BY Art Thiel 07:14PM 08/19/2020

Thiel: Strange saga of Slade Gorton and baseball

It says something when the MVP of a major league baseball franchise is a politician. But Sen. Slade Gorton always hit hard for the Mariners. An appreciation.

In 2018, Sen. Slade Gordon received the annual Paul Allen Award from the Seattle Sports Commission for his contribution to sports. / Rick May, Sportspress Northwest

Woeful as the Mariners are in this stubby season, woeful as they traditionally have been, they have met the standard to be termed a civic asset: Many people care.

While it’s also true that many people cared about the old Dog House restaurant in Belltown (“tenderness not guaranteed” was printed right on the menu, winning me over), no one was there to save that epicurean monument to gravy as a meal-repair tool.

Too bad Sen. Slade Gorton didn’t dare to dine there. His enthusiasm for bare-knuckles politics might have rescued the joint, in the manner that it saved the Mariners.

Instead, Gorton was a baseball fan. Long-timers hereabouts know the saga of Gorton’s role as patron saint of mediocre ball.

But upon his death Tuesday at 92, it is worthy of a re-visit, not just for the sakes of youngsters and newbies, but for all of us regarding what his time as one of the state’s most influential political figures says about Seattle and the long fight for the game to succeed here.

He will forever be remembered for what will remain one of top 10 quotes in Seattle sports history — no matter what anybody says.

If there were photos of American League owners in 1976, they would look at Slade Gorton like this.

Triumphant in 1976 when his lawsuit against MLB for hijacking the Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 (State of Washington v. Varmints, Privateers, Outlaws and Lee Van Cleef Lookalikes) resulted in a settlement that became the Mariners’ 1977 expansion franchise, then-state Attorney General Gorton had this to say about his adversaries, the club owners:

“They were a terrible bunch of people. My conclusion was that if any American League owner moved into your neighborhood, he would lower property values.”

Whatever else you may think of his Republican politics and many controversies, he won the pro-sports constituency with that observation.

After he became U.S. Senator a second time in 1989, Gorton was enlisted to help find a local buyer for the Mariners, whose owner, the charming but feckless Jeff Smulyan, was seeking to move the club to Tampa. The Kingdome was seen as no match for a Seattle summer, cable-TV revenues were negligible and crowds were small. MLB owners were about to have the last laugh on Gorton, pulling baseball out of Seattle again, this time for good.

In an interview for my 2002 Book, Out of Left Field, Gorton, born in Chicago and scion of the Gorton Seafood empire, offered a demographic snapshot of Seattle that I haven’t seen elsewhere, but explains a lot then about the 1950s and ’60s, and contrasts heavily with now.

When I first arrived, Seattle was profoundly different in one major respect: This was, perhaps more than any other American city of its size, quintessentially middle class. Coming from the East, my observation was that there were no slums typical of Eastern cities. There were also no great concentrations of wealth. The Boeing and Weyerhaeuser families had several generations to spread out their wealth. There was literally no one in Seattle to buy a major league franchise and operate it as a toy, at a loss, and spend money to be competitive.

If there were someone with that kind of money, he had no interest in sports. The Nordstroms had the Seahawks for awhile (1976-88), but they were never prominently mentioned with baseball. And in any event, baseball was a more expensive sport. Through the Pilots and early Mariners, there was never any logical person here to buy and treat them the way extremely wealthy families treated their teams in other cities.

In 1991, Gorton’s only move to help the Mariners was to go overseas and attempt to cash in a favor.

His work on the Senate’s commerce committee allowed him to pound on the FBI and U.S. Customs to produce more serious enforcement of the U.S. electronic piracy laws, which helped cut down counterfeiting and theft of intellectual property by China, Taiwan and South Korea, among others.

Many software makers were grateful. The leader of one such beneficiary of Gorton’s political muscle, Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi of Kyoto, Japan, was called upon by Gorton.

He wanted Yamauchi to do a solid for the community that helped launch, from a warehouse in the Green River Valley, Nintendo’s highly successful Super Mario video game. Gorton wanted Yamauchi to buy the local baseball team to keep it in Seattle.

Two days before Christmas in 1991, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo of America in Redmond, called Gorton.

