Baseball's Brigadoon: the Seattle Pilots

This month there's a chance to revisit the 1969 season in Seattle's Sicks Stadium. That Summer at Sicks was a major league wonder that was both legendary and never to be repeated.
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Jim Bouton, chronicler of the memorably bad Pilots

This month there's a chance to revisit the 1969 season in Seattle's Sicks Stadium. That Summer at Sicks was a major league wonder that was both legendary and never to be repeated.

The Stonewall riots, the Moon landing, Woodstock: This has been the the year of the big 40th anniversary. But the main show is yet to come for those who remember '69.

This is the anniversary summer of Seattle's entry into major league baseball, the one season played by the home town Seattle Pilots. Sicks Stadium on Rainier Avenue at McClellan was a sometime venue for rock concerts, from Elvis to Jimi Hendrix, but more familiarly home to the city's legendary Pacific Coast League Seattle Rainiers and later the minor league Seattle Angels (wretched name).

Seattle baseball fans were desperate for the bigs, and in '69, every mossboy's dream (other than driving the winning boat in the Gold Cup) came true. For me, I lived just a few blocks from Sicks, and the fact that the New York Yankees were going to be playing Seattle in my very own neighborhood was beyond belief. The stadium was expanded and upgraded, a bittersweet thing because it removed the notches that had been hacked into the outfield wall so that we kids could heckle and use our bean shooters on enemy outfielders. But the magic of major league baseball was a consolation.

I was in high school, mostly a hippie, but a baseball-lovin' hippie. On April 11, 1969 I sat in a loge box (Section 6, Row 21, Seat 24) next to my father on the first-base side of home plate for the opening day game against the Chicago White Sox. I spent many days and evenings of my childhood summers at Sicks watching the Rainiers, usually in the bleachers. But this was something special. My dad had sprung for the expensive ($4.50 per seat) tickets. It was so special that even the appearance of cast members from the awful TV show Here Come the Brides couldn't spoil the fun.

Seattle won that game, and a few others that followed. The season was mostly inglorious, but remarkable simply because it was. None of us then expected just how rare a treat: before the second season began, big league baseball shafted Seattle and the team was kidnapped to Milwaukee. (If you've ever wondered why Seattle fans boo creepy baseball commissioner Bud Selig so lustily, it's because he was one of the Grinches that stole baseball from us.)

To commemorate that year, the Pilots are having a reunion here on August 29. Former team-mates will gather at the Bellevue Hilton, then head down to Pyramid Ale outside Safeco Field, and then appear again (drunk, I hope) on the field before the Seattle Mariners game against the Kansas City Royals. Some details are here and here. The rare get-together will be a chance for fans to meet the veterans of a team they barely got to know 40 years ago.

If you can't make it, or even if you can, the best way to prepare is to re-read Pilots knuckleballer Jim Bouton's fabulous, funny, gossipy memoir of the season, Ball Four, which I've heard described as being the best baseball memoir ever written, yet about one of the worst (and certainly shortest-lived) teams in major league history. Bouton's book reads like it was written by Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake: fast character sketches, salty dialogue, and great anecdotes (farting, drinking, fighting, pitching). You'll learn that Pilots rookie Lou Piniella even went to a fortune-teller during spring training. No word on whether he threw her crystal ball into the outfield when he didn't like what she said.

I doubt many Pilots fans made it to Woodstock, but we'll always have that summer at Sicks.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.