Peter Callaghan: The homely Kingdome and its stubborn champion

Staff WriterJanuary 26, 2014 

It was nice of the National Football League and the Seattle Seahawks to recognize John Nordstrom during the trophy ceremony last Sunday.

Nordstrom was part of a family group led by his uncle Lloyd who were the majority owners of the original Seahawks. And he is still a part of the team family, dubbed by sports columnist Dave Boling in a profile earlier this year as a grandfather to the franchise.

But there’s one other guy who should be held up as a key figure in creating what has gotten the whole region in a tizzy. Because without former Gov. John Spellman, there would be no Kingdome, and without the Kingdome there would be no Seattle Seahawks.

Ah, the Kingdome. Dead for a decade and a half, the homely dome still draws more derision than praise. Through no fault of its own or its designers, the Kingdome was done in when the economics and emotions of professional sports changed. The structure was built when multi-purpose stadiums were the trend and affordability was the rule. By the mid-1990s, single purpose stadiums heavily subsidized by taxpayers desperate to hang on to footloose owners became the standard.

By then, however, the Kingdome had already kept its promises. A region that had just one professional team — the Seattle Sonics — soon had another baseball team and its first football team.

Spellman liked to refer to it as the most honest building in Seattle.

Yet as difficult as it was to win approval for and pay for Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, both of those came after the region was conditioned to having major league sports teams. When Spellman inherited the Kingdome project, there was just the Sonics.

“There are a lot of people who thought we had a secret deal to get a baseball team, or a football team,” Spellman told HistoryLink.org in 2000. “But we had nothing except of lot of faith.”

And the region was in the midst of a long losing streak. Baseball’s Seattle Pilots had left in 1970 after one season, not willing to wait for construction of a domed stadium approved by county voters two years before. The Boeing Recession was raging. Opponents had succeeded in blocking the first stadium site at the Seattle Center. And there were many groups trying to scuttle the second site at an old rail yard between Pioneer Square and the International District.

Spellman, elected King County executive in 1969, was determined to get the thing built.

“It was bigger, taller and more commodious than the Roman Colosseum,” wrote John Hughes of the Kingdome in his biography of Spellman, “and there were days when Spellman felt like the first Christian fed to the lions on opening day.”

Yet he stood up to threatened union disruptions, to referenda campaigns, to a contractor who lost his nerve after the first four roof panels had been poured and to community protesters who disrupted the groundbreaking with chants and mud balls.

And it was Spellman who led the delegations to the meetings of National Football League owners and who negotiated lease terms with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

According to Hughes, Spellman said he told Rozelle: “We’ll have a stadium. Give us a team.”

With the American League awarding the Mariners to settle a lawsuit over the loss of the Pilots, the Sonics moving from the Seattle Center and the original Seattle Sounders also calling the Kingdome home, there were at one time four teams playing home games in the concrete Kaiser roll.

Spellman wasn’t happy with the 1997 decision to tear down the Kingdome, but he went along with it, only wishing fans and civic leaders would have given the Kingdome its due.

“We wouldn’t be talking about keeping a football team and keeping a baseball team without the Kingdome,” he said in 1997. Sure, there might have been an NFL team in Seattle eventually, given the size of the market, but it wouldn’t be this team.

The Mariners, not known for public relations acumen, did it right when the team asked Spellman to throw out the first pitch at the last game in the Kingdome in 1999. Maybe when the Seahawks play their next game in the stadium that stands where the Kingdome once did, the person raising the 12th Man flag will be the same guy.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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