The book: “Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers”
The author: Dan Raley
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 352 pages, $26.95
The pitch: Admittedly, we’ve got no ties to Seattle-based baseball, only a heart-felt appreciation for how the ’69 one-and-done Pilots managed to survive a season at Sicks Stadium with a bunch of castoffs (leading to Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”), only to see them cascade off to Milwaukee.
You didn’t see them crying in their beers.
Now, with this history book by Raley, a former sportswriter from the recently distant memory Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in collaboration with local Seattle baseball historian and aficionado Dave Eskenazi (see his bio link here), the circle of baseball life in the Emerald City seems appropriate to revisit.
“Telling the story of the Rainers is our way of preserving an athletic civic treasure,” Raley writes in the preface, “something that meant as much to thousands of people in Seattle as it did to us. The words are mine. The photos are Eskenazi’s. The team is your to adopt or reclaim.”
The beer angle comes from Emil Sick, a hops-and-barley baron talked into buying the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians in 1937 as it was about to fold up. The one who nudged him in: New York Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert, who saw the value of having a group of customers regularily buying his product, with baseball as the catalyst.
Starting from page 13: “Sick would set out to do what the Seattle Mariners pulled off nearly six decades later when the modern-day team took up residence in $550 million Safeco Field near the waterfront and trotted out such unforgettable players as Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki: change ownership, build a new-age ballpark with all the amenities available and put talented, fan-pleasing characters in uniform. Sick had resisted when approached in previous years to bail out the Indians, but now the situation had turned so dire the brewer felt compelled to get involved. …
“He had no particular love for baseball, but he had money and was wiling to spend it to address a pressing civic responsiblity. … (He) announced his team would be called the ‘Rainers.’ He would name it after his beer, which was named after the mountain, which was christened after a British explorer. …
“(Sick) was an aloof and aggressive businessman, much like the modern-day Bill Gates, similarly attempting to monopolize an industry with a product, created in Seattle, that was in great demand, and occasionally feeling compelled to push the law to do so.”
The PCL, as we know, was really So Cal heavy, with teams anchored in L.A., Hollywood and San Diego, plus San Francisco and Oakland. Those in Seattle and Portland rounded it out. It was all separate from Major League Baseball, which wouldn’t come West until the late ’50s, and thrived as a force of its own.
With Sick, Seattle claimed its own cast of characters — Dick “The Needle” Gyselma (long before the actual Seattle Space Needle), “Coffee Joe” Coscarart, Alan “Inky” Strange and “Kewpie Dick” Barnett, for starters. Not to mention home-grown legend Fred Hutchinson, who would be sold to the Detroit Tigers and become manager of the Cincinnati Reds’ 1961 World Series team.
The Seattle baseball story includes a cameo by Babe Ruth — he acted too late to take a managerial job with the Rainers in 1941. That came in the months after manager Jack Lelivelt, who won PCL pennants with the Los Angeles Angels, died of a heart attack at age 55. Sick’s first hired skipper was returned to be buried in Van Nuys.
Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby eventually managed the Rainers. Ron Santo would be a batboy. And after Sick sold the franchise to the Boston Red Sox (actually, giving it to them for $1), Johnny Pesky was the manager and Rico Petrocelli played shortstop for them.
Did you know: Maurice Morning “Maury” Wills played a season for the Rainers as a second baseman, shortstop and third baseman in 1957, before joining the Dodgers.
“Maury Wills thrived under this atmosphere. He had never seen the West Coast until the Rainers had acquired him from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. A Washington DC native, he hadn’t been much of anywhere, struggling to get out of the lower minors. Considered a weak-hitting and slick-fielding player, and shifting between shortstop and second base, Wills had to prove himself … In 147 games for Seattle, usually hitting seventh in the lineup, he batted .267, though demonstrating no power at all, going homerless all season. His strength would be his disruptive ability on the base paths. He led the club with 21 stolen bases and he won a late-season game by advancing from first to third on a bunt. He became a confident player with a bit of swagger, rescued from the edge of baseball obscurity.”
As it turned out, he would return to Seattle, to manage the Mariners.
On Aug. 27, 1961, the Rainers played a doubleheader against the Portland Beavers. In the second game, Satchel Paige pitched for the Beavers, going four innings, giving up two runs and three hits before just 4,763. He was assumed to be about 55 years old at the time.
The Angels would come into play late in Seattle’s minor-league baseball history, taking the city’s franchise as its Triple-A team. A single-A team also called the Rainers came into being from 1972-76, just before the Mariners were born.
To complete the project, Raley was able to talk to more than 150 former players, coaches, managers, execs and fans to get their stories — about a dozen of whom actually passed away before the book came out. The last 24 pages are also dutifully dedicated to an alphabetical list of everyone who played for the Rainers or Indians. Check it out — many are L.A. natives.
How it goes down in the scorebook: A very impressive effort for a city that you’d never think could sustain such a history of a game played between rain delays. Don’t forget to bring an umbrella as you read this. You could get washed away in nostalgia.