Go, Go You Pilots!

You proud Seattle team.

Go, Go you Pilots!

Go out and build a dream.

— Seattle Pilots theme song, by Rod Belcher


The Seattle Pilots lasted just a single, solitary season — a blink of an eye in the 150-year history of major-league baseball, a blur on the sports ledger of this region, a mere footnote in athletic annals.

And yet they made such an indelible mark in that turbulent year of 1969, were so zany and quirky, that they are remembered vividly, and ever so fondly, 50 years later. They built a dream, all right, and it still resonates to this day.

Just ask Steve Whitaker, who also toiled for the Yankees and Giants in his career but gets far more attention, to this day, for the 69 games he played in the Pilots outfield. The Seattle players — 34 of whom are still alive of the 53 who stepped on the field, most now in their 70s and some having hit their 80s — learned long ago that once a Pilot, always a Pilot.

“It’s a story that should, and will, live on forever,’’ Whitaker said in a phone interview. “People are very interested in the whole history.”

Just ask Mike Fuller, who maintains a website called seattlepilots.com, devoted to the ballclub’s lore, that has remained vibrant for more than 20 years. Fuller, a Starbucks paralegal, once told former Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton — we’ll get back to him, I promise — that his site got more hits than the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to the company that hosted both sites.

“Can I put on my website that the Pilots are more popular than Jesus?” Bouton asked him.

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Says Fuller now: “I think there’s more interest in the Pilots now than there’s ever been.”

And what a rollicking, turbulent, fun story it is. Just ask Frank Greif, who had a front-row seat alongside play-by-play men Bill Schonely and Jimmy Dudley as the producer-engineer on the Pilots’ KVI broadcasts in 1969.

“The analogy I’d use: It was not unlike riding on an unstable roller coaster,’’ said Greif, now 77. “You’d go rocketing up to the top, with really good things happening, and then the car would slow down and you’d realize the roller-coaster stand was rocking from side to side. And then you’d plunge into the depths of losing six straight games.”

Nearly 24,000 fans were on hand to see the Seattle Pilots play the New York Yankees in 1969, the biggest crowd of the season in the small, but intimate Sicks’ Stadium. (Seattle Times archives)
Nearly 24,000 fans were on hand to see the Seattle Pilots play the New York Yankees in 1969, the biggest crowd of the season in the small, but intimate Sicks’ Stadium. (Seattle Times archives)

The pain of the Pilots’ abrupt departure in the spring of 1970 to become the Milwaukee Brewers, marking them as a one-and-done oddity and breaking hearts all over the region, has long since faded. The resulting lawsuit led to the granting of the expansion Mariners, who began play in 1977; the Kingdome was built as a replacement for the inadequate, dilapidated Sicks’ Stadium, where the Pilots played home games in front of mostly minuscule crowds while workers spent much of the season finishing the promised expansion of the bleachers.

What we have now is a romantic and endearing vision of a bunch of memorable players — undeniably enhanced by Bouton’s enduring classic, “Ball Four,’’ his irreverent account of that season that changed forever how we viewed professional athletes.

Sadly, Bouton now has cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease associated with dementia. He will not be part of the festivities Saturday at T-Mobile Park when the Mariners honor the 50th anniversary of the Pilots with a “Turn Back The Clock” day. But you can be sure that ribald stories from what Bouton called his “tell-some” book will be rampant.

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Two elements have added to the Pilots’ mystique, starting with being one of just two teams in major-league history to last one season (the other was the 1901 Milwaukee Brewers, coincidentally enough, who became the St. Louis Browns). Bouton has compared the Pilots’ saga to Brigadoon, an idyllic place unaffected by time.

“I wonder, sometimes, if their history would be different if we had suffered 10 years of rotten teams, instead of being gone in one year,’’ mused Fuller. “The sheer weirdness of that, amplified by ‘Ball Four,’ made it into something it never would have been if they stayed. Most of those players, it’s all they’re famous for.”

That, and being immortalized so memorably by Bouton, the other element that has stamped the Pilots for perpetuity.

“If it wasn’t for ‘Ball Four,’ the Pilots would be interesting footnotes,’’ said Charles Kapner, a Pilots historian. “He drew out the fact that such interesting characters came through. And not only characters, but people of character.’’

Certainly, no one reveres the Seattle Pilots more than Kapner, whose collection of Pilots memorabilia is unparalleled. I visited the room in his Redmond home that serves as Kapner’s shrine to the Pilots — a subset of his shrine to Seattle baseball in its entirety.

There are Pilots jerseys galore — not just those of players and manager Joe Schultz, but ushers and even one that players’ kids wore in the Family Day game. There are Pilots bats, tickets, stationery, contracts, programs, yearbooks, score cards, trading cards, jewelry — pretty much any existing artifact ever associated with the team, a staggering tribute to his childhood team, ephemeral as it was.

