This challenging season for local baseball fans brings to mind another last place team in our fair city, the famous and short-lived Seattle Pilots of 1969. An expansion team in the American League, they played at Sicks’ Stadium, a converted minor league ballpark. In their one year here they launched Jim Bouton’s literary career through his tell-all bestselling book, “Ball Four.”
Bouton was a former All-star pitcher on the Mantle-Maris era Yankee juggernauts of the early sixties. In decline and with a sore arm, Bouton elected to adopt the last ditch strategy of becoming a knuckleball pitcher. He was chosen, at this point, in the expansion draft and became one of the original Pilots. Bouton’s book is based on his secret diary of the season he played here, allowing fans for the first time to see behind the façade of baseball’s heroic image. In an always amusing and readable way, he told the story of the season and he revealed that drugs such as amphetamines (“greenies”) were being used by some of the leading stars of the day. Controversy raged after publication.
In light of the seamier side of today’s drug related issues in baseball, Bouton’s accusations seem tame. In their day however, they were shocking. He also revealed stories that proved embarrassing to iconic figures such as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. The book was a bestseller but the social cost to Bouton was that he became a baseball outcast, ostracized even from Old-timers’ games for many years (only in 1998 was Bouton allowed to appear at a Yankee’s Old-Timers’ game). A side effect of the book was the immortalizing of a nondescript and last place team of mediocrities, our Seattle Pilots.
After one year, terrible attendance, and a last place finish, the team was bankrupt. They reported to spring training the next season not knowing if they would play in Seattle again. Legendarily, only when the moving trucks were bringing the equipment up north did they find out that the team had moved to Milwaukee, becoming the Brewers.
The Pilots were documented in a more serious way in Carson Van Lindt’s The Seattle Pilots Story, written in 1993. With the perspective of time, Van Lindt tells the tale of political intrigue, money games, and the evolution of the team on the field. Politicians, team owners, and community leaders all come out damaged by the story. Incidentally, our own Broadview Branch was affected by the brief run of the Pilots. Money intended for the development of the neighborhood branch was taken by the City Fathers in an emergency attempt to spruce up old Sicks’ Stadium. See more of this story and more about the Seattle Pilots on HistoryLink.
Did you have a Pilots cap? Is there an old program still in the basement? Pilots memorabilia and ephemera are highly sought by collectors. Frozen in time, remembered in a classic book, the memory of the Pilots continues into extra innings. ~ Carl K