Book Review: 'Pitchers Of Beer' Honors Seattle's Minor League Legacy
Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers by Dan Raley
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
List Price: $26.95
Given that the Mariners, even after the last couple of rounds of expansion, are still one of Major League Baseball's relative newbies, it's easy to overlook Seattle's significant baseball history. But long before the M's came to town in 1977, and even before the Pilots took up a very temporary residency in 1969, the city was a hotbed for professional ball.
Minor league baseball in Seattle dates all the way back to 1890, when the Hustlers were part of the four-team Pacific Northwest League. In 1903, the Seattle Indians became one of the charter members of the Pacific Coast League. After a stint in the Northwest League, the Indians returned to the PCL in 1919, winning occasionally over the next two decades, but struggling to escape the second division most years. The franchise's fortunes improved dramatically when local businessman Emil Sick purchased the club in 1937 and renamed it the Rainiers, after his Rainier brewery.
Dan Raley, who covered the Mariners for many years for the now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer, fell in love with the Rainiers in 1964, the team's final season. His visits to Sicks' Stadium as a child helped fill the void left by the death of his father. Now, five decades later, he has honored the fabled minor league team with a comprehensive history, "Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers."
Raley collaborated with fellow Rainiers fanatic Dave Eskenazi, whose mania for collecting minor league baseball memorabilia brought him in contact with many of his former heroes. Eskenazi's photo trove provided plenty of artwork to match faces to the names that rostered the team throughout its 27-year run.
The list of icons associated with the club may surprise most readers. Rogers Hornsby, Lefty O'Doul, Johnny Pesky, and Paul Richards each took a turn managing the Rainiers, and Babe Ruth lobbied hard for the position in 1941. Earl Averill, Ewell Blackwell, Jim Lonborg, Claude Osteen, Rico Petrocelli, Vada Pinson, Vern Stephens, Maury Wills, Artie Wilson, and Wilbur Wood all suited up as players. And a young Ron Santo served as a clubhouse attendant before signing with the Cubs.
Most of the names that became local legends weren't quite as well known throughout the rest of the country, with the possible exception of righthander Fred Hutchinson, who won 95 big league games with Detroit and later managed the Tigers, Cardinals, and Reds. "Hutch," who grew up in Seattle and lives on as the name in its nationally renowned cancer research center, did two stints as manager, interspersed among trips to the major leagues. But his greatest work came in his pro debut, when he went 25-7 with a 2.48 ERA as a teenager on a Rainiers squad that went 100-75 in 1938. That performance, in a league dominated by veterans, earned him minor league player of the year honors from The Sporting News and sparked a bidding war among major league teams that netted the Rainiers $100,000 when they dealt him to Detroit.
Outfielder Edo Vanni, a friendly high school rival of Hutchinson's, signed the same year, walking away from his starring role on the University of Washington football team. He was as notable for his mouth as his hitting ability, earning him more than his share of inside pitches. Vanni, who never reached the majors, fulfilled many roles with the Rainiers over the years, ascending from player to coach to manager. Dick Barrett, whose penchant for alcohol indirectly earned him the nickname "Kewpie" by bloating up his face enough to resemble the famed dolls of the era, wrote his name into the franchise record books with several 20-win seasons. From 1938-42 he went 111-62 for the Rainiers. He also authored a seven-inning perfect game in 1948, during his second tour of duty in Seattle.
For most of their existence the Rainiers were an independent team, playing in a PCL which was regarded by many as just a notch down from the major leagues. Veterans like Barrett keyed regular pennant runs, with the team winning PCL titles in 1939, '40, '41, '51, and '55. Sick's willingness to spend money on players as well as what was then a state-of-the-art minor league ballpark, earned him a solid return on his investment. Seattle fans flocked to Sicks' Stadium, setting attendance records for the league, despite the fact that Los Angeles and San Francisco both had significantly larger populations from which to draw. Several times the Rainiers even outdrew major league teams in the early 1950s.
Raley and Eskenazi spent five years working on "Pitchers of Beer," in the process talking with 150 old players, coaches, front-office employees, and fans. Raley brings these characters back to life with deft storytelling and very readable text. The result is a rich team history that will rekindle long-forgotten memories for old Rainiers enthusiasts. Minor league history buffs—even those who never set foot in Sicks' Stadium—will appreciate it as well, particularly all of the details on the old PCL. Naturally, those who grew up in Seattle (in the interest of full disclosure, I fall into this category), may find even more to like.
The only fault I can find with the book is the ridiculous blurb on the back from Ken Griffey Jr., who offers up this enticing bit: "I've worn the Rainiers (Mariners throwback) uniforms. Readers will love Dan Raley's book." Perhaps he cranked that out after a quick nap in the clubhouse. Now that he's got a little more time on his hands, he might want to actually read the book.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.