Seattle Pilots image from sportslogos.net
By Daniel Dullum
(Author’s note: This is the fifth 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. This story is part of a baseball history book project.
At the conclusion of Part 4, the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee with only six days to prepare for their 1970 home opener at County Stadium, an adjustment for all parties concerned, some with more serious issues than others. As the Brewers settled in to their new home, legal battles continued.)
Bob Bolin thought going to Milwaukee was “quite a thrill.” He added, “It’s a great sports town and of course the snow was a little deep that time of year. It was a little colder and we had to build a fire in the bullpen, things like that!”
Mike Hegan said, “The thing I remember most was the enthusiasm of the fans, in spite of the fact that there was only a week to get ready. [Angels pitcher] Andy Messersmith beat us 12–0 and people were still cheering for us in the seventh inning. I think people were just happy that baseball was back in Milwaukee. “The people in Milwaukee accepted the team and the players to a degree, I will say. There was still a lot of animosity because of the fact that the Braves left town. I think that Milwaukee, at that time, was considered a National League city more than an American League city.”
Ken Sanders recalled, “the guys really liked Milwaukee, but we had to do some embracing there because [of how] the Braves had left. And a number of us were familiar with Milwaukee because as American Leaguers, we played the White Sox in one game there. A lot of the players ended up making their home there.”
On April 16, 1970, the Atlanta Braves agreed to play a special exhibition game against the Brewers on May 14 at County Stadium — the Braves’ first appearance in Milwaukee since their acrimonious 1965 exit. — — Back in Seattle, Judge Volinn wasn’t through dealing with the legal woes of Pacific Northwest Sports, Inc.
In a U.S. District Court ruling on June 7, 1971, he ordered the Pilots’ old ownership group to pay the Pacific Coast League $150,000 plus interest to complete payments on a 1969 territorial indemnity fee of $300,000. The Pilots’ former owners felt their Chapter 11 bankruptcy ruling should have freed them from that obligation, but Volinn disagreed. As publicly promised, the City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington followed through on their threat to file a lawsuit against the American League, but by the time the case went to trial on April 22, 1974, the dollar amount dropped from $82 million to $32.5 million.
Three days later, the suit was postponed until January 1975 to give the American League time to craft an out-of-court settlement. Washington State Attorney General Slade Gorton held a news conference, saying that a special meeting in Chicago produced assurances that Seattle would receive an American League expansion team by 1976. Gorton felt the league would make a “sincere effort” to field a team that would move into the yet-unnamed domed stadium that was under construction.
Negotiations continued on a cordial level, and on January 31, 1976, American League owners resolved to add Seattle as its 13th team on three conditions: 1) The State of Washington, City of Seattle and King County would drop the $32.5 million antitrust lawsuit. 2) The franchise would go to a Seattle group headed by local businessman Lester Smith and entertainer Danny Kaye. 3) A satisfactory lease agreement would be worked out.
While the antitrust lawsuit dragged on, the Kingdome was built and opened on March 26, 1976, originally to house the Seattle Seahawks, an NFL expansion team. Smith and Kaye called a press conference for February 7, 1976, announcing their purchase of the new Seattle franchise for $5.56 million.
A 20-year lease at the Kingdome was included in the deal, with a key clause binding the franchise to stay in Seattle. Still unresolved was the antitrust suit, as the City of Seattle wanted to recover $600,000 spent on renovations at Sicks’ Stadium.
On February 13, Seattle City Council members approved a plan to settle the antitrust suit, saying they would accept a proposal from the American League, King County, and the state of Washington to recess the suit until the new franchise officially took the field. Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman insisted on keeping the lawsuit alive in case the AL reneged on the agreement.
After smoothing out the details, the Seattle Mariners played their first official American League game at the Kingdome on April 6, 1977, and the seven-year lawsuit was dismissed. — — – As satisfying as it was for Bud Selig to bring major league baseball back to Milwaukee, landing in the American League initially was perceived as a consolation prize, mostly by older fans who followed the Braves.
Changing times provided an unlikely opportunity for the Brewers to again make a noteworthy relocation. When Major League Baseball expanded to Phoenix and Tampa in 1998, the resulting realignment gave the American and National leagues 15 teams each. But to properly accommodate interleague play, both leagues needed to carry an even number of franchises, and the owners decided that one team would move from the AL Central Division to the NL Central — a division that included the popular Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
At this point, Selig was wearing two hats — owner of the Brewers and commissioner of baseball. To avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, he gave the Kansas City Royals first choice to make the move. The Royals declined, and, on November 6, 1997, the Milwaukee Brewers joined the National League as part of Phase One of MLB’s realignment plan, the first modern major league baseball franchise to make such a transfer.
