Beautiful things happen when we understand a bit of the history in the place we live. In this post, guest blogger Mark Holtzen does a brilliant job at connecting us to the people who helped shape the very place we live through the story of Sick Stadium. Enjoy.
By Mark Holtzen
Historical stories abound in our charming South Seattle neighborhood. My family has been creating our own for the past 10 years in our 1923 home. A few blocks away, at the cross streets of Rainier and McClellan, two dilapidated signs mark the site of another part of the neighborhood with a wealth of history.
Sick’s Stadium once proudly stood where Lowe’s Home Improvement is currently located. My heart has always warmed at the thought of a ballpark within walking distance. I often fantasize about walking there after work to watch the Rainiers shag fly balls, hot dog wrappers and peanut shells scrunching under my feet. It’s more romantic than navigating speeding cars across Martin Luther King Jr. Way —formerly Empire Way —to go buy some screws and vacuum cleaner bags at the hardware store.
The Seattle Rainiers were the prominent team in the stadium, a Pacific Coast League franchise from 1938 to 1964. The Rainiers had a large local following and boasted high attendance.
Recently, the opportunity arose to write a children’s book about the Seattle Rainiers. In my search for stories I pored over the online Seattle Times newspapers at the Seattle Public Library site, a documentary on the team made in the ‘90s on Seattle TV and our excellent local museums – MOHAI, Rainier Valley Historical Society and the Northwest African American Museum. Plus a local sports memorabilia collector, Dave Eskenazi, proved generous with his collection. Eskenazi has contributed to Northwest sporting displays and events all over the region (Safeco Field is one example). The Rainiers won five Pacific Coast League pennants between 1939 and 1955, including three in a row from 1939 to 1941. Eskenazi shared many photos, including one of the former local burger joint (“XXX” or “The Barrel”) where kids would trade stories and cards after games. He also introduced me to the batboy from the 1955 season, Pat Patrick. Patrick loved talking about running around the old neighborhood with his brother and never missing a Rainiers game. “Some of the happiest days of my life,” he said. He still has one of his most prized possessions, a baseball glove that Bobby Balcena, a popular Rainiers outfielder and first professional Filipino baseball player, gave him after the 1956 season. Patrick especially enjoyed recalling celebrating with the team after the 1955 pennant-clinching season.
Reading former P-I reporter Dan Raley’s book, “Pitchers of Beer,” provided vital facts. Some of the more “colorful” details won’t make the children’s book, but made for enticing reading.
Local businesses, now institutions, were also fertile ground for stories from the past. Harry Yoshimura of Mutual Fish spoke of what it was like in the neighborhood in the ‘50s. His father moved their shop onto Rainier Avenue from Yesler and 14th (not until the 60’s, but I moved it in the book in order to use the classic fish store as a landmark). Remo Borracchini of Borracchini’s Bakery said his mom used to buy his toys at Stewart Lumber. He originally lived down the street near the Rainier I-90 off-ramp where Oberto’s now stands. Longtime locals also fondly remember getting their hair cut by Frank the barber in the building near the Chevron station on MLK. The building now stands empty, owned by SDOT for some yet-to-be announced use as our neighborhood continues to change.
Everyone was giddy to be able to talk about their days involved with Sicks’ Stadium and their Seattle Rainiers. Many shared which family member they would attend with and which route they took to the stadium. They loved recalling Leo Lassen, the long-time radio announcer.
Lassen was a Seattle institution and announced baseball games for decades. Fans, including Remo’s friends over lunchtime coffee not long ago, recalled some of his “Lassenisms.” Some say the man was the best announcer they’ve heard to this day.
Reading old Times and P-I articles gave me the “voice” of Seattle ‘50s baseball. I learned of the many local African-American baseball and softball teams from the fascinating recent “Pitch Black” exhibit at the Northwest African-American Museum. I was able to suggest to the illustrator a reference to a seemingly forgotten black women’s softball team, The Owls, thanks to the old photographs in their collection.
Both Metro bus 14 and 7 ran back then (Route 7 will be in the book). The routes started as trolleys, eventually replaced with electric buses in the ‘40s.
People used to sit on “Cheapskate” or “Tightwad Hill” (both nicknames get the point across, many old-timers assured me) where the Mount Baker Village Apartments now stand behind the dry cleaners on McClellan. The Vacca family, which owned this farm outside the stadium’s left field fence, didn’t mind letting fans watch from their fields. It was a perfect place to watch the game for free. The Vaccas also owned “Pre’s Garden Patch,” which sat where Rite Aide is now. One neighbor told me he used to help pick up litter in the stands for a free ticket to games.
Not far from us, Franklin High School has stood proudly for over 100 years with some impressive alumni. You can go down to Rainier Valley Historical Society and see all the Franklin High yearbooks back to the early 1900s. In one of those yearbooks is a photo of Fred Hutchinson, a former pro baseball player and manager. This local legend was drafted out of Franklin High by the Rainiers at age 18, went on to win 25 games that same year (he won his 19th game on his 19th birthday), then went to play and manage pro ball with the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. He came back to manage the Rainiers for the pennant-winning 1955 season and also in 1959. When this beloved man died of lung cancer at 45, his strength of character inspired his brother, a doctor, to open the the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his honor. “The Hutch” is now internationally renowned for its scientific work. To this day, the “Hutch Award” is still awarded to a professional baseball player for good work in his community.
My family has made Mount Baker its home. I take my kids on bus 14. Our family walks through the nearby pea patches, to local coffee shops Mio Posto and Repast for pastry and hot drinks. Sometimes we head to The Station coffee house on Beacon Hill and then to the library for lounging and reading. Thai Recipe, near the light rail station, always serves us well when no one feels like cooking. We have many favorite spots in Columbia City and Georgetown. Lightrail whisks us to all these places as well as to the airport and downtown. We wade, paddle, or swim in Lake Washington and catch the impressive but elusive views of looming Mount Rainier.
We continue to create our own family lore, while the stories of old whisper in my mind enriching the present.
- Seattle-based Sasquatch Books will publish Mark’s children book, Ticket to the Pennant: A Tale of Baseball in Seattle in April 2016.
- For more history on Fred Hutchinson – http://www.fredhutch.org/en/about/history.html
- Two of David Eskenazi’s many articles regarding local sports history:
- For another great read on the Seattle Rainiers check out Dan Raley’s book,
“Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers“
- All photos provided by the David Eskenazi Collection
Please contact Mark Holtzen at email@example.com with more tales of Sicks’ Stadium.