Former Mariners owner, KJR leader Les Smith dies at age 93
Les Smith, who once owned 10 radio stations, including Seattle's KJR, and who was one of the original owners of the Seattle Mariners, died Wednesday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
"No one bats a thousand," Medina businessman Les Smith was fond of saying.
Perhaps. But Mr. Smith — an old-fashioned deal-maker who owned a slew of successful businesses — had a "very high batting average," recalled Seattle radio man Pat O'Day.
The owner of 10 stations, including the now-legendary KJR, and part of the group that brought major league baseball back to Seattle in 1977, Mr. Smith died Wednesday. He was 93.
Mr. Smith grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from New York University and joined the military, serving during World War II. He once said that he missed getting hit by a shell fragment because he left his tent and went to dinner, his son Alex recalled.
"He was always accused of good timing," Alex Smith said.
He began his radio career as a page at NBC in New York, eventually making his way to Seattle as he got more deeply involved in the industry. Partnering with entertainer Danny Kaye, he formed the company Kaye-Smith Enterprises, which over the years ran radio stations across the country, as well as a nationwide concert-promotion business, a recording studio, and a radio-syndication company among other things.
In 1954, Mr. Smith bought KJR-AM in Seattle, which in its heyday reached almost 40 percent of the listening audience in the region, O'Day said. Back then, KJR had a nationwide reputation.
Mr. Smith's leadership — as well as his willingness to give the reins to trusted employees — was the key to the station's success.
"He would surround himself with talented people and then would employ that most powerful of words: 'yes,' " said O'Day, who worked with Mr. Smith for decades. Today, O'Day added, that's just not done, and the business has turned much more sterile.
Known for wearing a suit and carrying a cigar — sometimes lit, sometimes not — Mr. Smith was a tough but fair boss. Gary Crow, an on-air personality, recalls that one year, all the DJs at one station got $10,000 bonuses.
"Everybody walked away a better person for knowing him," Crow said.
Kaye-Smith eventually sold the radio stations and other businesses and switched gears, becoming a direct-marketing and financial-communications company.
In the 1970s, Mr. Smith, Kaye and four others became the original owners of the Mariners. Mr. Smith was a baseball fan, son Alex said, but he saw owning the team as more of a business opportunity than a labor of love. In that period, Alex said, "He often said there were three very happy days: opening day in 1977; the All-Star Game of 1979, and selling the team in 1981.
"I think they made their investment back, but it was quite a ride," he added.
In his later years, Mr. Smith continued to keep a full schedule, going into the office, and to the Bellevue Club to swim, until about age 90.
Mr. Smith had heart troubles for some time, but didn't let that stop him from celebrating his 93rd birthday last Saturday. He chose the menu: hot dogs and potato salad. A photographer came to take a family portrait. Alex said his father had mentioned that his goal was to hold on until his birthday.
Four days later, he passed away in his sleep.
As always, Mr. Smith's timing was impeccable.
He is survived by his wife, Bernice, and children June Brockmeier, Laura Roberts, Kim Miller and Alex Smith, as well as six grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life is scheduled for Dec. 1. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Seattle Children's Uncompensated Care fund.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org