Becoming Big League (Part Two)

Opening Day 1969! In the second excerpt from Bill Mullins' new book about the Seattle Pilots, we return to Sicks' Stadium.
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Opening Day 1969! In the second excerpt from Bill Mullins' new book about the Seattle Pilots, we return to Sicks' Stadium.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read Part One here.

Play-by-Play, April 1969

The Pilots’ opener was an away game in Anaheim against the California Angels. Five hours before the first pitch, [Seattle sportswriter] Hy Zimmerman suffered a mild heart attack and was taken to Cedars of Lebanon hospital. He would recover and resume his post during the season, but he must have been frustrated to miss the moment for which he had campaigned so intensely.

Seattle fielded a veteran lineup for its inaugural game. Only two players, starting pitcher Marty Pattin and right fielder Mike Hegan, had fewer than four seasons in the majors. Tommy Harper, at second, would lead off, followed by Hegan, Tommy Davis in left, and Mincher at first base hitting cleanup. Third baseman Rich Rollins came next, then Jim Gosger in center, Gerry McNertney behind the plate, Ray Oyler at short, and Pattin.

If the team knew that one of its beat writers had been sidelined, it was not a distraction. After Angel starter Jim McGlothlin’s first pitch sailed over Harper’s head, the second baseman hit a sizzler down the left field line for a double. Hegan followed with a homer, giving the team a two-run lead. Pattin allowed two runs on eight hits, including a shot that Hegan dropped when he slammed into the outfield wall and lay crumpled on the turf for several minutes. X-rays showed that nothing was broken. Had the phrase been in vogue, he would have been listed as “day-to-day.”

Following the spring training pattern, Diego Segui relieved Pattin when the starter ran out of gas after five innings, and Jack Aker finished the game when Segui lost his command in the ninth. The Pilots won 4–3 and were undefeated. The next night against the Angels, the Pilots got off to a 3–0 start, including a Mincher home run, but Mike Marshall, Gene Brabender, and Johnny Morris were ineffective, giving up seven runs, while the team committed four errors. The Seattle club sank to .500.

First Big League Game in Seattle

Although workmen were still refurbishing Sicks' Stadium, the team opened at home on April 11. All the appropriate pre-game hoopla attended the first-ever home game. Fans welcomed the Pilots back from California at the airport. A downtown parade and luncheon at the Olympic Hotel honored the team the day before the game. Dignitaries of every sort showed up to the luncheon: Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson; Governor Dan Evans, who had proclaimed April 6–12 “Baseball Week”; Mayor Floyd Miller; baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn; American League president Joe Cronin; ex-pitcher Lefty Gomez, who was the banquet’s keynote speaker; Dewey Soriano; William Daley [Pilots primary owner]; Chicago White Sox owner John Allyn; and Angels owner Gene Autry. Tables were arranged in the shape of a baseball diamond and decorated with 80 autographed baseballs from the Pilots.

President Nixon sent a congratulatory telegram. Joe Schultz [Pilots manager] was all “aw, shucks” when he got a kiss from Miss Seafair, received the key to the city, and was crowned king of baseball. Bridget Hanley, star of the TV show Here Come the Brides, loosely based on Seattle’s nineteenth-century Mercer Girls, asked starting pitcher Gary Bell to wear her garter on the mound. (There is no record that he complied.) It was a great time for Seattle to celebrate itself.

Clear skies and sixty-degree weather greeted the teams the afternoon of April 11. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a 41-page, Opening Day insert with room for plenty of corny baseball-themed ads. (“Give her a ring, then take her out to the ballgame” to show it off, suggested one jewelry store.) Magnuson threw three first pitches to Evans as Jackson stood at bat. Rod Belcher sang his song “Go, Go, You Pilots.” And the workmen laid down their hammers.

The game itself was as rewarding as the congratulatory ceremonies.

Gary Bell pitched a complete-game shutout. Don Mincher hit his second home run—caught by one of the carpenters in right field—Tommy Harper had two hits and a stolen base, and the Pilots beat the White Sox 7–0. The Pilots split their two remaining games with Chicago. Segui demonstrated that he could start as well as relieve, taking the ailing Barber’s spot and going seven and two-thirds innings in a 5–1 victory. But Pattin, Brabender, and Bouton were pummeled the next day for 11 runs in a homerfest (Chicago hit five and Seattle two) that ended 12–7.

