Tightwad Hill (Seattle)

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 12/20/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22620

Tightwad Hill is a celebrated part of Seattle baseball lore. Situated in the Rainier Valley on a rise east of Rainier Avenue and just north of McClellan Street, the hillside was owned for decades by farmers Pasquale and Domenico Vacca, immigrant brothers from Italy whose vegetable gardens offered panoramic views of Dugdale Park (1913-1932) and then Sicks' Stadium, which was built in 1938 after Dugdale burned to the ground. Try as they might, the Vaccas couldn't prevent freeloading baseball fans from trampling through their fields to watch ballgames, and thus was born the name Tightwad Hill or, to some, Cheapskate Hill. The next generation of Vaccas was more amenable, welcoming fans to watch from their yard, and even from the front porch of their farmhouse. The farm was bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for apartment buildings, but parts of Tightwad Hill remained, and hundreds of cheapskates enjoyed one last freebie when Jimi Hendrix played Sicks' Stadium on July 26, 1970.

From Avellini to the Rainier Valley

A flood of immigrants from Italy, fleeing poverty in their homeland and lured by stories of prosperity in America, landed in Seattle around the end of the nineteenth century. Among them were Domenico and Pasquale Vacca, brothers from the tiny village of Mirabella in the downtrodden Avellini region of southern Italy. Domenico (1861-1933) arrived first, in 1887, and started one of the first truck farms in the Duwamish Valley. A decade later he acquired a promising tract of land in the Rainier Valley and set about clearing it for a farm. Pasquale (1872-1961) arrived from their homeland in 1901 to partner with his brother. Domenico bought more land in 1904, and soon the Vaccas controlled 27 acres on the flats straddling Rainier Avenue and, to the east, on a hillside sloping steeply upward to 30th Avenue S. This eminence, with a panoramic view of the valley, would come to be known as Tightwad Hill.

Pasquale and his bride Angelina (1880-1947) moved into a farmhouse on the crest of the hill, while Domenico and his wife Maryann (1875-1957) lived down below, just west of Rainier Avenue on 25th Avenue S, a stone’s throw from the current site of Mutual Fish. The Vaccas had pigs, horses, and cows, and grew spinach, lettuce, cabbage, green onions, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and more. They sold their produce from horse-drawn wagons on residential routes and, after 1907, from their stall at Pike Place Market. Business was good – as it was for many other truck farmers in the Rainier Valley neighborhood known as Garlic Gulch. "An immigration commission found in 1910 that one Italian truck farmer sold $60,000 in produce annually and that even farmers with much more modest farms were selling $5,000 worth of produce annually. The investigators were surprised to find that nearly all of the Italian farmers were successful" (Caldirola).

In the early 1910s, the Vaccas sold four acres on the east side of Rainier Avenue to Daniel Dugdale (1864-1934), owner of the city's professional baseball club, the Giants. Dugdale, a former major league catcher who had hoped to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush but found it instead in Seattle real estate, announced plans to build a new ballpark to replace a ramshackle facility on Yesler Way. The city then condemned a 60-foot-wide swath of Domenico Vacca’s land just north of the proposed ballpark so it could build a rail spur onto a new extension of Lander Street. Angered at losing this property, Domenico obtained a temporary restraining order to halt construction, to no avail. Construction went ahead, the city paying Vacca 13.5 cents per square foot as a condemnation fee. Thus began the family’s wary relationship with the sport of baseball.

Play Ball!

Dugdale’s new ballpark was a beauty, the first double-decked stadium on the West Coast. The field was situated to give fans an unobstructed view of Mt. Rainier, weather permitting, while beyond the left-field fence, farm hands on the hillside enjoyed a birds-eye view of the action below. One of the biggest fans up above was Pasquale and Angelina’s young son Prisco (1905-1992), known by all as Pre. Sports were Pre’s passion; he would become one of the city’s best baseball and football players in the 1920s and 1930s, starring for the Atlantic Street Merchants and the Rosaia Brothers Florists. Later, along with his brother Ralph (1908-1995), Pre would operate a popular produce stand, Pre's Garden Patch, across Rainier Avenue from the ballpark. To his parents, however, baseball was mysterious and unappealing, made worse by the increasing number of bargain hunters trespassing through their fields to obtain a free look at the games.

