Endearing & enduring: The 1969 Seattle Pilots

Tommy Davis laughed heartily when asked for his prime recollection of the Seattle Pilots.

"Bunch of mutts, man," he said. "Bunch of mutts."

Then Davis, a two-time batting champion and one of the Pilots' few players with stature, quickly added another pertinent point about Seattle's first major-league baseball team: "Very comical."

It's a recurring theme one finds in delving into the madcap world of the Pilots.

They lasted just one season, 1969, and then "poof, they were gone," in the words of first baseman Greg Goossen, one of many zany characters from that team.

Gone to Milwaukee, where the Pilots become the Brewers. The franchise shift was finalized so absurdly late in spring of 1970 — on April Fool's Day, naturally — that new Brewers uniforms couldn't be made up in time for opening day. As lore has it, the Milwaukee people just tore off the old "Pilots" lettering and hastily stitched on the new.

"I don't remember that specifically," said outfielder Steve Hovley, a carryover from Seattle to Milwaukee, "but I remember the uniform being a lot similar."

Yet the Pilots' legacy lives on in Seattle. Indeed, it's safe to say that they've never been more popular. The players — 49 of the 53 Pilots are still alive — find to their amazement that baseball fans are endlessly fascinated by the short-lived expansion team.

Jane Charnin-Aker, wife of pitcher Jack Aker, wrote in an e-mail, "There are still so many nostalgic Pilots fans around. We hear from them every day."

Outfielder Mike Hegan said, "I played for three teams that were very popular in terms of memorabilia — the A's, Yankees and Seattle Pilots. And not necessarily in that order."

Infielder Rich Rollins played eight years for the Twins, but says 80 percent of the autograph requests he receives are from Pilots fans.

The ephemeral nature of the Pilots — no team in modern history had such a fleeting tenure in its original city — has certainly added to their mystique.

And so, unquestionably, has the book that immortalized the '69 Pilots, "Ball Four," the season diary by relief pitcher Jim Bouton that still enrages or amuses his teammates, 36 years after publication.

"It's like we're a cult favorite now or something," said Hegan.

The Pilots, who will be honored by the Mariners today in a "Turn Back The Clock" promotion at Safeco Field, still endure, and endear, more than three decades later.

Their lone season resulted in a 64-98 record, and they drew just 677,944 fans at Sicks' Stadium in the Rainier Valley, which never quite was brought up to major-league standards.

By the 1970 season, a used-car salesman from Milwaukee named Bud Selig had grabbed the Pilots, who were underfinanced from the start and wound up in bankruptcy court.

And yet ...

"That's the most intriguing team I ever played with. ... It was quite a collection," said outfielder Jim Gosger. "It was a fun year, really a happy-go-lucky team. We just said, 'We're here. Let's play.' There wasn't a lot of pressure."

Added outfielder Steve Whitaker, "We were the orphans of the league, the dregs of the league, castoffs from other teams, trying to resurrect our careers. We had a bunch of characters."

Mike Fuller, a Starbucks paralegal who runs seattlepilots.com, a Web site devoted to the Pilots, notes that his site gets more hits than that of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to the company that hosts both sites.

The Seattle Pilots, by the numbers


Runs scored the first time the Pilots came to bat. They scored four in the top of the first in their opener, April 8, at California. The Pilots hung on for a 4-3 win.


Score of the Pilots' victory over the White Sox in their home opener, April 11.


Players whose season with the Pilots was their last in the majors. For four of those players, it was their first and last season.


Wins by Pilots pitcher Gene Brabender, most on the team.


Pilots doubleheaders. Those were the good old days.


Age of the youngest Pilot, pitcher Gary Timberlake. He started games June 18 and June 24, then had to leave for military service. He never pitched again in the majors.


Home runs by first baseman Don Mincher, the team's top slugger.


Age of the oldest Pilot, outfielder Billy Williams. He played 16 seasons in the minor leagues before making his major-league debut for the Pilots. He went 0 for 10 in four August games, and never played again in the majors.


Players who can say they were Seattle Pilots.


Wins by the Pilots, who finished 64-98, last place in the American League West, 33 games behind the Twins.


Stolen bases by Tommy Harper, best in the American League.


Official Pilots games. On Sept. 12, the second game of a doubleheader at Sicks' Stadium was called in the bottom of the 10th because of rain, with the score tied 1-1. Because it went past five innings, it was an official game, with the stats counting. The game was replayed the next day as part of another doubleheader.


Pilots team batting average.


Pilots home attendance, an average of 9,161 for the 74 home dates (including eight doubleheaders).

