Sick, Emil George (1894-1964)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 1/02/2024
  • Essay 22867
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A businessman and civic booster, owner of Sick’s Rainier Brewing Company and the Seattle Rainiers baseball team, Emil George Sick was a respected and influential figure in Seattle for some 30 years. Born in Tacoma on June 3, 1894, and raised in Canada, Sick grew up around his father’s brewery business in Alberta and Saskatchewan. By the early 1930s, Emil and his father Fritz had expanded their operations, known as Associated Breweries of Canada, across the border, buying and renovating breweries in Washington and Montana. After moving his family to Seattle in 1933, Sick leased and later purchased the old Bay View Brewery, renaming it Century Brewery; this would later become Rainier Brewing Co. In 1937, he bought the Seattle Indians baseball team, renamed them the Seattle Rainiers, and, in a new stadium he built for the team, watched them climb from last place in the Pacific Coast League to pennant-winners three years in a row (1939-1941). An ardent community supporter, Sick was a founder of the King County Central Blood Bank and raised funds for many other nonprofit organizations including the March of Dimes, St. Mark’s Cathedral, and the Museum of History and Industry. He died on November 10, 1964, at the age of 70.

German and Canadian Roots

Emil Sick was born in Tacoma on June 3, 1894. His father Fritz (1859-1945) was originally from Freiberg, Germany; his mother Louisa Frank (1860-1941) was also German-born. As a boy, Fritz Sick trained as a cooper, or barrel-maker. He learned how to brew beer after immigrating to North America and found it suited him. Around 1901, Fritz moved his family to Lethbridge, Alberta, near the Canadian Rockies, where he started his first brewery, Alberta Brewing and Malting Company, which he later renamed Lethbridge Breweries Ltd., after the town in which it was located.

For 15 years, the Sick brewery business boomed until prohibition hit Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1915-1916. Sick managed to hold on to the company by producing "near beer" (beer with a very low alcohol content), exporting beer to other regions where it was not banned, and storing fur coats during the summer months. When prohibition ended in Canada, he began acquiring more breweries. In 1928, in an effort to more closely reflect his growing empire, he changed the company name to Associated Breweries of Canada Ltd. At the time, it was the second-largest brewing company in Canada.

All five of the Sick children helped out in the family business, including eldest son Fritz Jr. and eldest daughter Louise, who designed the colorful label for the company’s flagship beer, Old Style Pilsner. But it was Emil who really took to the business. He started at the bottom as a shipping clerk with Lethbridge Breweries, Ltd., and worked his way up the ladder.

A naturalized Canadian citizen, Emil Sick went to high school at Western Canada College in Calgary and attended Stanford University.  On January 2, 1918, he married Thelma Kathleen "Kit" MacPhee (1899-1962) at a ceremony in Calgary. Although his wife was born in Alpena County, Minnesota, her father Neil MacPhee (1860-1946) was Canadian and later moved the family from Minnesota to a homestead near Foremost, Alberta. Emil and Kit had four children – daughters Katherine Patricia (1919-2002), Helen Lou (1920-2018), and Diana (1923-2014), and son Timothy Emil Sick (1931-1994). Around 1940, the couple adopted Emil’s nephew, Alan Ferguson (1927?-1993), whose parents had died.   

Century Brewery

In 1919, Sick became assistant manager and secretary, and then general manager of Associated Breweries of Canada, Ltd. He and his father Fritz continued to expand the family brewery not only in Canada but also in the western U.S., including breweries in Montana and Washington. Emil moved to Seattle in 1933 and with his father leased, and then purchased, yet another brewery – one that would change the Seattle landscape.

"Moving on to Seattle, Fritz and Emil made a deal to lease the old Bay View Brewery at the base of Beacon Hill (Ninth Avenue and Hanford), which was shuttered in 1919 and turned into a feed mill. On June 7, 1933, the Sicks incorporated the Century Brewing Association and re-named the Bay View plant Century Brewery, modernizing it with a $75,000 investment. A year after leasing the property, the Sicks purchased it. A year after that, the Sicks made their most important transaction, one that would not only create family wealth and transform Emil Sick into one of Seattle’s most significant citizens, but reshape baseball in the state for decades: They acquired exclusive rights to sell the Rainier brand in Washington and Alaska from the Rainier Brewing Co. of San Francisco" ("Seattle First Citizen Emil Sick").