Dugdale Park remained a popular venue until July 4, 1932, when a serial arsonist named Robert Driscoll ignited some discarded baseball programs and kindling wood he found near a ticket booth and burned the stadium to the ground. Eventually, Driscoll would admit to starting at least 140 fires and be sentenced to five to 10 years in state prison. The ballclub, now known as the Indians, moved its games to Civic Stadium, a much-ridiculed facility known as the Rockpile, and the ensuing five years provided a respite of sorts for the Vacca clan. But turmoil visited the family nevertheless. On December 26, 1931, police were summoned to Domenico's home after the family patriarch claimed his son Thomas had threatened to kill him. Six months later, Pasquale’s son Nick (1906-1980) crashed a car into a telephone pole on Rainier Avenue at a reported 50 mph, causing severe injuries to his sister Louise, 17, a passenger in the vehicle. Eventually, Pre would sue his brother in King County Superior Court, seeking more than $10,000 in damages on behalf of Louise. Domenico died in July 1933 at age 73, and in 1934, another of his sons, Anthony, was charged with spousal abuse in a divorce proceeding. Thus, many family bonds had been fractured by the mid-1930s, and anxieties would rise anew when it was announced that a new ballpark, Sick's Stadium (later known as Sicks' Stadium, or Sicks Stadium), would be built on the footprint of Dugdale Park.

Emil Sick (1894-1964) acquired the Indians after the 1937 season, renamed the team the Rainiers after his brewery, and spent some $350,000 building the new stadium. Construction began on March 15, 1938, and the park was ready in three months, “all accounts agreeing that Sick had built one of the finest minor league ballparks in the country” (Eskenazi). A festive crowd of more than 12,000 showed up for the inaugural game, and dozens more watched from the hillside. Three days later Seattle Police Capt. R. W. Olmstead announced that any further trespassers on the Vacca property "would be arrested henceforth" ("Trespassing Fans ..."). A year later, Pasquale and Joseph Behar, who owned a grocery store on McLellan Street, appealed to police for help in keeping fans out of the cabbage patch and off the roof of Behar's store. They pleaded for help again in 1940. "Just one hour before the first ball was pitched at Rainier Stadium, Vacca went to the telephone and called police headquarters. 'There are people in my garden,' he said. Vacca's words were as significant at the umpire's words, 'Play Ball.' For Vacca's annual complaint has marked the beginning of Seattle's diamond season for three consecutive years" ("Police 'Retire the Side' ..."). "It is nothing new," Vacca said. "They always like to get on my place to see the games free. I have spinach and lettuce planted, and I am going to have a corn field. Maybe I should put up bleachers instead and charge admission and forget about the vegetables" ("Big Crowd, But Not Biggest"). 

Freeloaders on the Hill

Farming in Seattle had diminished greatly by the 1940s, but Pasquale Vacca held firm to his empire on the hill. In 1940 a King County agent estimated there were 15 working farms left in the city, perhaps fewer, though a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter "located a herd of fifty cows in Laurelhurst, a dozen or more goats in Magnolia Bluff, and several sizeable bona fide farms at Rainier Beach" in addition to a successful farm run by Japanese Americans at the north end of Lake Union and rich farmland in the Duwamish Valley on the site of the old Meadows racetrack. "Most prosperous Seattle farmer is probably Pasquale Vacca of 2701 30th Ave. S., who cultivates between fifteen and twenty acres on the hill above the ballpark," the P-I wrote. "Vacca ... says he is losing his shirt because people trample his crops trying to get a free look at the ball games. When the crowds get too thick and careless, Vacca calls the police in to clear them out. But the police occasionally trample his cabbage, too" ("Is Seattle a City of Farms ...").