Ken Sanders, who led the American League with 31 saves and 83 relief appearances for the Brewers in 1971, said, “I think it’s a good thing they went to the National League later, because Milwaukee was always a National League town.” Mike Hegan concurred. “Even though the Brewers stayed in the American League for that many years, they might even be more comfortable now back in the National League.”
It took 32 years, but Selig’s quest to bring a National League baseball club back to Milwaukee was now complete. — – Within their first four seasons in Milwaukee, the Brewers gradually weeded out most of their Seattle on-field lineage.
By 1972, only infielders Mike Ferraro and Ron Clark, and pitcher Skip Lockwood remained from the 1969 Pilots. Lockwood was the last to go, traded to the California Angels after the 1973 season. In 1982, their 14th season, the Brewers reached their first World Series, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals — the first Fall Classic hosted by Milwaukee since 1958. By that time, the Brewers’ only active links to the Seattle days were two selections from the 1969 amateur draft — two-time AL home run champion Gorman Thomas (1st round) and pitcher Jim Slaton (15th round).
Serving in a middle relief role, Slaton was the winning pitcher in game four of the ’82 Series. Five decades removed from their one glorious season in the Pacific Northwest, the Pilots have yet to completely disappear from the Brewers’ all-time individual record book.
As of 2020, they’ve maintained two final entries from 1969 — Tommy Harper’s major league-leading 73 stolen bases for the season; and his four stolen bases in a game at Chicago on June 18, 1969, against the White Sox, a record Harper shares with John Jaha, who tied the mark in 1992.
Locating visual evidence of Harper’s exploits on the base paths, or any other highlight of the Pilots’ brief history, has confounded baseball historians for decades. Very little film footage or audio recordings exist of Pilots’ games, a remarkable fact considering that the club played in 1969 — not exactly the Dark Ages of media coverage. KVI (570 AM, Seattle), the flagship station of a vast Pilots radio network that included 50 stations spread throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Montana, North Dakota and Alaska, didn’t record any of the team’s broadcasts. And given the nature of the Pilots’ history, it’s apropos that five of its network radio stations no longer exist.
Neither does Sicks’ Stadium, which was razed in 1979. The stadium’s location at the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South McClellan Street eventually became the site of a Lowe’s home improvement store. A display inside the store contains Rainiers and Pilots memorabilia and a plaque marks home plate near the Lowe’s exit. Thanks in large part to “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton’s classic memoir of his days as a knuckleball-throwing relief pitcher in Seattle, the one-year expansion team has achieved a cult status and popularity level that far exceeds their original fan base. And yet, the Seattle Mariners don’t claim the Pilots as their major league ancestor, saying they belong to the Brewers’ heritage.
Milwaukee doesn’t want them either, claiming they belong to Seattle. Thus, the Seattle Pilots have earned a unique status as the Flying Dutchmen of baseball history. For years, the Mariners turned a deaf ear to requests for a Pilots’ old-timers day. Begrudgingly, the team honored the Pilots with a “Turn Back the Clock” promotion for its game against Detroit on July 9, 2006, at Safeco Field, wearing replica Pilots uniforms and bringing back many of the former Pilot players for a curtain call. Shaking his head at the thought of the Pilots’ legendary status, Rich Rollins mused, “I played eight years with the Twins. I played in two All-Star Games, the World Series, and yet, I’ll bet almost 90 percent of the fan mail I still get is about the Pilots.” And Mike Hegan noted, “I played for three teams that were very popular in terms of memorabilia — the A’s, Yankees, and Seattle Pilots. And not necessarily in that order.”
A popular Web site devoted to the Pilots is http://www.seattlepilots.com, run by Mike Fuller, a Seattle paralegal. In 2006, he told The Seattle Times that his site receives more hits than the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to the Web company that hosts both. When Fuller got in touch with Jim Bouton and told him this fact, the old knuckleballer was struck with a 1960s flashback — a famous verbal faux pas by The Beatles’ John Lennon in particular — and responded, “Can I put it on my Web site that the Pilots are more popular than Jesus?
Daniel Dullum authored the five part series of the defunct but well remembered Seattle Pilots from 1969 in his book 50 Years Ago the Pilots Landed in Milwaukee