“I played for three teams that were very popular in terms of memorabilia—the A’s, Yankees and Seattle Pilots. And not necessarily in that order.”(1)
“We had no idea that one day our uniforms would be worth more than we were.”(2)
Few teams of baseball’s modern era have garnered more attention among collectors than the 1969 Seattle Pilots. Surviving only one tumultuous year before bankruptcy forced the team’s sale to a Milwaukee coalition headed by used car salesman Bud Selig, Pilots memorabilia continues to grow in popularity. Arguably, the most desirable pieces of Pilots’ memorabilia are the fabled jerseys and hats worn during that lone season in Seattle, immortalized in Jim Bouton’s seminal tell-all, Ball Four. Along with the Astros’ precursor, the Houston Colt .45’s (a team that lasted three years under that moniker, compared the Pilots’ one season), Pilots jerseys are prized by collectors for their unique styling and rarity.
A Brief History of the (Brief) Pilots
Prior to being awarded a major league franchise, Seattle had a long history as a minor league baseball city in the Pacific Coast League. As attendance began declining in the 1960’s for long-time PCL entry the Seattle Rainiers, major league owners began to consider the city as a possible site for big league expansion(3). At the time, Seattle was the third-largest city in the West, and featured a healthy local economy, propelled by aeronautics giant Boeing. With the only professional sports team in the area being the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, owners felt that with the demise of Seattle’s PCL entry (then operating as the Seattle Angels), the city’s sports fans would be eager to patronize a major league franchise.
At Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in 1967, brothers Max and Dewey Soriano were awarded a franchise for Seattle to join the American League. Both brothers had significant involvement in the Pacific Coast League and therefore, brought a respectable amount of organized ball experience to the table. They created the entity Pacific Northwest Sports, Inc. to implement the enterprise, and solicited financial help from William R. Daley, a former owner of the Cleveland Indians. The awarding of the franchise was contingent upon the city meeting several benchmarks dictated by the league. These included: Passage of a King County stadium bond issue, enlarging Sicks’s Stadium (the old P.C.L. park where the new team would play) from 11,000 to 30,000 seats by opening day, 1969, construction of a new, domed stadium by December 31, 1970, and recognition and approval of the club’s major stockholders. If any of the conditions weren’t met, the league retained the right to move the team (4)..
Prior to the $40 Million King County Bond referendum, the Soriano brothers and the American League brought several athletes to the Seattle area to drum up support for the issue. Mickey Mantle, Jimmy Piersall, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Dimaggio and even ex-Giant and 49er Y.A. Tittle made public engagements on behalf of the cause. On February 6, 1968 the referendum passed by a 62.3 % “yes” vote. With that major hurdle cleared, the organization commenced assembling personnel for the club. Marvin Milkes, a front office man for the hometown P.C.L. Seattle Angels, was chosen as G.M. for the new club. St. Louis Cardinals’ third base coach Joe Schultz was hired as the new manager.
In the summer of 1968, Pacific Northwest Sports, Inc. sponsored a contest to name the city’s new team. Seattle resident Donald Nelson submitted the winning name, “Pilots”, which was chosen over other such entries as “Rainiers”, “Green Sox”, “Kings”, and “Mariners”(5).
Upon adoption of the club’s new identity, the front office began signing players and gearing up for an expansion draft, to be shared with the American League’s other new franchise, the Kansas City Royals. Each club would alternately select players left unprotected by the other American League teams, at a cost of $175,000 each. A coin toss would determine who would pick first. League President Joe Cronin flipped the coin and Dewey Soriano guessed right; the Pilots would have the first selection. With that choice, the club selected power-hitting Angels first baseman Don Mincher. Mincher, an All-Star in 1967, had posted disappointing numbers in 1968 after getting beaned by a Sam McDowell fastball early in the season. Other notable selections at the time included Tommy Harper, former All-Stars Gary Bell and Tommy Davis, and The Sporting News’ 1966 relief pitcher of the year, Jack Aker. The club also drafted future stars Mike Marshall and Lou Piniella (who became the principal in the worst trade in the Pilots’ brief history, as he was dealt away to the Royals before the start of the regular season for Steve Whitaker and John Gelnar).
