Fred Danz spent nearly 25 years as the head of a family entertainment empire, Sterling Recreation Organization. Its holdings included a chain of about 100 movie theaters, radio stations and bowling alleys along the West Coast. In 1969, Major League Baseball approved Fred Danz as the new owner of the Seattle Pilots. I worked for him in the 1980s, at radio stations KJET and KZOK, but I never actually met him until December 1993, when I interviewed him in his Bellevue office.
How did you become interested in buying the Pilots?
At the time, the newspapers started reporting stories that looked like the team would be sold because they couldn't pay their bills. There was a deal on to sell them to Milwaukee. There was also a move afoot to recall the bonds for the Kingdome, which was promised to be built and for which the electorate had voted $40 million worth of bonds. Some of us who felt that the Kingdomewhich hadn't been named at that time, but that's what it turned out to bewas very important to the community as a whole and that if a baseball team, which was the only regular tenant that had signed up, were to move, then maybe the recall of the bonds would succeed. And so that's the genesis of the effort to try and buy the team.
[Note from Mike: One of the conditions for placing a big league expansion team in Seattle was that voters approve funding for a domed stadium. That stadium, the Kingdome, was built (and later demolished), although the Pilots were gone to Milwaukee long before construction began.]
You met a number of times with baseball owners, including Bill Daley.
I met with either Dewey or Max or both of them, the Sorianos, and they told me to go talk to Bill Daley, so I made a trip to see him. I forget where it was. He lived in Florida at the time, but I think I met him in Cleveland.
What were your impressions of Daley?
Mr. Daley was a very nice gentleman. I think he was well into his 70s, or maybe older than that. He was a baseball fan and he'd made a lot of money. He was semi-retired. He was a mild-mannered man, but very nice to be with. I never had any disagreements. Well, that's not true. We had some points which had to be worked out, but it was all very pleasant and reasonable.
You were quoted at the time as being concerned about impact of team on community. What did you understand that impact to be?
The Kingdome would have brought a lot of revenue into the community, as it has, and provided a lot of employment. Also, there was also the egocentric community. At that time, I think we only had one major league team, which was the basketball team. It was important for the greater Seattle area to emerge as one of the top cities in the country, which it is.
Do you mean that Major League Baseball would make Seattle a 'major league' city?
The whole West Coastand this is not an expert opinion, it's just my opinionthe whole West Coast was looked on derogatorily by other parts of the country, particularly the East Coast establishment. They were shocked when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. I assume that was what we all meant at that time.
In November 1969, you signed a contract to buy the team and by mid-December, the American League approved your application. How did the sale fall through?
I wasn't able to raise the money. The investors in Seattle weren't much interested in the baseball team at that time. They were all thinking about football and their hopes in getting a piece of that I guess. I'm not sure what their motives were, but with the exception of a few, we didn't find much support in the fundraising effort.
Business community or political officials?
King County had already served notice on the League they'd sue them if they moved the team. So the League was anxious to make a deal here and I guess the League thought by approving us, even though we didn't have the funds in line, it would help. It may have had the opposite effect.
It seemed like your offer was set. Are you saying it wasn't and they were in a hurry to approve new ownership?
Yeah, they were in a hurry because the team had to play someplace in the following year. It even went into spring training at Tempe without knowing where they were going to play, or thinking they were going to play here. The biggest nut we had to crack was the Bank of California was owed $6 million and they were one of the principals in wanting the team to be sold so they could get paid off. They were absolutely firm about that. They were not going to finance one dollar of the team anymore. We just never got that much additional capital.
Who were your partners in your effort to buy the team?
Eddie Carlson, who was very much in this was one of them. Charlie Burdell and Bill Ferguson were part of the law firm that handled our legal affairs and they were very helpful in this whole thing, particularly Charlie. Those are the only names that come to mind right away.
[Note from Mike: Eddie Carlson was president of Western International Hotels and one of the driving forces behind the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. In fact, it was his doodle on a cocktail napkin eventually became the Space Needle. He later put together a non-profit group to buy the Pilots but that bid was rejected by American League owners.]
