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Originally published Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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‘Becoming Big League’: a history of Seattle baseball’s ins and outs

In “Becoming Big League,” Federal Way historian William Mullin tells the intricate story of how Seattle lost one baseball team and gained another. Mullins discusses his book Monday at Seattle’s University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

William Mullins

The author of “Becoming Big League” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle’s University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).

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Book review

‘Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics’

by William H. Mullins

University of Washington Press, 348 pp., $26.95

Seattle Mariners fans often bemoan the recent misfortunes of their underachieving home team, but they can all take solace in this thought: for at least the foreseeable future, they don’t have to fret about the club’s very existence or its gem of a stadium, Safeco Field.

In the edifying and entertaining “Becoming Big League,” Federal Way-based historian William Mullins takes a comprehensive look at stadium politics from the early 1960s to the arrival of Seattle’s first Major League baseball team, the Pilots, in 1969. He goes on to detail the development of the Kingdome and the acquisition of a new American League expansion team, the Mariners.

Public funding of sports venues was a divisive topic for the body politic, even before Seattle had a major league sports team. Stadium bond issues failed to win the required 60 percent of the vote in 1960 and again in 1966. Despite evidence on many fronts that Seattle was not ready for prime time, the city became a target market for an expanding American League. In a chapter titled, “Come and they will build it,” Mullins describes a remarkable sequence of events that led to the formation of the Pilots.

In retrospect, the move was doomed from the start. Pilots team owners were indecisive and underfinanced. Sicks’ Stadium in southeast Seattle was in disrepair. During the Pilots’ first season, attendance was low and the ticket prices were too high. The ownership group bickered constantly with city of Seattle officials over stadium repairs and other issues.

The team was sold after just one season in Seattle for $10.8 million, to a group in Milwaukee led by businessman and current baseball commissioner Bud Selig. In the ensuing six months Seattle civic and business leaders fought hard to keep the team — to no avail.

The upside of the wrenching extraction of the Pilots from Seattle was that the foundation of civic leadership, first formed after the spectacular success of the 1962 World’s Fair, gained strength. James Ellis and a core of visionaries championed a progressive agenda that culminated in 1968 with the Forward Thrust bond campaign to fund capital improvements in the city. The projects included $40 million for construction of a domed stadium, which passed by 62 percent.

The Kingdome was completed in 1976, and after a lengthy lawsuit filed by then state Attorney General Slade Gorton and others, the American League awarded Seattle an expansion team, the Mariners, who began league play in 1977.

Mullins is a former history professor, and “Becoming” is the result of dogged and thorough research. If anything, this densely written account could use some winnowing and paring to make it more accessible to the average reader. Still, it’s hard to find fault with the author’s consistently impressive control of a complex and convoluted topic.

The baseball writing is mostly undistinguished but grew on me with lines such as this mordantly understated assessment of the Pilots’ inaugural season (and just about any losing baseball team you can name): “Both hope and luck ran out in August.”

What keeps the narrative lively is a steady progression of colorful characters, including Dewey Soriano, a former minor league player, general manager and part of the Pilots’ ownership group, and a host of terrific sports writers. Seattle may not have had big league teams, but the sports writers in this town were top notch. Mullins generously quotes eminent and colorful reporters such as Hy Zimmerman of The Seattle Times, and my favorite, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s John Owen. Here’s what Owen had to say about Sicks’ Stadium not having enough seats on opening day: “Not bad for a bunch of brash amateurs. Even if they did get caught with a few of their bleachers down.”

David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”

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