Bill Reader

"When I told Bouton, he said, 'Can I put on my Web site that the Pilots are more popular than Jesus?' " reports Fuller.

Bouton couldn't believe his good fortune as he set about telling the Pilots' story — and in the minds of many in baseball, violating baseball's sacred code of privacy.

As he reminisced recently about one anecdote — Pilots players fooling pitcher Fred Talbot into thinking he was going to receive a cash reward from a fan that Talbot had helped win a contest — he marveled, "If you set out to write a novel, you couldn't come up with better stuff than that.

"These guys were characters out of a novel, and I'm so lucky I was on the Pilots, because I could have never written the exact same kind of book, or even close to it, with another type of team."

And "Ball Four," as rich as it was, didn't even scratch the surface of the Pilots' multifaceted existence.

Bouton himself calls it a "tell-some" book, and says he edited out many ribald or offensive tales to protect the privacy of his teammates. And Bouton's was just one viewpoint. There were 52 others, each with a fresh perspective.

"If other people wanted to write a book — all the players — it would make "Ball Four" look like a children's book," said Whitaker. "We had an awesome, awesome time. We had great rapport, and the perfect manager."

Ah, Joe Schultz, the rollicking, lovable skipper, who had two favorite expressions: two expletives strung together interchangeably into a compound noun (or adjective, or verb, depending on the situation).

Schultz's other trademark expression has become legendary, imploring Pilots players to "pound the Budweiser," regardless of the occasion.

Lest anyone think that all this is Bouton hyperbole, let it be known that virtually every player contacted by The Seattle Times related at least one anecdote that involved Schultz and "pounding the Budweiser."

"I remember one time he came up to me and asked me what I was drinking," recalled Gosger. "I said, 'Pepsi.' He said, 'Don't drink that crap. Have a Budweiser.' "

Schultz was fired after the season, replaced by Dave Bristol even before the Pilots moved to Milwaukee.

"Schultzie was the right guy for that job," said Hegan. "He had a great sense of humor, a great personality, and he was very patient. He knew what he was dealing with."

"Everyone loved Joe," said Goossen. "That's why he only managed a year. If the players like you, watch out. Your days are numbered. He was a great guy. He didn't try to overdo the baseball theories ... and it was proven on the field."

For the past 18 years, Goossen has been employed as Gene Hackman's stand-in, appearing in every one of his movies since 1988's "Split Decisions" — including Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning "Unforgiven." You can't make this stuff up.

Not only were the Pilots a hodgepodge group of players managed by a lovable eccentric, but the operations at Sicks' Stadium were ... haphazard, to say the least.

It was a season on the fly — undermanned, underfinanced, and ultimately, judging by the disappointing attendance, underappreciated. At the time, anyway.

Jim Kittilsby, who served as assistant to GM Marvin Milkes, recalls frenetic efforts to get the ballpark ready for the home opener. While workers were literally pounding nails around the ballpark, it was every hand on deck — including executives.

"That was the way we operated," said Kittilsby. "The farm director on promotions nights would be handing out panty hose and trinkets. On Bat Night, we'd all be handing out bats in the left-field bleachers. Everyone was on the firing line. And on opening day, everyone was scrambling around trying to help."

Everyone except the director of the Pilots' speakers bureau.

"This guy was sitting in his office — I'm not embellishing — reading comic books," Kittilsby said. "We were just overwhelmed with stuff — the paint was barely dry. Dewey [Soriano, the team president] walked past and fired him on the spot."

And thus did Jim Kittilsby become director of the speakers bureau, in addition to his other tasks. Such was life on the Pilots.

On opening day at Sicks' Stadium, the city was still scrambling to finish the bleachers it had promised the Pilots as part of a stadium expansion.

Though hitters loved the place. "Al Kaline and Norm Cash took one look at right field and said, 'If you're going to trade me, please trade me here,' " laughed Mariners clubhouse man Henry Genzale, who worked in the visiting clubhouse for the Pilots. But the amenities left much to be desired.

Visiting teams would often take showers in their hotel because of the lack of water pressure. In fact, when attendance was above 10,000, the toilet in the press box couldn't be flushed until late in the game — a ritual that Pilots public-relations director Bill Sears called "the seventh-inning flush."

While lauding the playing surface at Sicks' Stadium as "probably the best in the country," Sears acknowledged that the makeshift ballpark renovation "left a lot of shortcoming. The plumbing was never brought up to speed with the rest of the building."

Sears recalled that the outfield bleachers were serviced by Porta Potties.

