“CAN YOUR DAD come out and play catch?”
Kathy Oyler, who turned 8 in the summer of 1969, heard that a lot when she answered the door at her family’s apartment at Bellevue Estates. Grown men asked if Ray could throw the baseball around with their sons. Neighborhood kids came by all the time. Maybe just a quick autograph? Her dad always said yes.
Seattle was crazy about the Pilots, its first Major League Baseball team. Their 31-year-old shortstop, Ray Oyler, was the city’s first Major League Baseball hero. Which is kind of weird, because the Pilots certainly had better players. Seattle was different then, smaller, the kind of place where folks knew where the ballplayers lived and didn’t think twice about dropping by to visit. Maybe Oyler was a different kind of hero, too.
The former Marine was a joker, a loving husband and a playful father, beloved by teammates. An old friend says, “Ray Oyler was just a damned good guy.” But, boy, was he a bad hitter.
Maybe that’s why he was such a favorite.
Oyler’s loyal and supportive fan club, which grew to more than 11,000 members during the 1969 season, gave him a Buick Skylark to drive for a year. His fans sat together and partied at Ray Oyler nights at Sicks’ Stadium, the Pilots’ shabby ballpark in the Rainier Valley. Someone gave him a dog, for crying out loud, just because he was Ray Oyler. Seattle loved Ray. And he loved Seattle right back.
The Pilots left after one season. Oyler stayed here the rest of his life.
Ray and his wife, Joanne, bought a house in Redmond, and after a few more summers chasing his baseball dreams, mostly in the minor leagues, Ray retired. He came home full-time, and he and Joanne joined a bowling league. Ray liked to golf, and play pool, and cribbage. He started water fights with his kids, Kathy and her older sister, Cindi. He fished at Lake Sammamish and was bucked off a mechanical bull at a Redmond bar. He worked at Safeway and Boeing, and played slowpitch softball. He ate peanut-butter-and-butter sandwiches, slathered high on Wonder Bread, as a midnight snack. He chain-smoked cigarettes and drank a lot of Oly and Rainier. And he told fantastic baseball stories, about winning a World Series and about the Pilots’ only season.
In 1981, he died here.
OYLER WAS RAISED in Indiana to be a baseball player. His dad, who also was named Ray and answered to the nickname “Bus,” hit ground balls for hours to “Little Bussie,” who got really good at fielding them.
Oyler signed up for the Marines after graduating in 1955 from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, where he had been an average student, captain of the baseball team for two years and quarterback of the football team that won a city title. Oyler played service ball in the Marines for four years, then was spotted in sandlot games back home by a Detroit Tigers scout and signed in 1960. He made it to the majors in 1965, and was the Tigers’ starting shortstop by 1967.
Oyler was sensational with the glove. But he couldn’t hit for average or for power, and he didn’t run very well, a trifecta of offensive ineptitude you don’t see very often, even in baseball’s low-scoring late ’60s. He hit a dismal .135 for the Tigers in 1968. When Detroit played the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series that fall, Oyler lost his job in the lineup to an outfielder, his manager having grown tired of watching him flail away at the plate. But Oyler didn’t complain, serving as a late-inning defensive replacement in four games as the Tigers won the Series.
Five days after Game 7, Oyler was the Pilots’ third pick in the American League expansion draft, after Don Mincher and Tommy Harper, as the Pilots and Kansas City Royals stocked their new rosters. Oyler signed a one-year contract for $18,800, and announced that he was “real happy” with it. (His salary was about average among the Pilots, and not bad money for 1969, though almost all the players worked between baseball seasons in the days before free agency. Oyler’s deal included the promise of an offseason job in the Pilots’ promotions and ticket department.)
By the time Oyler got to spring training in Tempe, Arizona, KVI disc jockey Bob Hardwick had started the “Soc It To Me .300 Club.” The name was a reference to a catchphrase from the popular TV show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (ask your grandma), the first nine letters an acronym for “Slugger Oyler Can, In Time, Top Our Manager’s Estimate.” Pilots manager Joe Schultz had said he didn’t expect Oyler to hit much but thought he’d be valuable because of his tremendous defensive play.
Explaining why he had chosen Oyler, Hardwick wrote on a promotional ad for one of three Ray Oyler nights at the ballpark, “If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.” All it took to join, according to Hardwick, was a horn, enthusiasm, and a deep and abiding faith in the power of positive thinking.
The hope was that the fan club could inspire Oyler to hit .300.
APRIL 11, 1969, was a glorious, sunny day, perfect for the first Major League game ever played in Seattle. Movie and TV stars, big-shot politicians and baseball’s top officials were part of the crowd of 15,014.
