Seattle Pilots are the subject of Daniel Dullum’s five part book about the 1970 new franchise team that played only one season before moving to Milwaukee (image from sportslogo.com)
By Daniel Dullum
(Author’s note: This is the first 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.)
On the morning of October 15, 1968, Rich Rollins was taking care of routine errands near his home in the Twin Cities suburb of Richfield, Minnesota. When Rollins drove his Pontiac station wagon into a neighborhood car wash, he was employed as a third baseman for the Minnesota Twins. At some point between the wax and rinse cycles, Rollins heard a radio report explaining that he’d become something called a Seattle Pilot.
The American League was holding its expansion draft that morning, and Rollins was the 26th player taken overall, right after the Kansas City Royals selected pitcher Wally Bunker from Baltimore and just ahead of the Pilots’ next choice, a little-known Cleveland farmhand named Lou Piniella.
For Rollins, it was a long and dispiriting descent from 1962, when he was the starting American League third baseman — and top vote getter — for both of that season’s All-Star Games while chasing the AL batting crown in 1962 and 1963.
“When I found out I got drafted, I was shocked — this was a major change in my life,” said Rollins, who was signed out of Kent State University by the old Washington Senators and moved with the club to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961.
“But that Monday, I was due to check in to University Hospital. Dr. [Harvey] O’Phelan [Twins team physician] was going to perform a knee operation. This had been set for about a month and a half. I have to report to the hospital Monday morning because my knee was really in bad shape.
“Right away, I come back home and put a call in to the Twins. I said, ‘What about me being scheduled for surgery? I just got drafted by Seattle.’ They said, ‘Rich, there’s not going to be an operation Monday.’”
Thinking back to the timing of the scheduled surgery, Rollins theorized, “It was borderline fraud is what it was. [The Twins] had to know. … “Despite not having the knee surgery, Rollins reported to the Pilots’ inaugural spring training in March 1969 at Tempe, Arizona, and made the squad. Less than two months into professional baseball’s centennial season, that decision caught up with the veteran infielder.
“My knee was swollen and everything else, so I went out there with a bad knee,” Rollins said. “And I said at that time, I probably owe it to [Seattle] to try and play on it, which I did for about a month and a half. I was playing in a whole lot of pain. Not that it mattered, but I had a hard time with it.
“We played a game in Boston one night and I ran to first base and hurt it again. I went back to my room, and the knee just swelled up like a balloon. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I’d been moaning a lot, I couldn’t sleep.
Don Mincher [a former Twins teammate] was my roommate and he was the player rep. He calls up the traveling secretary [Gabe Paul Jr.] and tells him, ‘Rich is laying in bed here, his knee is like a balloon, you better get him back to Seattle real quick.’ That’s the way he put it. ‘Get him on the first plane out of here.’ “And that trip was really bad. They set me up with an orthopedic guy; then I had a major knee operation. And that didn’t sit very well out there; they wanted me to keep playing. But I told them, ‘It’s not getting better. Simple as that.’ But it got to the point where I had to think about myself. My career was over and I needed the operation.”
As dismal as Rollins’ situation was, he still viewed his arrival in Seattle as “a fresh start,” but noted, “Anybody who knows anything about that situation out there in 1969 knows that it was a complete, chaotic disaster. There were 53 guys on the team during that year and it was just a fiasco the entire season.”
Rollins soon would discover the Pilots’ maiden voyage of 1969 was merely a dress rehearsal for the bizarre adventure awaiting the club when it convened for spring training in 1970. The Pilots’ strange final journey concluded with the culmination of one man’s mission to right a perceived wrong.
Allan H. (Bud) Selig grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, monitored the construction of County Stadium as a teenager, rooted for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, and began attending Braves games as soon as the National League team relocated from Boston in 1953.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1956 and serving a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, he returned home to run Selig Ford, his father’s automobile dealership. By 1963, Selig also was the largest public investor in the Braves franchise.
