JSOnline.com file photo: The Milwaukee Brewers who moved into County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1970 from Seattle at the last moment is a five part series “50 Years Ago Pilots Land in Milwaukee”
50 Years Ago: Pilots Land in Milwaukee Part 4
By Daniel Dullum
(Author’s note: This is the fourth of a five-part series detailing an unusual Major League Baseball franchise shift — In 1970, the Seattle Pilots arrived at spring training in Tempe, Arizona, and left at the end of March as the Milwaukee Brewers.
At the conclusion of Part 3, Bud Selig’s Milwaukee Brewers Inc. group was awarded the Seattle Pilots in bankruptcy court on March 31, 1970. The Brewers had six days to get ready for the 1970 home opener at County Stadium. Meanwhile, the City of Seattle and the State of Washington would proceed with their $82 million antitrust suit, which already was filed and waiting for Judge Volinn’s decision.)
However, Judge Volinn pointed out that the only alternative was forcing the American League to operate the team on deficit financing to more than $3 million over the ensuing three years. He explained, “It’s obvious that the club cannot pay its debts and may well be insolvent. With the baseball season only a week away, the Pilots were in an emergency situation.
“The unique character of a major league baseball team has been considered, and its importance to the community has been considered. But it’s obvious the debtors [Pilots] are incapable of carrying on. That is beyond question.”
A prominent defender of Volinn’s decision was C.C. Johnson Spink, editor and publisher of The Sporting News. In his April 18, 1970, editorial, Spink quoted an anonymous American League source: “The Sorianos tried all over the city to find local people who would invest in the club. Part of the American League’s agreement with Daley was that control would be in Seattle. Daley himself met with people all over the Pacific Northwest — the biggest people — and couldn’t interest any of them.
“The Pilots had no cooperation from anyone, not even the newspapers. They had no cooperation from the Chamber of Commerce, the city or the county. The city did not finish the park on schedule and it was never put into the condition that the city promised.”
Spink wrote, “We believe that Seattle and Washington state officials should be red-faced about the club’s failure and should put the blame where it belongs, instead of attempting to make the American League the fall guy through a multi-million-dollar antitrust suit.”
— – On the appropriate date of April 1, 1970 — April Fool’s Day — the name “Milwaukee Brewers” appeared on an active American League standings board for the first time since September 28, 1901. Ironically, the original Milwaukee Brewers had lasted only one season and also filed for bankruptcy. They were dropped from the American League on December 3, 1901, and replaced by the St. Louis Browns.
Manager Dave Bristol expressed relief at the announcement of the verdict, saying, “I’m glad they finally reached a decision. The players should be relieved. It’ll be much easier to get the total concentration of the players now. … I’m happy for the players’ sake. My job is managing wherever the team goes.”
Pitcher Gene Brabender, who led the Pilots with 13 wins in 1969, looked forward to playing closer to his home in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, 110 miles from Milwaukee. He told The Associated Press, “I regret things couldn’t have worked out better for the people of the Northwest. They were great fans last season through thick and thin. But playing in Milwaukee will be closer to home, and my wife and family will like that.”
Upon learning of Volinn’s decision, truck drivers who were hauling the team’s equipment could now leave Provo, Utah, where they waited in limbo along I-80, and move along to Milwaukee. And with less than a week to go before Opening Day, the Pilots/Brewers players now had to make creative decisions to secure living quarters for the upcoming season.
Catcher Phil Roof recalled, “We’d already sent our wives out on the road, headed to Interstate 90, which is straight north [from Phoenix] and it’s an east-west link between the West Coast and the Midwest. We told them to call in after each day — it was going to be at least a two-day ride to get to Interstate 90 — and on the second day out, we found out that we were headed to Milwaukee. We told them to hit I-90 east, and that’s where we started.
“It was unsettling because at the time, I had a wife and three kids and we were expecting the fourth one. There were other wives in the same boat, and it was more unsettling for them than it was for us, because we didn’t know where to put them, and once we got to Milwaukee, we finally had to rent apartments in Waukesha, which is 22 miles from the ballpark. That was the only thing available that would give us short-term leases, and we managed to survive there. I stayed there for almost two years.