"One guy got locked in all night," he said. "The janitors came in the morning to clean, opened the door, and out popped this guy. They just about fainted. He probably had a few too many Rainiers and fell asleep in the john, then got locked in."

Ultimately, the Pilots died from what Fuller termed "a perfect storm of things that went wrong." Those included an economic decline in the area; the poor condition of Sicks' Stadium, and the city's failure to upgrade; an inability to promote the ballclub, which didn't help by plummeting to the cellar after a quick start; and, mostly, the ongoing financial problems of the ownership group.

Lead investor William Daly, a Clevelander who made his fortune with Otis Elevator, had the money to bail them out but closed his wallet as troubles mounted.

"Looking back, you didn't even know if you were going to get paid," said Whitaker. "Some of us maybe didn't deserve to get paid."

After a tense spring in which two local ownership groups tried unsuccessfully to purchase the team, on April 1, 1970, Judge Sidney Volinn finally ruled the Pilots, with $8.1 million in debts, were officially bankrupt. He ordered them sold to Selig, who had cut a secret deal with the Soriano brothers (Dewey and Max) to buy the team for $10.8 million during Game 1 of the 1969 World Series.

The moving van, which had been loaded with equipment at the end of spring training and awaiting instructions on whether to head to Seattle or Milwaukee, finally got word to take off for Wisconsin. The Seattle Pilots were officially dead, although the lawsuit their departure engendered seven years later resulted in the Seattle Mariners. The Pilots left a wealth of stories that will live on, and a cast of characters that will be immortal.

Like pitcher Gene Brabender.

"I once saw him go back into the clubhouse and drink a beer between every inning of a shutout," said pitcher Dick Baney. "You don't see that every day."

Like infielder John Kennedy.

One day some Pilots fans dropped off a huge cake in the clubhouse that said, "Seattle Pilots, We Love You." As Goossen tells it, several players were about to dig in when Kennedy "came strolling out of the shower, sat down naked right in the middle of the cake, crossed his legs, and calmly smoked his cigarette."

Like Jim Bouton, whose "Ball Four" shed light on a world no fan had been allowed to see. The book's portrayals of pill-popping, skirt-chasing and boozing (by Mickey Mantle, most scandalously) were never forgiven by some teammates. But others are grateful to have a living time capsule between the covers.

"I liked it," said Gosger. "At the time, nobody knew he was writing it. He only had one friend on the team, Gary Bell. Nobody else really chummed around with him. But when it came out, I said, 'Damn, this is a funny book, and it's all true, too.' "

Thanks to Bouton and his teammates, the Pilots will never die. Just last weekend at a hotel in Secaucus, N.J., 17 of the old Pilots were united for an autograph and memorabilia show, attracting hundreds of fans drawn to the cult of the Pilots, 3,000 miles away from their home.

But it wasn't just the Pilots' remarkable fan appeal that made this event special. To promoter Molly Bracigliano of MAB Celebrity Services, it was the camaraderie of the Seattle players that touched her.

"The way they were hugging each other, it was the first time a lot of them had seen each other since they left the Pilots," said Bracigliano. "Goossen and Whitaker stayed over an extra night just to catch up. [Infielder] Gus Gil told me it was the greatest weekend of his life. They all thanked me so much for bringing them in."

Who knew that one riotous season in Seattle would have so much meaning to so many?

"I think I would have paid to see us play — even at Sicks' Stadium," said Whitaker.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. Assistant sports editor Bill Reader contributed to this report.

As the Pilots took the field for their first game at Sicks' Stadium, team officials still were scrambling to get the stadium in working condition. (AP, 1969)
Pilots manager Joe Schultz often encouraged players to "pound the Budweiser." (SEATTLE PILOTS)

Turn Back the Clock

What: The Mariners will wear Seattle Pilots uniforms today when they play the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers will wear their 1969 uniforms.

When: Game time is 1:05 p.m., with a Pilots ceremony scheduled a few minutes before the game.

Where: Safeco Field.

Before the game: The Mariners will introduce former Pilots approximately 10 minutes before the game. Scheduled to appear are players Tommy Davis, Steve Hovley, Steve Whitaker and Bob Locker, coach Eddie O'Brien, broadcaster Bill Schonely, Rod Belcher (who wrote the song "Go, Go, You Pilots!") and the Pilots' director of communications, Bill Sears. Davis will throw out the first pitch.

Tickets: As of Thursday, there were 12,000 tickets available.

Freebies: The first 20,000 fans will receive Pilots caps.