Edo Vanni is the dean of Seattle baseball
Edo Vanni starred in the glory days of the Rainiers and never played in the majors. But in his baseball career, he did it all.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Edo Vanni is down in his basement on Queen Anne Hill, taking a walk down memory lane.
Check that — not a walk. More of a sprint, spikes blazing, just like in the glory days, when Vanni was front and center in that most splendid era of Seattle baseball, back when the Rainiers ruled the town.
"I like to come down here and meditate," he says.
Surrounded by a lifetime's worth of memorabilia, the stories flow as smoothly as the vino in his wine cellar around the corner. It's not hard to imagine, for just a second, that Vanni is back at Sicks' Stadium on a sun-dripped Sunday afternoon, playing a doubleheader with that powerhouse 1940 Rainiers team, his favorite of them all.
Or maybe he's in the cramped clubhouse at old Civic Stadium, where Vanni used to go as a teenager to clean spikes for Pacific Coast League players like Joe DiMaggio.
In the span of a two-hour chat, he's baiting an umpire in San Diego, brawling in San Francisco and trading barbs with his old buddy, Billy Martin, in Oakland.
"He's a 21-year-old man trapped in an 87-year-old man's body," said his son, also named Edo Vanni. "He still thinks he can spit in his glove and go play with the boys."
Edo Vanni, the elder, is the heart and soul of Seattle baseball, the one person still around who has seen and done it all, and can still tell you about it in intricate detail.
The heart is helped now by a pacemaker, and nearly stopped ticking four years ago when he was racked by a devastating infection. But the soul is untarnished, and it's imbued with infield dirt, foul-line chalk and the faint smell of hot dogs and popcorn.
"The key is to keep moving," said Vanni, whose longevity formula includes a daily walk, three glasses of wine, and the enduring love of his wife of 56 years, Margaret. "A guy told me a long time ago, always keep moving, or the undertaker will catch you."
He was a speedy outfielder, a fiery manager and a wheeling-dealing general manager. He was a great friend of Fred Hutchinson, coached for Lefty O'Doul, worked for Gene Autry, and knew just about every baseball player, from Ted Williams to Jay Johnstone, whoever came through the Pacific Northwest with a major-league dream.
Vanni played on the first Rainiers team in 1938, after beer magnate Emil Sick bought the old, decaying Seattle Indians. He also managed the last Rainiers club in 1964, just before they became the Seattle Angels.
"The Rainiers were king of the hill in summertime, and Edo was one of life's great characters," said Johnny O'Brien, another Seattle legend and Vanni crony.
He was a key member of the cream of Rainiers teams, the club that won three straight pennants, from 1939 to 1941, and turned Seattle back into a baseball town.
"That was the most fun I ever had," said Vanni, who had the first hit, stolen base and run scored at Sicks' Stadium.
When the Rainiers became the Angels in the mid-1960s, Vanni served as GM for four years and orchestrated Seattle's last pennant in '66, managed by Hall of Famer Bob Lemon.
He flitted around the old Western International League — the PCL's "little brother" — in the late 1940s and 1950s, playing and managing and spreading his legend with stops in Spokane, Yakima, Wenatchee, Tri-Cities and Vancouver.
When major-league baseball finally came here in 1969, Vanni served in the front office of the short-lived Seattle Pilots, all one year of it — "the biggest farce I ever saw," he said.
Vanni had the high falutin' title of "director of group sales" — really a glorified goodwill ambassador for a team that needed all the goodwill it could muster.
"If I were to single out one person as being the embodiment of baseball in this area, it would have to be Edo," said Bill Sears, a lifelong friend who worked as a publicity man for both the Rainiers and Pilots.
Added Seattle baseball historian Dave Eskenazi: "As far as tenure, and variety of roles, and just being a 'heart of Seattle' guy, from Queen Anne, I'd say he's pretty much the dean of Seattle baseball."
Vanni was, in the words of just about everyone, an instigator and a firebrand, every step of the way. In his own words, with a chuckle: "I started about 30 fights one year. That was my job — stir up the ballclub."
He did it with unparalleled flair, whether he was waving the red flag he kept in his pocket to rile up the folks in the bleachers, or delivering the lineup card one day, as manager, accompanied by a St. Bernard and a pointed reference to the umpire's need for a seeing-eye dog.
Interviews with those who played with, against and under him revealed a wealth of Vanni anecdotes, some of which may be apocryphal, such as the time he wrestled a bear in Yakima.
