Seattle Mariners’ first season (1977)

The Seattle Mariners’ first season was better than average for an expansion team, but still a losing effort. They joined Major League Baseball’s American League in 1977 thanks to a lawsuit and with a roster of other teams’ castoffs, a mix of unproven youngsters and fading veterans. Their manager was Darrell Johnson (1928-2004). Their home field was the one-year-old Kingdome, a massive concrete structure better suited for football. They managed to draw more than 1.3 million fans into the dome that season, even though they lost 98 out of 162 games and never had a winning record.

Getting Started

The Mariners were Seattle’s second major league baseball team. The first was the Pilots, who played only one season in 1969 before being sold during spring training in 1970 and moving to Milwaukee. State attorney general Slade Gorton (1928-2020) sued the American League for allowing the move, claiming breach of contract. The court case prompted a settlement in early 1976, with Seattle being promised an American League expansion franchise that would begin play in 1977. Entertainer Danny Kaye (1911-1987) and local businessmen Stanley Golub, Walter Schoenfeld, James Stillwell, James Walsh, and Lester Smith — bought the franchise for $6.5 million, with Kaye providing most of the money

In April 1976, the franchise hired Lou Gorman (1929-2011), assistant general manager of the Kansas City Royals, to be the general manager. “Mariners” was the winning entry in a contest to name the team. The team colors were dark blue and gold, the same as the Pilots’ colors, with an M on the cap formed by a trident to reinforce the nautical theme. Darrell Johnson became Seattle’s manager in September 1976; he had been fired a few months earlier by the Boston Red Sox, less than a year after leading them to the World Series.

Mariners tickets went on sale September 13, 1976, a dozen weeks before the team had any players. Single-game tickets for box seats cost $5; season tickets cost as much as $375 and as little $225.

The Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, the American League’s other new franchise, stocked their rosters in a November expansion draft, each selecting 30 players from those left unprotected by the league’s established teams. Seattle led off by selecting Ruppert Jones (b. 1955), a 21-year-old outfielder who made his major league debut at the end of the 1976 season with Kansas City. Other promising picks included outfielder Dave Collins (b. 1952) and shortstop Craig Reynolds (b. 1952). Steve Braun (b. 1948), an outfielder who hit .288 the previous season for the Minnesota Twins, was taken in the fourth round. Starting pitchers included Glenn Abbott (b. 1951), Gary Wheelock (b. 1951), and John Montague (b. 1947).

One of the more colorful picks was plain-spoken catcher Bob “Scrap Iron” Stinson (b. 1945), who had played for five teams in the previous seven years. Sizing up the Mariners’ selections, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s J Michael Kenyon noted that the group appeared short on power hitting but wrote enthusiastically about its speed – several of the players had impressive stolen-base totals in the minor leagues – and the profusion of young pitchers. In retrospect, pitching coach Wes Stock (b. 1934) was less impressed, describing the haul as “a bunch of old guys who couldn’t play or a bunch of young kids who weren’t ready” (Arnold, 10).

The club’s spring training site in Tempe, Arizona, also had its shortcomings. After years of sitting idle, the practice fields had rocks in the infield and gopher holes in the outfield. Occasionally tumbleweeds rolled across the diamonds. The stage was set for a challenging season.

Play Ball!

Broadcaster Dave Niehaus (1935-2010) was hired on December 18, 1976 after calling California Angels games the previous eight seasons. As the Mariners’ lead play-by-play announcer, he became the team’s main connection with fans around the Pacific Northwest. Starting with that first spring training, he was the voice of the Mariners for 34 years until his death, shortly after the 2010 season. By then he was already a two-year member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Mariners’ first game was on April 6, 1977 against the California Angels at the Kingdome, and the region’s excitement for the return of Major League Baseball was evidenced by the size of the crowd: 57,672, a Major League Baseball record for an opening-night game. Rookie second baseman Jose Baez (b. 1953) got the first hit in Mariners history, a first-inning single that triggered a huge ovation. On the mound for the Mariners was Diego Segui (b. 1937), a 38-year-old who had been the Pilots’ most valuable player in 1969. His most recent big-league appearance was in 1975. Reborn in Seattle as “The Ancient Mariner,” Segui was charged with California’s first six runs. The Angels won 7-0 with Frank Tanana (b. 1953) pitching a complete game and Joe Rudi (b. 1946) driving in four runs with a home run and a double. Although the Mariners were shut out, Johnson was encouraged that they matched the Angels with nine hits. They managed only three the next night, falling to future Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan (b. 1947), 2-0.

