History means it’s Seattle vs. Seattle this weekend in Milwaukee

Apr 5, 2024, 9:21 AM | Updated: 11:23 am

The Seattle Pilots played a single season of Major League Baseball in 1969 before going bankrupt an...

The Seattle Pilots played a single season of Major League Baseball in 1969 before going bankrupt and decamping for Milwaukee; some people still just can't let go. (Courtesy Feliks Banel)

(Courtesy Feliks Banel)

Those see-through uniforms of the Mariners’ road opponent in this weekend’s three-game series in Wisconsin may say “Milwaukee Brewers,” but everybody knows that the team is really the Seattle Pilots in disguise.

As some diehard fans still remember, the Pilots were Seattle’s first Major League Baseball team. The city had them for one season back in 1969, when they played home games at the old Sick’s Stadium on Rainier Avenue where Lowe’s Home Improvement now stands.

The team struggled on and off the field and ultimately went bankrupt by early 1970. It’s a complicated story, and many books have been written about the multifaceted shenanigans that contributed to the team’s demise.

In early spring 1970, the Seattle Nine were snatched up by Bud Selig and diverted to Milwaukee. Along with being made famous by beer, that Wisconsin metropolis had infamously lost the beloved Braves to Atlanta a few years earlier, and had lost a team to Saint Louis – the original Milwaukee Brewers – after just one season way back in 1901.

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In case it isn’t yet obvious, the worst-kept secret in professional sports is that hometown fans everywhere have been getting their hearts broken by teams moving away for well over a century, at least since the early days of the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

A certain subset of Seattle fans choose to believe that, just like that basketball team in Oklahoma is really the Sonics in disguise, when the Mariners take the field in Milwaukee against the Brewers, it’s really two Seattle teams duking it out.

This weekend’s series in Milwaukee was just the excuse All Over The Map needed to play some vintage audio from the Pilots’ very first game at the California Angels on April 8, 1969, which was exactly 55 years ago this coming Monday.

While home-team audio is scarce for the Pilots, much of the Los Angeles broadcast of that first game via KMPC still exists, with Dick Enberg making his debut as a Major League play-by-play guy alongside veteran Angels’ broadcaster Don Wells.

In the first inning at Anaheim, the Pilots’ lead-off hitter Tommy Harper got on base with a double, and then Mike Hegan hit a two-run homer. Seattle added two more runs in the top of the first, and then held on to win their inaugural game against the Halos 4-3.

When that first and only season was over, the Pilots had finished with a dismal record of 64 wins and 98 losses. But the off-season was even more painful, as Seattle’s big league dreams turned into nightmares.

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In 1970, at the end of March, when the team buses headed north from spring training, they could’ve turned left and gone to Seattle. Instead, they turned right and went to Milwaukee.

The change-over really was, unbelievably, that last-minute. Thanks to some legal hurdles, the Pilots didn’t officially become the Brewers until April 1, 1970 – April Fools, Seattle baseball fans!!! – and then played their first game in Milwaukee on April 7 in hand-me-down uniforms with the “Seattle Pilots” patches torn off. In their inaugural season, the newly-christened Brewers bettered the Pilots previous campaign by finishing with 65 wins and 97 losses.

The only Major League Baseball action in Seattle from 1970 to 1977 was restricted to federal court, where Washington Attorney General Slade Gorton sued Major League Baseball for letting the Pilots get away in breach of the promises made when King County voters had committed to funding a new stadium (which became . . . wait for it . . . the Kingdome.) Gorton prevailed, and the city was awarded the franchise that became the Mariners, which debuted in 1977.

Apart from 55 years of odd grudges held against Milwaukee, Bud Selig and the Brewers, the other lasting legacy of that 1969 Pilots’ season is the tell-all baseball book penned by Seattle pitcher Jim Bouton. Bouton’s “Ball Four” remains one of the best books about Seattle in the late 1960s, and it also happens to be about professional baseball.

Many local fans – okay, maybe this many years later, it’s just a few local weirdos – still hold out hope that the Seattle vs. Milwaukee grudge can someday be exorcised by a World Series matchup pitting the Mariners against the Brewers. This revenge fantasy became possible only when the Brewers moved from the American League to the National League in 1998.

Before that could happen, of course, the Mariners would have to break whatever curse has kept them as the only Major League team in the history of mankind to have never reached the October Classic.

Play ball!

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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History means it’s Seattle vs. Seattle this weekend in Milwaukee