Free M’s tickets to ‘Honor Students’ 45 years ago created lifelong fans

Oct 12, 2022, 9:27 AM | Updated: 9:41 am

Mariners students...

A 1981 ad for the Mariners/Seattle Times "I MADE THE GRADE" Honor Student ticket giveaway program. (Courtesy Seattle Mariners)

(Courtesy Seattle Mariners)

Thousands of Seattle Mariners fans rooting for the team this week were first introduced to Major League Baseball more than 45 years ago through a program that gave free tickets to local kids with good grades. Nearly half a century later, many of those “Honor Students” still credit their lasting love for the home team to those long-ago free games at the old Kingdome.

The inaugural year for the Mariners, and for this memorable joint promotion between the team and The Seattle Times, was 1977.

Good grades got you into Mariners games

“Honor Students” at schools in much of western Washington were eligible, and individual junior highs or high schools had to sign up to participate. That spring, if your grades from the previous fall semester were good enough – a 3.2 grade-point average (GPA) was the minimum – you were considered an “Honor Student” and entitled to get free Mariners tickets. Your school would give you a copy of a form with a list of 12 games, and you could pick three. You then had to send in the completed form along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope (often abbreviated as “SASE” in those days), and the Mariners would mail back three pairs of tickets. It was a generous program, and it all seems very pre-Internet and almost steam-powered now.

Michael Lounsbery lives in Seattle. He was a 7th grader in Bremerton at Star of the Sea Catholic School in the late 1970s. Back then, he didn’t even know what a GPA was, and baseball was a mystery, too.

But, he got help from one of his teachers – dear, sweet Mrs. Argyle.

“The teacher showed us what a self-addressed, stamped envelope was, and how we had to fill out the form and put one of those in,” Lounsbery told KIRO Newsradio. “And then, I don’t know, like, in a month or two, we got these tickets in the mail. And that was kind of exciting.”

The anticipation when waiting for tickets in the mail

Waiting for the tickets made the young Lounsbery an instant Mariners’ fan.

“I started listening to the games right away,” Lounsbery said. “And I didn’t know anything about baseball. When Dave Niehaus would say ‘It’s a 3-1 pitch,’ I thought that was something about how the pitcher would throw the ball.”

That first year, according to old newspaper articles, the Mariners and Seattle Times expected to give away tickets to about 5,000 Honor Students. When all the envelopes that had piled up were finally counted, the total number of students who were eligible for tickets was actually more than 16,000.

Juleen Keller of Ballard High School was one of those 16,000 kids. She got the Honor Student tickets, and she says seeing the Mariners play was definitely exciting and fascinating. But the Kingdome – which was then only a few years old –  was a big part of the attraction, too.

“Oh gosh, it was massive,” Keller told KIRO Newsradio. “If you ever got bored, you just walked around [the concourses] and then you sat back down. And there was always something to see or do or explore, and the ushers and everyone seemed to be friendly.”

Matching the free tickets with fan giveaways

Kathy Johnson was an Honor Student from Inglemoor High School in Kenmore. She liked to closely inspect the season calendar and then try and choose tickets for games when the Mariners also did fan giveaways.

“The funniest one was when they did the full-size ‘Bat Night,’” Johnson told KIRO Newsradio. “I can remember being up on the 300 Level, and here you have thousands of kids with full-size baseball bats inside the Kingdome banging on those aluminum bleachers they had up on the third floor.”

Johnson says the free tickets were a cool way to get to know the Kingdome and the Mariners in the earliest years of both.

“It was a big deal,” Johnson said. “It really was.”

Mariners program opened the door to develop lifelong fans

For many Puget Sound families in the late 1970s, buying tickets to a Major League Baseball game might have been a rare once-a-season treat, or perhaps completely out of reach, once the costs of parking and obligatory Kingdome refreshments were factored in. Pairs of tickets to three games – and, in later years of the program, additional tickets to special “Honor Student” alumni games – make the Honor Student program seem particularly generous, and particularly memorable nearly 50 years after it was launched.

Those free tickets made a difference; most of the people KIRO Newsradio talked to about the program said they likely wouldn’t have gone to Mariners game without it.

“We were a relatively low-income family and we lived out in Bothell, in a rural area, and my dad had a business down in Chinatown,” Kathy Johnson said. “But, no, I mean, we would never have been able to afford to go to a baseball game. It really was an introduction to professional sports.”

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And this “introduction to professional sports” was exactly the point, says retired Seattle Mariners’ executive and unofficial team history guy Randy Adamack.

Adamack came aboard in July 1978 when the promotion – which is generally believed to have been the brainchild of the Mariners’ first director of group sales, the late Jeff Odenwald – was already underway. Adamack told KIRO Newsradio he was impressed by the Honor Student program – not because it generated much revenue, but because it was designed to help create lifelong fans in a city where major league baseball – the 1969 Seattle Pilots notwithstanding – was almost totally new in the late 1970s.

“It got a lot of kids and a lot of families involved with Mariner baseball at the very beginning,” Adamack said. “And I know it paid off because since then, I’ve heard so many times from so many people that I’ve met that they first got introduced to Mariner baseball through the Honor Student program.”

Honor student tickets lasted into the 80s

The program appears to have lasted into the early 1980s, perhaps as late as 1984, and was renamed at some point as “I MADE THE GRADE.” Based on newspaper stories in The Seattle Times archives, it may have peaked in popularity in 1979 when 19,000 students received tickets. By 1980, for reasons that are unclear, that number had dropped down to 13,000.

Over in Bremerton in Mrs. Argyle’s class, the long-game “Honor Student” strategy – with its far horizon – sure worked its magic on Michael Lounsbery.

“It absolutely got me completely hooked,” Lounsbery said, even when a family move made it extra challenging to be a Seattle baseball fan. “For a few years there, my dad was transferred to Washington DC. And it’s pretty hard to follow the Mariners from Washington DC.”

But Lounsbery was determined to keep up, which meant a fairly serious commitment in that pre-Internet era.

“On our little completely non-sophisticated clock radio at night, I was able to pick up the stations from Detroit or New York and just listen when the Mariners would be playing one of those teams,” Lounsbery said. “I mean, I was really into it.”

“And it all started, honestly, with those tickets,” Lounsbery said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.



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