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How Fred Hutchinson saved baseball in Seattle

And so much more

Fred Hutchinson with the Seattle Rainiers, 1955
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

“Swung on and lined down the left field line for a base hit!”

If you’ve followed the Mariners for any significant amount of time, you can probably fill in the rest of the words yourself. With one swing, Edgar Martinez sent the Mariners to their first ever American League Championship Series and, by many accounts, saved baseball in Seattle.

What you may not know is that before Edgar, Griffey, Randy, and Alex, professional baseball in Seattle came close to folding before it ever really took off.

This Sunday, July 7th, the Mariners will be honoring the 100th birthday of the original savior of baseball in Seattle: Fred Hutchinson. The first 10,000 fans to the park will receive a special Fred Hutchinson bobblehead and the life of Fred Hutchinson will be honored with a special pregame ceremony and his contributions to baseball in Seattle celebrated throughout the game.

Going into the 1937 season, the Seattle Indians had been as unlucky a franchise as any in the Pacific Coast League. Not only had they finished in the bottom half of the league year after year (other than one championship in 1924), a serial arsonist burned down their stadium, Dugdale Baseball Park, on July 5, 1932.

The team was relegated to Civic Stadium, which was comprised solely of packed dirt. The stadium, which had been intended for high school football and which was located on what is today Memorial Stadium, was something of a joke. There were tangled gooseberry bushes in the outfield. If a baseball found its way into one of them, the hitter was granted a ground-rule triple.

Civic Stadium in the 1930’s

Unable to turn a profit in the dingy ballpark, the Indians faced bankruptcy and eviction near the end of 1937. In the first of a series of events that would end up saving baseball in Seattle, Rainier Brewery owner Emil Sick purchased the team and christened them the Rainiers in December of 1937. On his own dime, Sick built a new ballpark for the team — Sick’s Stadium, which stood until 1979.

While the Indians were toiling through the mid ‘30s on the sunbaked dirt of Civic Stadium and struggling through gooseberries, another baseball team just a few miles away was having plenty of success. The Franklin High School Quakers enjoyed a four-year stretch of nearly unprecedented dominance, winning four straight league championships from 1934 through 1937.

At the forefront of their dominance was one star: Fred Hutchinson. Though primarily a dominant pitcher, posting a 60-2 record in his high school career, Hutchinson was very much a two-way player. He played catcher, outfield, and first base for the Quakers, and excelled at each. If you followed baseball in Seattle, there were the Indians, and there were Fred Hutchinson’s Quakers.

Fred Hutchinson with the Franklin Quakers
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

Sick’s Stadium was undoubtedly a godsend for the hapless Seattle Indians — now the Seattle Rainiers — but it was Emil Sick’s next move that would end up reshaping Seattle baseball forever. Sick signed the 18-year-old Hutchinson for $2,500 (a little over $40,000 in today’s money), plus twenty percent of any cash the Rainiers might get should they sell him to a Major League team.

What Hutchinson did with the Rainiers was nothing short of spectacular.

“It was like if the Mariners had signed Tim Lincecum or Blake Snell, and then they’d immediately put up 25 wins,” says Seattle sports historian David Eskenazi. Already a local folk hero to many, Hutchinson went 25-7 with a 2.48 ERA and threw a colossal 29 complete games in that 1938 season. As if that weren’t enough, he also hit .313 as a batter for the Rainiers.

With the team previously teetering on the brink of folding or relocating, Hutchinson galvanized the Rainiers into a Cinderella season. They vaulted to a 100-75 record in 1938, finishing in second place and leading the PCL in attendance by over 100,000.

Fred Hutchinson with the Seattle Rainiers, 1938
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

After Hutchinson’s phenomenal rookie season that saw him win The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year Award, Sick began shopping him around to Major League teams. Finally, in December, Sick finalized a deal with the Detroit Tigers to trade Hutchinson for $50,000 (almost $1 million today) and four players, most notable of which were center fielder Jo-Jo White and infielder George Archie.

With this new nucleus of young talent, the Rainiers went on a run of success still unmatched today by a Seattle sports team. Following a first place regular season finish in 1939, the Rainiers finally broke through and won three straight championships in 1940, 1941, and 1942.