Rumors began to surface as early as 1962 about the Braves leaving Milwaukee. When the rumors morphed into reality, Selig organized Teams Inc., a group that unsuccessfully filed antitrust suits against the Braves and the National League in an attempt to prevent the Braves from relocating.
The Braves’ Chicago-based ownership group, led by William Bartholomay, prevailed and moved the club to Atlanta in 1966, primarily for a substantial increase in local television revenue.
Because the initial legal action only ordered the Braves to fulfill its lease at County Stadium, their relocation to Dixie was postponed by a year, forcing the club to play a lame-duck 1965 season in Milwaukee. As a result, fan support was so poor — the announced attendance was often below 2,000 — that on June 9, 1965, Bartholomay’s group offered Milwaukee County $400,000 and Teams Inc. an additional $100,000 for permission to break the lease early and move the Braves to Atlanta during the All-Star break in July.
Seven days later, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject the offer that would have okayed baseball’s first mid-season franchise shift.
The Braves wound up drawing 550,000 fans in 1965 — a drastic change from the 1950s, when they won back-to-back National League championships in 1957 and 1958 (winning the ’57 World Series) and tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1959 NL pennant. From 1954 through 1957, the popular ball club drew more than two million fans a year, and more than 1.9 million in 1958.
When the Braves departed at the end of the 1965 season, Selig divested his stock in the club. It was during the antitrust hearings that Selig first met Bowie Kuhn, the National League’s defense attorney who later replaced William D. Eckert as commissioner of baseball in 1968. It wasn’t long before he and Selig’s paths would cross again.
After Kuhn passed away on March 15, 2007, Selig recalled that initial encounter. “It was the first time I was ever in a courtroom. It was 1965; I was 31 years old. Bowie was a big, imposing figure and had me on the stand — he was cross-examining me. “But we became friends, and once we got the team [the Brewers], Bowie really had a soft spot for Milwaukee. He came there a lot. I always felt that Bowie felt badly about what happened [with the Braves], and that was his way of atoning.”
The reality of the Braves’ departure from Milwaukee didn’t hit Selig until he sat in his car at a service station and listened to their 1966 season opener against Pittsburgh on KDKA, the Pirates’ 50,000-watt powerhouse flagship station at that time.
“I tuned in to Bob Prince out of Pittsburgh and he opened by saying ‘Greetings from Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. We’re a long ways from Milwaukee, Wisconsin,’” Selig remembered. “I had tears in my eyes. I remember a guy came over and asked if I was all right. It was very heartbreaking.”
For the next two years, Milwaukee County Stadium sat empty, except when the Green Bay Packers annually played two of its National Football League home games away from Lambeau Field. “There was many a day I sat there, staring out at the field,” Selig said.
When the subject of granting Milwaukee an expansion team came up, Commissioner Ford C. Frick was publicly noncommittal. Curiously, on October 26, 1965, C. Hayden Jamison, executive director of the Wisconsin Investment Board, testified in a deposition hearing that he met Frick on September 2, 1965, to determine if the board could purchase the Braves from its present ownership group.
Under oath, Jamison testified, “Ford [Frick] said he could assure me that the Braves would be in Atlanta in 1966. He said that Milwaukee would have obtained a franchise, if it had not been for the antitrust suits and if the Milwaukee official [reportedly Eugene Grobschmidt, chairman of the Milwaukee Board of Supervisors] would just shut up. He also said to me, ‘If you repeat this, I’ll deny it.’”
But on December 14, 1965, Frick admitted as much during his testimony in the State of Wisconsin’s antitrust suit against the Braves and the National League, “In my opinion, it is impossible for the major leagues to expand to Milwaukee before 1968.” He also denied there was a conspiracy to abandon or boycott Milwaukee as a major league baseball site.
Then, in reference to a rejected request for a new Milwaukee National League franchise to begin play in 1966, Frick said, “I know of no plan or understanding to operate major league ball in Milwaukee in 1966.” In spite of such comments, Selig didn’t give up. But when his Milwaukee Brewers Inc. group visited major league meetings, the door was either not opened or slammed in their faces.