About how many times did you meet with the American League?
I had two meetings with Joe Cronin and one meeting with Bowie Kuhn. I think I met with the League people maybe five or six times.
Do you have any particular memories of the people you met with?
They were all human beings with all the foibles human beings have and some of them had foibles to excess. For the most part, they were all rabid baseball fans. They were in it because they liked baseball, plus they were in it for the ego and the possibility of making some money. A couple of them were really genuine, solid, 100-percent Americans good guys of which Walter O'Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers led the listand Bob Reynolds of the Los Angeles Angels. There were some others that I didn't have the best opinion of.
Do you have any specific memories of any of these people?
Joe Cronin, who was president of the American League at that time, was a very sincere guy and he really tried to do the best he could. Bowie Kuhn was a very competent man, but I always suspected he had an unrevealed agenda, which, my guess was, that the baseball establishment, which was in the East or the Mid-West really didn't want another team on the West Coast because of the travel expenses and the time dislocation made a big disadvantage in their selling of television time. I didn't get a very happy greeting from some of those people.
I have a memo here recounting a January 1970 meeting that you had with the heads of the local banks. Max Carlson, from the National Bank of Commerce, read a statement that the Bank would not loan money to the group and walked out.
Yeah, I remember that. I think the banks were approaching this thing on that they would all go in it together and share the loan. I think none of them were willing to go unless everybody went and Max Carlson was intransigent. He just wouldn't budge, wouldn't contribute anything.
Was that frustrating?
I came back from not this, but another meeting with Maxwell Carlson to see if I could get him to budge, because we were a customer of the bank. I went back to Eddie Carlson and I said, "I got a lecture that I didn't need and I didn't get the money that I did need." Time was short. We didn't have a long time to negotiate this thing. Everything was done in a very hasty step.
What can you tell me about Eddie Carlson?
Eddie Carlson was one of the most wonderful fellows and a staunch civil supporter. He was a prince of a chap. I believe Eddie took over when we started to promulgate non-profit organization. He might have taken over before that. It was more appropriate for him because he was a very prestigious fellow and well known, much better known in the community than I. I later thought, although I wasn't accute enough to realize it at the time, I'd probably worn out my welcome with some people in the community and certainly with some of the American League owners by the rather aggressive stance that I took. I think that other people in the community from whom we wanted to get funds would be much more comfortable with Eddie leading the charge.
Were you part of the decision to make the effort to buy the team a non-profit?
No, I wasn't. That's something that came from another group. It may have been Jim Ellis and Eddie or some group of them that came up with that idea and I wasn't part of it.
[Note from Mike: Jim Ellis was head of Washington Natural Gas and was behind the Forward Thrust initiative in 1968, that ultimately resulted in the Kingdome and other local improvement projects being built.]
Did you ever talk to them about why they made that decision?
I don't remember having any such conversations. I think it was because that was the only way they could get millions to participate. They would not participate with a for-profit, but if it was for the benefit of the community, which was what people believed non-profit groups are, which they may or may not be. They got together an awful lot of money. I'm not sure, but I think they got together enough money to do it, but the American League would not accept the non-profit organization.
Was the decision to go for non-profit the right one and the what did you think of the League's decision to turn it down?
I think that they were both O.K. I could see then how the other ownership in the League would have been threatened at the idea of a non-profit organization because it could lead, perhaps, to some community trying to condemn their interests and that wasn't what their goals were. The individual owners wanted community involvement"give us your money and we'll take care of it"but they didn't want community ownership.
Is a baseball team different from any other business?
Sure it's different. It's irrational and it almost completely appeals to the sportsman part of people. It doesn't follow the regular rules of commerce and trade. If a guy goes broke in a business and the business is gone, somebody comes in and fills in the void. In a baseball team, which is an exclusive franchise, if you go broke in it, you sell it to somebody else and, up to now, have been able to get more money for it than you had in it. But, of course, that's like a Ponzi scheme.
