Turning Point 12: From Cranks to Fans: Seattle's Long Love Affair with Baseball

  • By David Wilma with David Eskanazi and Walt Crowley
  • Posted 7/10/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9293
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The 12th essay in HistoryLink's Turning Points series for The Seattle Times reviews the history of professional baseball in Seattle. It begins with the first pro game, played on May 24, 1890, covers the golden ages of regional play at Dugdale Park and Sicks' Stadium, and traces the brief career of the Pilots and the Mariners' ascent to the best record in Major League baseball in the first half of the 2001 season. This article, by David Wilma, with David Eskenazi and Walt Crowley, was published on July 10, 2001, to coincide with the 72nd All Star game at Safeco Field.

On May 24, 1890, while much of Seattle's downtown still lay in ruins from the previous June's Great Fire, some 1,200 eager spectators trekked to distant Madison Park by foot, carriage, or special Lake Washington steamers to watch the city's first professional baseball game. Local fans -- then called "cranks" -- cheered as the "Seattles" beat the "Spokanes" 11 to 8.

Local amateurs and semi-pros had been batting balls around since 1872, but this was Seattle's first opportunity to watch real professionals play, and the city was hooked. Unfortunately, the first regional league soon folded.

Pro ball was revived in 1898 by the portly Daniel E. Dugdale, a former big-league catcher who arrived in Seattle with the notion of striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush. Instead, he found his fortune in a new Seattle team, the Klondikers, and a new Pacific Northwest League.

Over the next decade, Seattle fans flocked to local ball fields to watch teams variously named the Chinooks, the Clamdiggers, the Braves, and the Siwashes. Dugdale took over the latter in 1907 as a franchise in the new Northwestern League, renamed the team the Giants, and built the city a new baseball stadium at Yesler Way and 12th Avenue. As crowds swelled to 10,000, Dugdale erected the West Coast's first double-deck stadium in 1914 at Rainier Avenue S and S McClellan Street, and later added electric lights for night games.

Beer and Baseball

Dugdale's teams earned five Northwestern League pennants before 1919, when the Pacific Coast League returned to Seattle in the form of the Rainiers and then the Indians, which won Seattle's first PCL pennant in 1924. In 1932, Dugdale Park was destroyed by an arson fire, the lights burning brightly through the blaze to the end, and Dugdale was hit and killed by a truck while crossing a downtown street two years later.

The Indians moved its games to Civic Field (present site of Memorial Stadium), but the their dismal performance reflected the condition of the stadium. In 1938, Brewer Emil G. Sick bought the team for $100,000 upon the recommendation of Teamster leader and baseball fan Dave Beck. Beck told him, “You will be a big man in this city and you will sell lots of beer.”

Sick restored the name Rainiers, after his beer, and built a new stadium out of concrete and steel for $350,000 on the site of Dugdale Park. He hired a new manager and proven players such as the legendary Fred Hutchinson. The Rainiers played in Sicks' Stadium for the next 26 years.

Italian farmers raised produce for the Pike Place Market just across the fence, and the slope beyond the outfield became “Tightwad Hill” because fans could view a game from there for free. Among Sicks' Stadium's notable events, African American professional baseball debuted there on June 1, 1946, as the Seattle Steelheads split a double header against the San Diego Tigers as part of the new West Coast Negro Baseball League. Integration of Major League baseball doomed such teams a few years later.

Pilots, Brewers, and Suers

In the 1950s, attendance began to slide due to television coverage of Major League Baseball. Sick sold the Rainiers to the Boston Red Sox in 1961. The Red Sox sold the team to the California Angels in 1965 and they became the Seattle Angels.

In 1967, brothers Dewey and Max Soriano won a major league franchise for Seattle in anticipation of construction of a new domed stadium, which voters approved the following year. In 1969, they fielded the Seattle Pilots (which promptly traded away a rookie named Lou Piniella).

While politics stalled work on the Kingdome, Sicks' Stadium was hurriedly expanded to seat 21,000 (the league wanted 28,500, but compromised). Some fans had to wait outside during the first game until their seats were finished. But Sicks' Stadium remained woefully inadequate. Visiting players showered at their hotels due to low water pressure. When attendance exceeded 10,000, the toilets stopped flushing.

The Pilots ended the season at the bottom of the standings, and the Sorianos sold the team, which began 1970 spring training as the Seattle Pilots and finished as the Milwaukee Brewers. Local governments represented by State Attorney General Slade Gorton sued the American League for breach of contract and won a new franchise in compensation.

The new owners included entertainer Danny Kaye. The Seattle Mariners made their debut in the Kingdome on April 6, 1977, losing to the California Angels, 7-0.

Razing the Roof

In 1981, California entrepreneur George Argyros purchased 80 percent of the Mariners for $10.4 million. He maintained the lowest payroll in baseball and went through eight managers in nine seasons. Midwest media mogul Jeff Smulyen and Michael Browning bought the team in 1989 and guided the Mariners to their first winning season two years later.

In 1992, retired Puget Power CEO John Ellis recruited new investors, including Japanese businessman Hiroshi Yamauchi, and organized The Baseball Club of Seattle to acquire the Mariners. Under manager Lou Piniella, the team took the AL Western Division Championships in 1995 and 1997.

The team's growing success and game attendance dramatized the deficiencies of the Kingdome and team owners sought public funding for a new stadium. Many grumbled about such "corporate welfare" and King County voters narrowly rejected stadium bonds in 1995. The state legislature then intervened, raising local "tourist taxes" to fund a special public facilities district on the promise that the Mariners would not pack their bags in the middle of the night.

By the time it opened last year, the cost of Safeco Field and its the retractable roof topped one half billion dollars, but nobody seems to mind that anymore. With the Mariners leading all of Major League baseball, Seattle's fans are no longer "cranky."

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