How The Seattle Pilots Brought Baseball to 3 Different Cities

June 06, 2018

1969 Seattle Pilots Baseball Team

When baseball began expanding into new cities starting in the early 1960s, Seattle seemed like the perfect location for a team. Indeed, the AAA Seattle Rainiers were one of the most successful teams in the Pacific Coast League. The city of Seattle was also enjoying positive exposure in the wake of the popular 1962 World’s Fair. The arrival of pro sports seemed imminent.

In fact, as early as 1959, the city was considered for membership in the new American Football League started by billionaire oilman Lamar Hunt. However, the University of Washington would not grant the use of its stadium and with no other suitable facility in town the ownership group withdrew its bid.

In 1964, baseball’s Cleveland Indians considered moving to Seattle. An effort was mounted to sell 8,000 season tickets for the 1965 season to further entice the Tribe into relocating. A day after the 1964 World Series, Indians’ owner Gabe Paul visited the Emerald City. However, two weeks later he announced the team was staying in Cleveland after getting a much more favorable stadium lease.

Three years later, Charles O. Finley was looking for a new home for his Kansas City Athletics whose stadium lease was expiring. Finley was unhappy with his deal in Kansas City and had been actively courting other cities for several years. Oakland, though, became the new home of the A’s thanks to a recently completed stadium and the approval of the American League.

While the A’s passed over Seattle for Northern California, the move nonetheless boosted the city’s efforts to land a major league baseball team. Politicians in Missouri were livid, understandably, over the relocation of the A’s and demanded Major League Baseball, the American League in particular, replace the departed team. Senator Stuart Symington went as far as to threaten introduction of legislation that would revoke Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. The American League acquiesced and granted two new expansion teams, one awarded to Kansas City and the other to Seattle, the latter based on approval of a new stadium that ultimately would become the Kingdome. And that’s where Seattle’s good fortune ended.

The teams were scheduled to begin play in 1971, but that was too long a wait for Kansas City so with the threat of losing their antitrust exemption hanging over their heads, the AL moved it up to 1969, meaning Kansas City would be without baseball for only one season.

Meanwhile, the shortened timeline would prove devastating to the Seattle franchise who were named the Pilots in honor of the area's ties to the aviation industry. Already under-financed, the team had to cough up $1 million to the Pacific Coast League for eliminating one of that circuit’s best markets.

As an expansion team, the Pilots weren’t expected to be competitive but they did manage to stay near the .500 mark through the summer before injuries caught up with them. The biggest problem the team faced was at Sick’s Stadium. A fine minor league ballpark at one time, by 1969 it was outdated compared to the new stadiums of the day such as Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, and the new parks soon to be opening in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

Sick’s was supposed to be expanded to 30,000 seats but only made to 25,000. To make matters worse, the planned domed stadium was mired in political fights and protests from residents. All the while, the team’s bank account dwindled. By the end of the season, the Pilots were looking for new owners. Unable to find any takers and the new stadium hopelessly delayed, club president Dewey Soriano began a series of meetings with Milwaukee used car magnate Bud Selig who was seeking a team for that city after the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.

Suddenly, several people popped up with offers to keep the team in Seattle, while Washington State legislators including the attorney general voiced their opposition to a move.

However, in the spring of 1970, the team reported for spring training as the Seattle Pilots but left as the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pilots had filed for bankruptcy in mid-March but the legal wranglings weren’t sorted until just a few days before the start of the season. 

The approval for the move to Milwaukee came so late, the team, renamed the Brewers after the city’s old minor league team, had to use their old Pilots’ uniforms. The city of Seattle, King County, and the state of Washington took legal action against the American League the following year.

The legal proceedings dragged on for years before the American League offered the city an expansion franchise in exchange for dropping the suit. An immediate beneficiary of this resolution was the city of Toronto which was also awarded an expansion franchise. Meanwhile, the location of the Kingdome had been settled, paving the way for the city to be awarded an NFL expansion franchise in 1974 to begin play in 1976 as the Seahawks.

The following spring the Mariners took the field wearing the same colors as the departed Pilots. Hardly a powerhouse for many years, the team has appeared in the postseason 4 times, making it to the American League Championship Series twice. They currently have the longest postseason drought in baseball, last appearing in 2001 but have fielded some competitive teams as of late.

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