Friday, March 25, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part III--The Seattle Pilots)

When the Pilots were founded, Seattle was the third largest city on the West Coast. It had been home to the Pacific Coast League Rainiers since the early 1900s. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City A's both considered moving there at different points in time. Retired Rainiers pitcher Dewey Soriano partnered with former Indians owner William R. Daley to establish the franchise. Originally, the team was scheduled to begin play in 1971, but the date was moved to 1969 under pressure from Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. The Pilots clearly weren't ready yet. 

Joe Schultz--a former St. Louis Browns catcher and veteran minor league skipper--was chosen to manage the club. Home games were played at Sick's Stadium, which had once been regarded as one of the finest parks in the minors. By 1969, however, it was negligibly outdated. The Pilots had been ordered by Major League Baseball to expand the seating capacity to 30,000, but less than 20,000 seats were ready by opening day. Entering the month of June, the club had still not satisfied MLB's quota.

Of the fifty-plus players who occupied roster spots during the '69 campaign, there were few stars to be found. Speedy third baseman Tommy Harper led the league in steals and would spend fifteen years in the majors altogether, averaging 27 thefts per season. After winning a pair of batting titles then blowing out his knee, outfielder Tommy Davis drove-in 80 runs for the Pilots before an August trade sent him to Houston. A virtual unknown at the time, right-hander Mike Marshall later became the most productive reliever in the game over a five-year span, making an unprecedented 106 appearances for the Dodgers in 1974. In the Seattle bullpen, former Yankee star Jim Bouton began compiling notes for his controversial autobiography, Ball Four, which became an enduring classic.

After winning three of the first four games, things fell apart for the Pilots. The club went 15-42 in July and August, falling to the bottom of the newly formed American League West Division. A 14-16 run in September prevented them from losing 100 games at least. The Pilots finished dead last at 64-98.

As attendance sagged miserably, owners Daley and Soriano lost a bucketload of cash. Daley refused to invest any more capital to save the franchise and, in the offseason, Soriano struck a deal with former Braves owner Bud Selig to move the club to Milwaukee. The Pilots ended up being sold at a bargain basement price of $10.8 million.

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