A new facility was constructed in Tempe, Arizona for spring training, where the club slugged its way to a respectable 12-16 record. The team was publicly optimistic, with Milkes and Schultz predicting a third-place regular season finish for the club (6)
The Pilots opened the season on the road against the Angels, and eked out a 4-3 win, with Mike Hegan belting the first homer in Seattle major league history. After dropping the next contest 7-3, the team returned home to much fanfare for the home opener against the White Sox. A sizable crowd of over 17,000 descended upon Sick’s Stadium on April 11 for the first major league game ever played in the Pacific Northwest. Dignitaries on hand included Washington State Senators Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson, Governor Dan Evans, Seattle mayor Floyd Miller, American League president Joe Cronin, and Angels owner Gene Autry. Fans filing into the stadium were surprised to see construction workers still on hand from the previous day. Crews had been hired to bring the seating capacity up to the league’s agreed upon standards. Some fans had to wait in line while crews worked frantically to fasten seats into place (7). Delays in the expansion plans, bickering between the club and city over costs, unpaid bills and bad weather had contributed to the debacle. Unfortunately for the Pilots, the whole episode was a harbinger of things to come. Nonetheless, the hometown crowd was treated to a convincing 7-0 win. Don Mincher homered for the Pilots while Gary Bell went the distance for the shutout.
After a dismal April that saw the club spiral downward to an 8-17 mark, the team battled back to a 20-21 record by May 27. After that, typical expansion mediocrity prevailed, and the Pilots ended the season with a 64-98 record, good for last place in the Western Division. Attendance dropped off through the course of the season for a handful of reasons. Naturally, the team’s poor play contributed to lack of interest, but the woeful condition of Sick’s Stadium certainly played a role. Plumbing problems in the aging minor league facility resulted in water pressure so weak the toilets usually quit working after the seventh inning. Local media took issue with the Pilots’ ticket and concession prices, which were the reportedly the highest in the league. The team was also unable to work out any television deal, thereby missing out on vital media exposure, not to mention an important source of revenue.
There were a few bright spots to the Pilots season. While attendance was disappointing, the team managed to outdraw Philadelphia, San Diego, Cleveland and Chicago (White Sox), all of which played in ballparks that held at least twice as many fans as Sick’s Stadium. And while the Pilots finished last in their division, they had a slightly better record than Cleveland in the Eastern Division, and did measurably better than the two National League expansion teams, San Diego and Montreal. A few players turned in noteworthy performances; Tommy Harper led the league in stolen bases with 73, and Mike Hegan batted .292 and was elected to represent the team in the All Star game. A leg injury prevented Hegan from playing in the Midsummer Classic, so Don Mincher took his place. Mincher led the team with 25 home runs. Diego Segui paced the bullpen with a 12-6 mark, 12 saves and a 3.35 ERA. Gene Brabender led the starters with a 13-14 record.
From the beginning, team ownership was over-leveraged and under-capitalized. Majority owner William Daley had tried to solicit local financial help in mid-season, but came up empty. Dwindling attendance, low revenues, and a slumping local economy hit the Pilots hard. Team ownership had refused to put up a bond guaranteeing the rent on Sick’s Stadium, and as a result, Mayor Floyd Miller had threatened to evict the Pilots (8). The team had even neglected to pay rent for the stadium in June. By the end of the season, Sick’s Stadium renovation was still behind schedule, groundbreaking for a new domed stadium wasn’t close to happening, and substantial loans were coming due. Legal wrangling ensued, culminating in a bankruptcy court decision clearing the way for the team’s sale to Milwaukee, thus ending one of the bizarre episodes in modern major league history.
The Pilot’s Uniforms
The first Pilots jerseys, issued for spring training, were quite plain. The name “Pilots” was arched in blue letters on the front, with the player number on the back. These cotton flannel jerseys (white for home games, gray for away) were manufactured by Wilson. The Wilson tag can be found in either the collar or the front tail. Many of these original spring training jerseys were recycled for use in the Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers farm system. Some existing examples have the 1969 MLB Anniversary patch that was worn during the regular season on the Pilots’ road jerseys. However, these were sewn on after the fact, as these patches were not worn during spring training, nor were the spring training jerseys worn during the regular season.
The Pilots flannel home jerseys featured eye-catching blue and gold sleeve braiding, blue-on-gold tackle-twill numbers on the front and back, the name “Pilots” (also on blue/gold tackle-twill) and the distinctive winged ship’s wheel emblem. The emblem’s design was created by Seattle Post-Intelligencer artist Stuart Moldrem, and was intended to reflect the Seattle area’s air and sea heritage (9). The Wilson manufacturer’s tag can be found on the front tail, along with “1969” in blue chain stitching. The player’s last name was chain stitched in the back of the collar. It should be noted that subsequent “Turn Back the Clock” renditions of the Pilots home jerseys worn by the Seattle Mariners have erroneously included the 1969 Anniversary patch on the sleeve. This patch was worn on the Pilots’ road jerseys only.
