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At the Letters: Pitchers of Beer

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Note: This article represents the first in a new series here on LL, reviewing books—either fiction or nonfiction—that elucidate the game, entertain with stories of clubhouse hijinks, or just generally deepen one's understanding of baseball. It is cold and baseball is far and what are you doing on your Friday nights anyway if not curling up with a good book? Right, fellow young people? If you have any suggestions for something you’d like to see covered, please leave your idea in the comments!

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Jose Rivera

Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
336 pages

Available at the Seattle Public Library and KCLS

"I’ve worn the Rainiers (Mariners throwback) uniforms. Readers will love Dan Raley’s book."

—Ken Griffey, Jr.

Questionable blurb aside, Pitchers of Beer is one of the most comprehensive yet engaging books you can find about a defunct baseball team, and an excellent lesson in Northwest baseball history. Drawing heavily from the archives of noted Northwest baseball historian Dave Eskenazi and featuring a plethora of pictures, programs, and other ephemera, Raley has put together a book that is both informative and compulsively readable; in fact, I finished it over the course of just a few days (the page total is sub-300 if you skip the notes and the biographical essay at the end, although who would want to do that?).

The Seattle Rainiers, as distinct from the Tacoma team that now bears that name, were first known as the Seattle Clamdiggers at their inception in the Pacific Coast League in 1903, and later, as the Seattle Indians. Raley skips the first twenty-odd years of the franchise and opens up his book with the 1937 raid by both the feds and local police at Civic Stadium in Lower Queen Anne. Bill Klepper, the Indians’ manager, was a tax evader and notorious skinflint who once hung from a lighting fixture to avoid an angry pitcher to whom he owed money, and was later publicly ousted by Commissioner of Baseball and Stern Gentleman, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Emil Sick, the Canadian-born brewer of Rainier beer, purchased the team and proceeded to transform the state of baseball in Seattle for the next forty years. Although ostensibly a history of the Rainiers, Pitchers of Beer is centered around the team’s two most important figures:  Sick and a young pitcher (after a stint in the Major Leagues he would return as team manager), Fred Hutchinson.

Although not a baseball man, Emil Sick was a shrewd businessman, and he knew how to turn a profit. As Paul Allen would do sixty years later when taking over the struggling Seahawks, Sick invested heavily in the team, in both talent and infrastructure, understanding that putting a good product on the field would bring people to the ballpark. He believed in putting experienced people into the clubhouse and letting them do their jobs without his interference, and netted talent from across the country who were nonetheless excited to come play in still-fledgling Seattle. He built a shining stadium south of the city, with a view of Mount Rainier, where the weather was warmer (perhaps Sick understood the marine layer?). Raley’s description of Sick’s stadium is detailed and evocative, drawn from the recollections of the people who frequented the ballpark, along with the kids who hung around outside, hoping to catch a ball knocked over the fence to exchange for free admission. This is the best kind of historical writing: where the past is charmed into existing again, not a distant place in black-and-white tones but a vivid, living and breathing place.
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Woven into the information about the team are colorful accounts of some of the more well-known players: Dick "Kewpie" Barrett, Edo Vanni, Jo Jo White, Bill Schuster, and of course, Fred Hutchinson. If, like me, your knowledge about Fred Hutchinson is bounded by the cancer center that bears his name and his silhouette pressed into the ends of each row of seats at Safeco, Raley does a worthy job in introducing the man named by the P-I as Seattle’s "athlete of the 20th century." Not merely a study in his heroism—Raley records Hutch’s fits of pique, such as smashing out all the lights in the tunnel to the clubhouse after a poor pitching performance—nor the romanticized portrait often drawn of those taken from us too soon, reading Pitchers of Beer offers a complete picture of the men who may not have brought baseball to Seattle, but certainly cemented its importance here. It is no coincidence that the team’s best years overlap closely with the prime of these men, nor that the team diminishes as their health fails.

Despite being a book about a team named after an alcoholic beverage, and the general comportment of grown men paid to play a child’s game, Raley’s book is fairly bowdlerized, making it an appropriate read for the young baseball nut in your life. The generous pictures and short chapters also appeal to kids or grown types with short attention spans, as does Raley’s crisp, clear prose style. There is the occasional belabored metaphor (an especially unfortunate sentence about WWII-era baseball reads, "Jack Lelivelt never saw his country pulled into the real-life rundown that was WWII, and he wasn’t around for the outcome when Germany and Japan were tagged out"), but overall, we are incredibly lucky to have such an exhaustively researched account of this region’s baseball history in such an appealing format. Next time you find yourself near the Lowe’s on Rainier Avenue, stop by the marker that commemorates home plate at Sicks’ and raise an invisible toast to Seattle’s first men of baseball.