On opening day of the 1947 baseball season, Seattle Times reporter John Reddin watched the game from Pasquale and Angelina's front porch. He described Pasquale as "good-natured" and "an easy-going man ... it was all right with him if the kids or old-timers wanted to sit in the shade and tall grass of his yard or farm to watch the ball game." But Pasquale, who was now in his 70s, lamented that overflow crowds had caused thousands of dollars of damage to his crops in recent years. "Last Fourth of July they ruined all my seed radish," he said. "What can I do?" ("'Tightwad Hill' Attracts ..."). The Rainiers tried to help; the club hired R. V. Haggard, a member of the Seattle Police Reserve, to patrol the farm and rout any miscreant who might trample over Pasquale's young cabbage and cauliflower. Wrote Reddin:

"Even the Vacca family – with the exception of workers busy in the field – is barred from the garden during ball games. Around the house, however, and on the embankment paralleling 30th Avenue S, Tightwad Hill patrons still watch the game. Mrs. Vacca turns the radio on loud so that those sitting on the lawn can make a double check on the game's progress. When 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is played at the flag-raising ceremony at the start of the game, Tightwad Hill also doffs its collective hats and stands at attention – the same as the paying customers inside the park. Workers in the field resemble the French peasants in the painting 'The Angelus,' as Vacca, his son, Nick, and nephew, Giuseppi, rise from their work and stand -- hat in hand -- throughout the flag-raising ceremony" ("'Tightwad Hill' Attracts ...").

Capitalizing on the popularity of Tightwad Hill, a vendor set up a popcorn and ice cream wagon on the street above the farmhouse. Reddin asked Pasquale why he didn't charge admission to his property. "I am a farmer. That is my business -- not baseball," he said. "They (pointing to the ballpark) are in the baseball business. Live and let live. That's what I think. Everybody stay to his own business" ("'Tightwad Hill' Attracts ..."). 

Three months after Reddin's visit to the farm, Angelina Vacca fell ill and died at age 67. A beloved figure in Rainier Valley, she was greatly missed when a Seattle Times reporter visited the following May, though game days on the farm were still festive. "Now there is a third generation of youngsters who coach the Rainiers from Grandpa's porch," Byron Fish wrote. "The family grows progressively rabid in baseball interest. Grandpa Pasquale never had paid much attention to the commotion below. His sons and nephews have enough interest that they still gather in the yard to watch, but they also talk of other things. If they lose track of the current diamond affairs, they can ask Ralph, 12, or Dickie, 10, or some of the other young sons or nephews for a quick summary" (Fish). Describing the distant action, Fish wrote:

"The game, as seen by the hillside family, differs a little from the one viewed from the grandstand. Its sights and sounds are like a film out of synchronization. From this distance you hardly ever can see the ball. The batter swings his bat and runs. Only after you have watched him take several strides do you hear the crack of the bat. You watch the infield for motion, especially a throw. It is the shortstop who makes it. The runner crosses first -- then comes the thud of the ball in the first baseman's mitt. To fans in the grandstand, that would mean the runner was safe. But up on the hill you do not scream 'Robber!' as the umpire jerks his hand upward" ("It's All in the Angle"). 

End of an Era

By the early 1950s the Vacca farm had been whittled down from its original 27 acres to a handful of acres on top of the hill. With the exception of Pre’s Garden Patch and Domenico Vacca’s original home, the property west of Rainier Avenue had been sold off for development, and in 1952 the city condemned a broad expanse behind Sicks' Stadium’s left-field fence to build a four-lane highway, Empire Way, connecting Rainier Valley to the Central Area. A couple of years after that, the family sold the rest of the farm, the farmhouse was bulldozed, and construction began on a row of apartment buildings below 30th Avenue S. Opened in 1957, the baseball-themed Stadium Vista Apartments offered stellar views into the stadium. "Most modern apartment house units today are named Chesapeake West or Outstretched Arms," John Owen wrote in the Post-Intelligencer. "But the names in front of the various units of the Stadium Vista Apartments read Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Grove, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Fred Hutchinson, Bob Feller, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Connie Mack" ("View From the Hill"). "Oh, we’re very definitely baseball fans," one resident said. "We see just about every home game. We go out on the porch and set the radio right by the door" ("View From the Hill"). And so Tightwad Hill was gentrified.

