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Max Soriano accepts a novelty key from Seattle mayor Dorm Braman outside Sicks Stadium in 1969. (David Eskenazi Collection)
Max Soriano accepts a novelty key from Seattle mayor Dorm Braman outside Sicks Stadium in 1969. (David Eskenazi Collection)

Max Soriano was praised and pilloried for bringing Pilots baseball team to Seattle Add to ...

Max Soriano, who was born to a poor fisherman in British Columbia, helped build a family business before landing a major-league baseball team for Seattle.

Soriano and his older brother, Dewey, a former minor-league pitcher, fronted a group that gained an American League expansion franchise. The sad-sack Seattle Pilots had a disappointing debut on the field and in the stands in 1969. The owners declared bankruptcy and the team moved to Milwaukee before the start of the following season.

Celebrated for their ingenuity in netting the club, the brothers were pilloried for the subsequent shipwreck. A two-metre-tall effigy was hanged from a ramp leading to a monorail station, a protest whose location gave it a peculiarly Seattle feel. The effigy had a sign pinned to it reading, “Thanks Max and Dewey.”

Soriano, who has died in Seattle, aged 86, overcame that setback, expanding his business interests and launching a shipping company with another brother. The company, now run by his sons, operates retail stores under the Alaska Ship Supply banner, outfitting the Bering Strait fishing fleet. Their clothing line is worn by fishermen on the popular Discovery Channel reality program Deadliest Catch.

Max Durban Soriano was born on Oct. 31, 1925, at Prince Rupert, a port city on the northern B.C. coast. He was the ninth child born to the former Anna Bundgaard, a farmer’s daughter from Denmark, and Angel Lorenzo Soriano, a fisherman from Torrevieja in Spain’s Alicante province. The couple had 11 children, with five born in Canada. The senior Soriano worked halibut boats along the coast for many years, but when Max was six weeks old the family resettled in Seattle – the entire household and all those children moved south in the family’s fishing boat.

An all-city pitcher as a senior at Franklin High School in Seattle, Max Soriano, a right-hander, hoped to follow Dewey in pursuing a professional baseball career. Dewey pitched for the Seattle Rainiers before joining the wartime Merchant Marine. Max followed him in 1944 after graduating from high school. He quickly rose in rank to become a junior officer on ships plying the waters from Puget Sound north through Georgia Strait and on to Alaska.

He enrolled at the University of Washington after the war, pitching for the school’s Huskies baseball team while earning a degree in American history. A persistently sore right throwing arm limited his baseball prospects, so he attended law school instead of pursuing an athletic career.

Soriano specialized in admiralty law, which proved helpful as he represented his brother in a lawsuit after Dewey, who worked as a harbour pilot, struck a submerged rock in Juan de Fuca Strait while guiding an Asia-bound freighter in 1961. (Dewey also struck another rock in 1967 and hit a bridge in 1982.)

In 1948, Dewey borrowed $15,000 from his brothers to purchase the Yakima (Wash.) Bears, a minor-league team for which he also served as manager and starting pitcher. In time, Dewey became president of the Pacific Coast League, a circuit which included the Vancouver Mounties. Max acted as the league’s legal counsel.

At baseball’s winter meetings in Mexico City in 1967, a group headed by the Soriano brothers was awarded an expansion franchise on the condition a major-league-quality baseball stadium be built in the near future.

The brothers fronted $2-million, most of it in Max’s name, as Dewey was going through a divorce at the time. Financing came from William R. Daley, a former owner of the Cleveland Indians.

The new team, named the Pilots, not coincidentally Dewey’s occupation, played at Sicks’ Stadium, a Depression-era park that suffered from a lack of amenities, not the least of which was low water pressure that made it impossible to flush toilets during games with a large attendance. Renovations to increase capacity were not completed before Opening Day, so many paying customers arrived to find their seats had yet to be installed.

The team, stocked with castoffs and rejects, stumbled on the field, losing 98 games. (One of those players was a knuckleball-throwing relief pitcher named Jim Bouton, who maintained a diary that would become the book Ball Four, a hilarious account of baseball life that is still in print.) Attendance was poor. The brothers – Dewey, the dynamic front man, and Max, the cerebral presence – were overwhelmed by problems.

Though voters had approved the building of a domed stadium, its construction seemed far off. With the club losing $12,500 per day and no financial institution willing to bankroll it, the brothers declared bankruptcy. The team was “without funds and it’s impossible to borrow money,” Max Soriano would tell an adjudicator.

The team moved to Milwaukee just days before the start of the 1970 season, leaving behind angry season-ticket holders and a flurry of lawsuits.

After the Pilots fiasco, Soriano once again turned to business, developing real estate in Seattle, Alaska and Hawaii. With brother Amigo Soriano, he purchased the freighter Western Pioneer and began shipping clothing, hardware and foodstuffs to Alaska, returning with boatloads of crab. The company stopped shipping in 2005 but retains stores in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Major-league baseball eventually returned to Seattle and, with the passing of the years, the enmity toward the Soriano brothers eased substantially.

“I think history has been kinder to Max and his brother Dewey for bringing the Pilots and for trying to get them started,” said Larry Soriano, Max’s son and president of Western Pioneer Inc. “They were ahead of their time.”

Max Soriano, who retired in 1998, never lost his passion for the summer game. He was an enthusiastic fan of the Seattle Mariners, the successors to his ill-fated Pilots, and could be found sitting in his company’s season tickets in Row 14 behind home plate at Safeco Field.

Soriano died on Sept. 15 at Swedish Medical Center. He leaves two sons, three daughters, eight grandchildren and a great-grandson. He also leaves a sister, Gloria Soriano, and a brother, Charles (Chuck) Soriano. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Ruth Allingham, a teacher whom he married in 1950. She died of cancer, aged 72, in 1999. He was also predeceased by eight siblings, including Dewey Soriano, who died in 1998, at the age of 78.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 

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