Before the game, construction workers pounded away on the outfield bleachers at Sicks’ Stadium. Fans stood patiently, holding their hot dogs and drinks, waiting until a row was finished to take their seats. Then the crew would move up a row and repeat, right up to the first pitch.
The Pilots beat the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. The next day, Oyler hit a home run in another victory. Oyler was hitting .364 (this fan club thing was working!), and the Pilots were 3-1, on top of their division and feeling pretty good about themselves.
“When we left spring training, we had thought, ‘We’re going to kick some butt, and they don’t even know who we are yet,’ ” says Steve Whitaker, a Pilots outfielder from Tacoma who is now 75, and owns a real estate company with his son in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We had some veterans, some good players.”
Tommy Davis, a 30-year-old outfielder, had been an All-Star with the Dodgers. He led the Pilots with 80 RBI, even though he was traded to Houston more than a month before the end of the season. Davis, 80, lives in Southern California and says he has good memories of the Pilots, and Oyler.
“That was a one-of-a-kind team,” Davis says, laughing. “We had a lot of fun. And Ray was really funny. He surprised me every day.”
Here’s one reason teammates and fans liked Oyler, who was an inch or two short of 6 feet and weighed about 165 pounds: He was scrappy. He played hard, and if he objected to the way you approached second base, well, he might punch you in the nose.
On May 12, the Yankees’ Bobby Murcer came in headfirst, elbows out, trying for a double. Oyler tagged him, then dropped the ball and pounced on Murcer. The benches emptied, and Oyler and Murcer soon disappeared under a pile of players.
“That’s no way to play a baseball game,” Oyler told The Seattle Times. “You can’t let them step on you, or they will.”
Whitaker appreciated the effort.
“If you came in hard at second base, you better be ready to throw,” he says. “He was a rough-and-tough guy, and he was going to give you everything he had. That was Ray Oyler. Everybody loved Ray.”
Oyler was ejected, at which point he likely headed to the Sicks’ Stadium clubhouse to listen to Johnny Cash music and pound some Budweiser, as Schultz constantly encouraged his players to do.
“Like all of us, Ray liked to have a drink or two,” Whitaker says.
On May 27 and 28, Oyler hit home runs in back-to-back games against the Orioles. The first was described in The Seattle Times as a pop fly that barely cleared the fence in left field, just 305 feet from home plate.
“I looked out there and couldn’t believe it,” Oyler told reporters after the game. “Hell, I was just trying to meet the ball … just trying for a hit.”
The good times, for Oyler and the Pilots, soon came to an end.
Oyler’s hot start didn’t last long, and he finished with a .165 batting average, with almost twice as many strikeouts as hits (in case you’re not a big stats person, this means Ray was bad at hitting baseballs). The Pilots’ season ended Oct. 2 with another loss, which dropped their record to 64-98, in front of another meager crowd at Sicks’ Stadium, just 5,473.
On Dec. 7, Oyler was traded to Oakland. The Pilots went bankrupt and moved to Milwaukee a week before the 1970 season, becoming the Brewers. The party, which had been so much fun when it started, was over, for the Pilots and for the Ray Oyler Fan Club.
JOANNE OYLER DECIDED Seattle was home the first time she saw it, after flying into Sea-Tac before her husband’s 1969 season with the Pilots. She got off the plane, saw the mountains and said, “Wow; this is beautiful. I think this is where we’re going to stay.”
Ray spent spring training with Oakland but never played for the A’s, who sold his contract in April 1970 to the California Angels. After a final, disappointing major league season in Anaheim, the Oylers settled into their Redmond home. Ray left the next couple of springs for minor-league ball in Salt Lake City, or Honolulu, as a player-coach.
Once, before a trip to Hawaii, Ray surprised Kathy by pulling her out of class at Audubon Elementary School.
“Come on; we’re going fishing,” he told her, and off to Lake Sammamish they went.
“He hated to leave us; he really did,” says Kathy, now 57. “He loved to fish; that was his way to relax. I was always sad when he had to go, but when he came home, he’d bring us a stuffed animal or something to let us know how much he missed us.”
Ray retired and came home for good in 1973. Then he had to go to work. He found a series of jobs: Safeway for a while, then Boeing. It didn’t hurt that he was Ray Oyler, his name still recognized around Seattle.
He was an expediter at Boeing, which is a fancy way of saying he was a parts runner, zipping along in his little Datsun pickup when he wasn’t hanging out in his office talking baseball.
“It was kind of a gravy job,” remembers Larry Moe, who also worked at Boeing and is retired now. “He used to wear his World Series ring to work and show everyone. He was friendly, signed autographs.”
Oyler played slowpitch softball. As you might guess, he was a pretty fair shortstop. One of his teammates was Bruce Kennedy, a 6-foot-9 first baseman Oyler called “Scoop.”