Emil was named president of Century Brewing as well as president of Associated Breweries of Canada, whose value was assessed at about $8 million. To get Century Brewery up to speed, Sick spent about $1 million in upgrades and hired more than 100 workers. He also persuaded J. C. Donnelly, former manager of the Seattle Ford plant, to be brewery manager. When hired, Donnelly told the local newspaper that he had never seen a brewery "as model and modern as the new Seattle plant. Every bit of air that goes into the cellars is thoroughly washed and filtered. A new system of refrigeration revolutionizes activities in our ageing and fermenting rooms. The plant will be one of the show places of Seattle and when it is opened for business, we want as many Seattle people as possible to see it, and to learn how beer really is made" ("J. C. Donnelly Made Manager of New Brewery").  

Century’s first beer was called Rheinlander, brewed under the direction of brewmeister Karl Heigenmooser of Munich, Germany.  Persuading Heigenmooser to move to Seattle to supervise the brewing of the new beer was not an easy task, as Sick recalled in a 1934 Seattle Times interview. "It was a flattering offer, but the money did not interest Herr Heigenmooser. He wanted to stay in Munich. Finally our agent appealed to his pride, told him of the marvelous water available and of the huge plant to be supervised. When the agent returned the next day, he found Herr Heigenmooser and Frau Heigenmooser had talked it over and decided to come" ("Rheinlander Beer Fleet is Increased"). Heigenmooser later claimed that the beer he produced for Sick rivaled any in Munich.

In 1935 Sick acquired the Northwest regional rights to the Rainier brand and moved the base of his operation to a larger facility located at 3100 Airport Way South. On top of the building, Sick eventually installed a rotating neon red 'R,' a corporate symbol that would become a Seattle landmark. "The re-energized firm was subsequently recast under various names including Sicks' Seattle Brewing and Malting Company (1944-1957) and Sicks Rainier Brewing Company (1957-1970)" ("Rainier Beer – Seattle’s Iconic Brewery"). In 1970, six years after Sick died, the company was renamed the Rainier Brewing Company. Starting in 1977, the brewery was sold twice to out-of-state breweries, and in 1999 the plant closed.

The Sick Family at Home

When the Sick family moved to Seattle in 1933 – the year Prohibition ended in America -- they occupied the spacious Victor Staadecker residence in the upscale Denny-Blaine neighborhood. They also had a cottage in Banff, Canada, across the river from the Banff Springs Hotel, where they could spend the summer season. The local papers were soon filled with accounts of the Sick family hosting or attending luncheons and teas, bridge parties, and fashion shows. The children attended private schools; daughter Helen spent the summer of 1939 in Fontainebleau, France. 

With World War II on the horizon, Sick wanted to see for himself what was happening in his father’s native land. Because he spoke fluent German, he was able to engage locals in conversation and learned more about the increasingly tense political situation. When he decried Hitler’s treatment of German Jews, he was told such discussions would put him in danger, a warning he heeded. 

Buying the Seattle Indians

In 1937, as Seattle struggled to bounce back from the Depression and Prohibition, many business enterprises suffered. That year, William H. Klepper (1878-1959), owner of the Seattle Indians baseball team, announced the team was up for sale. The names of several potential buyers surfaced, and the city was abuzz with the news. Who would want to take over a last-place baseball club and pay off $80,000 in debt to boot? On December 17, 1937, the new owner was revealed: 43-year-old Emil Sick. Among those who encouraged Sick to buy the club was Jacob Ruppert, owner of the mighty New York Yankees, who suggested that Sick run the team as a civic venture. 

Weeks before the rumor was confirmed, Sick had been coy, claiming that "every time anyone talks baseball club to me his price soars out of proportion" ("Price Soars as Sick’s Name is Mentioned Here"). Once confirmed as the new owner, Sick announced the team would be renamed the Rainiers and that he would build a modern, first-class stadium for the team. The Indians had been playing for the past five-plus years at Civic Stadium (the present site of Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center) after a fire on July 5, 1932, had burned the former Dugdale Park in Rainier Valley to the ground.

Sick kept his promise, spending some $350,000 of his own money on a new steel-and-concrete stadium which he called Sick's Seattle Stadium. Many thought the return to Rainier Valley was a mistake, but that opinion proved short-lived. "'The fans just will not go to Rainier Valley for baseball,' was the wail. 'Keep the park downtown.' Sick built his park, Coast League baseball again moved into Rainier Valley and this season, the first in the new stadium, Seattle will probably set a new attendance record for the league. Certainly the city will break all previous Seattle attendance marks" ("Dugdale Would Get Many a Chuckle").  