While encroachments from the apartments and Empire Way reduced the hillside viewing area, enough room remained for hundreds of spectators to watch one of the most outlandish sporting events in Seattle history, the 1957 heavyweight title fight between Pete Rademacher and Floyd Patterson. Rademacher, a farm boy from Tieton who captured an Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Games in Rome, had managed to entice Patterson, the reigning heavyweight champion, with the promise of a $250,000 payday. It would be the first and only time an amateur fought for the heavyweight title in his first professional fight, and Rademacher put up a worthy challenge before Patterson knocked him senseless in the sixth round. While an overflow crowd packed Sicks' Stadium, fight promoter Jack Hurley was in no mood to let anyone watch for free; he hired off-duty police to repeatedly disperse onlookers from the hill. Meanwhile, "a series of high-powered spotlights, the kind used at supermarket openings and movie premieres, was trained on the hill ... One story had it that a man became so enraged at being blinded by the spotlights during the fight that he ran home and brought back a .22 rifle to shoot out the bulbs. No shots were fired, however, so cooler heads must have prevailed" (Watson, 111). Hurley, who had banned radio and TV broadcasts of the fight to assure a big crowd, was doubly irritated to learn that two radio stations – KING in Seattle and KLAN in Renton – had successfully broadcast blow-by-blow accounts from Tightwad Hill. 

Boxing was a popular attraction at the stadium for several more years, particularly for the cheapskates. In 1960, future heavyweight champ Sonny Liston defeated Eddie Machen with an estimated 1,000 fans perched on the hill, and in 1961, local hero Eddie Cotton lost to Harold Johnson in front of 4,004 paying customers – and another 800 looking on from Tightwad Hill. "It was a Cotton crowd," the P-I reported, "from Governor Albert D. Rosellini at ringside to the freeloaders with the vantage point on the other side of the left field fence" ("Fans Were All ..."). 

Just 10 days after the Rademacher-Patterson fight, Elvis Presley shook Sicks' Stadium before a paid crowd of more than 16,000, "90 percent of them teenage girls" (Tate). Dozens more, including a 14-year-old Seattle boy who would go on to worldwide fame in his own right, caught glimpses of the show from Tightwad Hill. Presley performed for just 45 minutes, and then, "Almost before anyone knew it, the taillights of his rented Cadillac had disappeared through a gate in the right field fence" (Tate).

As it turned out, 1957 was an eventful year for reasons other than the Rademacher bout and a visit by "The King." Just as the Stadium Vista Apartments were going up, Domenico's widow Maryann died of a heart attack at age 82. She had been preceded in death by sons Anthony and Thomas, and her lone surviving child, Joseph, died the following year. Pasquale, the family's surviving icon, died in the summer of 1961 at age 88, leaving behind his three sons and two daughters. He had been living at 2539 30th Avenue S, just up the street from the old farmhouse.

Pre Vacca and his brother Ralph continued to operate Pre's Garden Patch until 1966, when they shuttered the store after nearly 30 years in business. Finally, in 1969, Domenico's turn-of-the-century home on 25th Avenue S was demolished to make way for more parking across the street from Sicks' Stadium, which was now home to a major-league team, the Pilots. "This is really the end of the Vacca – I don't know what you want to call it – the dynasty," said Louise Vacca Cozzetti, who had moved into the 14-room house in 1928 after her marriage to Domenico's son Joseph. Her daughter Marie recalled that as many as 30 field hands could be lodged at the house during busy periods. "You could never go there when it wasn't full of people," she said. "Especially when there was a ballgame" ("Home of Memories ..."). 

To ready the ballpark for the Pilots, the city expanded Sicks' Stadium to include grandstands behind the left-field fence, further obscuring views from Tightwad Hill. But there were openings above the stands, providing excellent sightlines into the ballpark, and there were parking spots on the street below the Stadium Vista Apartments where motorists could watch from their cars. The apartments themselves buzzed with activity on game days, their front porches lined with baseball fans. "This is a great way to watch baseball," one resident said. "But I can't imagine paying to see a game" ("View From the Hill").

