Over the weekend, I finished reading a book that had been gifted to me by a good friend who lives in Seattle. She’s always known me as a baseball fan and an avid reader (not to mention my interest in history), so when this book about the Seattle Pilots came out, she made sure that a copy landed in my hands.
Bill Mullins’s Becoming Big League provides more than just a recap of the Seattle Pilots’ only season. It brings to us the story of the relationship between the city of Seattle and Major League Baseball during the 1960s and 1970s. This book delves into the economics and politics involved in, first, bringing the Pilots to the city of Seattle, and second, the attempt–and failure–at keeping them there once the season ended. I was not around to witness the glorious debacle that was the Seattle Pilots, but after reading this book, I kind of wish I had been.
While the Pilots are remembered today with some nostalgia and romanticism for the past, the reality behind their stint in Seattle was less than glamorous. Mullins traces the initial struggle to bring Major League Baseball to the city by Dewey and Max Soriano, and the wariness, if not outright resistance, of Seattle’s citizenry and leaders. In spite of its growth and self-identification as a city open to new things, when it came to sports in the 1960s, Seattle was still very much a college town. The city had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, through the door to becoming “Big League.” Mullins shows us how the Pilots became the first ugly steps through that door, and how that ugliness and constant political bickering resulted in the Pilots’ demise.
Interspersed between chapters of the discussion of stadium politics, Mullins includes chapters about the Pilots themselves. I found this to be a nice touch, reminding the reader that, for all the politics and business involved in baseball, there is still a game that takes place on the field–and the appreciation of that game is what makes such a struggle worthwhile. Readers get a glimpse of the team, the personalities of its players, and get to follow the Pilots through their one and only season in existence. While the team’s final record was mediocre, at best, the Pilots nevertheless exceeded performance expectations for an expansion team’s first year in existence. Unfortunately, as Mullins details for us, the politics of stadium-building hindered the desire for would-be baseball fans to come out to the ballgame. By the end of the year, the Seattle Pilots were bankrupt.
There is no doubt that copious amounts of time and effort went into the research and writing of this book. The scope of the book covers not only the Pilots themselves, but also explores the character of Seattle, its citizens, and its leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. Mullins elaborates on the mindsets of the citizens and of the city’s leaders, as well as the struggle to convince Seattleites that Big League baseball was what they wanted, even if they didn’t know it yet. He untangles the knots of political debate, the economic struggles, and the business decisions involved in the Pilots’ birth and plight, and he does it in a way that is not drab or cumbersome, as I have found in so many other books about history and politics. Mullins manages to take this overwhelming labyrinth of a subject and lays it out in a way that is not only understandable, but also enjoyable to read.