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Baseball history blooms in Wallingford

The Guild Theater in Wallingford. After days, and nights, of a persistent car alarm in Wallingford, Seattle neighbors went beyond snarky notes to get their frustrations across. (file photo)

Long before the late, great Dave Niehaus began serving up grand salami sandwiches for Mariners’ fans from the Kingdome or Safeco Field, Leo Lassen was the original “Voice of Baseball” in Seattle.

As radio broadcaster for the Seattle Indians and Seattle Rainiers of the old Pacific Coast League from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, Lassen’s voice was perhaps the best-known in the region for decades. Ask anyone over 70 who lived here back then, and they can probably tell you what Lassen’s trademark homerun phrase was. Heck, they’ll probably also imitate it for you in Lassen’s curious accent:

“Back, back, back, back . . . and it’s OVER!”

For everyone else, Lassen’s catchphrases and accent are mostly forgotten these days. But a small piece of his legacy lives on, and occasionally even blooms, in the front yard of a craftsman-style home on a busy street in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. The Lassen legacy also lives on in the memories of a Seattle man who grew up a few doors north.

“This whole yard was roses, front to back, down the side,” said David Christensen, a 61-year old contractor and Seattle native. Except for a few tiny strips of lawn, “every square foot in this yard was taken,” Christensen said.

When Christensen was a young boy back in the mid 1960s, Leo Lassen wasn’t working in baseball anymore. He’d lived in same house in Wallingford for decades, and he hired Christensen to work in his yard and help take care of his beloved roses.

“He enjoyed roses. He knew every variety. It was his major hobby. He was good at it, too, he really was,” Christensen said. “As he got older, that’s probably why he hired me, ‘cause it was getting a little tough on him to get down and tend to them.”

When Christensen first worked for Leo Lassen, he was a little too young to know exactly who Lassen was or exactly what he represented to the community. But Christensen says his dad and other grownups helped him understand.

“I heard a lot about him, and lots of people thought I was pretty fortunate to work on all the roses in his yard because of who he was,” Christensen said. “As I grew older, I got to find out really who he really was, and how great a broadcaster he was.”

Christensen left the neighborhood as a young man in the early 1970s, but he moved back into his childhood home in 2000. By then, Christensen noticed, many of Leo Lassen’s old roses had died off or had been removed.

Lassen had passed away in December 1975 at age 76. He’d had a falling out with the ball club around 1960 and left the game. He never married, and left no descendants. After the broadcaster’s death, the old house with its yard full of roses changed hands a few times.

When the current owners moved in a decade ago, Christensen welcomed his new neighbors and made sure that they heard all about the history of the home and about the thorny artifacts that remained in the front yard.

“Some of these roses are still going,” Christensen said, standing in front of Lassen’s old house. “It’s remarkable. I thought they would’ve been gone years ago.”

Steve Pignotti lives with his wife and two kids in the old Lassen house these days. Pignotti is a Seattle transplant, but has become a devoted fan of local teams and still plays baseball himself. Though he had never heard of Leo Lassen, he was thrilled to hear Christensen’s stories about Pignotti’s new house.

“But I felt somewhat guilty about the roses, although at that point I didn’t have much to do with them,” Pignotti said. “I didn’t feel worthy,” he chuckled, and pointed out his lack of a green thumb. “And that’s been a consistent feeling through the past 10 or so years.”

On a recent morning, David Christensen sat in Leo Lassen’s old living room, sipping coffee, chatting with Steve Pignotti and remembering the Seattle legend who gave him his first paying job.

“Every two days I had to go through and snip all the roses, cut the deadheads and bring ’em all back and fertilize ’em,” Christensen said. “He kept me busy.”

Christensen says that when Lassen lived in the house, there were only a handful of clues that hinted at Lassen’s earlier career in broadcasting. One was a den in the back, where Lassen watched weekend baseball games on TV and had a few old Seattle Rainiers photos on the wall.

The other clue was in the basement, next to the gardening tools.

“Down there, he had a chest of drawers that contained every rule book for Major League Baseball, every book was stacked,” Christensen said. “And boy, he knew every rule.”

Not far from Lassen’s old house is a mural of Dave Niehaus, painted on the side of the Iron Bull sports bar on 45th Street in the heart of Wallingford’s commercial district. Tributes to Leo Lassen, however, take a little more effort to find.

One of the best is a 1976 audio documentary that was issued as an LP called “The Leo Lassen Story: A Memorial to Baseball.” It was narrated by Terry McManus, who just recently passed away, and was written and produced by McManus and radio legend and author Burl Barer. The flip side of the LP has a few innings of the Rainiers in a Pacific Coast League matchup with the Los Angeles Angels.

Burl Barer says it wasn’t him or Terry McManus who had the idea for the Lassen LP.

“It was Wayne Cody, who then of course was the big sports guy. Big not only in terms of popularity but in size,” said Barer, recalling the late popular KIRO Radio and TV sportscaster, who was famous for his pleasing plumpness. “Wayne called us and wanted to do this, and he had tapes” of old Lassen broadcasts, Barer said.

Barer says that Lassen was a true talent, and like many baseball broadcasters of that era, often performed studio “re-creations” of away games, since it was too expensive or too complicated to travel with the home team and broadcast games from on the road. Listeners typically had no idea they were taking part in a kind of theatrical performance.

For David Christensen, Leo Lassen’s legacy is far more than a few old rose bushes in Wallingford, or even a rare audio recording.

“I don’t know if [Leo Lassen] was a celebrity, but he was popular for baseball and a lot of people knew him,” Christensen said. “All we had was minor league baseball at that time. And the Huskies. That was about it. That was big stuff.”

Hearing Christensen talk about Seattle and Seattle sports of that era, you almost feel like going “back, back, back, back” yourself.

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