After the Pilots

Seattle’s first experience with Major League Baseball ended when the Pilots relocated to Milwaukee after one season. A lowly Class A team then occupied Sicks' Stadium from 1972 to 1976 as the apartment dwellers on the hill retreated from their balconies. Janis Joplin held a concert at the ballpark in July 1970, and the skinflints on Tightwad Hill enjoyed one last hurrah three weeks later when Jimi Hendrix played his final Seattle show on the soggy playing field of Sicks' Stadium. Among the huddled masses on the hill was Jean Sherrard, age 13. Decades later, Sherrard recounted a special day:

"My friends and I hunkered on Tightwad Hill, the steep and legendary bluff across Empire Way … Generations of baseball fans had preceded us there, finding catbird seats for minor-league games in Rainier Valley. Today, however, rock was the draw … From Tightwad Hill, the stage was a postage stamp, but the loud rock pummeled us. Fans repeatedly tried to sneak over chain-link and wood-slat fences, painfully confronted by rent-a-cops spraying mace from catwalks. Barriers were breached only once, by a trio who lifted a fence and slid under to Tightwad huzzahs.

"Just before Hendrix began, harder rains fell from a steel-wool sky. The mix of water and electric instruments was worrisome, but after rubber mats were installed, the show resumed. And here’s where the narrative flips. Consider, if you will, an exhausted, moody Hendrix playing before a home audience, the backstage jammed with family, friends, and obligations. What followed was a note of generosity echoing from Jimi’s youth.

"On September 1, 1957, Elvis Presley had played Sicks' Stadium for an ecstatic crowd of 16,000. Short the buck-fifty admission, 14-year-old Hendrix watched the show perched atop – you guessed it – Tightwad Hill. Thirteen years later, Hendrix instructed the stadium crew to throw gates open and let in hundreds of young cheapskates, including me, from the same bluff. Roaring approval, we scrambled down the incline and inside, thumbing our noses at the defanged rent-a-cops. Tragically, this was Hendrix’s last concert in the continental United States. Less than two months later, on September 18, he died in London of an accidental drug overdose. His sonic earthquake continues to shake and inspire to this day" (Sherrard).

In 1994, Dick Rockne of The Seattle Times tracked down a handful of graying baseball fans to reminisce about the Rainiers. Memories came flooding back. Richard Gadberry said he was 10 years old when his family moved into the neighborhood above the stadium. "We'd get our buddies together, having all talked our parents out of a buck or two, and go to a game," Gadberry recalled. "Our parents assumed we would be sitting in the right-field bleachers, which we sometimes actually did. Most of the time, however, we would use the money at Ralph's supermarket to load up on Shastas, chips, and candy and head up to cheapskate hill overlooking the left-field fence. The view wasn't the greatest, but it was plenty good enough. We used to sit on top of a big garbage dumpster to get a little better view, but mainly to bang on it with our feet in cheering for the team. I remember one time the radio announcer said, 'Those kids up there on the hill are making a big racket.' That was a pretty big deal to us. I'll always have fond memories … Except for maybe the time we accidentally set the hill on fire. But that’s another story" ("Remembering the Rainiers ..."). 

In 2009, another old-timer, Joan Jensen, shared her memories with the Times: "Coming from a baseball family – my father pitched bush league in Rexburg, Idaho, and hoped for a career until his elbow gave out – I have loved the game. From the time I was 8 years old and we lived in Rainier Valley, minutes away from Sicks Stadium, we listened to the games via the colorful descriptions of Leo Lassen. When we could scrounge up enough change, we'd buy bleacher seats. If not, Dad would pile my brother, Mom and me in the old Buick and drive up to Tightwad Hill, park the car, and listen to Leo on the battery radio. We had peanuts and Cracker Jacks, too, and frequently dinner was part of the menu. It was a magical childhood" ("Backtalk").