Struggling Early

The Mariners got their first victory in their third game, scoring two runs in the ninth inning on doubles by Stinson and Larry Milbourne (b. 1951) to top the Angels 7-6. The late rally “caused an appreciative gathering of 11,345 to go gaga over the baby baseball team,” Kenyon wrote (“Miracle Ninth”). Relief pitcher Billy Laxton (b. 1948), who had given the Angels the lead with a bases-loaded walk in the top of the ninth, was credited with the historic victory.

The Mariners won again the next night, Wheelock getting the victory in his first major league start. That raised their record to 2-2 — the last time that season that they had as many wins as losses. Their worst defeat was 16-1 to Kansas City on April 24, a showcase for the Royals’ Hal McRae (b. 1945), who had four hits and three runs batted in. Their only shutout victory was May 19 when they won 3-0 at Oakland. Leadoff hitter Collins had three hits and Dave Pagan (b. 1949) pitched a complete game, allowing six hits and a walk while striking out eight. May was their best month of the season – 13 wins and 14 losses.

Excitement was rare, hence this opening sentence from The Seattle Times’ Hy Zimmerman on June 26:  “The Seattle Mariners last night stepped out of character, into victory and out of the cellar” (“M’s Blast …). He was writing about an 8-3 Seattle win over Milwaukee that moved the Mariners a percentage point ahead of last-place Oakland. Center fielder Jones, touted by Zimmerman as a Rookie of the Year contender, hit his 14th and 15th home runs, and first baseman Dan Meyer (b. 1952) had a homer, a triple, and two singles.

A Dash of Flash

Jones was the team’s first fan favorite. Cries of “Ruuuupe!” would rattle around the Kingdome when he came up to bat or made a good play in the field. He even had an effect on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the song traditionally sung during the seventh-inning stretch; “root, root, root for the home team” became “Rupe, Rupe, Rupe for the Mariners.” He represented Seattle at the 1977 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in New York. The flashy center fielder got a kindred talent for a teammate in early July when second-baseman Julio Cruz (b. 1954) was called up from the Mariners’ Class AAA Hawaii farm team, where he was hitting .374 with 40 stolen bases. Cruz immediately became Seattle’s leadoff hitter. In his first major league game (a loss to the Chicago White Sox), he had two of the Mariners’ five hits, drew a walk, scored a run and, as Zimmerman put it, “flashed agility in the field and eye-blink speed on the bases” (“Chisox Homers …”).

Escaping the Cellar

The lowlight of the season came in mid-August when the Mariners were hammered 13-1 by the Tigers in Detroit. It was their ninth straight loss, a dismal streak in which Seattle pitchers gave up 23 home runs. “They are putting pressure on themselves. They are not as bad as this,” Johnson said (“Tigers Club Reeling M’s”). When they won the next night, beating Detroit 3-2 on a game-ending double play, Mariners players poured onto the field to congratulate Abbott, who pitched a complete game, and his catcher, Stinson, who provided the winning margin, a two-run homer in the sixth. Still, August turned out to be their worst month – losing 22 of their 28 games.

Near the end of the season, the Mariners and Oakland were competing to see which team could escape last place in the division standings. Seattle suffered a blow when Stanton, who was leading the team with 27 home runs, broke an ankle in the final week. The day he had surgery, the Mariners ended their season by beating the White Sox 3-2 in Chicago. Abbott pitched seven innings and got the win to finish with a team-best record of 12-13. Relief pitcher Enrique Romo (b. 1947) finished the game and collected his 16th save. Meyer drove in two runs to finish with 90 RBIs, tying Stanton for most on the team. The last-gasp triumph, coupled with an Oakland loss, boosted the Mariners into sixth place in the final standings, a half-game ahead of the A’s. The Mariners finished with a record of 64 wins and 98 losses – matching what the Pilots accomplished in 1969, their lone season.

Putting it in Perspective

As expansion seasons go, 64-98 was better than most. Only two of the eight teams that entered Major League Baseball from 1961 to 1977 finished with more wins than the Seattle newcomers – the 1969 Kansas City Royals with 69 and the 1961 Los Angeles Angels with 70. Royal Brougham (1894-1978), the Seattle P-I’s longtime sports editor and columnist, was happy with the results. He wrote:

“Hooray for the Mariners. Our scrappy expansion club closed their first campaign on a cheery note. They escaped the ignominy of finishing in last place by winning their final game and Oakland losing theirs. They won their final series from the White Sox. They not only beat out Oakland but had a better season record than Atlanta and tied Toronto … They played an exciting brand of ball and exceeded every predicted goal in attendance” (Brougham).

