The Seattle Pilots. The one-year mishap

Originally, I wrote this article for the Cuban baseball magazine Universo Beisbol. The reason I post it on my blog is that I think it is interesting to see how a team could fail so miserably.

The Seattle Pilots: The one-year mishap

Seattle always had been one of the cornerstones of the Pacific Coast League with its team the Seattle Rainiers. In 1964 the Cleveland Indians considered a move to Seattle. But eventually, they chose to stay in Cleveland. Charles Finley also mulled to move his Athletics from Kansas City to Seattle but opted for Oakland instead in 1967, the same year that Seattle was awarded a major league sports team with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. This made the city even work harder to get a Major League franchise. In December (!) of that same year, the city was awarded a Major League franchise because the number of fans passing the Rainiers’ turnstiles was solid. But the new franchise would become the nightmare of MLB. In 1968 the inhabitants of King County voted for a $40 million bond to finance a domed stadium, the Kingdome. Until the construction was finished, the old home of the Rainiers, Sicks Stadium (what’s in a name?) would serve as the home for the Pilots. The name Pilots was chosen in a name-the-team contest and beat the name Green Sox by a nose hair.

The frontman of the group that would own the Pilots, the Pacific Northwest Sports Inc, Dewey Soriano, needed former Indians owner William R. Daley to underwrite most of the purchase price. In return, Soriano would sell Daley 47 % of the ballclub’s shares. This was an omen of what was to come.

The Pilots were hit by bad luck immediately. Despite starting in 1971 the inaugural season would be moved forward because of some rumble from the state of Missouri. After the Kansas City Athletics moved to Oakland in 1967, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington demanded a new MLB team and didn’t want to wait another three years to have a team back. The American League didn’t want an odd number of teams playing, so this meant that the inaugural season of the Pilots would be 1969. You may guess that this short period would cause a number of problems. Normally a new franchise has two or three years to build an organisation, to put the right persons in place, to create a sound financial foundation. The Pilots had to do all this in a bit more than one year.

Anyhow, the city-owned Sicks Stadium, needed a variety of upgrades to make the ballpark suitable for Major League Baseball. There was one tiny problem. The upgrades started only three months before the start of the season, resulting in a lack of seats during the team’s opening day. You can call this a lack of understanding. Why on earth would one start construction work in the month of February, when the Northwest of the US is still in a stranglehold of winter? On opening day, constructors were still busy installing chairs. Many fans had to wait for three innings before they could be seated. The scoreboard was barely finished on the night before the Pilots’ home opener. By the end of May,  25,000 seats were installed. The water pressure in the stadium was a disaster too. When more than 8,000 fans attended a game, the water pressure was gone by the seventh inning resulting in toilets that would not flush. Many players would not shower in the stadium because of the ill water pressure. They chose to hit the showers at home or in their hotels. The construction of the team’s new domed stadium was halted due to a petition of ballpark opponents.

The Pilots hired former catcher and coach Joe Schultz to become their manager. California Angels executive Marvin Milkes was hired as general manager.
The Pilots would play in the newly formed American League West, a six-team division. Somehow Schultz claimed that the Pilots could finish third. I have never understood why he thought so. A team, with mainly rejects from other teams, that would trade away its most talented prospect before the start of the season: Lou Piniella. Piniella would be traded to Kansas City, where he would put up such good numbers to end up with the AL Rookie of the Year award.

After the Pilots won their first game in Anaheim (4-3) and lost their second, they moved to Seattle for their home opener. A 7-0 shut out of the Chicago White Sox may have given the team some hope. The Pilots were only six games out of the division lead by June 28, but a disastrous July and August threw them back in the standings. When the regular season ended the team served as the doormat of the division with a 64-98 record.

Due to the horrible state of Sicks Stadium and the poor play of the team, owner Soriano had lost several hundred thousand dollars. Could Soriano expect something else when only 678,000 fans had passed the turnstiles? Major shareholder Daley refused to invest more money in the team and the new stadium was still years away, so Soriano was forced to discuss a sale. Former Milwaukee Braves minority shareholder Bud Selig jumped in and eventually the team was sold for $10.8 million. But… the other owners of the club blocked the sale. In an off-season full of court action the MLB owners finally approved a move to Milwaukee but the state of Washington also blocked that move. Immediately the owner group of the Seattle Pilots filed for bankruptcy. Eventually, Federal Bankruptcy Referee Sidney Volinn declared the Pilots bankrupt on April 1—six days before Opening Day—clearing the way for them to move to Milwaukee. Can you imagine, a team during Spring Training that doesn’t know where it will play next season?

The new owner, Bud Selig, had to deal with the uniforms that the Pilots took to Milwaukee: Gold and blue. Because of that, Selig could not use the colors Red, white and blue to honor his childhood minor league team, the Milwaukee Brewers, whose name the new team would adopt. The Milwaukee Brewers would play in adapted Pilots uniforms as the picture shows:

With the Pilots gone, the problems weren’t. The state of Washington, Seattle, and King County sued the American League, wanting $32 million for the damage of the move of the Pilots. The lawsuit would drag on until 1976. In the mean time the construction of the new domed stadium continued. Eventually, in 1976 the dome was ready, but Seattle still had no team. Because it was a multi-purpose stadium, it could house a football team too, so the new Seattle Seahawks moved in.

During the lawsuit, Washington, Seattle and King County claimed that the American League supported Seattle’s financial commitments to get the franchise and that the move of the Pilots to Milwaukee nullified the deal. In 1976 the American League requested Seattle and the other two parties to drop the suit. The league would offer a new franchise to Seattle in return. Details were worked out and the Seattle Mariners were born.

The book “Ball Four”, written by former Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton, gives a nice look into that only year that the Pilots were in Seattle. In his book, Bouton describes everything that was wrong with this ball club: Mismanagement, alcohol and amphetamine abuse and racism in the clubhouse.

It may sound strange, but without the Seattle Pilots there would not have been the Milwaukee Brewers. Without the Seattle Pilots, there would not have been the Seattle Mariners. Doesn’t the proverb say that everything happens for a reason?

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