Today, what's left of Tightwad Hill is a tangle of weeds and brambles climbing up to the apartment buildings, now called Mt. Baker Village. Views of the valley remain, but Sicks' Stadium was demolished in 1979, and now residents look down upon a home-improvement store and a row of fast-food restaurants lining Rainier Avenue. But there is one nod to the past: In 2001, a group of Cambodian immigrants living at Mt. Baker Village cleared part of the hillside of blackberry bushes, dug terraces by hand, and supported these makeshift gardens with scrap wood and metal. Later, community groups pitched in to build sturdier terraces and install a water system. Now some 30 low-income families from Mt. Baker Village grow traditional vegetables and many sunflowers – and thus the old Vacca farm is still producing happy memories for the denizens of Tightwad Hill.


Sources:

Dennis Caldirola, "Seattle's First Italian-Americans," Festa Italiana website accessed November 29, 2022 (https://festaseattle.com/about/local-history/); Eric Scigliano, "Italians in Seattle," The Weekly, April 29, 1987, p. 30; John Owen, "View From the Hill," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 6, 1969, p. 28; Doug Welch, "Is Seattle a City of Farms? Census to Tell," Ibid., April 1, 1940, p. 11; Bill Knight, "Fans Were All For Eddie," Ibid., August 30, 1961, p. 27; "Empire Way Extension Unit Will be Open to Traffic Soon," Ibid., July 15, 1953, p. 21; "Jealousy Jolts Cupid, Says Wife; She Gets Decree," Ibid., October 26, 1934, p. 16; Portus Baxter, "New Park Brings Victory of Champs," Ibid., September 10, 1913, p. 9; Lenny Anderson, "Sicks' Stadium Still One Lively Ghost," Ibid., May 25, 1975, p. 1; Don Tewkesbury, "Whatever Happened to ... Pete Rademacher?" Ibid., November 5, 1978, Northwest Magazine, p. 2; Jim Faber, "More Like Carnival Than Big-Time Bout," Ibid., August 23, 1957, p. 1; "Baseball Fans Irk Realty Owners," Ibid., April 22, 1939, p. 11; "Police 'Retire the Side' on Hill Above Ball Park," Ibid., April 18, 1940, p. 3; "Trespassing Fans to be Arrested," Ibid., June 19, 1938, p. 31; David Eskenazi, "Wayback Machine: A Fire That Changed Our Sports," May 3, 2011, Sports Press Northwest website accessed December 1, 2022 (https://www.sportspressnw.com/2124688/2011/wayback-machine-a-fire-that-changed-our-sports); John J. Reddin, "'Tightwad Hill' Attracts Baseball Fans," The Seattle Times, April 16, 1947, p. 12; Byron Fish, "It's All In The Angle," Ibid., May 16, 1948, p. 21; John J. Reddin, "Vaccas' Store is No More," Ibid., May 29, 1966, p. 17; Rich Johnson, "Remember Pennant Fever?" Ibid., October 1, 1991, p. F-1; "Big Crowd, but Not Biggest," Ibid., April 18, 1940, p. 28; Vince O'Keefe, "Running Foe Vexed Sonny," Ibid., September 8, 1960, p. 18; Dick Rockne, "Remembering the Rainiers: The Memories go Back, Back, Back as Seattle Fans Recall the Long, Glorious Summers at Sicks' Stadium," Ibid., June 10, 1994, p. C-1; "Backtalk," Ibid., May 3, 2009, p. D-2; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Elvis shakes up Seattle on September 1, 1957" (by Cassandra Tate), "Rademacher, Thomas Peter (1928-2020)" (by Glenn Drosendahl), www.historylink.org (accessed December 5, 2022); Jeff Obermeyer, "'He was a Nobleman Among His Fellows'," in Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest (Cleveland, Ohio: Society for American Baseball Research, 2006), 16-21; Jean Sherrard, "Seattle Now & Then: Jimi Hendrix Plays Sick's Stadium, 1970," July 22, 2021, pauldorpat.com website accessed December 2, 2022 (https://pauldorpat.com/2021/07/22/seattle-now-then-jimi-hendrix-plays-sicks-stadium-1970/); Emmett Watson, Digressions of a Native Son (Seattle: The Pacific Institute, 1982) 94-117.

 


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