Seattle’s home attendance of 1,338,511 ranked eighth among the America League’s 14 teams. The Mariners played a lot of close games – more than half were decided by one or two runs – but they also got clobbered a lot, with more than half of their losses by five or more runs. “We just didn’t have the talent to compete at that level, and we knew it going in,” Cruz said (Arnold, 20).

Right fielder Carlos Lopez (b. 1948) had the team’s best batting average, .283. Jones, the team’s All-Star, finished with a .263 average, 24 home runs and 76 RBIs. Cruz would go on to become one of the league’s top base stealers, but he had a relatively quiet rookie season, hitting .256 with 15 stolen bases in 60 games. The P-I’s Kenyon judged that the season’s biggest disappointment, “disregarding the many injuries to frontline pitchers,” was Braun hitting .235, followed by Collins hitting .239. (“Operation a Success”). Seattle used 17 different starting pitchers.  

One measure of the team’s talent level: 10 of the original 28 Mariners were out of baseball after that season, and four more lasted only one more year. Johnson was fired in 1980. The franchise would have to wait 17 years, enduring three ownership changes and hiring 10 more managers, before having its first winning season – 82-80 in 1993. As of 2021, the Mariners had gone longer than any other major professional sports team in North America without winning a league championship. They still were the only MLB team never to have reached the World Series.

Sources:

J Michael Kenyon, “Mariners Will Fly in First AL Season,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 6, 1976, p. B-1; Kenyon, “57,000 Cheer Mariners; But They Lose Dome Opener,” Ibid., April 7, 1977, p. A-1; Kenyon, “Miracle Ninth Saves Mariners,” Ibid., April 9, 1977, p. B-1; “M’s Finish With a Win – And Sixth,” Ibid., October 3, 1977, p. C-1; Kenyon, “Operation a Success,” Ibid., October 4, 1977, p. C-1; Royal Brougham, “Away We Go,” Ibid., October 4, 1977, p. C-4; Art Thiel, Out of Left Field: How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2008), 3-15; Kirby Arnold, Tales From the Seattle Mariners Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Mariners Stories Ever Told (New York: Sports Publishing, 2019), 4-7, 9-24; Jon Wells, Shipwrecked: A Peoples’ History of the Seattle Mariners (Kenmore, Washington: Epicenter Press, 2012), 11-12, 15-16, 51; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Seattle Pilots Baseball Team” (by Alan J. Stein), “Seattle Mariners” (by Glenn Drosendahl), and “Seattle, King County, and State of Washington Suspend Lawsuit Against Baseball’s American League on February 14, 1976, Clearing Way for Mariners” (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org (accessed March 1, 2020); Hy Zimmerman, “K.C. Aide New Seattle Baseball G.M.,” The Seattle Times, April 7, 1976, p. G-1; “Seattle Mariners,” Ibid., August 25, 1976, p. C-1; Zimmerman, “Johnson Hired as Mariner Manager,” Ibid., September 3, 1976, p. C-1; “Mariner Tickets on Sale Monday,” Ibid., September 11, 1976, p. C-3; Zimmerman, “Jones, Royals’ Outfielder, First Selection by Mariners,” Ibid., November 5, 1976, p. C-1; Mike Wyne, “Bases Were Loaded to See the Mariners,” Ibid., April 7, 1977, p. 14; Zimmerman, “Whitewashed M’s Face Ryan,” Ibid., April 7, 1977, p. E-1; Georg N. Meyers, “Baseball’s 2nd Debut Not Really Like 1st,” Ibid., April 7, 1977, p. E-1; Zimmerman, “M’s Blast Out of Cellar,” Ibid., June 26, 1977, p. G-2; Zimmerman, “Chisox Homers Too Much for Mariners,” Ibid., July 5, 1977, p. B-1; Zimmerman, “Streak Struck! Mariners Triumph,” Ibid., August 17, 1977, p. G-1; Zimmerman, “M’s Finish Out of Cellar,” Ibid., October 3, 1977, p. B-1; “1977 Seattle Mariners Statistics,” Baseball Reference https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SEA/1977.shtml ; accessed March 4, 2020; “MLB Team History,” Ibid., https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/ accessed March 5, 2020.

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