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Play Ball! A Brief History of Baseball in the Rainier Valley

This photo essay was created by Eleanor Boba

Early Beginnings

In the beginning, baseball was everywhere. Nowadays when we think about baseball, we think of major league teams, big stadiums, and all the trappings of a nationwide organized sport. In Seattle, minor leagues arrived in 1890, but before that, and for a long while after, neighborhood teams like these Hillman City players duked it out all over the city.

Bill Phalen: Civic Leader with a Passion for the Game

Bill Phalen arrived in Columbia City in 1900 and opened a grocery store on the ground floor of the Knights of Pythias Hall. Soon he became a community leader, with a hand in everything from the Volunteer Fire Department to the annual Rainier Valley Fiesta. One of his passions was baseball -- he had played professionally back in the Midwest -- and he was the founder of the Rainier Valley Athletic Club, which fielded Columbia City's baseball team.

Childhood Champions

Adults weren't the only ones playing ball, as this photograph of the Whitworth Elementary 1911 championship team shows. In the days before TV & video games -- or Little League -- every elementary school had a baseball team.

Dugdale Park: Home of the Seattle Indians

Daniel E. Dugdale arrived in Seattle in 1898, on his way to the Klondike Gold Rush. Fortunately, he decided to stay in the Queen City and establish professional baseball in Seattle. He was instrumental in founding the Pacific Northwest League in 1901, owned and operated the Seattle Northwestern League franchise through 1918, and built two ballparks in the city: Yesler Way Park in 1907 and Dugdale Park in 1913. Dugdale Park, the first double-decked baseball park on the West Coast, burned to the ground on July 4th, 1932 in a fire set by a local serial arsonist. Dugdale, who remained involved in local baseball, died in a traffic accident in 1934.

"A fine new, thoroughly modern baseball park and the best baseball possible!"

Such was the pledge of Emil Sick, the owner of the Rainier brewing company, who remade Seattle baseball in 1938. Dugdale Park had burned down in 1932, forcing the Indians to move out of the Rainier Valley to Civic Field. Sick bought the team, spending $25,000 for new players and $150,000 for a new stadium built on the old Dugdale site. At the time, minor league baseball was a good business investment and Colonel Jacob Ruppert (a fellow beer baron and close friend of Sick's) owned the New York Yankees.

Poised for Victory

The photo shows the Seattle Rainiers baseball team in 1939. This squad went on to win the first of three consecutive Pacific Coast League pennants for Seattle. A crude attempt has been made to paste in Hal Turpin, one of the team's ace pitchers who probably hadn't yet reported to Seattle from his farm in Yoncalla, Oregon, when the photo was taken (see back row, right). The Vacca Family farm is seen in the background of the photo. Support from Sal Vacca allowed us to acquire this image from the University of Washington. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 15733.

Fred Hutchinson: The Rainiers' Young Star

One of the highlights of the 1938 Seattle baseball season, their first season as “Rainiers,” was local teenage pitching sensation Fred Hutchinson. Hutchinson was an all-around athlete at neighboring Franklin High, and captivated the city and entire West Coast with his spectacular first professional season in the fast Pacific Coast League. Hutch won 25 games and lost only 7, had a 2.48 ERA, and was named Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. Among many highlights of the season was Hutch winning his 19th game on his 19th birthday before an overflow crowd at Sick’s Stadium on August 12, 1938. Hutch was the hottest prospect in baseball during and after the 1938 season. His sale to the Detroit Tigers for $50,000 and four players, particularly outfielder Jo Jo White and first baseman George Archie, led to the Rainiers winning three straight Pacific Coast League pennants from 1939 to 1941.

Baseball in the War Years

"Americans all, we join together for Victory!" says this 1941 holiday card from the Rainiers. After winning three Pacific Coast League pennants in a row (1939, 1940, 1941) the Rainiers were riding a new wave of popularity. That April, 15,300 fans poured into Sick's Stadium to watch the Rainiers battle the Sacramento Solons. The US had entered WWII, and rubber (a necessity for the war) was scarce. Sick's stadium held Rubber Nights where kids could get in free if they brought in old tires. There were often more people in uniform, sometimes cheering for the other team!

