Negro League Seattle Steelheads a brief but essential part of the city’s rich baseball history
Despite one short-lived season, team lives on as a tribute to marginalized sports communities in the area
SEATTLE — Not unlike the eggs their namesake lay deep in the banks of the Skykomish River, the history of the Seattle Steelheads is buried deep in the history of the Pacific Northwest’s baseball lore. As members of the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball League, their existence didn’t even last the average lifetime of the brilliantly colored trout from which the team got its moniker.
A relative blur in the larger waves of baseball nostalgia, the Steelheads’ somewhat quixotic existence is a chapter that this city has revisited with an almost archaeological approach. The team that was created by Abe Saperstein, the same guy who started the Harlem Globetrotters, is now remembered mainly in a bar across the street from T-Mobile Park.
For a city with a lot of relatively wacky baseball history — the Seattle Pilots played a single season before they went bankrupt and moved to Milwaukee; then after King County sued the American League in 1970 to get a team back, the county broke ground on the multi-sport Kingdome in 1972 just in case — the Steelheads didn’t make it to Independence Day in 1946.
“I mean, I think I know a little bit about the Negro Leagues and I was totally unaware that these cats existed on the West Coast,” Seattle Mariners TV play-by-play man Dave Sims said this week. “I mean, it was a piece of history that, like a lot of things in American history, was sort of buried.”
Sims is referring to a function the team held back in 2021, in which the Mariners honored the team’s legacy by unveiling a new uniform based on, really, a historian’s active research and a designer’s imagination. A black and white set, with a somewhat basic font that simply reads “SEATTLE” across the front, with black piping, in the style of the time.
The big league club’s remembrance of one of its many baseball predecessors began in 1995, arguably the most historic year in the history of the franchise. Unlike many throwback kits that are put together in modern times, however, nobody had any pictures of anyone ever having played.
“There was no known photographs of a Steelhead player in uniform at that time. We searched through all the newspaper archives,” said Dave Eskenazi, a Seattle writer who is the authority on Pacific Northwest sports. “They had Jerry Cohen and his team just came up with the design, not just jerseys and pants, but the hats that had the fanciful Steelheads symbol on the hat that was totally fabricated. And it wasn’t until, gosh, I think the third or the fourth … I think it was the third one in 2013 or 2015, I finally found an original photograph: [manager] Paul Hardy.”
When it comes to history, the team and the league suffered from an unfortunate combination of poor planning and bad luck. In 1946, a guy by the name of Jack Roosevelt Robinson signed a minor-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The slow bleeding out of the more popular Negro Leagues farther east was one thing for even well-established leagues, never mind one started by a guy who had a penchant for barnstorming and catering to the Black dollar. While Saperstein is credited in history as a person willing to showcase African American talent in a time of segregation, a noble cause, the Steelheads were a short-lived scattershot operation that folded into the rest of Seatown’s stilted pre-Mariners baseball history.
“We moved here in 1977 when the Mariners first started because of my dad, and then I’ve lived here ever since,” said Greta Niehaus Dunn, daughter of legendary Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus. She happened to be standing in front of the statue dedicated to him in the park when I spotted her with a family member wearing a Steelheads jersey, in perfect Gen Z style. “So, we have a family baseball history, and then just love history and love baseball. I learned about the Steelheads, and there has been a long history of baseball actually in Seattle before the Mariners.”
Her father died in 2010, but was not forgotten in the team’s efforts to maintain its legacy across platforms.
“I think they’ve done a fabulous job with their jerseys that you see a lot of people wearing now,” she said with the kind of smile that makes you realize she’s remembering someone close to her. “I’m superproud that they put ‘My Oh My’ in the corner. That’s my dad’s saying.”
Now, there’s a bar across the street known as Steelheads Alley that sells merchandise with that name on it, an outcrop of a rebranding after the pandemic. It’s modest but important, and branches out as more of tribute to a lot of marginalized sports communities in the area.
Stephanie Johnson Toliver is the president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. Its stewardship and work have kept much of this memorabilia alive and available. Unfortunately, quite a few Black folks around Seattle believe they were pushed aside this All-Star weekend.
Alas, in their day, the Steelheads weren’t even particularly well-liked by Black folks in town. The local Black press wasn’t particularly enthused about covering the “Steelies” because there was another local Black team that didn’t get to play in venues such as Sick’s Stadium, longtime host of the Seattle Rainiers, a Pacific Coast League team that was begun in the early 1900s.
If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the history of that stadium’s site includes it being the old home of Dugdale Field, which also hosted the first game with an NFL team in Seattle. Sick’s Stadium was built because an arsonist burned Dugdale Field down, on the Fourth of July no less, in 1932.
Goofball histories aside, the real historians have done a great job of keeping the baseball culture from King County alive.
“It could have been completely lost to history, if not for research and scholarship by a handful of people. But it takes a force like the major league team to really care about it,” Eskenazi explained. “And they’ve always been really, really good about that. I’ve done historical work with them going back to the early ’90s, and they still have a lot of those same people that started real young in the front office like Kevin Martinez and Randy Adamack and Tim Hevly and other guys that just get it. They care about the history, and brought it to fruition even more lately.”
As important to anything in the now, these uniforms — even if effectively somewhat created out of thin air — we need to see way more of, in general. When you walk around town and see a hat or jersey, there’s sort of a “if you know you know,” energy, even if most people have them from when the Mariners held a jersey giveaway night to celebrate Juneteenth.
Even guys on the team think so.
“I know [Mariners shortstop] J.P. Crawford was one of the guys that said, ‘Hey, man, these uniforms are dope,’ ” Sims summed up. “We should wear these all time.”