September 22, 2014

“Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers” by Dan Raley

March 25, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

WELL-DONE HISTORY OF BYGONE SEATTLE BASEBALL ERA

As someone who used to literally sit at my grandfather’s knee listening to his stories of the old Seattle Rainiers and the Pacific Coast League, I became quite familiar with names of people who built baseball in Seattle in the years from 1938 onward.  Grandpa was the head groundskeeper at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium for the first 22 years it was open, and he told me tales of players like Bill Lawrence, Fred Hutchinson, Edo Vanni, Bill Schuster, Dick Gyselman, JoJo White and others.  It was a magical time for Seattle baseball, and Grandpa was obviously proud to have been part of it.  His memories became mine.

When I first became of aware of the existence of “Pitchers of Beer,†I was immediately intrigued.  As someone who delivered the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a kid before learning my first object lesson in capitalism (There are better ways to make $30 a month than waking up at 4:30 EVERY morning to spend an hour bicycling through all kinds of weather), I was familiar with Dan Raley’s writing.  His 30 years of work for the P-I makes him eminently qualified to write a history covering a segment of Seattle baseball that most current residents have little to no idea ever existed.  The Seattle Rainiers were a local cultural phenomenon, though, and Raley does a great job of capturing who they were and that they meant to the city.

For the uninitiated: The Seattle Rainiers were the remnants of the old Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League, which was the highest level of baseball west of the Mississippi prior to the move of both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California in 1957.  The Indians played at a converted all-dirt football field called Civic Stadium after their former home (Dugdale Park) was burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1932.  The team itself was run into the ground financially by owner Bill Klepper, who was forced by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to give up the franchise because of his mismanagement.  Enter Emil Sick, owner of the Seattle-based Rainier brewery.

Sick bought the Indians for a nominal fee and assumed $80,000 in debt after the 1937 season.  He renamed the team the Rainiers (after his beer), brought in talented staff and players and financed Sicks’ Seattle Stadium, a 12,000-seat state-of-the-art ballpark which cost $350,000 to build   The team immediately took off on the field, winning three pennants within five years, and attending a Rainiers game became as much a social event as a night at a ballgame.  While the team’s success in the standings was mixed after their 1942 flag, they remained an integral part of the scene in Seattle until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when the PCL was minimized and the city itself developed a champagne taste after the 1962 World’s Fair that did not include minor league baseball.  Sick sold the team to the parent Boston Red Sox in 1960 and died in 1964 at age 70, two weeks after local legend Hutchinson succumbed to cancer at 45.

Raley spent five years putting this book together and it shows.  He interviewed dozens of former players, team executives and fans while poring through old newspaper microfilms and other sources for his background information.  Noted Seattle area sports collector Dave Eskenazi contributed photos and other pertinent material available nowhere else to this effort.  The end result is a 294-page book (plus an extra 42 pages’ worth of chapter-by-chapter source notes, including a terrific 24-page list of every player to ever wear a Rainiers uniform) that is both quite informative and a breezy read.  It’s quite enjoyable.

A lot of baseball histories are not as readable as they could be because while they’re long on stats and specific games, they come up short on putting the overall “big picture†within the context of place and time (my own low-budget history of Seattle’s five-year stay in the Class A Northwest League during the 1970’s admittedly falls into that category).  That is not a problem with “Pitchers of Beer.â€Â  You’ll get a lot of inside stuff you’ve never heard, like that secret apartment at the ballpark even Grandpa never told me about, but Raley puts it all in a coherent story that illustrates both why the Rainiers were successful enough to lead all of minor league baseball in attendance for nearly 20 years and why the team lost its local luster.

“Pitchers of Beer†is not a perfect book.  People and teams pop up out of nowhere in the text at times, and some longtime favorite players like Al Lyons (both a proficient outfielder and pitcher in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s) are not mentioned at all.  If you’re not familiar with the old PCL in general, it may be wise to have a companion book as a reference, such as “The Grand Minor League†by the late Dick Dobbins or “Runs, Hits and an Era†by Paul Zingg and Mark Medeiros.  The title of the book itself only makes sense to people already aware of the connection between baseball and beer in Seattle.  Still, these are small complaints for an otherwise very impressive work.

I’d recommend “Pitchers of Beer†highly to anyone who wants a well-written, well-documented history of what still stands for many as the true Golden Age of Seattle Baseball.  Raley has done a great job of illustrating how one man, Emil Sick, changed the game of baseball in the Northwest’s largest city through his combination of vision, commitment to that vision and the business sense to bring such a vision to fruition.

By Bruce Baskin.  Bruce is a guest writer and friend of Arne Christenson.

Comments

2 Responses to ““Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers” by Dan Raley”
  1. Jim Ahearn says:

    I just read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.I’ve been a baseball fan for more than 55 years and the pre 1958 PCL has fascinated me for a long time.Mr.Raley’s splendid book has only added to the allure.

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  1. [...] him in a gym, an airport or a coffee shop. One who knows him fairly well is a good friend of mine, Dan Raley, a longtime colleague at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who now is an editor at the Atlanta Journal [...]



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