Marvin Milkes (August 10, 1923 – January 31, 1982) was an American front office executive in three professional sports: Major League Baseball, soccer, and hockey. He is perhaps best known as the first general manager in the history of baseball's Seattle Pilots and—when that franchise was transferred after its only season in the Pacific Northwest—Milwaukee Brewers.
Milkes' baseball career began in 1946 when he became an executive with minor league affiliates in the St. Louis Cardinals' vast farm system. He won The Sporting News' Minor League Executive of the Year Award (Lower Classification) in 1956 as general manager of the Fresno Cardinals of the Class C California League. Beginning in 1957, he was the GM of the San Antonio Missions, then the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. When the Orioles dropped the affiliation after the 1958 season, Milkes worked to keep the Missions franchise alive, securing a working agreement with the Chicago Cubs.
At the Pilots' helm
In 1961, he joined the front office of one of the American League's first expansion teams, the Los Angeles Angels. Serving as assistant general manager to Fred Haney, Milkes helped build the organization. One of his duties beginning in 1965 was to supervise its Triple-A club, the Seattle Angels of the Pacific Coast League, and when Seattle was granted an AL expansion team for 1969—the Pilots—Milkes was named its first general manager.
Although he drafted many veterans from the 1968 expansion pool, Milkes also chose younger players who would go on to long and successful Major League careers—including Lou Piniella, Mike Marshall and Marty Pattin. But his most famous acquisition was pitcher Jim Bouton, purchased from the New York Yankees during the 1968 season. Bouton would immortalize the 1969 Pilots in his memoir/diary Ball Four, and Milkes would not escape Bouton's scorn as an example of a baseball executive willing to deceive his players for the benefit of the club's ownership and management.
Bouton wrote on August 26, 1969, after Milkes had traded him to the Houston Astros: "As soon as a general manager says ['Now I want to be honest with you'], check your wallet. It's like Marvin Milkes telling you, 'We've always had a nice relationship.' The truth is general managers aren't honest with their players, and they have no relationship with them except a business one."
One and done in Seattle
Unfortunately for Milkes, the Pilots' tenure in Seattle would be the shortest of any franchise in modern MLB history and Ball Four would be the team's lasting legacy. The Pilots played in a former minor league facility, Sick's Stadium, that was clearly inadequate even for temporary use. The team was outdrafted by its expansion twin, the Kansas City Royals, and finished last in the American League West Division, winning only 64 games and drawing only 678,000 fans. They were also plagued by an unstable, undercapitalized ownership. Dewey Soriano, the man who had won the franchise, couldn't pay the expansion fee and had to get help from former Cleveland Indians owner William R. Daley, who got almost half the stock in return.
By the end of the season, the Pilots had almost run out of money. It was obvious that the Pilots would not be able to hold out long enough in Seattle for a new stadium to be built unless new owners were found. A local group was forced to withdraw when the Bank of California called a $4 million loan as part of the previous owners' debt. Another local group put together a nonprofit bid to buy the team, but this bid was rejected out of concerns it would devalue the other clubs. Another, more traditional bid by the same people fronting the nonprofit group fell one vote short of approval. The American League appointed its own caretaker CEO, Roy Hamey, to watch over the foundering franchise.
But as spring training 1970 dawned, the only owners who appeared on the horizon were bent on moving the Pilots to Milwaukee. This group, headed by Bud Selig, still smarted over the 1965 move of the Braves to Atlanta. It had tried to lure the Chicago White Sox to Milwaukee, and failed to land a National League expansion franchise in 1969. MLB gave tentative approval for the sale to Selig's group, but the state of Washington got a temporary injunction to stop the sale. In response, the Pilots filed for bankruptcy to forestall any further legal action.
As spring training drew to a close, Pilot players and management were unsure whether to report to Seattle or Milwaukee to begin the 1970 season. At the bankruptcy hearing, Milkes testified there was not enough money to pay the coaches, players and office staff. Had Milkes been more than 10 days late in paying the players, they would have all become free agents and left Seattle without a team for the 1970 season. With this in mind, Federal Bankruptcy Referee Sidney Volinn declared the Pilots bankrupt on April 1—six days before Opening Day—clearing the way for them to move to Milwaukee. The team's equipment had been sitting in Provo, Utah with the drivers awaiting word on whether to drive toward Seattle or Milwaukee.
With the move being approved on such short notice, Selig and his syndicate were compelled to retain Milkes and the new manager he had just hired, Dave Bristol. The Brewers took the field with the outline of the old Pilots logo clearly visible on their uniforms, and Milkes was allowed to finish the season—during which Milwaukee won 65 games (one more than the Pilots had done), finished fourth in the AL West, and attracted 933,000 fans. Then, on December 17, 1970, Milkes turned in his resignation.
After baseball: hockey and soccer
As it turned out, Milkes' resignation signaled the end of a 25-year baseball career. His next job, in February 1972, was as the first general manager in the history of the New York Raiders, a franchise in the upstart World Hockey Association. But Milkes' tenure was brief; he resigned eight months into the job. Almost a decade later, in 1981, Milkes was general manager of Soccer Los Angeles, which operated the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League, but the franchise folded and in November of that year he resigned.
Slightly more than two months later, on January 31, 1982, Milkes died of an apparent heart attack at a Los Angeles health club. He was 58 years old.
- Bouton, Jim, Ball Four. New York and Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1970, page 327.
- Obituary, The New York Times, Feb. 2, 1982.
- Spink, C. C. Johnson, ed., The 1968 Baseball Guide. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1969.
|Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers General Manager