An Interview With Steve Cox

This is another interview from Arne Christensen, talking about the Seattle Pilots. Read on!

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I don't have any special knowledge of the Seattle Pilots: like many thousands, I've read Jim Bouton's Ball Four, but I'm nowhere near old enough to have firsthand experience of the team. Still, that book, along with an interest in baseball in Seattle, made me curious about Rainer Valley's one-year wonder. So a few months ago, I looked up coverage of the Pilots' first game in Seattle, as well as their first game in 1969 (both of which were victories). That was the spur for getting in touch with Steve Cox, whose Portland-area multimedia production firm, Velocity Studios, just released its documentary on the team, The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History.

I recently asked some questions of Steve about Jim Bouton, Bud Selig, Sicks' Stadium, the Soriano brothers, and the other elements that produced The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History. Here's our exchange.

Arne Christensen: What was the specific spur for starting work on the documentary?

Steve Cox: I've always been a big fan of Ball Four and re-read it every couple of years. Back in '07 I was looking for a documentary project and I picked up Ball Four off of my bookshelf and it dawned on me that the 40-year anniversary of the Pilots' one season was coming up. I had always wondered why exactly the team had moved after the '69 season and I assumed other people had the same questions. Bouton was traded before the end of the season, so there weren't really any answers in Ball Four. It was intriguing to me as a fan of baseball, Ball Four and the Pilots.

AC: What's the toughest thing about putting together a movie about a 40-year-old team that's been in Milwaukee for decades and didn't get much local tv and radio coverage?

SC: Very little visual material to work from. Film is a visual medium - people want to see footage of what they are being told about. Looking at peoples' faces as they talk about the subject gets old quickly. But there is very little footage out there. The promotional film The First Voyage was just about the only source of moving images. I came across a little bit of super-8 footage taken at the ballpark during a Pilots game, but it was pretty low quality.

AC: What was wrong with how the Pilots and Puget Sound government/civic groups handled the '69 season? Did they not realize how inadequate Sicks' Stadium was for major league games?

SC: Well, the city of Seattle didn't make promised repairs before the season began (or even before the season ended) but the problem with the Pilots was that they were undercapitalized from the start. If they had had more capital to work with from the beginning they could have overcome the issues with Sicks' and survived in that stadium until a new one could be built.

AC: Why was Sicks' Stadium not done in time for opening day?

SC: Honestly, I'm not sure. No one I talked to could really answer that question. The responsibility really seems to lie with the city of Seattle. But I never found out why they didn't get the repairs done.

AC: Why, aside from Ball Four, do you think there's such a substantial, enduring level of interest in the Pilots?

SC: I think because baseball celebrates uniqueness. Achievements are celebrated and milestones are acknowledged. So the only team in the modern era to play only one season in a city is bound to endure. The way people will never forget the uniqueness of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych or the year the Chicago White Sox wore shorts...

AC: The Pilots' players must be mostly around 70 years old. What's their general opinion of the team and its legacy? It's a strange thing, because none of them was a Pilot for more than one year, yet many of them must still be recognized largely as players on that team.

SC: It varied. Some of the guys had very strong memories of their time in Seattle and others didn't. For some, it was just a short stop in a long career. Bob Locker for example, was a very good reliever both before and after the Pilots and had a long career, but he had fond memories of his time in Seattle (mostly tied to going on fishing trips to SW Washington with Jerry McNertney.) For guys like Dick Bates and Billy Williams it was their only time in the big leagues, so it remains fresh in their memories. One of the more interesting comments came from Jim Pagliaroni who talked about what a great thing it was for the city of Milwaukee to get a team again after losing the Braves a few years earlier.  I didn't use that one, but it showed me that, while I'm a fan of the Pilots and most of the people who watch this film will also be, for some of the players it was just another year in the big leagues.

AC: In developing the movie, did you talk with many fans in Seattle or elsewhere with a deep, personal attachment to the Pilots? People who'd gone to as many games as they could in '69, listened to all the games, written to the players, etc.?

SC: I didn't. Originally, I was going to incorporated that kind of thing and even lined up a few interviews, but ultimately I decided that I had enough material for the film without it and that, really, that's an entirely different film. Although the shots that I incorporated from the reunion clearly show that people have a strong attachment. One of my favorite images is a shot from the back of the room at the reunion of two old men (probably in their 70's) talking while people line up for autographs in the background. It wasn't hard to imagine what they were talking about - sharing stories of going to games, talking about their favorite players, etc. It's a very touching image and it occupies a special place in the film.

AC: There's not much attention paid to the Pilots' owners, William Daley and the Soriano brothers, Max and Dewey. Why did they struggle so much running the team? Also, what do you think about them selling the team to Bud Selig? What's your sense of the reasons for the Pilots going to Milwaukee just before the 1970 season started?