Before you tried to buy the team, you started a ticket drive. Will you tell me about that?
It was just one of the many efforts that were tried, thinking that that might be effective. I think we sold six or seven hundred thousand dollars worth of tickets, which I think was absolutely marvelous. But it didn't seem to encourage the financial institutions to make up that six million bucks.
Why were they so reluctant?
The banks, I think, had had some bad times. As I told some of them, the reasons for which the Bank of California made the loan were good reasons at that time and that they ought to all get together and back us this time. But reason doesn't govern many relationships and that includes some banking relationships.
What can you tell me about the major league meetings you attended?
I had three or four meetings with just a few of the officials of the Commissioner's office and a committee of American League owners that was appointed to negotiate with us. And I had a couple of meetings with the full membership, which is where our group was approved through the ownership.
Was it a lengthy process?
I made a presentationnot a very good oneand then they excused my attorney and me. We waited outside for while and they came back and said it was okay.
Were you involved in the site selection for the domed stadium?
Just peripherally. I was for the Seattle Center site. The big objection to that was the traffic problem, to which the answer was, you're going to have to fix the traffic problem anyway. With the Dome there, that's all the more reason for fixing it. But they haven't fixed it yet.
[Note from Mike: Sixteen years after this interview, the "Mercer Mess" still hasn't been fixed!]
Is that the only reason you favored that site?
It's because there were other community facilities there. It was truly a civic center and it is now, with several theatres and the Opera House and the Fun Forest and the convention areas there and the Seattle Art Museum and meeting rooms. I thought it would be a serendipitous conjunction of facilities.
Why didn't more people go to see the Pilots' games?
Seattle wasn't a good baseball town at that time, because it came in the summer and a lot of people had other things to do. It was played at night. The old Rainiers team used to play at night and most of the nights it's cold here. You really can't play outdoors at night. When they enlarged Sick's Stadium to major league size, it was a pretty miserable place to be. The teams complained like hell because the field wasn't in very good shape. They were always afraid somebody would step in a gopher hole and break their ankle. The restrooms were relatively inadequate. I think the main thing was that it's cold in Rainier Valley at night in the summertime. There are maybe three or four nights a year is all you get where it's pleasant to be out after dark.
You'd think that the Pilots would have done better for a first year team.
To me, that was insignificant for the reasons that I told you. It was the right game in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Did you go to any Pilots games?
Yeah, I went to one.
Were the ticket prices too high? When you were going to buy the team, you were going to lower them.
If we said that, then I'm sure it was part of the sales conversation. I don't remember any pricing discussions. At the time that the Pilots started, there was a lot of criticism because of their high prices, which I didn't think was appropriate. I didn't think there was anything wrong with the prices.
Were the Sorianos right that they had little political or business support?
Yes. Max and Dewey are not part of the establishment. I don't think that the leaders of the community were very comfortable with either baseball or with that ownership.
Why do you think that was?
They didn't have the financial responsibility actually, "responsibility" is the wrong word financial ability to handle a project this size, of a major league baseball team.
It appeared that one of the conditions of you being approved as the Pilots owner was private financing for further expansion of Sick's Stadium.
The City was very tough about itabout not wanting to do any more. I suspect there had been some bad words between the City and the baseball ownership and I think that the City might have been fed up with the complaints. To the best of my memory, I took the complaints about the stadium and its lack of size with a grain of salt. I think you get the rest of them taken care of, that would be taken care of, too.
Do you ever regret you didn't end up owning the Pilots?
Oh golly, it's one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me! No, I didn't really want to own a baseball team and at that time, I wasn't a baseball fan. Sure, when you set out to do something, you like to be able to finish the job and I regret that I didn't finish the job. But then on the other hand, maybe I did finish the job, because the domed stadium did get built. And as I said to the local people concerned with the team moving and never getting it back: if you have a domed stadium, there's no way you're going to keep the major leagues out of Seattle.