As state and community leaders reflect on the accomplishment and legacy of James (Jim) Ellis, who died Monday at the age of 98, one vital role he played that was little noted or known was the one helping assure that Seattle would have a major league baseball team to replace the departing Pilots.
Anyone who follows baseball, business or community affairs know that Jim's younger brother, John, helped Sen. Slade Gorton put together the local-ownership team that saved the Mariners in 1992 from being sold and moved.
Then he served as Mariner CEO through the '90s, the Mariners most success string of years.
But few except for maybe a handful of community and elected leaders knew the story Jim Ellis shared with me how the failure of his and Seattle business icon Eddie Carlson's community-ownership initiative to save the ill-fated Seattle Pilots paved the way for the Mariners.
I met with Ellis back in 2011 as the Pilots' saga was getting some renewed visibility as Jim Bouten, who parlayed his stint as a Pilot's pitcher into Ball Four, his famous inside look at the Pilots and baseball, gathered some of the players featured in the book for an anniversary.
Ellis recalled, in our interview, the groundswell of support that Carlson, then perhaps the most influential business figure in Seattle, mounted in the form of a community fund-raising effort to buy the franchise from its bankrupt owners and keep it in Seattle. Many knew that the idea of a Green Bay Packers-like ownership in baseball was going to be a hard sell to a group of wealthy baseball owners.
Ellis remembered that Carlson, who had risen from bellhop to president of the former Western International Hotels and eventually CEO of United Airlines after it bought the Seattle-based hotel chain, led the community effort. The plan was for Carlson to be chair of a publicly owned community franchise and he asked Ellis, then in his mid-40s but already a decade on as the leader of most major civic projects, to join the effort and be the team's legal counsel.
I asked Ellis to tell the story, some parts long were forgotten, some parts never told, about that feverish effort in the winter of 1969-70 to save Seattle's baseball team and how the story unfolded after that.
Here is his account:
"We went after contributions of from $5,000 to $200,000 and raised the money the American League said it would need, and it was real money in those days. The effort drew national attention as the media made this a struggle of the little guy against the big guys. It would have been the only community-ownership in sports other than the Packers.
"We went back to Chicago triumphantly for the meeting and the formal vote of the American League owners and I remember (baseball commissioner) Bowie Kuhn telling us the night before that meeting that we were in. We knew we had a solid majority of support from the owners, but the league rules required that no more than three of the 12 teams in the league could vote against the plan.
"We were called upstairs at the hotel the previous evening for a private meeting with some of the American League owners and we thought it was to be a welcome-to-the-club meeting for us and we'd be welcomed with open arms, though there were a few questions asked that implied some reluctance about us.
"We were thunderstruck at the next day's public meeting, with the room at least half media, when four votes were cast against us. It was over. We had lost.
"We went home and Eddie called everyone who had committed and told them they no longer were committed. Bowie Kuhn called the next day and asked if we would make one more try-I think he really wanted us to succeed - but it was over."
Ellis recalled how he telephoned Gorton, then Washington's attorney general and later U.S. Senator to tell him they'd failed in the effort. But Gorton apparently said, "hold on, baseball told the community that if they voted to build the Kingdome, the city would have a team as its major tenant." So Gorton decided to go the legal route and brought suit against the owners.
But the untold story was that, for whatever reason, the American League owners who hosted Ellis and Carlson for the dinner meeting and discussion about the ownership plan secretly recorded the conversation.
And as with then-President Nixon's secret White House recordings, the outcome was disastrous for the recorders. Ellis recalled that once the door on the meeting is heard on the tape to close, followed by what Ellis recalls as a "minute or so of silence," one of the owners is heard to say "I guess we gave them enough rope to hang themselves."
So the next morning the owners voted down the Seattle plan and Gorton's suit soon followed.
Ellis recalls that "it became clear the jury, after hearing the tape, was going to come down on the side of Seattle, which was seeking $18 million from baseball, when the jury foreman came out to ask the judge if the jury was limited to only what Seattle was asking."
"So as the jury came back with its verdict, baseball's attorneys came over to our table and said, 'You don't want the money, you want a team. We'll guarantee you'll have a team.' We agreed to keep the verdict sealed unless baseball failed to bring a team to the Kingdome."
And so it came to pass that the franchise the city got in 1977 became the Seattle Mariners. The franchise went through a local ownership group and two out-of-area owners, all testing whether Seattle could really support major-league baseball. Then the local group put together by John Ellis and Gorton bought the team and proved baseball could work in Seattle.
So the facts of Mariner history are that an Ellis brother was involved significantly at both ends of the Mariners story.
And thus the contributions of the Ellis brothers to an array of community contributions came to include the Mariners, Jim's contribution in the realm of public-service projects that he guided and John's as CEO of first Puget Sound Energy and then the Mariners,
It seems somehow that an award should be created in the name of The Ellis Brothers to honor future contributors to our region, so they won't be forgotten.
I asked Ellis what would have happened had the effort to save the Pilots as a community-owned team been successful. He replied, "Eddie and I both felt, after it was all over, that it would have been more of a beast than we had anticipated as baseball's financial picture changed so significantly over the coming few years."