“Mr. Senator,” he said, “my father-in-law says Seattle and the state of Washington have been very good to us. We have done extremely well here. We believe we owe something to the community. If you need $100 million to buy a baseball team, you’ve got $100 million.”

Half a world away, Gorton found his buyer.

The task wasn’t done. MLB actively resisted a foreign national owning the team. Gorton rode in again, calling the one owner he knew, Texas Rangers boss George W. Bush, to ask if he wouldn’t mind putting in a good word with his dad, George H.W. Bush.

The U.S. president soon called Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who told him there was no secret agenda at work to allow Japanese businessmen to take over American culture.

It worked.

Political and public pressure melted the resistance of ownership. MLB approved the sale in the summer of 1991. The Mariners were safe at home, even though the club’s owner for the next 22 years never saw a Mariners game in person. Yamauchi died in 2013 at 85.

In the history of wacky ownership sagas, the Yamauchi-Gorton linkage that reached the White House and the front page of the New York Times is one in a million. Almost 30 years later, it also seems quaint in light of the money in Seattle these days.

Now, Seattle is home to the world’s two wealthiest people, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, plus three more in the top 25 (Steve Ballmer, Bezos’s ex-wife Mackenzie Scott, and Jody Allen, sister of the late Paul Allen).

As failing Boeing moves away from Seattle and staggers about on the world stage, the immense wealth brought by the tech boom (Microsoft went public in 1986) is forcing the once-robust middle class out of Seattle, while a homelessness crisis moves in, spreading to many areas around Puget Sound.

You may not believe this, but there’s a Los Angeles company that is spending about $1 billion to fix up an old city-owned building at no taxpayer expense in order to play expansion-level pro hockey there, along with some concerts.

In the span of Gorton’s professional life, Seattle went from from backwater to tsunami. Yet despite all the changes, the Pilots and Mariners remain tied for the most World Series appearances by a Seattle team.

Now, we wait with apprehension to see what’s left of progress after the pandemic ebbs. No Slade Gorton to bail us out now.

 


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YourThoughts

  • 1coolguy

    Ah yes, the Dog House, a hang out for a lower income kid from Capitol Hill. Proof of her love was when I took my then Laurelhurst gf there for breakfast! It was one of several “proof of concepts”.
    Of course Lee Van Cleef is shown in possibly one of most iconic scenes – we have all seen it – where there were NO words for minutes on end, while the anticipation grew. Clint to Eli after he kills Lee: “You see in this world there are two kinds of people my friend – those with loaded guns and those who dig – you dig.”
    Gorton was a real solid Northwest asset, a politician people were actually proud of, on the same level locally as Dan Evans and Scoop Jackson.

    • art thiel

      I was always fond of the Dog House because I knew some waitress would always call me “honey” — as in “what’ll it be, honey?”

      Evans was less ruthless and more statesmanlike than Gorton, but both are heroes to many.

      • Nads

        I was a regular at the Dog House for a few years in the 80’s when most of the Carpenter’s Union Business reps would frequent the place. The “new” girl an staff had only been there 15 years. Nostalgia abounds.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      I’ll see your Gorton and Evans and Jackson and raise you 1,000 Warren G. Magnusons.

      • art thiel

        Maggie was an empire all his down. Between him and Scoop Jackson, a lot of federal pork showed up in WA.

        • Hockeypuck

          When Slade was running against Maggie he made a point of emphasizing how old and borderline infirm he was. When someone asked Warren about reports that he was always late for meetings, he replied:
          “It doesn’t matter. The meeting doesn’t start ’till I get there”

          Epic

    • Lodowick

      Incredible ending to that film, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. How about that scene where Clint puts the lit cigarette into the mouth of the dying Civil War soldier with Morricone’s music playing in the background? Unforgettable.

      • art thiel

        I hadn’t planned to launch IMdb/sports . . .

        • 1coolguy

          We Want MORE! Haha – see what works here Art?

          • art thiel

            We?

            Am I the meanie who makes you eat your vegetables?