Hutchinson, meanwhile, struggled at first in the Major Leagues. After being demoted back to the minors in each of his first few seasons, he pitched a full season with the Double-A Buffalo Bisons before entering active military service for World War II.

After finally returning to the Majors in 1946, Hutchinson racked up a series of six straight 10-win seasons, four of which were good for more than 4.0 fWAR. His play was good, but he never did turn into the Christy Mathewson that some thought he might be. Whatever he lacked in raw talent, though, he made up for in work ethic and famous leadership.

That leadership for the Tigers got him elected in 1947 as the Detroit representative for the fledgling Player’s Union, and in 1948 as the representative for the American League. He helped secure some of the first benefits for players: a minimum salary, a pension fund, and the coverage of Spring Training expenses.

Fred Hutchinson with Tigers general manager Charlie Gehringer, 1953
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

In 1952, while still playing for the Tigers, he was hired as player-manager. Despite improving the team’s record as manager, he was denied a two-year contract extension by a Tigers ownership that was very much in flux. Ownership wanted to sign Hutchinson to a series of one-year deals. Hutchinson wasn’t interested.

As Hutchinson’s playing career drew to a close and his managerial career seemed to enter a twilight, his old Seattle Rainiers were struggling just as badly. The Rainiers finished 1954 with a paltry 77-85 record and an attendance total near the bottom of the PCL. Rainiers general manager Dewey Soriano, an old Franklin High School teammate of Hutchinson’s, was aware of Hutchinson’s contract dispute with Detroit and reached out to him in the hopes that Hutchinson might be able to save Seattle baseball one last time.

Amazingly, Hutchinson made the decision to turn down not just the Tigers’ offer, but another offer from the Major League Baltimore Orioles, instead deciding to come back to the Rainiers for the 1955 season. To say that the move energized the fan base would be an understatement.

Rainiers welcome parade for Fred Hutchinson, 1955
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

The Rainiers had no star power, but Hutchinson’s combination of effective game management and deft roster management led them to a miraculous 95-77 record and a title. Almost more importantly, the club doubled their attendance from 1954.

Hutchinson had again rejuvenated baseball in Seattle, and he had again done it not with raw talent, but with relentless determination and hard work.

Though Hutchinson again left the following year to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, the renewed baseball fever in Seattle set the stage for Dewey Soriano to make a proposal that would ultimately solidify baseball’s place in the city until Edgar’s famous double. Soriano made a previously unthinkable suggestion: that the city should build an indoor facility that could accommodate baseball, football, political events, religious events, and more.

The idea was originally laughed off, but over time, it gained traction and eventually became a reality: the Kingdome opened in 1976 and hosted the Seattle Mariners for over 20 years.

Soriano’s success in bringing the Pilots to Seattle, which eventually led to the lawsuit that produced the Mariners, would not have been possible without the Rainiers’ success. And almost every significant success that the Rainiers ever had came at the hands of Fred Hutchinson.

Hutchinson would go on to have a successful season with the Cardinals, winning The Sporting News Manager of the Year award in 1957. He was so respected in the clubhouse that star Stan Musial said of Hutchinson: “If I ever hear a player say he can’t play for Hutch, then I’ll know he can’t play for anybody.”

After a poor 1958 season, however, he was dismissed and began the last stretch of his career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959. At first, the Reds floundered, and owner Powel Crosley died just before 1961, setting the stage for an unceremonious end to Hutchinson’s time in Ohio.

Fred Hutchinson with assistant coach Pete Whisenant, 1963
Courtesy David Eskenazi Collection

Led by eventual MVP Frank Robinson, those 1961 Reds shocked Major League Baseball by surging past the defending champion Pittsburgh Pirates in August and never looking back. They won the pennant, but unfortunately drew one of the best modern era opponents ever: the 1961 New York Yankees, led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Maris, of course, had set the single-season home run record that year by hitting 61.

The Yankees dismantled Hutchinson’s Reds, but his place in Cincinnati was secured. A couple of solid seasons later, Hutchinson’s Reds were projected to be a major contender in 1964, led by Robinson and a young Pete Rose.