Charles Kapner in his memorabilia room holding the road uniform of Pilots manager Joe Schultz.  (Larry Stone / The Seattle Times)
Charles Kapner in his memorabilia room holding the road uniform of Pilots manager Joe Schultz. (Larry Stone / The Seattle Times)

As Kapner said, such collecting takes you back to a savored time in one’s life — for him, as a 13-year-old boy who loved nothing more than soaking in the intimate environs of Sicks’ Stadium. It was a place, he said, where you could be in the first row of the outfield, reach out through a mesh fence and touch a player if he was close enough. He still remembers walking up the dark, dreary staircase upon entering and suddenly being flooded with a sensory smorgasbord — the intoxicating smell of popcorn and green grass, a flash of light, the vision of Mount Rainier over right field.

“I have great memories of that stadium,’’ he said. “Any time I knew I was going to a ballgame, if I stopped at the grocery store, I’d look at people and wonder if anyone feels as special as me because I’m going to a baseball game.”

Certainly, no one has better memories of the Pilots and Sicks’ Stadium than Cathi Soriano, daughter of the franchise’s lead man, Dewey Soriano. A former Rainiers pitcher and Pacific Coast League executive, Soriano was a baseball lifer, and his then-12-year-old daughter loved the enchanting baseball life when he became Pilots president.

“For me, it was like my summer of being a princess,’’ Soriano recalled. “I got to go to the park for free, sit in my dad’s box behind home plate — which had a phone! If that’s not every kid’s dream — free baseball tickets, free food. It was great. And I was exempt from all the drama.”

She remembers once answering the phone at home and hearing a friendly fellow say, “Hi, it’s Mickey Mantle. Is your dad there?” The Mick, who had retired after the 1968 season, was brought in by Dewey Soriano, along with Jimmy Piersall, to stump for the proposed new domed stadium in Seattle.

On the Pilots’ opening day, Soriano remembers being particularly excited to meet Bridget Hanley, the star of the Seattle-based television show “Here Come the Brides,” who made an appearance at the game. Brought outside the stadium to do so, Cathi was unable to get back in because she didn’t have a ticket.

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“I was out there and crying and crying until someone came out and got me,’’ Soriano said. “That’s a very strong memory.”

But about that drama — it was rampant in Seattle in 1969, with Dewey Soriano at the center of it. Soriano and his brother, Max, the team’s vice president, had brought in former Indians owner William R. Daly from Cleveland to help finance the ballclub. Seattle was originally gearing for 1971 or ’72 to launch the team. But because Missouri Senator Stuart Symington had threatened to repeal baseball’s sacred antitrust exemption if Kansas City didn’t get an expansion team in 1969 after losing the Athletics to Oakland in 1967, the Pilots were forced to join them earlier than expected.

The result was that Sicks’ Stadium, located in the Rainier Valley, simply was not ready for prime time. While the playing surface was outstanding and players — hitters, at least — loved the cozy dimensions, the infrastructure was more suited to the minor-league venue it had always been.

The water pressure was so tepid that visiting teams would often shower in their hotel. When attendance exceeded 10,000 — a rarity, as it turned out — the toilet in the press box couldn’t be flushed until late in the game. That ritual was dubbed “the seventh-inning flush” by Bill Sears, the Pilots’ public-relations director.

They were famously still pounding nails on the outfield bleachers on opening day — and throughout the season. Whitaker, a Tacoma native, says his dad managed the welding team working on the stands all summer.

“He’d be in right field with his group and then move to the sidelines on the right-field side to watch the game,’’ Whitaker recalled. “When I was playing right field, I’d wave to my dad and his crew.”

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Attendance was woeful — 677,944 (8,268 per game) — but only fifth-worst in the majors. The team was predictably noncompetitive, finishing at 64-98.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a magical experience for the Seattle fans who had been starving for major-league baseball, and for all those associated with the Pilots on the field, in the front office, or on the periphery. Along with the NBA Sonics, launched two years earlier, the Pilots made the city feel like it had arrived.

“It was a big deal,’’ said John Hughes, chief historian for the Washington secretary of state’s office and a Pilots fan. “Notwithstanding the World’s Fair, Seattle had felt it hadn’t become a big-league town yet. It was a moment of pride for the whole state.”

Pilots shortstop Ray Oyler played only one season in Seattle and batted .165. Why was he so popular?

Greg Harlow grew up in North Seattle and attended the Pilots’ home opener at Sicks’ Stadium as a 16-year-old. He still has the program, in which he dutifully scored the game.

“All the neighborhood kids would get together, and whoever could drive, we’d all pile in and go down to the ballpark,’’ he recalled. “I just loved the intimate atmosphere.”

The players felt much the same way, Whitaker said.

“Out of all the teams I played for, I’ll never, ever forget the Pilots,’’ he said. “We were a bunch of castoffs, basically, if you really think about it. We were just trying to do the best we could with what we had, and we had fun. When your manager wants you to drink beer instead of Coca-Cola, how could you not?”