The flannel road jerseys were light blue, and featured the same sleeve braiding as the home jerseys. The front had the name “Seattle” arched in lower case letters, with the winged wheel emblem. The 1969 MLB Anniversary patch was worn on the left sleeve, and the player number was worn on the back. Both the name “Seattle” and the player number were made with the familiar gold on blue tackle-twill. The player’s last name was stitched on a felt swatch in the collar. Spalding tagging can be found on the lower front tail.
The first caps and batting helmets, issued during spring training, were blue with a gold “S” on the front. Eventually, the more familiar (and to some, outlandish) airline captain’s or naval officer’s “scrambled eggs” (actually a design of gold leaves) were added on the bill, with a horizontal gold line under the “S”. The team wore both variations of the cap during spring training, but stuck exclusively with the “scrambled eggs” version for the regular season.
The regular season uniforms were met with derision among most of the players, and quickly became the source of jokes throughout the league (10). As Bouton recounted in Ball Four: “There was a lot of grousing about the uniforms. It isn’t only that they didn’t fit…It’s that they’re so gaudy. We look like goddam clowns.” (11) A little later in the book, Bouton went on to say: “The first thing I felt when the Yankees showed up at the park today was embarrassment. That’s because our uniforms look so silly with that Technicolor gingerbread all over them.” (12)
Almost 40 years on, it seems as though many former players have come to appreciate the uniqueness of the uniforms they once wore. For his book, The 1969 Seattle Pilots: Major League’s One-Year Team, Kenneth Hogan interviewed several ex-Pilots. When asked about the uniforms, most generally seemed to like them, and several regretted not keeping a jersey from that season (13).
A Collecting Challenge
Finding Pilots game used jerseys can be difficult, and locating unrestored examples can be next to impossible. Spring training jerseys are the “easiest” to find, but increasing demand has diminished the availability of these. Some can be found in their original, unaltered state, but some have the ’69 Anniversary patch sewn on the left sleeve, which would represent an alteration from their original use in spring training.
Home and road jerseys, when found, typically feature some degree of restoration. After the franchise moved to Milwaukee, Pilots uniforms were reused for some of the Brewers’ minor league teams. The Clinton Pilots, Danville Warriors (both teams were Brewers’ Midwest League class A affiliates), and the Portland Beavers (the Brewers’ 1970 AAA affiliate) all used recycled Pilots jerseys at various times. The Warriors used Pilots jerseys as late as the 1972 season. Pilots shirts were also altered by the Brewers for subsequent spring training use. This would explain why most of the Pilots jerseys that were re-lettered as Brewers jerseys are high roster numbers or non-roster players. Because of this typical frugality, unrestored jerseys are exceedingly rare. Hobby pioneer Phil Wood (a uniform collector since 1975, I might add) has seen no more than 9 or 10 all-original shirts, all homes, most with the names removed from the collar. Wood surmises that most, if not all, of those were taken by people who were around the club at that point, or taken incidentally during the 1969 season.
Although the vast majority of Pilots home and road jerseys available to collectors have some degree of restoration or alteration, don’t let that dissuade you from hunting one down for your collection. For more insight into the topic of restorations, check out MEARS Auth, LLC’s article, “Restoring Your Faith in Collecting…Understanding Restorations and Changes”, available to MEARS members in the news archive section of the website.
While Pilots game-worn caps and jerseys are available from time to time, pants and jackets are rarely found for sale or at auction. Of the few examples of each to hit the market, both (pants and jacket) featured McAuliffe manufacturers tagging. The Pilots jackets were made of blue nylon, and had a large winged wheel patch on the front. The 100th MLB Anniversary patch was positioned on the left sleeve, and the collar, cuffs and waist were trimmed in gold and blue.
The New Milwaukee Brewers: Pilots In Disguise?
It has long been held that the Brewers used Pilots jerseys for at least the beginning of the 1970 season. Newspaper accounts of the day suggested that old Pilots uniforms would be reused as the regular season began, with Pilots lettering cut off and Brewers lettering sewn on. (14) When asked about this, former player Steve Hovely could not corroborate that, stating, “I don’t remember that specifically, but I remember the uniform being a lot similar.” (15) The myth continues to be perpetuated to this day (16). Contrary to this theory, I suggest that the evidence points to the fact that the Brewers had ordered and used new uniforms for the 1970 season, and, more than likely, had not reused Pilots jerseys for the regular season.
