The Cleveland Indians almost moved to Seattle

Nov 2, 2016, 6:28 AM | Updated: 12:53 pm
Cleveland Indians, World Series, baseball, MLB...
Those could have been Seattle Indians' Francisco Lindor and Rajai Davis celebrating during Game 1 of the World Series. (AP)
The old Seattle Majors logo. (Feliks Banel)

In the 2016 World Series, longtime Pacific Northwest broadcaster Bill Schonely’s loyalties are divided.

“I’ve been an American League guy for a long, long time since I was a young lad,” Schonely said. “But I like the story of the Chicago Cubs. There’s no question that it’s about time that they won something.”

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

Schonely is a legend. He was half the broadcast team for the Pilots, Seattle’s first brush with Major League Baseball back in 1969. He’s retired now, after a long career broadcasting for the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA.

“Either way, I’ll be satisfied, but probably deep down, I’d like to see the Indians do it,” Schonely said.

The Cleveland baseball team’s famous 68-year championship drought has been much talked about this autumn. In the autumn of 1964, in the second decade of that drought, the talk was all about the Cleveland Indians moving to Seattle. Newspapers across the country were reporting emphatically that the Cleveland team would uproot and move to the Northwest after 63 years in northern Ohio.

“Approximately one month from now, the baseball map will be drastically changed again when the Milwaukee Braves move to Atlanta and the Cleveland Indians move their franchise to Seattle,” wrote a UPI correspondent in a story that was published in newspapers nationwide that September more than 52 years ago.

Professional baseball has a long and storied history here, but the Major League was pretty much exclusively an East Coast and Midwest enterprise up until the 1950s. Teams traveled for away games by train or bus, and the United States was just too big for a geographically national sport.

But those old reasons were made obsolete when the Dodgers left Brooklyn and the Giants left Manhattan and began playing in California for the 1958 season. Major League Baseball was a whole new ballgame – truly a national pastime.

Call it a form of Manifest Destiny, but things like faster air travel and expansion of national television networks from coast to coast created the opportunity for the American League and National League to begin looking south and west.

Baseball interests in Seattle began getting serious about bringing the Major League here around 1960, and efforts intensified in the afterglow of the wildly successful 1962 World’s Fair. In those days, the Seattle Rainiers (later called the Seattle Angels) were the professional baseball team in town, playing in the Pacific Coast League, serving as a farm team for the Boston Red Sox, and hosting games at Sicks Stadium in the Rainier Valley.

In July 1964, the owners of the Cleveland Indians made it clear that they wanted new lease terms for the city-owned Municipal Stadium where they played. Attendance had been dropping for years, and in 1963 had been the lowest since 1945. The Indians’ lease was set to expire at the end of 1964, and everyone assumed that the team wanted to leave town for the greener outfields of the West.

The situation in Cleveland that year wasn’t unusual. Baseball was in major geographical flux. After the Dodgers and Giants moved west in 1958, the Senators left Washington, DC and became the Minnesota Twins, and then new expansion teams had been created in Houston and in DC (to replace the Twins).

By early September, two more teams were making noise about moving. It looked like the Milwaukee Braves (who had moved there from Boston in 1953) were headed for Atlanta, and the Kansas City A’s (who had moved there from Philadelphia in 1955) were also packing their bags to leave.

When the Indians gave their notice to the City of Cleveland, Seattle civic leaders swung into action.

During the summer of 1964, a group organized by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and led by Washington Natural Gas executive William P. Woods and KVI Radio’s Bert West launched a purely speculative season ticket sales campaign for the 1965 season. There was no team and no stadium, but the Chamber knew season ticket sales would be a powerful tool to show that Seattle was serious.

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By mid-September, they’d collected $700,000, or roughly $5.5 million in 2016 dollars. Local broadcasters had also agreed to offer whatever Major League team that came here a five-year, $1 million-a-year TV and radio contract.

The Indians’ majority owner and general manager (and lead negotiator) was former Cincinnati Reds executive Gabe Paul, who would later be involved with the New York Yankees during one of their golden eras in the mid-1970s. Paul and the other Indians’ shareholders weren’t interested in selling the team; they wanted a better deal.

Was Gabe Paul truly interested in moving the Indians, or was Seattle just a pawn in a game of hardball negotiation? Besides Seattle, other cities also expressed interest in the Indians that summer, including Dallas and Oakland, but the City of Cleveland wasn’t going to just give up without a fight. Which is probably what Gabe Paul wanted all along.

On Oct. 1, Cleveland Mayor Ralph S. Locher and Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes met three separate times with Paul to offer new lease terms and other incentives to get the team to stay. Mayor Locher told a reporter late that day, “I have a feeling things look better for the Indians staying here, even though Gabe won’t comment.”

The Cleveland team’s board of directors planned to meet on Oct. 6 to decide what to do and to formally vote on their future. After four hours, they adjourned without making a decision. Another meeting was scheduled for October 16.

Gabe Paul explained the delay, made his case for a better deal, and threw a bone to the people of Cleveland.

“The board recognizes that the Indians cannot continue to operate on the same basis as in 1963 and 1964,” Paul said. “However, the directors feel that Cleveland officials and civic groups should be given an opportunity to stimulate sufficient support to enable the club to remain here.”

