Seattle Steelheads (1946)

Poster for Seattle Steelheads at Borchert Field,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 12, 1946
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"

The Seattle Steelheads were the all-black minor league baseball team formed in the spring of 1946 as part of the West Coast Negro Baseball League organized by Abe Saperstein who became president of the league with Jesse Owens as vice-president. Other teams in the league included the Oakland Larks, the San Diego Tigers, the Los Angeles White Socks, the Portland Rosebuds (owned by Owens), and the San Francisco Sea Lions.  

The Steelheads, often called the “Steelies,” were named in hour of a local type of Pacific salmon. They were initially organized by Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the much more famous basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters.  Saperstein also owned the Harlem Globetrotter baseball team and moved players from that organization to the Steelheads roster including first baseman Herb Simpson, outfielder Zell Miles, second baseman Sherwood “Woody” Brewer, and catcher Everett “Ziggy” Marcel. Many of the Steelhead players were familiar with Seattle, Washington and the Pacific Northwest, having visited the city in World War II. In early 1946 Saperstein turned ownership over to local black businessmen Claude Norris and Bruce Rowell.

The Steelheads played their first game in Sick Stadium on June 1, 1946.  The stadium was named after Emil Sick, owner of the Rainier Brewing Company.  Saperstein arranged for the “Steelies” to play there when the main occupants, the minor league Seattle Rainiers, were on the road.  In their inaugural game before a racially mixed crowd of 2,500, the Steelies split a double-header with the San Diego (California) Tigers.  The Steelies also barnstormed across the region in non-league games as far away as Bellingham, Spokane, and Portland, Oregon.

The Steelies and the rest of the baseball league teams anticipated financial success.  West coast African American communities from Seattle south to San Diego had surged in populations as hundreds of thousands of black workers and military service members migrated to the region during World War II and the vast majority of them chose to remain after the conflict ended.  League owners hope to tap into this rapidly emerging market.  After all, the Negro Leagues in the East and South had been popular and financially successful since the early 1920s.  

Yet the Steelheads, despite a winning season, never drew large crowds in Seattle and the other league teams fared worse in attendance.  The Steelies played their last game at Sick Stadium in September 1946 just three months after their first game.  Abe Saperstein regained control of the team, renamed Abe Saperstein’s All Stars and finally the Harlem Globetrotters Baseball team.  They barnstormed across the nation and as far away as Havana, Cuba but they never again played in Seattle.  

On September 9, 1995, the American League Seattle Mariners honored the Steelheads during their home game by wearing replicas of their uniforms and giving away Negro League hats.  They also recognized the only surviving team member, 92-year-old Herbert Simpson, first baseman of the historical Seattle Steelheads.

Source:

Jay Berman, “The Forgotten League: West Coast Baseball Association,” Orange County Register, Santa Ana, California, Nov. 20, 2012; “Former Steelheads on Globe Trotters,” Seattle Daily Times, June 5, 1947; Jonathan Shipley, “The Seattle Steelheads: A Hard-Hitting Ball Club in the Short-Lived West Coast Negro League,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History 25:1 (Spring 2011).