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Seattle Pilots broadcaster Bill Schonely looks back to the pre-Mariners days

Seattle Pilots opening day at Sick's Stadium, Seattle, April 1969 ( Cary Tolman, MOHAI collection)

Bill Schonely always wanted to be a big league baseball broadcaster. He grew up outside of Philadelphia, listening to Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vin Scully and Bill Stern calling games on the radio.

Schonely came to Seattle in the 1950s. Over the next decade or so, he did a lot of local sports broadcasting, including the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League, UW football and basketball, and the Seattle Angels minor league baseball team.

Then came the chance of a lifetime. In the late 1960s, long before the Mariners debuted, Seattle was awarded a Major League Baseball franchise, and voters approved the funds to build a huge new stadium for the team.

“As a relatively young man in those days, I got to be a Major League Baseball broadcaster with the Seattle Pilots,” Schonely said. “I was the broadcaster along with Jimmy Dudley, who was the main guy.”

The late Dudley was a legend and a future Hall of Famer (via the Ford C. Fricke Award) who had been with the Cleveland Indians for two decades before being hired by the Seattle Pilots. Schonely’s bosses at KVI Radio recommended him for the job of “sidekick,” Schonely said. It was a dream come-true for Schonely, and for the Pacific Northwest.

“We had a tremendous broadcast network,” Schonely said. “We were not only on many of the stations in Washington state, Oregon, Northern California, we [also] had a couple of stations in Nevada, Idaho, Alaska. We had a huge radio network, and a great following in those days.”

Before a new facility could be built, the Pilots played their home games at Sicks Stadium on Rainier Avenue. The old ballpark was built in the 1930s for the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. It was small, but Bill Schonely says it had its own unique charm.

“Well, it’s let’s see, how do you describe it in this day and age? It was nothing in those days, put it that way,” Schonely said, with a chuckle.

“The field itself, the playing surface, was manicured to the nth degree. Everything was fine, but it had no seats to speak of. You know, there were no suites, no anything. A hundred hot dog stands, I guess, you know, and soda stands,” Schonely said. “It was old-school.”

The characters on the ball club were old-school, too. Including Pilots’ manager Joe Schultz.

“Joe Shultz was one of the greatest guys, one of the great characters I met of all the people that I have known in sports,” Schonely said.

“At the end of the ballgame at home, I had to go down and do a postgame show. Jimmy Dudley would finish up [calling] the game, and I would go down and stand in the dugout,” Schonely said, waiting to begin the postgame show.

If it was one of the rare occasions of a Pilots’ victory, manager “Schultzy” would be in a good mood,” Schonely says, and already looking forward to a cold beer. “Schultzy and I knew one another, and so he used to turn around and say, ‘Schonz, the Bud’s gonna taste good tonight!'”

Schonely also confirms Joe Schultz’s reputation for being possessed of a colorful vocabulary.

“He had some great phrases that I can’t repeat here,” Schonely said. “But he was just a great human being.”

Also on the Pilots for part of that season was pitcher Jim Bouton, who would document his time with the Seattle club in the classic (and often hilarious) baseball expose, “Ball Four.”

Behind the scenes during that inaugural year and then in the off-season that followed, the dream that was the Seattle Pilots began to fall apart. Ownership blamed the size and condition of the ballpark for revenue problems, and the promise of revenue from bigger crowds at Kingdome was still years in the future. The team declared bankruptcy and was taken over by the league.

“So the people, the major league folks from the American League, all got together and decided to take the franchise away,” Schonely said. “Seattle, God bless ’em, tried their darnedest to keep that franchise right where it was, because Seattle and the Northwest were the major leagues as far as baseball was concerned.”

From pretty much every angle, there appears to have been no shortage of backroom (and front office) shenanigans that sent the Pilots on their way to an ownership group that included future baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Nearly 50 years later, the story is still somewhat murky.

“There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes, but that’s the basic story. So the Seattle Pilots then became the Milwaukee Brewers,” Schonely said, who saw his big league baseball broadcasting dreams slipping away.

“I thought at that time, ‘my goodness, I always enjoyed baseball and doing the broadcasts, I might be in baseball for the rest of my life,’ but it only lasted a little over one year,” Schonely said.

When the baseball team headed to Wisconsin, Bill Schonely could’ve gone along with them. But he decided to stay in the Northwest. Opportunity came knocking almost immediately.

“Harry Glickman, who put together the Portland Trailblazers. He was the owner of the Portland Buckaroos of the old Western Hockey League. He found out that I was available after all this baseball,” Schonley said. “So he called me and he said, ‘how would you like to do NBA basketball?'”

“I had done everything else in the world, but I wasn’t too much involved in the NBA in those times. I said, ‘well that sounds like a pretty good deal.’ So I came to Portland and we talked and we shook hands,” Schonely said. “That was 46 years ago, and I’m still with the Blazer organization,” though no longer doing play-by-play.

Schonely also still lives near Portland, where his long career with the Trailblazers included the team’s NBA World Championship in 1977.

That year turned out to also be a big one back in Seattle. Since voters in 1968 had approved funding for a new stadium based on having the Pilots here, a lawsuit forced Major League Baseball to give the city another franchise. The Seattle Mariners were launched in 1977. This time around, the new team played in the Kingdome.

Bill Schonely’s career might have been very different if the Pilots had stayed in Seattle or if he had followed the team to Milwaukee. Either way, like a lot of people in the Northwest, he still roots, and holds out hope, for the home team.

“It’s just a shame that the Pilots and the city of Seattle couldn’t put that situation together in those years, but the Mariners are there and they’ve had quite a run,” Schonely said. “I hope they have a great year this year.”

Let’s all lift a cold one in memory of the Pilots and Schultzy, and hope it’s gonna taste good for Mariners fans on plenty of nights this season.

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