Washington's Jewish Sports Heroes: Herman Sarkowsky (1925-2014)

  • By Dan Aznoff and Stephen Sadis
  • Posted 2/20/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11030

This account of Herman Sarkowsky, a leading figure in efforts to bring  professional sports teams to the Northwest, was written by Dan Aznoff and Stephen Sadis. It appears in Distant Replay! Washington's Jewish Sports Heroes, a book curated, designed, and edited by Sadis and published in 2014 by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. Distant Replay! contains brief biographies, authored by several writers, of more than 150 Jewish athletes, sports executives, writers, and others who have contributed to Washington's rich athletic heritage. The publisher has graciously allowed HistoryLink.org to present a number of these biographical sketches as People's Histories, and they appear here as they do in the book.

Herman Sarkowsky 

Herman Sarkowsky is considered by many to be one of the most influential individuals in Northwest sports history. Over a period of 30 years, he brought the Trail Blazers to Portland, the Seahawks to Seattle, invested in the NASL Sounders, kept the Mariners from fleeing, and helped resurrect Washington's horse racing industry.

After graduating from the University of Washington in 1949, Sarkowsky launched a career in home development, and by 1969 was the largest residential developer in the Puget Sound region. Sarkowsky first became a hero to Northwest sports fans in 1970 when he and two of his friends, Larry Weinberg and Robert Schmertz, "who happened to be Jewish," paid $3.7 million to secure an NBA expansion team for Portland. Seven years later, the Trail Blazers delivered an NBA championship title to the Rose City. The team was later sold to Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen in 1988 for $70 million.

Later on in the '70s at a lunch with Ned Skinner, Sarkowsky and the shipbuilding heir came to the conclusion that they were both interested in owning an NFL team and later brought retailer Lloyd Nordstrom in to become the majority owner.

In a maneuver to endear themselves to Lamar Hunt, the head of the NFL expansion committee, who owned the Kansas City Chiefs and three soccer teams, the group bought the rights to a North American Soccer League franchise, the Seattle Sounders.

The strategy worked and the Sarkowsky-led group was granted an NFL franchise in the winter of 1974. On August 1, 1976, Sarkowsky watched with pride as the Seattle Seahawks took the field at the newly built Kingdome. "There were more than 60,000 people who crowded into the building that day. Every one of them was excited. But I guarantee you I was the happiest guy in the place," recalled Sarkowsky.

Fast forward to 1992, when Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan was plotting to move the team out of Seattle. Not wanting to be the mayor that lost baseball, Norm Rice appointed Sarkowsky to spearhead a last-ditch effort to save the team. Smulyan held the team hostage for $13 million, the amount of capital he needed to keep the team afloat. Despite Sarkowsky's efforts to raise around $5 million within months, Smulyan changed the rules and announced the team was for sale for $100 million. With a Kingdome lease that required Smulyan to first offer the team to local buyers, Senator Slade Gorton stepped in and got Nintendo aboard for the full nut.

But Major League Baseball resisted the non-North American ownership. Ultimately it was the investors Sarkowsky brought into the mix that made the difference in the minds of the MLB hierarchy. In the spring of 1993, Sarkowsky watched as the Mariners returned to the Kingdome, and he was further rewarded two years later when the 1995 Mariners staged one of the most exciting season finishes and playoff runs in baseball history.

Sarkowsky's interest then returned to his first love, horse racing. The entrepreneur got his first taste of the sport of kings when he paid $1,200 for his first horse, Forin Sea, following a claims race in 1960. By 2007, Sarkowsky owned 37 Thoroughbreds.

Horses from his stable included Phone Chatter, which won the 1993 Breeders' Cup for Juvenile Fillies, and Mr. Greeley, which placed in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint. But the race that eluded Sarkowsky, and one that he wanted most, was the Longacres Mile. After four attempts, his 60-1 long shot No Giveaway came from 20.5 lengths behind at the halfway point and brought Sarkowsky the win.

In 1992, after Longacres racetrack in Renton had been sold by the Alhadeff family, Sarkowsky stepped in as an investor in Emerald Downs, bringing Thoroughbred racing back to the Northwest.

Herman Sarkowsky was only 9 years old when his family left Germany in 1934 to escape Hitler and the Nazis. Two years after arriving in New York, the family moved again to settle in Seattle in 1937. The teenager attended Broadway High School, where he became sports editor and wrote a column called "The Water Boy" patterned after journalism legend Royal Brougham. From "waterboy" to sports mogul, Herman Sarkowsky has been at the forefront of professional sports in the Northwest. His teams have galvanized entire cities and filled their stadiums with cheering fans for more than 40 years. Any sports fan who looks to the Seahawks with more Super Bowl dreams, or recalls the indelible memory of Ken Griffey Jr. under a pile of teammates, should also remember that there was one man behind those dreams and memories.


Sources:

Distant Replay! Washington’s Jewish Sports Heroes ed. by Stephen Sadis (Seattle: Washington State Jewish Historical Society, 2014).


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