SC: Basically, it boils down to the fact that the Soriano Brothers, even including Daley's financial contributions, were underfunded. And if they had drawn huge crowds, they might have been able to make it. But a variety of things - lousy stadium, high ticket prices, poor economy, losing team - combined to keep attendance low and they weren't able to overcome their budget problems. Daley was a strange old guy and refused to kick in more money, and banks wouldn't back loans to potential local buyers, so selling the team became the only possible course. People tend to think of Bud Selig as devious, but all he really did was take advantage of a situation that he had no hand in creating. The Pilots weren't a viable franchise. It had to be sold. Several local groups tried to buy the team and keep it in Seattle and that delayed the inevitable, but all attempts failed. Meanwhile, Bud Selig was sitting on a big wad of cash and a major league stadium and waiting patiently.  It's too bad that the team had to be sold, but Selig did nothing wrong. And besides, Seattle had tried to lure the Indians away from Cleveland a few years earlier, so it's not like they were innocent victims.

AC: Were you in contact with the Brewers and/or Bud Selig at all about the movie while you worked on it?

SC: No. We tried to make some contacts at MLB corporate but didn't get anywhere. After awhile I decided it would be a bad idea, because MLB is very territorial about their product and would have attempted to extract a huge fee from up for using any images of the Pilots no matter the source. And if we didn't agree they would threaten legal action. We would still have been able to proceed, but it would have taken a lot of wrangling and it just seemed like a better idea to steer clear of MLB altogether.

AC: From whose perspective did you try to make the movie? The team's fans, the Pilots players, Northwesterners, or just the general baseball fan?

SC: This film is basically a celebration of the Pilots legacy. I think any baseball fan would enjoy it, but it was definitely made with Pilots fans in mind. There is some assumed knowledge in there, but I also tried to make it as accessible as possible to just about anyone. I have shown it to people who are not baseball fans at all and they have liked it. My favorite comment was made by a woman who said, "I expected to be bored, but I wasn't."

AC: Who were the most interesting players/coaches on the Pilots? As you researched the movie, did certain figures strike you as intriguing characters who'd been overshadowed by Bouton and his book?

SC: The most intriguing character was Billy Williams [not the Cubs outfielder, obviously]. He was only up with the Pilots for 10 days and that's all the time he spent in the majors. But he spent 18 years in the minors and has never really left the game. He's worked as a coach at various levels and is currently the bench coach for an independent league team and he's 78 years old (he looks about 50 by the way.) That level of devotion to baseball is really impressive to me. He was a good player, but he played in an era when only the star-caliber black players were getting a chance. Guys like Billy had to be better than the equivalent white player to get a chance. But he loved the game so much he's never left it.

AC: What's your impression of Bouton and Joe Schultz, both as they were in 1969 and their general character?

SC: Bouton's a great guy and was very helpful and encouraging with the film. I always appreciated his anti-establishment views and liberal politics even though his teammates and employers didn't care for it. He's a very direct, honest, no-bullshit type of person and is a lot of fun to talk with. Schultz I never met of course, he died in the mid-90's, but from what all of the players said, he was a terrific guy with a great sense of humor who kept the guys loose and motivated. He wasn't a stern, no-nonsense manager. He also wasn't much of a tactician and that cost him in the end. You get the feeling from talking with the players that, once the team started losing regularly, he knew he wouldn't be back for another year and he was disappointed.

AC: What's the basic mission of your movie?

SC: Really just to celebrate the legacy of the Pilots and help people understand why they left. The best source of information about the Pilots came from Ball Four, but Bouton was traded to Houston late in the summer, so there isn't really any discussion in the book about what happened to the team. So, I tried to fill in the gaps a bit. Also, I had originally thought about waiting until the 50-year anniversary, but I was afraid too many of the guys would be dead and a lot of valuable information would be lost.

AC: What were the most pleasant things about putting it together? Were there specific moments of surprise and excitement in working on it?

SC: The most pleasant thing was meeting the players and others associated with the Pilots. Every one of them was a terrific person and really fun to talk with. No egos, just nice guys who were happy to talk about a highlight of their lives. Specifically, Greg Goossen, Billy Williams and Bill Schonely were very nice guys who were a really pleasure to get to know. One of my favorite moments came on the morning of the reunion in Seattle. I got up early to prepare and went down to the restaurant in the hotel to get some breakfast. While I was grabbing some food, Bouton came up to me and asked if I was eating alone. I was and I told him so and he asked if I would like to join he and his wife. So, I sat and had breakfast with Jim Bouton and his wife Paula and it was a very pleasant but very surreal experience. I first read Ball Four when I was about 13 around 1980 and the book meant so much to me and Jim Bouton was a hero of mine. I read a later edition of the book that had the story of how he met Paula with pictures of her and it was so strange to find myself 30 years later having breakfast with these people who made such an impression on me when I was young. I'll never forget their kindness and friendliness and how much I enjoyed chatting with them.

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