  • Hockeypuck

    Slade Gorton was made for the day of patrician politics and a time where decency and justice mattered – he’d be lost in today’s dystopian hell-hole. His observations regarding the AL owners and the demographic of the Pacific NW (which he found appealing) speak more about him than any political affiliation. He guaranteed that Seattle would get a baseball team again, and he made sure they stayed. Bottom line, he knew right from wrong, good from bad. I imagine he left this earth appalled by the political and sports landscape that exists today. RIP…….

    • art thiel

      There are many who would dispute your point about his knowing good from bad, but this is neither the place nor time. I had the chance to interview and otherwise meet him on several occasions, and I enjoyed his humor and insight every time. He was a tough dude who played politics hard and hurt some good people.

      He’ll always have the Mariners.

      • Nads

        Slade had his structure of strict principles. Whether you agreed with them and him or not (I did not), the man gets his due for his integrity. Met him a few times in my role as a union building trades rep. Always found him a bit imperious and a stiff shirt but he was not a liar.

        • art thiel

          Warm and fuzzy, Slade was not. But he was usually the smartest guy in the room.

  • coug73

    Slade Gorton was co-creator of the game called Pickle-Ball. He was a neighbor of sorts. We weren’t close.

    • art thiel

      That was his loss, I’m sure.

      • 1coolguy

        Agreed!

    • 1coolguy

      What an odd post….

  • jafabian

    Slade stood up to MLB and accused them of racism when they balked at Yamauchi joining their private club and he got them to back down. Then you throw in his success at getting MLB to award a franchise after losing the Pilots and you might ask yourself why isn’t he team president? If only his success with baseball could have translated over to either keeping the Sonics from moving or getting a new team to replace them. If they didn’t already have a corporate sponsor I’d say the M’s ballpark should be named after him.

    • Kirkland

      Dave Niehaus threw the ceremonial first pitch at Safeco Field’s inaugural game, but he conceded that it should’ve been Slade Gorton’s honor. If it weren’t for Gorton, the M’s would have moved to Tampa.

      • art thiel

        Niehaus was right. Would have been worthy, except blue Seattle would have booed him.

    • art thiel

      Gorton joined with the city in 2008 to an effort to stop the Sonics departure, but Bennett’s attorney outsmarted them and scared the mayor and council into settling for cash.

      It’s never a good idea to name a park for a politician. 49 percent are certain to hate him/her.

  • Husky73

    Outstanding piece, Art. One of your very best.

    • art thiel

      Thanks.

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    Mr. Art
    Was the old Dog House a P-I haunt or was it simply within the Thiel universe?

    • art thiel

      Chez Chien, we used to call it. I learned never to trust a menu that didn’t have gravy stains on it.

  • Drew Griffin

    I was no fan of Gorton’s politics (True to the Blue in baseball & poitics), but I am grateful for the role he played in their existence. I was unaware of the depth of his role in not only keeping the team in Seattle, but helping change the foriegn national ownership rule. As always, Art, a terrific article, I almost forgot I really didn’t care for him politically.

    • Kirkland

      Same here. Disagreed with his politics, but very much appreciated him standing up for a civic asset. It’s also instructive to remember the antipathy to Japanese ownership at a time when many Americans feared the Japanese owning everything in the country (similar to how we fear Chinese involvement in our economy today). Gorton’s engineering of Nintendo’s Mariners purchasing was an obstacle course, and he still got it done.

      • art thiel

        Yes, Japanese corporations bought Pebble Beach and Paramount Studios. Xenophobia was nearly as rampant then as now.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Drew. It’s one of my favorite Seattle sports sagas.

  • DB

    The whole symphony orchestra here, Art. -Left me dying for an encore. Thank you.

    • art thiel

      I just did the libretto. But thanks.

  • Dale Bouton

    Hi Art,

    Your remembrance of the beloved Dog House was spot on! One of their monikers was; We Never Close. I recall the time, waaay back in the day when there was a restaurant workers union strike and restaurants were forced to shut down operations while a new collective bargaining agreement could be negotiated. The problem at the Dog House was, they couldn’t lock their front door because no on could find the key! Now THAT was a 24 Hour joint if ever there was! Wonderful piece of Mr. Gorton. Or as the Fabulous Sports Babe use to call him, Super Stud Gorton.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Dale. I’d forgotten the no-lock story.