A few days later, Gabe Paul took to the road on a barnstorming tour to the three cities that wanted the Indians: Dallas, Oakland, and Seattle. Paul visited Seattle on Friday, October 9. He met with Chamber officials in the morning, toured Sicks Stadium, and then met with Mayor Braman and King County’s three commissioners. A Seattle sportswriter said that Paul’s visits to Dallas and Oakland were “window dressing” – Seattle was the only serious contender.

On Oct. 11, Paul told the Seattle group that the Indians would come if seating at Sicks Stadium could be expanded to accommodate 25,000 people. Sicks would have to serve as a temporary home during the 1965 season, at least, and probably longer, while a new, yet-to-be-funded stadium was built.

After an Oct. 13 Seattle city council meeting to review the stadium expansion plans, Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman said that the city and county were legally prevented from funding improvements. Sicks Stadium was private property, owned at that time by the Rainier Brewing Company. The beer company fully supported the efforts to draw the Indians here, and offered to lease the stadium at “no profit.”

William P. Woods, the leader of the local effort, was discouraged by the news from Seattle City Hall, and also by Gabe Paul’s demeanor when he’d visited Seattle a few days earlier.

“Unless he’s more eager than he appeared the other day, it doesn’t appear too promising,” Woods said.

But the Seattle committee didn’t give up and instead began crafting a workaround involving private investors willing to fund modifications to Sicks. Then, on October 15, the day before the big meeting in Cleveland, UPI sportswriter Milton Richman said unequivocally that the Indians were Seattle bound. “There are no ifs ands or buts,” wrote Richman, in a widely printed piece.

The day of the big meeting came. When the ballots were counted, the board of directors had voted unanimously to remain in Cleveland.

According to the Seattle Times, Mayor Locher and the City of Cleveland came through with a package of incentives, including funding improvements to the ballpark and reducing the cut they took through ticket sales tax. Improvements included new lights, escalators, a new press box, refurbishing of bleachers, new plumbing, new restrooms, a new PA system, painting and decorating, and a “stadium club modeled after the one made popular by the New York Yankees.” Oh, and Mayor Locher also made a tentative commitment to resurface the Indians’ parking lot.

Had Seattle been played? Had Cleveland been played? William P. Woods was diplomatic.

“I don’t know whether [the team] was pitting one city against another, but, as a businessman, I cannot criticize [Gabe] Paul for seeking the best deal possible for his stockholders,” Woods said.

It probably wasn’t the first time that Seattle was used as leverage by an out-of-town sports team, and we certainly know it wasn’t the last. And, dear Seattle fans, of the three teams in motion that summer, Cleveland was the only one that actually stayed put; both the Milwaukee Braves and the Kansas City A’s would move to new cities in the next few years.

In retrospect, being left at the altar by Cleveland was not without some local value. The six weeks or so between when the possibility of the Indians coming here was made public and when it all fell apart were a bit of an “earthquake drill” that, it can be argued, helped pave the way for Major League Baseball in Seattle.

Within a year of being spurned by Cleveland, the City of Seattle began negotiations to purchase Sicks Stadium from Rainier Beer, and the sale was final in early 1966. They cleverly used money from the Thompson Expressway project, since the route would someday eventually impact the stadium. Now the city could legally invest in improvements there. Also, those advance ticket sales in 1964, made with only the remote promise of a team coming here, and the lucrative broadcasting deal were also proof that there was real demand here.

On October 18, 1967, Seattle was finally awarded an American League franchise – jokingly referred to as the “Green Sox.” Kansas City also got a team, since the A’s had moved to Oakland.

Gabe Paul, still with the Cleveland Indians, was one of those voting on the franchise award. He told a Seattle Times reporter, somewhat cryptically, “Seattle has muffed its chances before. I hope you don’t this time. It’s a great place.”

Related: Loss of Ballard’s Sunset Bowl still hurts

By 1969, the Pilots would play their one and only season in Seattle. When that team went bankrupt and was moved to Milwaukee for the 1970 season (to replace the Braves, who’d gone to Atlanta), the resulting lawsuit filed by King County against the American League would eventually bring the expansion Mariners here for the 1977 season.

Bill Schonely is philosophical about the machinations on the business side of the baseball clubhouse.

“The owners, they try to up one another, if you will, and they did it then, and they’re still doing it today,” Schonely said. “But baseball is thriving, and the Indians are back and they got a shot at it since 1948, and more power to ‘em!”

While the Cleveland Indians stayed put in Ohio, a significant piece of the team did come to Seattle just a few years later. Schonely’s broadcast partner for that single Seattle Pilots season was Jimmy Dudley. Dudley was with the Indians for 21 years before being unceremoniously let go in 1968.

“Well, you got something out of it anyway, yeah,” Schonely said, of Seattle’s failed 1964 parley with the Indians.

On a sadly unrelated note, Schonely doesn’t put much faith in the Mariners’ chances of making it to the World Series anytime soon.

“I have no idea [when they’ll make it], but at the rate, they’re going, it’s gonna be a long, long time,” Schonely said.

After a pause, while a reporter expressed shock and disbelief, Schonely laughed.

“Oh my gosh. I don’t why that came out, but it came out that way,” he said, still laughing.

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The Cleveland Indians almost moved to Seattle