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Echoes from the press box
It didn’t take long for Lee Desilet to meet his critics.
At a weekly get-together at a Seattle restaurant back in the early 1960s, the newest broadcaster for the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers got up in front of the crowd of 50 sportswriters and sportscasters to ask for an explanation.
“You guys have been panning the hell out of me,” Desilet said. “But you’ve never heard me. What’s the criteria?”
Now in his 80s, Desilet lets free a grin. Apparently, the column jockeys from the Seattle Times, the P-I, Tacoma News Tribune and the like soon after forgave him for not being Leo Lassen, the Rainiers’ beloved voice.
“That turned it around,” Desilet recalls. “We started to get along pretty good.”
A Sequim resident now for more than two decades, the longtime broadcasting veteran says he still has fond memories of those days, even if he did get off to a rough start among his peers.
“At that time, (Lassen) was about the only guy you could get on the radio here,” he remembers. “People never heard anyone but Lassen — not (greats like) Red Barber, Mel Allen.”
That Pacific Northwest exclusivity helped Lassen, a 30-year veteran with the then Seattle Indians and Rainiers, pick up a loyal fan base and even a couple of grandiose nicknames, “The Great Gabbo” and “The Voice.”
Lassen left the Rainiers in 1960 and it opened up a job for Desilet, who was broadcasting out of Yakima.
Though those days with the Rainiers are five decades back, Desilet holds several fond memories cultivated at the press box at Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium.
There was chatting it up with manager Johnny Pesky, who’d eventually go on to coach the big league Red Sox. Or watching future major-league all-star Dick Radatz work the mound. Or working with broadcasting-legend-in-the-making Keith Jackson. Or catching glimpses of future baseball stars from other teams play through.
And the best part: traveling with the club from city to city, playing other squads in the Pacific Coast League.
“I met an awful lot of wonderful people,” Desilet says. “I learned how to take care of myself.”
It’s a career that almost didn’t happen, if not for a freak injury.
Learning the trade
Desilet grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, and following a harrowing time in the U.S. Navy — he was a gunner on dive-bombers and fought in World War II, surviving combat and five plane crashes — he went on to school at nearby Washington State College (now a university).
The plan, he says, was to study for a career in law, with his spare time going to fighting as a 155-pounder on the school boxing team.
One bad punch, and possibly a lingering injury from one of those plane crashes, put Desilet out of boxing for good.
But staff at the campus radio station, KWSC (now KWSU), bugged him to do broadcasts of fights. Never mind the inexperience in doing play-by-play commentary, they said: you know the sport, and it pays $75 per month. Not long after that, campus newspaper editors asked Desilet to write three columns per week, for $30 a month.
“I realized I could not practice law with all this going on, so I changed my major to communications,” Desilet says.
Soon he was covering all sports at Washington State, by print or over the airwaves, from football, basketball and baseball to track and skiing.
After graduation, Desilet went back to Lewiston before getting a call to cover the Yakima Bears, a minor league baseball squad in the Western International league.
There, Desilet learned to become his own engineer. That meant writing and performing his own commercials, setting up travel itineraries, carrying equipment from town to town and the like.
Along the way, Desilet picked up several impressive assignments and stories, from writing a Sunday feature for Spokane’s Spokesman Review each week to covering a Little League World Series and doing stories for The Sporting News, interviewing Warren Spahn and Ted Williams.
“(Williams) wanted you to know how great he was,” Desilet recalls. “I became aware of that before we were done.”
It was in Yakima that Desilet pulled a rare exclusive, securing an interview with manager Leo Durocher that earned a front-page byline with The Sporting News.
By the time the Seattle Rainiers decided to replace Lassen, their three-decade-long commentator, Desilet was the choice.
The Rainiers actually started out as the Seattle Indians in 1903, along with a host of charter clubs in the Pacific Coast League. The Indians enjoyed success in the early 1920s, earning their first pennant in 1924.
In 1938, Emil Sick bought the club. Owner of Seattle’s Rainier Brewing Company, Sick promptly changed the team name to the Rainiers and constructed a 15,000-seat stadium.
Sick invested in the team and it bore him plenty of wins, earning first place in 1939, 1940 and 1941, plus pennants in 1942 and 1943.
The Rainiers became a farm club for the Cincinnati Reds from 1956-1960 before the Red Sox bought the club.
Desilet remembers that Sick’s Stadium had a good baseball vibe in the early 1960s, a precursor to the 1970s movement that landed Seattle the Mariners.
“It was a baseball atmosphere, because everybody appears to love baseball,” he says. “We drew pretty well for a triple-A club. The field was in perfect condition (and) the seats and fences were painted.”
Desilet also remembers a hill and apartments beyond the left field fence where people watched the game for free, listening to the Rainiers’ broadcaster on the radio.
Desilet says he tried to bring a no-nonsense style to the broadcast game. That meant telling listeners about the game’s particulars — a right-handed hitter up, outfield shading toward left, runner at first with a small lead — and then adding the anecdotes later.
“You want to be as fair as you can possibly be,” he says. “That’s hard, when you know a guy out there isn’t giving his best.”
A key was talking it up with the managers, like the Red Sox great Johnny Pesky, Desilet says.
“You got a lot of good information if you made those guys your friends,” he says.
It certainly didn’t hurt when a club official helped set up an interview with the great Ty Cobb, too.
Out of the booth
Alas, the broadcasting life had its downsides.
“Being away from my wife and kids so much of the time,” Desilet says, was difficult. Oftentimes he’d tell his children good night over the airwaves.
When the Rainiers morphed into the Seattle Pilots, a one-year blip on the Major League radar, and then moved to Milwaukee, Desilet moved on. For one year he made movies for Boeing, creating 12- to 15-minute films about specific models of planes that the company used in-house. For a while he was executive director of the Washington Optometric Association, then did public relations at Shoreline College and then sold real estate before finally retiring in the early 1990s.
“We kind of liked the looks of Sequim,” his wife, Elaine, recalls.
The list for a good place to settle, Lee Desilet recalls, was short but significant: Where are the golf courses? The doctors? The grocery store? The library? The gas station?
“Every time we looked, we kept coming back to Sequim,” he says.
Yes, but does he still watch baseball?
Lee Desilet turns to his wife and they both smile.
“I watch (baseball) quite a bit,” he says.
“I can be very critical. After 25 years of broadcasting, you become somewhat knowledgeable.”