That is, until one fateful day in December of 1963, when Hutchinson touched his neck and felt a lump. Unconcerned at first, he nonetheless flew to Seattle, where his brother Bill worked as an oncologist. Bill, who had previously been a solid baseball player in his own right for the University of Washington, had a devastating diagnosis: Fred had lung cancer which had metastasized to his neck.

Though Fred’s prognosis was undoubtedly grim, he refused to let his stoic demeanor slip. “The doctors are optimistic,” said Hutchinson in early 1964. “I don’t know if they will let me play golf,” he later noted with a grin.

Even in June, news articles about Hutchinson didn’t reveal just how sick he was. However, as his treatment continued and the disease progressed, it became impossible to hide. Emaciated, Hutchinson was forced to leave the team in late July.

Shortly after, on August 12, 1964 — Hutchinson’s 45th birthday — the Reds held a ceremony for him. He left the team for the last time the next day. A few months later, he passed away at a Florida hospital and was buried next to his parents in Renton.

Fred’s place in history on the baseball diamond was cemented, but it didn’t end there. At the time of Fred’s death, Bill Hutchinson had already founded the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation (now known as the Pacific Northwest Research Institute). The Foundation focused on studying heart disease, cancer, and endocrine diseases. Fred’s death spurred Bill to focus on cancer.

Bill Hutchinson, ca. 1985
Charlotte Hutchinson Reed via

In 1972, due in no small part to funding secured by the National Cancer Act of 1971, which Bill helped to blueprint, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center became an independent entity. Three years later, it officially opened its doors on First Hill.

It didn’t take long for the Center to have an enormous impact. The Center’s first ever Director of Medical Oncology, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, spent the 1970’s pioneering the modern technique of bone marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for blood conditions such as leukemia. To this day, he’s known as the “father of bone marrow transplantation”. This treatment is still ubiquitous, and Dr. Thomas won a Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1990.

Since then, Fred Hutch (as it’s now known) has conducted life-saving research that spans across every aspect of cancer. Dr. Thomas’ work served as proof that the human immune system is capable of eradicating cancer, which led to other exciting work being done by the Hutch, such as recent advancements in immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is perhaps the most exciting thing in modern cancer research. It involves engineering a patient’s own immune system to target and eradicate cancer — with fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy.

Though Fred Hutch is best known for its hard scientific breakthroughs, it has led research in every aspect of cancer treatment and prevention, including the toll that the financial burden of treatment can take on patients and their families. It’s clear that patients that aren’t financially secure have worse outcomes, and the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, or HICOR, has been working to address the issue.

To this day, Fred Hutch and its affiliated Seattle Cancer Care Alliance have been indispensable resources for patients and their families. In so many ways, Fred Hutchinson’s work ethic, determination, and leadership is reflected in the work done by the institution that shares his name.

Every year, Fred Hutch presents the Hutch Award to a Major League Baseball Player that best exemplifies the courage and determination shown by Fred Hutchinson as he coped with his diagnosis. This year’s winner is Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who will be accepting the award at Sunday’s ceremony. Piscotty’s story, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is as inspiring as Hutchinson’s.

Fred Hutchinson’s legacy permeates T-Mobile Park, Seattle, all of Major League Baseball, and indeed, every cancer patient today. His image is emblazoned on the ends of every row of seats in T-Mobile Park, and research in his name has helped hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide.

Fred Hutchinson’s image at the end of a row of seats in T-Mobile Park

Long before Edgar, Griffey, Randy, and Alex, there was Fred. There was Fred, his stoic leadership, his commitment to his hometown, and his unflinching courage and resiliency. There was Fred, the hero not just of baseball in Seattle, but of countless patients facing impossible odds.

If you would like to contribute to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, please click here for more information. Please also consider attending the 54th Hutch Award Luncheon on July 18, 2019, where you can hear from keynote speaker Jim Abbott and celebrate Fred Hutchinson’s legacy while raising funds to benefit cancer research at Fred Hutch.

Thanks to David Eskenazi, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, and Tom Kim for their help in making this piece possible.