shutting out the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. The high point of the team’s entire existence had already been reached. Soriano and Daley quickly realized they had no way of making money given how inadequate Sick’s Stadium was for major league baseball, so they jacked up ticket and concession prices. That backfired, and attendance dropped quickly. The actual stadium facilities were terrible too. Players would take showers at their hotels or their homes after games due to low water pressure. If attendance reached 10,000 or more the toilets wouldn’t flush.
Most of what we remember from the 1969 season, of course, comes courtesy of Jim Bouton’s essential “Ball Four.” That masterwork gave baseball fans a look at a side of baseball that was previously unseen by anyone but the deepest insiders. In it Bouton wrote about the pranks, dirty jokes, and drunken womanizing rampant among baseball players, with special emphasis on the doings of Mickey Mantle and his former Yankees teammates. He talked about drug use — most notably the use of amphetamine or “greenies” — of players. He talked about fights between teammates and players and fights with management. He afforded particular detail on his disagreements with Pilots manager Joe Schultz and pitching coach Sal Maglie, casting both of them in less-than-glowing, but invariably humorous terms. He also talked about cheating in the game such as ball-scuffing and sign-stealing. And, of course, multiple members of the 1969 Seattle Pilots were immortalized via Bouton’s portrayal of their eccentricities and foibles.
As the season wore on, the city and the team owners were openly feuding about where and when the new domed ballpark would be built. The Sorianos and Daley were losing money hand over fist due, in large part, to their mismanagement, but publicly they blamed the city. Late in the season Daley said in a press conference that “Seattle has one more year to prove itself.” That didn’t go over well at all, and attendance dropped even further. On October 2, 1969 the Pilots played their final games on a rainy evening before 5,473 souls. They witnessed the Pilots lose 3-1 to the Oakland A’s. The Pilots finished the campaign 64-98.
The Sorianos and Daley looked to sell the team that offseason and, at first, a local businessman named Fred Danz, offering $10 million for the Pilots, seemed like a good candidate. A bank called a $4 million note the Sorianos and Daley owed, however, and Danz backed out. Another local group formed a non-profit corporation and made an offer, but the American League owners rejected it, thinking that letting a non-profit into the ownership ranks would be bad for their franchise values. Throughout this entire time a 35-year-old used car dealer from Milwaukee named Bud Selig was expressing interest in buying the Pilots. Selig was looking to get back into the baseball business four years after the Braves, of which he had been a minority owner, left for Atlanta, but Washington political figures tried to block Selig as they didn’t want the Pilots to leave Seattle.
When spring training began in February 1970, the Seattle Pilots were still the Seattle Pilots. The American League, realizing how untenable the situation was, finally agreed to approve the sale of the team to Selig, but the State of Washington got an injunction halting the sale. The Sorianos and Daley immediately filed for bankruptcy and a hearing was quickly held.
General Manager Milkes testified at the hearing that there was not enough money to pay the coaches, players, and office staff. Per league rules, if he couldn’t make payroll, the players would all be declared free agents and the team would cease to exist. As the hearing took place, The team’s equipment was sitting in trucks in Utah, with the drivers awaiting word on whether to drive to Seattle or Milwaukee. On April 1, 1970 — 50 years ago tomorrow and six days before Opening Day 1970 — the bankruptcy judge removed the injunction and cleared the way for the Pilots to move to Milwaukee. The truck drivers headed east and the Pilots immediately became the Milwaukee Brewers. The move came so close to Opening Day that the Brewers had to use Pilots uniforms with the new name hastily applied (a comparison photo can be seen here)
There remained considerable acrimony after the Pilots left town. The City of Seattle was still legally on the hook to build a stadium — and construction actually began — but they had no team for it, so they sued the American League in an effort to recoup costs. The matter dragged on for several years but, eventually, the case was settled when the AL agreed to give Seattle another expansion team. This one, the Mariners, would begin play in the Kingdome in 1977. They’d end up lasting.
Also today in baseball history:
1961: The Professional Baseball Rules Committee rejects the Pacific Coast League’s proposal to use a designated hitter for the pitcher. The first use of the DH will occur in the American League in 1973.
1994: The White Sox assign Michael Jordan to the Birmingham Barons of the Class AA Southern League. Jordan would hit .202 in 134 games for the minor league team before returning to the NBA.
1996: For the first time ever the major league season begins with a game in the month of March. The Mariners beat the White Sox in 12 innings, 3-2 at the Kingdome in Seattle.
1998: The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays begin play. The Dbacks lost to the Rockies 9-2 at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. The Devil Rays lose to the Tigers 6-2 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.