On June 15, 1938, opening day at the new ballpark, more than 12,000 fans showed up to see the Rainiers play. Fans who could not afford  a ticket for this or subsequent games would try to watch for free from the surrounding hillside on farmland owned by the Vacca brothers, a family of Italian immigrants who in 1914 had sold four acres of their property to Daniel Dugdale (1864-1934) to build his ball field. "There were so many free-loaders on the hilltop trampling the crops that the Seattle police threatened to arrest the trespassers. Because hillside fans could enjoy the game without buying a ticket, the area above the ballpark became known as Tightwad Hill" ("Batter Up!").

The ballpark, considered one of the finest in the nation, was first known as Sick's Seattle Stadium, later as Sicks' Seattle Stadium. Sportswriter Emmett Watson, who had played for the Rainiers, said Sick wanted the stadium to have the plural possessive, as in Sicks’ Stadium. "Mr. Sick wanted his family included" ("Mr. Sick, The Family Missed You"). The Rainiers played at Sicks’ Stadium for 27 years. Opening-day attendees often saw Sick in the stands or on the field, nattily dressed with a carnation in his lapel and a straw boater on his head.

Turning Losers into Winners

Under Sick, the Rainiers began to turn things around, thanks to an infusion of talented players and seemingly unlimited funds. In 1938, Fred Hutchinson (1919-1964) while still attending Franklin High School signed with the Rainiers for a $5,000 bonus and a percentage of his major-league sales price. Hutchinson won 25 games his first season and helped pave the way for three straight championship years (1939, 1940, and 1941). Edo Vanni, a student at Queen Anne High School, also signed in 1938 for a $1,500 bonus and 4,000 shares of Rainier Brewery stock, valued at 35 cents a share. In 1939, the team signed Dewey Soriano from Franklin High School; he later became the Rainiers’ general manager, president of the Pacific Coast League, and co-owner of the Seattle Pilots. 

Two other pennant wins occurred in 1951 and 1955, but after the 1960 season, the team was sold to the Boston Red Sox, who in turn sold them to the Los Angeles Angels in 1965. For their last four seasons, until 1968, the team was known as the Seattle Angels; they won the pennant in 1966 – still the most recent championship in Seattle baseball historty. In 1969, the new major league Seattle Pilots began playing in Sicks’ Stadium but lasted just one year before being moved to Milwaukee. The largest crowd recorded at Sicks’ Stadium (23,657) was during a Pilots-Yankees game on August 3, 1969.

Sick received many honors from the sports community over the years. In 1942, The Sporting News named him the minor-league executive of the year. In 1963, Greater Seattle honored him as Seattle’s first citizen in sports. "Under Emil Sick, Seattle baseball went first-cabin ... Where others had talked about 'doing something' about Seattle baseball, he had laid his money on the line – in large amounts. And the investment had paid off. Seattle was on its way to becoming the outstanding minor-league city in baseball. And it was largely through the efforts of Emil Sick" ("Sick was Guiding Force in Baseball").

"Everybody Called Him Mr. Sick"

Known for his outspoken style and taste for adventure, Sick had scores of admirers. "'If you couldn’t work for Emil, you couldn’t work for anybody,' Edo Vanni said after Sick’s graveside service. 'I would have worked for him for nothing.' 'One of the grandest men I have ever known,' added Roscoe C. (Torchy) Torrance, a one-time University of Washington baseball player and life-long civic booster who probably knew as many men as any Seattle man ever has. 'He was almost Prussian in demeanor,' wrote columnist Emmett Watson ... 'Yet he was unfailingly courteous, genteel, well-spoken, and sensitive to others. We called him Mr. Sick. Everybody called him Mr. Sick'" ("Seattle First Citizen Emil Sick").

Although not much of a sports fan at first, Sick was definitely confident in his business skills. Rather than work exclusively with baseball experts to improve the Rainiers ballclub, he surrounded himself with businessmen who thought like him. "Viewers with alarm shook their heads and said that what the Seattle situation called for was men with baseball brains, but Emil Sick calmly called on the sound business principles of his cohorts to help him pull the local bat wielders out of the financial mire. That Sick and his associates have succeeded in their task is common knowledge. That they achieved many of their objectives, including an improved ball club and a completed $500,000 baseball stadium within a few months after Sick took over the reins is one of baseball’s greatest success stories" ("Business Men Aiding in Baseball Revival").  