When your manager wants you to drink beer instead of Coca-Cola, how could you not?” — Steve Whitaker, Pilots outfielder

Joe Schultz, the manager, came to life in “Ball Four,” famous for his exhortation to his players to “pound the Budweiser,” and for a two-word expression that can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.

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“Oh, the characters, which Bouton documented so well,’’ said Greif, who got to call a Pilots series in Minnesota late in the season when Schonely was called away for other announcing duties. “You had a guy like Joe Schultz, going to mass on Wednesday, and every other day saying you have to pound the Budweiser. He’d sit in the front of the bus drinking his Budweiser while (outfielder) Steve Hovley was in the back playing the harmonica.”

Lou Piniella from the collection of Charles Kapner, who is a huge Pilots historian.  (The Charles Kapner collection)
Lou Piniella from the collection of Charles Kapner, who is a huge Pilots historian. (The Charles Kapner collection)

One character who regrettably didn’t have a chance to make his mark with the Pilots was Lou Piniella, ill-advisedly traded to Kansas City during spring training for Whitaker and John Gelnar. Piniella, who would eventually make his mark in Seattle, went on to win Rookie of the Year, have an outstanding playing career, and win a World Series title as a manager. He was surpassed in that achievement by a Pilots farmhand named Tom Kelly, who fizzled as a player but won two crowns managing the Minnesota Twins.

The Pilots’ wild ride came to an abrupt end in spring training of 1970, a surreal time in which the ballclub’s executives were in bankruptcy court. Jim Kittilsby, the scouting director, was essentially running the show in Tempe, Ariz., because everyone else was back in Seattle embroiled in testimony.

No one knew if the Pilots would return to Seattle for a second year. Two local ownership groups tried unsuccessfully to purchase the team, which was $8.1 million in debt, at the same time a Milwaukee car salesman, Bud Selig, was angling to acquire the team.

“The last few broadcasts Dudley and I did, we couldn’t mention Seattle,’’ recalled Schonely, now 90 and better remembered as the longtime voice of the NBA Portland Trail Blazers. “We had to mention Milwaukee.”

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The Pilots would not return. On April 1, Judge Sidney Volinn ruled the Pilots were officially bankrupt. He ordered them sold to Selig, who had cut a secret deal with the Soriano brothers to buy the team for $10.8 million during Game 1 of the 1969 World Series.

“I found out that the franchise was sold to the Selig group on the radio in my office,’’ recalled Kittilsby, now 81.

Whose fault was it? In many ways, the Pilots were set up for failure, Kapner said, through their lack of relationships with local investors and government officials, the issues with Sicks’ Stadium, and their funding challenges, epitomized by Daly’s refusal to dip into his vast fortune to save them.

“It reminded me of a Thomas Nast cartoon, when he pictured the Tweed ring, the boss of New York,’’ said Bill Mullins, author of “Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics.” “Each one of the guys is pointing his thumb or finger at the guy next to him, so it goes all the way around a circle. That’s the feeling I have about what went wrong with the Pilots. There are a variety of reasons the Pilots failed.”

According to lore, the moving van had been loaded with equipment at the end of spring training and awaited instructions on whether to head to Seattle or Milwaukee. It motored off to Wisconsin, where the Brewers, lacking time to prepare new uniforms, just tore off the old “Pilots’’ lettering and stitched on the new.

Soriano was heartbroken, his daughter said.

“That was his big dream, to bring major-league baseball to Seattle, and it got away,’’ she said. “To have his dream shattered like that, it hurt him. Someone once gave him Pilots memorabilia as a gift. He didn’t want it. It was a sad memory for him.”

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As it was for those who had embraced the team.

“It was like learning about Santa Claus,’’ said Duane Keyes, who was 15 in 1969 and received a 10-game general admission ticket book as a gift from his dad.

“It just felt like your heart was being cut out at the time,’’ said Mike Burke, who was a new Seattle cop in 1969 and attended Pilots opening day.

Those wounds have healed, and the Pilots live on, thanks largely to Bouton and the vivid characters he brought to life, as well as the nostalgia for a simpler time.

“I think it’s one of the most interesting chapters in Seattle history, just because it was so weird,’’ Fuller said. “It’s emblematic of kind of the kooky side of Seattle. We always go our own way and have to be a little different. There’s a lot of talk these days about Seattle changing. The Pilots and Sicks’ Stadium are very much a piece of that old Seattle.”

Schonely recalls being on a team flight and noticing Bouton sitting in the back, writing on his notepad.

“What are you going to do, write a book?” he asked jokingly.

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“As a matter of fact, Schonzie, I am,’’ Bouton replied. “But don’t tell anyone.”

Schonely kept the secret and enjoyed the resulting product, as millions of others have.

“A lot of it in there was definitely true, because I was there,’’ he said.