Undaunted, Milwaukee Brewers Inc. approached the Chicago White Sox with a proposal to play nine “home-away-from-home” games at County Stadium in 1968, calling for the White Sox to play one game against each of the other American League clubs. The White Sox, whose attendance at aging Comiskey Park had been dwindling in recent years, were receptive to the notion and accepted the offer from Selig’s group on October 30, 1967.
The idea wasn’t unprecedented. It was the first time an American League team scheduled regular season home games away from its primary city since 1905, when the Detroit Tigers hosted two games at Neil Park in Columbus, Ohio. Later, the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers played seven games in 1956 and eight in 1957 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Ken Sanders, a young relief pitcher with the Oakland Athletics in 1968, remembered making the detour to Milwaukee. “We used to eat at Ray Jackson’s restaurant, which is out of business now. It was close to the stadium and he used to have steaks and ribs after the game in the clubhouse. So it wasn’t too bad of a bus ride to go up there and play that one game a year for each team.”
The arrangement with Selig’s group went over so well that the White Sox agreed to play another 11 games in Milwaukee (because of expansion) in 1969. In fact, the games played in Milwaukee accounted for nearly one-third of the White Sox’s total home attendance in 1968 and 1969.
On April 24, 1968, the Variety Club in Milwaukee honored Selig for his work with Milwaukee Brewers Inc. and their efforts to land a National League expansion team. In accepting a plaque from the club, Selig said, “I wouldn’t want anyone to think this has been a one-man effort. I feel some embarrassment, lest anyone should have the mistaken idea that I have been doing this all alone.
“It has been an up-and-down experience, frustrating in some cases, and fraught with disappointments. You ask, yourself, ‘Why did I keep going?’ But you know what kind of a community Milwaukee is, and you say to yourself, ‘If that isn’t worth working for, what is?’”
Among the dignitaries on the dais was Circuit Judge Elmer Roller, who ruled in favor of the State of Wisconsin in the antitrust suit against the Braves but later was overruled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Judge Roller said of Selig, “We had an unfortunate event here in November 1964, and this man was among the handful of people who attempted to do something about it.
“Bud Selig and his group have demonstrated with two major league games at County Stadium the great interest of Milwaukee in major league baseball. They have effectively refuted the myth that Milwaukee is baseball’s problem child.”
At the banquet, former Braves shortstop Johnny Logan recited a poem he composed to honor Selig. It read, in part:
“We’re paying tribute to Bud Selig, a really great Joe;
Who’s putting Milwaukee baseball in high gear from low;
He’s fighting to join the major leagues with the Brewers;
Some guys are talkers, Bud is one of the doers.”
Late in the 1967 season, Al Hirshberg of the Boston Traveler reported rumors that the Chicago White Sox would be sold and moved to Milwaukee “within the next two or three years.” Arthur Allyn Jr., the White Sox owner, not only denied the rumors, but accused Hirshberg — a respected sports journalist — of “irresponsible journalism” and charged him with spreading “a pack of lies.”
However, as time passed, the rumors reported by Hirshberg proved to have substance as Selig had, in fact, worked to strike a deal to purchase the White Sox for a reported $13.7 million in September 1969 and move the club to Milwaukee. But Allyn Jr. backed out at the eleventh hour and sold his share of the team to his brother, John Allyn, who previously was a silent partner.
The Milwaukee group officially withdrew their offer after they canvassed American League owners and discovered the majority would vote against allowing the White Sox (and, more importantly, the American League) to vacate Chicago. AL President Joe Cronin also was opposed to the deal, and advised Selig’s group to “cease and desist” its pursuit of existing franchises.
“When that deal went up in smoke, my heart sank,” Selig told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2000. “I knew we were coming to the end, that I couldn’t hold this group together much longer.”
NEXT: Part 2