Sick also devoted his time and effort to many philanthropic causes. He led two successful $100,000 fundraising drives – one to support St. Mark’s Cathedral and the other to build the Museum of History and Industry, which opened in 1952. He was active in the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, serving as its president in 1941. In 1954, the Chamber named him an honorary lifetime member. He took pride in mentoring young men poised to become the city’s new generation of business leaders.

He also championed health organizations. He was state chairman of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and a founder of the King County Central Blood Bank. A year after the blood bank was established, Sick served as chairman of the Green Cross for Safety Campaign, which worked to prevent accidents on streets and highways. He led fundraising drives to help the March of Dimes, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1949, he became the first Washingtonian to receive the Disabled American's Veteran’s Award for outstanding civic leadership.

The Last Inning

In 1962 his wife Kit died and the following year he married widow Martha White Gardner (1899?-1992). Martha was the daughter of one of Washington’s first Supreme Court justices; her mother Emma was postmistress of Redmond at the age of 16. Like Emil, Martha Sick also had an active philanthropic life. She loved music, opera in particular, and was instrumental in bringing well-known singers and musicians to perform in Seattle.

In failing health for some time, Sick died of a stroke on November 10, 1964, at Swedish Hospital following surgery. Martha survived him, as did his three daughters, two sons, and 16 grandchildren. Two days later, on November 12, Fred Hutchinson, hero of the 1938 Rainiers and later their manager, died of lung cancer, and thus Seattle lost two of its enduring baseball legends in a span of two days. 

At the time of Sick's death, he was chairman of the board of Sicks' Rainier Brewing Company and president of Sicks’ Brewery Enterprises, Inc., both located in Seattle. He was also director of Molson’s Brewery, Ltd., and Sicks’ Breweries, Ltd., both based in Canada, and director of the Peoples National Bank of Washington. His estate was valued at more than $1 million.  


Dan Raley, Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Rainier Beer – Seattle’s Iconic Brewery” (by Peter Blecha); “Sicks’ Stadium (Seattle)” (by Alan Stein); “Seattle Indians:  A Forgotten Chapter in Seattle Baseball” (by Ron Richardson); “Turning Point 12: From Cranks to Fans: Seattle’s Long Love Affair with Baseball” (by David Wilma with David Eskenazi and Walt Crowley), (accessed November 28, 2023); “J. C. Donnelly Made Manager of New Brewery,” The Seattle Times, October 22, 1933, p. 10; “Rheinlander Beer Fleet is Increased,” Ibid., January 14, 1934, p. 8; “Price Soars as Sick’s Name is Mentioned Here,” Ibid., December 10, 1937, p. 30; “Dugdale Would Get Many a Chuckle,” Ibid., Sports & Pitches section, p. 2; “Emil Sick, Business Sports Leader, Dies,” Ibid, November 10, 1964, p. 54; Emil G. Sick editorial, Ibid., November 10, 1964, p. 8; Emmett Watson, “Mr. Sick, The Family Missed You,” Ibid., June 21, 1994, p. B-1; “Martha White Gardner Sick Loved The Opera and Politics,” Ibid., July 17, 1992, p. C-11; Paula Bock, “Alan Ferguson, 66, Brewmaster, Business, Civil-Rights Activist,” Ibid., March 10, 1993, p. D-8; “Business Men Aiding in Baseball Revival,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 15, 1938, p. H-4; Royal Brougham, “The Morning After,” Ibid., December 28, 1938, p. 12; “Emil Sick, Civic Leader, Tycoon, and Baseball, Patron, 70, Dies,” Ibid., November 11, 1964, p. 1; Lenny Anderson, “Sick was Guiding Force in Baseball," Ibid., November 11, 1964, p. 22; Rita Cipalla, “Batter Up! The Farmers, the Fans and the Battle for Tightwad Hill,” L’Italo-Americano, April 24, 2023 (; “Summary for 3100 Airport Way,” Seattle Historical Sites, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, website accessed November 28, 2023 (; Jessica Robb, “A Brief History of the Molson Pilsner,” Global News, March 20, 2021, website accessed November 28, 2023 (; David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman, “Seattle First Citizen Emil Sick,”, April 17, 2020, website accessed November 28, 2023 (; Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, Dominion Bureau of Statistics, June 1, 1926, Line 18 (; “A Sick Family,” Lethbridge Historical Society, Facebook post, January 5, 2018 (; Gary Flynn, “Bay View Brewing Company,” Brewery Gems, website accessed November 28, 2023 (

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