I once owned a 1970 Brewers jersey issued to catcher Don Bryant. Bryant was acquired by the Pilots on December 1, 1969 and returned to the Houston Astros on April 3, 1970. The Pilots were officially transferred to Milwaukee on April 1, 1970, and played their league opener on April 7th. Bud Selig and company had programs and tickets printed up in anticipation that the Pilots would become the Brewers by opening day of the 1970 season (17). Given that a uniform was made for Bryant, who was released before the regular season began, it seems likely that Selig’s new Brewers weren’t under pressure to alter existing Pilots unis for the start of the season. Indications are that Selig’s group had planned ahead of time for a successful transition from Seattle. In addition, MEARS has authenticated a 1970 Brewers home jersey issued to outfielder Roy Foster. The Pilots obtained Foster from the Mets on December 1, 1969, in the Rule 5 draft. He was traded by the Brewers, along with Frank Coggins to the Indians on April 4, 1969. Again, this is an instance where a jersey was made for a Brewer player before the start of the regular season. A UPI account from March 30, 1970 indicated that the Pilots team was anticipating new Brewers equipment, with players giving away bats and batting helmets to kids after the previous days’ spring training game in Tempe, Arizona (18).
The unceremoniously short history of the Pilots has spawned dozens of collectibles, none more treasured and valuable than the team’s game used jerseys. Prices have risen over the past several years, and they should continue to do so. The legacy of the team continues to capture the imagination of baseball aficionados, and next year will mark the 40th Anniversary of their one and only season. To add a Pilots flannel for your collection is to acquire a museum-worthy artifact from a team whose short history was as colorful as the uniforms they wore.
Further Reading and Resources
Most everything you need to know about the Pilots is contained within three books: Kenneth Hogan’s The 1969 Seattle Pilots: Major League Baseball’s One-Year Team, Carson Van Lindt’s The Seattle Pilots Story, and Jim Bouton’s hilarious insider’s account, Ball Four. Lindt’s and Hogan’s books are similar blow-by-blow accounts of the Pilots’ story. Lindt’s book goes into a little more detail, especially regarding the litigation surrounding the team, but is out of print and can be difficult to find. Hogan’s book is more recent, and has interesting player interviews included in the appendix. Both books have few errors and are well worth reading. Ball Four is an undisputed classic and should be read by any fan of major league baseball.
Mike Fuller runs an excellent website dedicated to the Pilots, www.seattlepilots.com, that is well worth checking out. An amusing promo film of the Pilots exists, titled The First Voyage, and was made at the conclusion of the 1969 season. Intended to be the first of many yearly highlight films, the 17-minute piece has some rare footage of the team in action, and is relatively easy to obtain.
(1). Stone, Larry. “Endearing and enduring: The 1969 Seattle Pilots.” Seattle Times, July 9, 2006.
(2). Yanity, Molly. “Former Pilots reflect on the summer of ’69.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 1, 2006.
(3). Van Lindt, Carson. The Seattle Pilots Story. New York: Maribu Publishing, 1993. P.10
(4). Hogan, Kenneth. The 1969 Seattle Pilots: Major League Baseball’s One-Year Team. Jefferson: McFarland & Co. 2007. P.15
(5). “Call ‘Em Pilots.” San Mateo Times. April 1, 1968, p.21
(6). Hogan, 23
(7). Van Lindt, 61
(8). Van Lindt, 173
(9). “Official Emblem With Air-Sea Theme to Dress Up Seattle Pilots”. The Sporting News, August 31, 1968, p.7
(10). Hogan, 17
(11). Bouton, Jim. Ball Four. New York: Wiley, p.103.
(12). Bouton, 159
(13). Hogan, 145-177.
(14). Greene, Bob. “Milwaukee ‘Dream’ Realized.” Stevens Point Daily Journal, April 7, 1970, p.10.
(15). Stone, 1.
(16). “…The Brewers’ first uniforms were those of the Pilots. The old name was removed and the new one was stitched on.” Zizzo, Mark. “Brewers Flashback.” Wisconsin State Journal, April 6, 2008, p. E2.
(17). Hogan, 135.
(18). “Just One Pilot Hang-Up.” The Daily Review (Hayward, CA), March 30, 1970, p.13.