“He was a beautiful human being,” Kennedy says. “He could laugh at himself; he was down to earth. He liked life, and he liked people. I just loved Ray Oyler. Every once in a while, I still think about him.”
Ray often told his daughter Cindi about his three dreams. The last one — after playing in the major leagues and in a World Series — was to stay in the game as a coach.
After the 1980 season, Oyler got a phone call from the Cubs, asking whether he had any interest in coaching in the minor leagues.
“He thought really hard about it,” Kathy says. “He had always wanted to do it, but it would require leaving his family. He turned it down. He had a wife and kids at home that he treated very well and that he loved dearly.”
So that was it. Ray was finished with baseball, and ready to enjoy being at home with his family, working at Boeing, playing softball, going fishing. It was good to be Ray Oyler.
ON JAN. 26, 1981, Kathy was 19 years old. That night, she was at a friend’s house, six doors down from the home in Redmond where she lived with her parents. She was told someone at her house was sick.
She took off running as fast as she could, burst through the front door and raced upstairs. When she got there, Ray was dead.
Earlier that day, Ray had gone to a doctor and complained of chest pains. He was told he was probably experiencing a spasm of the esophagus, and he should take something for it. A few months earlier, he’d had a stress test as part of a regular checkup. His triglycerides were high, and he had been advised to alter his diet.
At home, he told Joanne he hadn’t been feeling well at work, and was going to go to bed early. When she checked on him, he was lying on one of his arms and kept saying he was in a lot of pain, a lot of pain.
When Kathy found her dad, she tried mouth-to-mouth and CPR.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I only knew what I saw on TV. It was very, very traumatic.”
An ambulance and fire truck arrived, and paramedics worked on Ray for 30 minutes but couldn’t revive him. He’d suffered a heart attack; there had been a 90 percent blockage in three main arteries around his heart. He was 43 years old.
He’s buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Bellevue. Kathy has been there to visit her father, but doesn’t remember much about the funeral.
What she does remember is the fun-loving guy who paraded her around on a pillow when she was little, singing, “Here She Comes, Miss America.” She remembers being a tomboy, her dad hitting grounders and pop-ups to her, as Ray’s dad had done with him. She remembers being the only girl playing in father-son games at major league ballparks. She remembers going to Pilots games and yelling for her dad. She remembers how proud he was of his daughters.
This is still hard for her to talk about.
“I tried to save him, and I just couldn’t.”
JOANNE REMARRIED and moved in 1997 to Texas, where she still lives. She’s 84. In 2005, she sold the family’s two-story house in Redmond. Cindi, 63, is an artist, living in the Northwest. Kathy, the little girl who answered the door for strangers who wanted to play catch with her dad, the teenager who tried so hard to save her father’s life, figured out how to save herself and others. When she was 38 — a bartender suffering from alcohol use disorder — Kathy entered a treatment center in Southern California. She found not just the help she needed, but a career, becoming an alcohol and drug counselor and an interventionist. She runs her own business in Southern California and has been sober for 19 years. In her spare time, she rides motorcycles and is a member of Bikers Against Child Abuse.
Oyler’s legacy includes a Ray Oyler Scholarship fund that was created for kids at his old high school, and in 2016, he was inducted into the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor Kathy received in person.
As for the Pilots, who were embraced in 1969 by enthusiastic fans, overjoyed at the idea of having a Major League Baseball team in their beautiful city? Well … 50 years is a long time, and it’s hard to find much evidence of their one-year existence.
There are a few books — most famously, Jim Bouton’s great “Ball Four”; a website; and an excellent 2010 documentary. A few Pilots items can be found at the Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners will honor the Pilots on June 22 with a Turn Back the Clock night. In fact, the Pilots’ greatest contribution might be the political and legal fight that followed their departure and resulted in the Mariners coming to town in 1977.
Sicks’ Stadium was demolished in 1979, replaced by a Lowe’s Home Improvement store. An old wooden sign at the corner of Rainier and McClellan refers to the ballpark as home of the minor-league Seattle Rainiers, which it was, for many years. There is no mention of the Pilots.
On a recent visit, I found — with a fair amount of persistence — a replica of home plate, situated where umpires used to dust off the real home plate, just beyond an exit door outside the store. In front of the plate was a small bronze plaque honoring the Rainiers and the Pilots. To the side stood a cutout of a batter. The display was completely hidden by pallets of Quikrete, stacked 10 feet high on every side. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t exactly smell the fresh-cut grass, taste the Cracker Jack or picture “Tailwind” Tommy Harper stealing second base.
I squeezed past a food truck and the packaged concrete for a glimpse of Seattle’s baseball history. I thought the life-size cutout of the skinny right-handed hitter leaning over the plate looked a little like Ray Oyler.