Upon his death last week, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was rightly lauded for numerous accomplishments on and off the baseball field.
But not many people know about his link to the Seattle Mariners. In fact, in a roundabout way, he might be the reason the Mariners are still around in Seattle. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but hear me out.
This story, confirmed by Mariners officials, begins in the summer of 1980. George Argyros, then a prominent real estate developer in Southern California, was interested in buying a professional sports team. He had lunch with Georgia Rosenbloom to inquire about the Los Angeles Rams, and looked into the Clippers, the Saints, even the New York Mets. Nothing came to fruition, however.
What Argyros didn’t know is that the original Mariners’ ownership group, led by actor Danny Kaye, was looking to sell the team they had brought into existence as an expansion team in 1977. This is where Harmon Killebrew comes in.
One day that summer, Argyros was playing in a charity golf tournament in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he had recently bought property to develop. He was paired with Killebrew, the most famous athletic product of Idaho, and five years removed from the final season of a brilliant career that netted 573 homers, 11th most in history.
Killebrew knew the original Mariner owners, and was aware that they were looking to sell. When he was chatting with Argyros during the tourney and found out he was intent on getting into sports, Killebrew ended up connecting him with the M’s ownership group.
Eventually, a deal was consummated in February of 1981, with Argyros purchasing the team for $12.5 million dollars. (Yes, for the current price of one season of Milton Bradley, one was able to purchase an entire franchise 30 years ago).
The upshot is that Killebrew, for being the liaison between Argyros and the Mariner owners, ended up receiving a $125,000 finder’s fee when the deal went down – 1 percent of the purchase price.
Argyros wound up selling the team to Jeff Smulyan in 1990 for the tidy sum of $77.5 million. (In other words, for the current price of five years of Aramis Ramirez, one could purchase an entire franchise 20 years ago).
In 1985, while renegotiating the Kingdome lease, Argyros agreed to a clause that required Mariners owners to offer the team to local buyers for 120 days before moving the team. That came into play when Smulyan was being courted by interests in Tampa Bay. Smulyan put the team up for sale, and it was during that 120-day window that the current ownership group, fronted by Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, was cemented, ensuring that the M’s would stay in Seattle (unlike a certain basketball team).
I wouldn’t go so far to say Harmon Killebrew saved baseball in Seattle, but he’s a fascinating footnote to Mariners’ history.
(Photo by Associated Press, 1962)