April 11, 2013
In A Pickle
The history of the business of baseball is filled with at least as many scoundrels and thieves as the history of the game on the field. Google something like "worst owners baseball history" and you'll find reams of blog posts and articles with stories of racism, and rich men laying waste to cities, and incompetents, and all manner of other hoodlums. Of course, team owners never act alone. Cities and counties and states are run by the same power elite that produces the lead dogs of sports franchises, and leagues frequently have help from local politicians in their schemes to build boondoggle stadiums, place expansion franchises, and shift teams from city to city.
Fans interested in the way a city comes to be "big league" and all the myriad hiccups it endures on the way may enjoy Bill Mullins' new book Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics, out earlier this month from the University of Washington Press. Mullins received his doctorate in history from the University of Washington and is professor emeritus of history at Oklahoma Baptist University while living in Federal Way, a town about 20 miles south of Seattle, so his history and Pacific Northwest chops are evident. General readers should not be put off by Mullins's ivory tower background or the fact that the book comes from an academic press. (I include myself in the category of "general readers.") Mullins is a clear, concise writer interested in telling the Seattle baseball story in a digestible, comprehensible way, though his tone and language are suitably advanced for the topic—the book does not feel dumbed-down or faux-conversational.
That story is mostly told in chronological order beginning in the late 1950s, when the planning for Seattle's World's Fair (or Century 21 Exposition) began. The Fair was a six-month expo that resulted in, among other things, the construction of the Space Needle, one of the most monumentally cool and monumentally useless structures in America. Mullins ably describes how the literal and psychic infrastructure of the World's Fair led, in many ways, to the push to bring major-league sports to town. A key quote comes from the head of the Alaska Steamship Company, Ned Skinner: "People applauded the world's fair and wanted more. 'What will we do for an encore?' became the oft-repeated popular cliche."
From there, Mullins takes us through the struggle to find local investors (unlike today, with Microsoft, Amazon, Nintendo, Starbucks, and so forth, Seattle was at the time largely a Boeing town, and Boeing was owned by a family without much interest in civic investment) and to convince elected leaders to support and voters to fund a stadium (which the right-thinking citizens of the city and King County rejected twice before finally approving as part of a larger civic action project called Forward Thrust). He then moves to the losing effort to keep the Seattle Pilots in town in the face of weak, unconnected, undercapitalized ownership, a minor-league stadium, and significant missteps in marketing and ticket pricing. The story ends with the eventual building of the Kingdome and the breach of contract lawsuit that helped lead to Seattle's second expansion franchise, the Mariners.
Interspersed with chapters detailing the major steps from Space Needle to Randy Johnson are shorter chapters about the Pilots' 1969 season as a baseball club, from the expansion draft to the 1969 regular season and through spring training of 1970, when it was unclear deep into March whether the team would be the Seattle Pilots or the Milwaukee Brewers that year. These chapters are less compelling, as the blow-by-blow is a bit repetitive and the stories are frequently not well integrated with the main thrust of the book. Still, they do provide a breather from the heavy lifting of keeping track of dozens of rich and/or networked white men doing battle with and against each other over, for instance, whether a stadium should be built in downtown Seattle or the suburbs. Fortunately, to my mind, the personalities of the movers and shakers are largely not the point of the story: the wrangling and infighting and politics and finance stand on their own whether you remember from chapter to chapter if Joe Gandy is a car dealer or a banker, if Hy Zimmerman is a cantankerous sportswriter or an obstructionist city councilman.
One of the most admirable qualities of Mullins' approach to the Seattle story is that he does not impose false mystery on the proceedings. By this I mean mostly that references to the "future" are liberally sprinkled throughout the book. The pages dealing with the attempts to win a franchise, for instance, do not pretend that the reader does not know that the Pilots (and later, the Mariners) are in fact approved as expansion teams by the American League. By not attempting to hide the ball, Mullins is able to keep the many threads of the story (the league's interests, a new stadium, renovations to the old stadium, citizen interest groups, political advisory boards, and so forth) from tangling and becoming an impossible morass. It cannot be overstated how difficult and important this task is: sports business is an impossible morass, so to tell the tale without leaving the reader dizzy is a real accomplishment.
Mullins, it should be noted, does not appear to be skeptical of public stadium funding and the notion that sports bring major revenues to cities and counties. He does not, to my mind, come across as a cheerleader for sports, but his descriptions of elected leaders who decline to be won over by the seduction of big time athletics tended toward the chiding. Those of a more radical anti–public funding mindset may or may not find themselves frustrated by the fact that Mullins is not a firebrand.
Seattle's baseball story surely has similarities to every other city's tales of league expansion and franchise shifting, but the political, social, and economic context of each time and place make each of those stories unique. We could certainly do worse than to have a book of Becoming Big League's quality for Montreal, Tampa, Miami, or Denver.
A few stray notes that I simply cannot fail to mention but which don't belong in the review proper: