Becoming Big League (Part One)

On the eve of the Mariner's home opener, author Bill Mullins shares an excerpt from his new book about Seattle's first-ever MLB Opening Day in 1969.
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On the eve of the Mariner's home opener, author Bill Mullins shares an excerpt from his new book about Seattle's first-ever MLB Opening Day in 1969.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  In commemoration of the Seattle Mariners' home opener this week, Crosscut is publishing excerpts from "Becoming Big League" with permission from the University of Washington Press. By way of introduction, the American League granted Seattle a Major League franchise in October 1967. The Seattle Pilots would play their first game in April 1969. There was much to do in the 18 months prior to the first pitch. One of the most difficult chores was getting Sicks’ Stadium ready for big league ball. The city of Seattle had purchased the stadium in 1965 from Alan Ferguson. Mayor Dorm Braman, who was decidedly lukewarm towards baseball, and Dewey Soriano, local baseball man and part-owner of the Pilots, got together to discuss the terms of the lease and a budget for the necessary renovations. It was the beginning of a steadily deteriorating relationship.

Not Enough Seats, Not Enough Fans

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, opening day of the regular season was becoming more a threat than a hope. A long, drawn-out fight over the Sicks’ Stadium lease and then over the nature of the refurbishment was pushing renovations right into the season. Sicks’ was only a stopgap until the multipurpose stadium could be built, so it should not have been a test of what it would take to attract a new franchise.

Mayor Dorm Braman and many on the city council clearly believed that the city was merely furnishing a facility, not luring a franchise. Any special subsidy for the Pilots should be left up to the county, which was building the permanent stadium. The city had gone far enough in its negotiations in 1967 with Charlie Finley to offer him a five-year lease on Sicks’ Stadium at $165,000 a year and $1.61 million of city-financed renovations for the ballpark. Both sides drew on the Finley negotiation as the framework as they made their cases for a lease agreement for the Pilots.

Negotiations between Braman and Dewey Soriano began in April 1968, a year before opening day. Soriano proposed a remodeling cost of $1.175 million to bring Sicks’ up to American League standards, including seating for thirty thousand. The Pilots offered to pay rent of $165,000 a year for four years, suggesting that salvage plus the admissions tax should be sufficient for the city to break even on stadium improvements. Soriano also asked for all parking and concessions revenue. Braman rejected the offer and pressed for more rent. The two sides held meetings through the summer without coming to an agreement.

Fallout over the final days of negotiations fell along the classic lines of debate over public expenditures on stadiums. The Argus praised [councilmen] Hill and Lamphere for standing up to the sportswriters on behalf of the taxpayers. If the Pilots want the stadium done on time, wrote the editor, the franchise should contribute some of its own money. He went on to castigate other council members as gutless. The Argus could have predicted the reactions of the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer sportswriters.

The Post-Intelligencer found it incredible that the council could put the franchise in jeopardy. Hy Zimmerman [Seattle Times] thought that the businessmen and political leaders of Seattle were slowly maturing but still had not learned how to act like they were in a big-league city. Emmett Watson [Seattle PI] marveled at this performance and wondered whether Seattle was ready for the major leagues. For those who believed a city needs major sports in order to be major league, the taunts were on target. Braman never attended a Pilots game. Councilman Ted Best remembered, “On opening day I sat and explained to Tim Hill how baseball was played.” Obviously, a person’s priorities affect his or her opinions about how a community might attain status—and for the Choose-an-Effective-City-Council contingent, baseball was a low priority.

So the city had a stadium. And by February 1968, it had secured a major league baseball franchise. But it had a capacity problem. The stadium was not major league, with 11,000 to 16,000 seats, depending on who did the estimating. The American League expected a capacity of 30,000. Ferguson and Paul Anson, the stadium administrator, had looked into expanding Sicks’ over the past half decade. Their estimates ranged from about $350,000 to upgrade to 24,000 seats, using cheap bleachers, to as much as $7 million to create a capacity of 34,000 by adding a second concrete deck.

In May 1968, the Narramore consulting firm had estimated it would cost a minimum of $778,000 to expand to 28,500 seats and install major league lighting. That turned out to be well off the mark, but this was the figure Braman had used as he began negotiations with Dewey Soriano that spring. There would be no city appropriations for improvements until the city and PNSI reached accord, and without an appropriation, there could be no architectural work. Construction should have begun in September 1968, but agreement was not reached until the middle of that month, so the architectural and consulting firm Narramore and Bain was not on the job until October 23.

With time running out, not only the negotiations, but now the remodeling process grew tense. The budget was $1.175 million, and it was firm. After they reached a lease agreement, PNSI (usually represented by Dewey Soriano, Milkes, or Lew Matlin, director of stadium operations) and the city (represented by Don Johnston, director of Seattle Center, which oversaw the stadium) met and corresponded frequently. Johnston prophesied accurately as he penned a cordial note to Soriano in October 1968. “We know the next few months are going to be difficult ones. There will surely be unexpected problems and frustrations. However, we are as determined as you to make the April 1 deadline so that we can join the rest of Seattle in hearing that wonderful cry—‘play ball’—with a major league ring.”

As opening day, April 11, drew closer and closer, the crews worked the fans. Two days before the first game, the workers were putting in a new seat every five minutes and had begun to work around the clock. The left field bleachers were almost finished, but in right field, Sky-Hi had gotten only the concrete footings installed, and no one knew how long it would take to assemble the stands.

Early comers to the home opener heard the banging of carpenters hammering more seats into place. Estimates varied on how many seats were actually available by game time out of the 25,000 promised. Some said there were as few as 16,000; Best said more than 18,000 but less than 25,000. The most accurate estimate was probably around 19,500. Attendance was 15,014, a low number for the first major league baseball game in Seattle history.

Come back tomorrow for Part Two of Becoming Big League.



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