This annotated week in baseball history: March 30-April 5, 1969

On April 1, 1969, the Seattle Pilots traded little-known outfielder Lou Pinella to Kansas City. Thanks to moves like that, a year later Bud Selig bought the Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee. Richard looks back at the history of Seattle’s first major league team.

There are two schools of thought on April Fool’s Day jokes. One says that so long as the audience (and the prankster) finds a joke amusing, it is so. The other says that unless the victim of the prank can see the humor, it is merely mean-spirited rather than funny. I generally lean toward the second, but no matter where you stand, baseball fans should agree that the tricks played on the people of Seattle on April Fool’s Day were cruel indeed.

The first came in 1969. Seattle had just gained a major league franchise. The Pilots had the usual assortment of expansion team mediocrities at spring training, but also a couple of gems. Unfortunately for the Pilots, they had no idea who those gems were.

One was Mike Marshall, a future two-time All-Star and 1974 Cy Young award winner. The Pilots would spend much of the season demoting and promoting Marshall from the rotation to the bullpen and Triple-A (and back), but at least they kept him with the club.

The other gem was Lou Pinella, acquired from Cleveland in the expansion draft. Pinella did not exactly have the touch for getting along with the Pilots’ old-school manager, Joe Schultz. In Ball Four, Jim Bouton manages to describe Pinella as “heated,” having “the red ass” and “sensitive as hell.” And that’s from someone who seems to like Lou, also calling him a “good looking ballplayer.”

Since Bouton wasn’t making the decisions in Seattle, Pinella was shipped off to Kansas City, the other expansion team. If you’d like to know why the Kansas City Royals still exist but the Seattle Pilots are long since extinct, moves like this are the answer.

In fact, there were any number of moves like that. Early in the year, struggling Jack Aker was dispatched to the Yankees for Fred Talbot. Aker would go on to pitch until 1974, appearing in 260 games once he left Seattle, with a 3.06 ERA. Talbot, meanwhile, so impressed the Pilots that he was dealt in August for two guys no one had ever heard of.

Owning the rights to one-time Dodger All-Star Tommy Davis, the Pilots sent him to Houston in a late-season trade. Davis would remain a capable player until 1976, and two years prior to that he was the regular DH for a division-winning Orioles team. In return, Seattle received two guys whose career line thereafter barely equaled Davis’ 1974 in Baltimore.

Seattle’s problems continued in the offseason, with the Pilots allowing Houston to purchase Marshall. Admittedly, the Astros failed to see the potential in Marshall as well, but it would not be long before he was demonstrating the form that earned him more career Cy Young support than names like Dave Stewart, Kevin Brown and Bruce Sutter.

As problems in the offseason go, trading Marshall was a rather small one for the franchise. The team spent 1969 playing in Sick’s Stadium, a former minor-league park. The stadium would be charitably described as a fixer-upper. It seated less than 20,000 on Opening Day. The water pressure was so bad that players were unable to shower after games and the toilets would not flush if the crowd exceeded 10,000.

(For the record, it is named after a local beer magnate, Emile Sick, who built it. The name is not a reflection on fans’ reactions to seeing it, although it apparently worked that way as well.)

The park’s low capacity wasn’t much of an issue. The hapless Pilots drew well under 10,000 a game. In the American League, only the White Sox and Indians drew worse. The small crowds were cutting into the profit margins ownership had imagined, to the extent that the team was—depending on what version you believe—either bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy by the end of the 1969 season.

Various local ownership groups attempted to purchase the team, but had problems with either finances or group structure. The city caused more problems with an ill-conceived threat to disallow the Pilots from playing in Sick’s unless guarantees were made about rent being paid.

Meanwhile, a Milwaukee used car salesman, Allen “Bud” Selig, had been attempting to bring baseball back to his home city since the Braves left after the 1965 season. After it became clear that no local ownership would emerge—and despite Major League Baseball’s statements that the team would be staying put—Selig agreed to purchase the team in a clandestine deal.

The move was a fiasco. As late as spring training, the team was still the Pilots and practicing as such. At the conclusion of spring training, vans with the team’s equipment drove to Las Vegas and awaited word on where they should go.

Finally, on April 1, 1970, word came from Judge Sidney Volinn that the Pilots were bankrupt and were to be sold to Selig. The team’s vans went to Milwaukee. With Opening Day not a week away, the team had no time for new uniforms and had to wear the Pilots’ old shirts, with PILOTS hastily removed and replaced with BREWERS.

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The situation was not as cut-and-dried as the American League had imagined, and in 1976 a lawsuit claimed the league had violated the terms of its deal with the city of Seattle and other local government organizations. The case had taken so long to reach a trial stage in no small part because Major League Baseball made moves at various times to send other teams to Seattle.

Much like the bankruptcy question, how the trial was going depends on whom you ask. But both sides decided to forgo a verdict when MLB decided to expand to Seattle for the 1977 season. On April 6, 1977, the Seattle Mariners—like the Pilots, their name was a nod to the city’s nautical tradition—opened their first season.

Since the Mariners began playing, the Pilots truly have been consigned to the dustbin of history. The Mariners don’t wish to claim the Pilots’ history, nor do the Brewers. Perhaps that is the final April Fool’s Day joke on the team, that all the misfortunes they endured are now forgotten.

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