The Neighborhood behind the scoreboard

This 1946 view of the Rainiers scoreboard shows the Mount Baker neighborhood just over the fence, with Franklin High School at right. For those who lived in the neighborhood, Sicks Stadium was a source of employment, entertainment -- and random fly balls. The Vacca family farm just up the hill from the stadium provided free seating -- the beanfield was known as "Cheapskate Hill" by many. Vacca kids earned money parking cars and cleaning up, and often made friends with the players, who would stop by the family's produce stand for vegetables.

Sick's Stadium and the Rainier Valley in 1953

In this aerial photo we see a more rural, less developed Rainier Avenue -- open fields and sparse residential surround the imposing structure of Sick's Stadium. All that open space was ideal for parking. The Vacca's beanfield to the left of the stadium was known as "Cheapskate Hill" because people would sit there and watch the games for free over the stadium wall. The Vaccas were part of Rainier Valley's early Italian community -- known as "Garlic Gulch" -- centered around Atlantic Street just north of the stadium.

Dick "Kewpie" Barrett: Pitcher... Insurance Salesman... Late for Dinner

Dick Barrett was one of the Rainiers' best pitchers, known for his chubby cheeks, cheery demeanor, and uncanny ability to successfully close a game. In the off-season he sold insurance out of his home, and even threatened to do so permanently in 1941 during an argument over his contract. Many, if not most minor league players also had off-season jobs. Barrett, like many of the players, became friends with the neighborhood families over the years and frequently came to dinner at the Vacca home -- on one such occasion he was unusually late -- Mrs. Vacca waited and waited, heating and reheating her famous meatballs, until Barrett finally showed up to eat. She forgave him when he explained that he'd pitched a perfect game, and had been swamped by reporters after the final out.

Leo Lassen: The Voice of the Rainiers

Leo Lassen, Rainier Valley native, was the Rainiers' beloved announcer from 1931 - 1958. His colorful language and infectious enthusiasm earned him a place in Rainiers history.

Changing Neighborhood

By 1969 the neighborhood around Sicks Stadium had changed a great deal -- note that "Cheapskate Hill" has been replaced by the Mount Baker Village Apartments, an affordable housing development. The streetcar line that originally brought fans to the stadium was taken out in 1937, replaced with buses along Rainier Avenue.

Farewell to Sicks Stadium

Declining crowds at Rainiers games in the 60's are blamed on a number of factors, from the growing popularity of televised major league games, to the decline of the minor leagues as a separate independent system, to the Dodgers and Giants teams moving to the West Coast.The first bill to secure a bond to build a new stadium was proposed in 1960, but it took more than a decade to finally pass the measure and build the Kingdome. The new stadium was completed in 1976, just in time for the Mariners' first season the following year. Sick's wasn't demolished until 1979.

The Hillman City Hellcats, 2007

Dugdale Park and Sick's Stadium are memories now, but baseball continues to be enjoyed in the Rainier Valley. Today Valley residents take Sound Transit's Link Light Rail downtown to watch the Mariners play at Safeco Field, instead of riding the streetcar to Sicks Stadium in their own neighborhood. The Rainier Little League is alive and well, and neighborhood teams like the Hillman City Hellcats, a co-ed softball team, continue the tradition of whacking balls with bats in the Rainier Valley.

Rainier Little League, 2024

The below photo was taken at the celebrations following the ribbon cutting of the renovated Rainier Playfield on March 23, 2024. Through the generous support of the Mariner’s MLB All-Star Legacy initiative, both the baseball and softball fields at Rainier Playfield, located at 3700 S. Alaska St., have undergone extensive renovations.

This collaborative effort has resulted in an upgraded facility catering to high school varsity baseball and softball teams, as well as local youth leagues. Moreover, it aims to break down barriers to play equity, particularly for youth from diverse and low-income backgrounds, by providing increased access to quality sports facilities. Additionally, the fields will serve as venues for skills clinics and middle school programming, fostering community engagement and athletic development.


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