In an effort to accommodate more seats, the fences at Sicks' Stadium had been brought in from where they had been during the minor league days. Early in the season, there was talk of home run records, but although there were some high-scoring games, records did not materialize.

The Pilots ended the home stand one game under .500 after a complete game loss by Mike Marshall to Kansas City and a rainy late-inning collapse against Minnesota. (Someone selling ad space in Sicks was on the ball. The stadium tarp read “It never rains in Southcenter.”) The team was beginning a season of adjustments. To take up the pitching slack left by Barber’s sore shoulder and Brabender’s excess girth, Milkes shipped Jim Bouton to Vancouver on 24-hour recall and brought up Bill Edgerton. Edo Vanni slipped out from behind the group sales desk to give some advice about going the other way to Jim Gosger, who promptly went three for three.

Reality began to set in on the ensuing six-game road trip to Chicago and Kansas City.

The Pilots got good pitching from Pattin, Marshall, and Segui, who was again pressed into duty as a starter. But the hitting went dormant, and the fielding continued to be spotty. The Pilots averaged three runs a game and lost four of the six. The season record sank below .500 and would stay there the rest of the way. Barber and Brabender gave up 13 runs in Chicago. Back at home, Bell could not get out of the fourth inning against the A’s, victimized in part by his own throwing error. Oakland then lit up Bill Edgerton and put away the Pilots 14–2.

“We are very disappointed in some of the members of this club,” Milkes told the press. In what would become a familiar refrain, he promised player changes. Mike Ferraro, who hit over .300 in spring training but had gotten only four at bats so far, was outrighted to Vancouver. When he refused to go down, he was traded to Baltimore for pitcher John O’Donoghue. Dick Bates took Ferraro’s place on the roster; then, in a couple of days, Bates went back to Vancouver to make way for O’Donoghue. Bill Edgerton was also returned to the minors, exchanged for pitcher Darrel Brandon. The players joked grimly about the bus to Vancouver pulling out from Sicks nightly.

Next it was Marshall’s turn to face the hitting prowess of the A’s and the wrath of his manager. Marshall went to one and two on the season, giving up five runs in six innings. The A’s ended up with 13 runs.

When Schultz went out to get his laboring starter, Marshall began to walk off the mound. Irritated, the manager summoned him back to wait for Bates. Marshall was studying for a Ph.D. in kinesiology (his research focused on the impact of physical maturation on the self-esteem of adolescents) and was rather self-consciously intellectual. He had started baseball as an infielder but wanted to pitch. The Detroit Tigers gave him a chance after the Phillies cut him. In a feature column on the Post-Intelligencer Style page, Marshall had told editor Bobbi McCallum that his priorities were family, education, and baseball, in that order. He found traditional baseball authority suspect, disdained Schultz, and said he felt like a “piece of meat in uniform.” It is likely that Schultz was not as dense as Marshall thought and realized he had a nonconformist in his starting rotation. It would cause tension for both men.

Meanwhile, Lenny Anderson, Post-Intelligencer beat writer, was detecting a home-run hitting pattern. At night, homer production was relatively normal, but during day games, in the drier, warmer air, the ball jumped out of Sicks. Factoring in the uneven pitching of the Pilots, Sunday home games began to bring a sense of foreboding.

The Pilots split their final two games in April but saw hopeful signs on the pitching front. Marty Pattin got his breaking stuff over and shut out the Angels, 1–0, and Jim Bouton, back from Vancouver, pitched two shutout innings in relief in a losing effort against the Twins. By the end of April, only 65,335 fans had come out to see the Pilots, who had compiled a 7–11 record. Marvin Milkes blamed low attendance on cool weather and promised that upcoming promotions would stimulate crowds, but an average turnout of 7,250 had to worry the front office.

A major reason for low attendance was that Seattleites were simply not that interested. Looking back, those close to Seattle sports still wonder if it was really a major league baseball town in the late 1960s.

The closest observers of the situation consistently returned to the same conclusion as sports scholar Gerald Scully: a poor stadium combined with high ticket prices and run-of-the-mill promotions spelled disaster.


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