“Those things are a part of baseball. It’s part of travel, part of being involved with a trade — I got traded three times in the course of a season once — and you just get kind of used to it.”
Or, in the case of new homeowner Mike Hegan, it was a matter of coming to grips with an unfortunate housing decision. “We bought a house in Seattle in January of 1970 and we never lived in it! We went to spring training and never came back,” Hegan said. “The problem with that was, it was during the first major layoff in Boeing history — they laid off about 40,000 people — so it took me about two-and-a-half years to sell my house that I never lived in!
“That was a personal problem, obviously, but there were other guys who were making plans for apartments and different places to live, people getting ready to drive cars and ship belongings to Seattle, and ended up going to Milwaukee instead.”
This is what happened to pitcher Bob Bolin, among others.
“[I’m] going to spring training with the Pilots, an expansion team, and I’m excited about it because I played in Tacoma in the minor leagues,” Bolin said. “Then, three or four days before the season opened, I shipped my car to Seattle and they turned around and Milwaukee bought the team. We got our car about a month later when somebody found it on some rails somewhere in Chicago.
“In baseball, you’re always flexible. It wasn’t that unsettling for the team, because you’re out there playing a game. It was a little troubling the first couple of weeks to get settled, trying to find a place and getting the family situated.” The City of Milwaukee tried to help the players feel welcome in a variety of ways, mostly superficial.
When the Brewers deplaned in Milwaukee, they walked on a red carpet into the airport terminal before participating in a downtown motorcade. A downtown hotel offered three days’ free lodging after the team left spring training in Tempe, and the Milwaukee Association of Commerce honored the team with a luncheon, selling 650 tickets at $5 apiece. But players like Rich Rollins needed more than a parade and a complimentary rubber chicken lunch.
When it came to being inconvenienced in this last-minute upheaval, Rollins was the uncontested grand champion. “I remember [the move] well. It was a Sunday afternoon game we played in Tempe, and we didn’t know until after the game where we were going,” Rollins said. “My wife was in Seattle. We’d moved lock, stock and barrel from Minneapolis to Seattle. We had a duplex out there and were looking forward to going back to Seattle. “We didn’t know [where we were going] until we were in the parking lot. I’ll never forget the day. A big bus was there, and we’re either heading to Seattle or Milwaukee. It ended up at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
“That whole situation cost me a whole lot of money. I’d moved three-fourths of our furniture from Minneapolis, and now I had to move out of Seattle lock, stock and barrel. We had five kids — including a real young daughter who was born in Seattle [on April 16], she was only a month or so old — it wasn’t a good situation.”
Rollins felt the ballclub did “absolutely nothing” to help the players. “Fergie (Tom Ferguson), the traveling secretary, tried to help a whole lot of people. He was a class guy. But there wasn’t a whole lot he could have done. He expressed his concern, but it was costing me a lot of money. “My furniture was being sent by moving van to Cleveland, but was supposed to be held up until we decided where to go with it. The driver was on the turnpike wondering where to go,” Rollins said.
“I wasn’t about to settle in Milwaukee. I had my family out in Seattle; my original home was in Cleveland, so we finally decided to move to Cleveland after this thing was over with, and my family had to move in at my mother’s house.” And, when Rollins didn’t think the situation could get much worse … “I had all of our furniture — sofas, the television, chairs, tables, everything — in storage and it was all stolen out of the warehouse. I got 20 percent of the furniture’s value in a settlement, but the whole thing was a nightmare. It eventually cost me around $6,000 to make that move.”
Then, adding the coup de grâce, Rollins was released by the Brewers on May 13, 1970. “I wasn’t there very long, about a month and a half, and I was released. My wife was still in Seattle. I went home to Cleveland,” Rollins said. “The thing I remember: I’d never been released before. I got called into [Dave] Bristol’s office and he said, ‘We’re going to let you go.’ And that was it. I watched one of the games from the right field stands with the clubhouse guy.
“I got back to the hotel after the game and I get this phone call from [Brewers executive] Frank Lane. He had a reputation [as a wheeler-dealer], but he was the only guy who called me. He said if I wanted to keep playing, he’d find me a spot. It was impressive that he would do that.
“So, I went back to Cleveland. I was there for three or four days when the Indians called me. Alvin Dark was the manager there, Hank Peters was the general manager, and they said, ‘We want to sign you for the rest of the year.’ That was really nice. It really helped me, moving back to Cleveland because I’d been away from there for a whole long time and I really didn’t know that many people there. I’d kind of lost contact.” Mike Hegan philosophically observed, “It’s a problem in that it’s the unknown factor — you don’t know. I think for a lot of us, it wasn’t a huge problem, except for somebody like me who had the house.
“The other part of that equation is that this was an expansion team, so a lot of guys were used to traveling. I had played in four minor league cities in five years while I was up and down with the Yankees, so you never really established roots and were in one place for any length of time. So it was like going to spring training with a minor league team, and ‘Was I going to Buffalo, or was I going to Erie?’
It was probably a little more complicated than that, but I don’t think there were a lot of people who had real feelings about going to Seattle or going to Milwaukee. “What made it psychologically easier was that you were still in the major leagues. It would be much different if you were sent to a minor league team. Those are problems that everybody faces in life — moving around and doing certain things — it was something that got in the way a little bit, but you learned to live with it and handle it.”
As local newspaper headlines proclaimed “Baseball to Return Here” (Milwaukee Sentinel) and “We’re Big League Again” (Milwaukee Journal), the Brewers had less than one week to put together a ticket office, hire an office staff, find batboys, and get County Stadium ready.
The team didn’t have time to order new uniforms, so the Pilots logo and front jersey number were removed and “Brewers” was stitched over it. The pilot’s stripes on the sleeves were too difficult to remove quickly, so they remained on both the home and road jerseys for 1970.
The team’s color scheme of royal blue and gold — the one used in Seattle — was adopted by default, even though Selig preferred navy blue and red that was used by the old minor league Brewers. As Selig explained to The Sporting News correspondent Terry Bledsoe, “The ‘S’ on the cap comes off and an ‘M’ goes on. The ‘Pilots’ on the uniform comes off and ‘Brewers’ goes on.
The letters and the embroidery stay the same [except for the ‘scrambled eggs’ on the cap bill]. The uniforms are fine.” In addition, the Brewers issued Pilots media guides and yearbooks, new schedules and tickets were hastily printed, and broadcasting deals were pulled together quickly with radio station WEMP (1250 AM) and WTMJ-TV (Channel 4).
Former Braves play-by-play announcer Merle Harmon asked for and received a release from his contract with the Minnesota Twins to return to Milwaukee and call the Brewers games. The grounds crew at County Stadium was under the gun as well, with only six days to get the partially snow-covered field ready for the home opener. They came through, and earned rave reviews. “The grounds crew got an award,” Bobby Bolin said. ”In fact, that was the highlight of the Brewers for 1970 — they had the best grounds crew in the league!” Mike Hegan added, “You know what? The field at County Stadium was better than the field in Seattle the first day that we were there! It didn’t make any difference!” Phil Roof observed, “The field (in Milwaukee) was in pretty good shape because the White Sox played some regular season games there and they kept the field maintained.
It was nice of the city fathers of Milwaukee to do that because they wanted a major league franchise back. By keeping the stadium in tip-top shape, it was easy for the owners to vote Milwaukee in.” While Pacific Northwest Sports Inc. was busy liquidating Seattle Pilots merchandise (which would become highly sought-after memorabilia), William Daley, the Pilots’ former principal owner, quietly invested $1 million in the Brewers, but had no management control. And fans in Milwaukee stood in up to six inches of wet snow, waiting to purchase either single-game or season tickets for Brewers baseball.
Over 2,000 season tickets were sold on April 2 alone, at prices ranging from $150 to $375. “I think the fans here have missed baseball,” Selig told the local media. “I sense an excitement about the team that probably is better than mass hysteria.” Selig wasn’t too far off the mark. Despite the cool spring weather in Wisconsin, 37,237 fans showed up on Opening Day at County Stadium to see the Brewers pick up where the old Pilots left off, with a 12–0 loss to the California Angels.
NEXT: Part 5 — Epilogue 1