"I never found out who won," said O'Brien with a twinkle, "but Edo doesn't look as good as he did before the match."
Said Rico Petrocelli, whose long Red Sox career was jump-started in Seattle under manager Vanni in 1964, "He would argue with an umpire and slide into the third-base coaching box ... when he got thrown out of the game, it would be him and half the stuff in the dugout."
Petrocelli was a headstrong youngster when he met Vanni, head-on, in Seattle. The two clashed, among other things, over a hamstring injury that Vanni didn't feel was severe enough to keep Petrocelli on the bench. Eventually, Vanni sent Petrocelli home to New York to rehabilitate, and find himself. He did both, returning later that season a new man — and a Vanni convert.
"Looking back, it's the old story — I didn't realize it at the time, but he really helped me," said Petrocelli. "He taught me to be tough. I was just a kid, angry all the time. But Edo was terrific — the combination of discipline, and yet keeping the team loose. We had some laughs."
The one thing, maybe the only thing, Vanni didn't do in his career was play in the major leagues, for a variety of reasons that have become blurred over time.
There was a throwing arm that some felt wasn't quite strong enough, and the broken leg in 1941 that slowed him down after three spectacular seasons with the Rainiers, in which he hit better than .300 each time and led the '40 powerhouse at .333.
There was the fact that in the estimation of many, leaving the PCL for the majors was actually a step down, so highly regarded was the baseball up and down the West Coast.
"Mr. Sick was paying me a damn good salary," Vanni said. "I was making more money than I would be in the majors."
Mostly, though, there was the war. After Pearl Harbor, Vanni enlisted at his father's urging, and served 4-½ years in the Navy, stationed in Florida. He said that when his four-year protected status with the Rainiers ended in the early 1940s, a deal was in place for him to join the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the war closed off that path.
Somehow, it seems fitting that Vanni's entire career was forged in Seattle. When Rainiers manager Paul Richards sent Vanni, still rusty after the service, out to Birmingham, Ala., to hone his skills, it just reinforced in Vanni's mind that Seattle was the place for him.
In 1965, when the Red Sox moved their Class AAA affiliation from Seattle to Toronto, they asked Vanni to stay with the team as manager after he guided future major-leaguers like Petrocelli, Wilbur Wood, Dick Radatz and Jim Lonborg to a second-place finish.
"I kicked a lot of rear ends with those young kids Boston sent down," he said. "They thought they were on a honeymoon trip. They (management) liked that, because no one in the organization was kicking rear ends."
But by that time Vanni was running an apartment house he had bought on Queen Anne, his family (a daughter, Joanne, besides Edo) was entrenched, and he just couldn't leave.
"Dick Williams took the job instead," said Vanni with just a touch of wistfulness. "The next year, he was in Boston (managing the Red Sox)."
Vanni was Puget Sound through and through, born in Black Diamond in 1918, the son of an Italian immigrant who settled in the Northwest to work in the coal mine. A descendant, said Vanni, was an artist who studied with Michelangelo and whose work can still be found in the cathedral at Pisa.
The family eventually moved to Queen Anne, where Vanni was part of a star-studded class at old Queen Anne High School. A two-sport star athlete, Vanni shared the spotlight with Hank Ketcham, who went on to draw the beloved comic strip, "Dennis The Menace," and Rudy Zallinger, who became artist-in-residence at Yale and won a Pulitzer Prize for his murals. A portrait of Vanni painted by Zallinger in high school hangs in Vanni's living room.
Edo was attending the University of Washington on a baseball and football scholarship (he was a kicker) when Torchy Torrance, a strong UW alumnus and executive with Sick's newly energized Rainiers, called Vanni and said the Rainiers wanted to sign him.
A negotiating session was set up, with UW football coach Jim Phelan and Bobby Morris, a legendary football referee and future King County auditor, advocating for Vanni in a face-to-face session. Representing the Rainiers was, among others, the formidable Sick himself.
Eventually, Vanni's advisors got the Rainiers to agree to a series of incentive clauses to mitigate the cost of giving up his scholarship. Then Phelan delivered the capper. He asked Sick to throw in 4,000 shares of Rainier Brewery stock at 25 cents a share.
"They looked at each other, and I said to myself, 'They'll never do that,' " recalled Vanni. "They went into another room to meet. Then they came out and said, 'You've got it.' Well, that's where I made all my money. It wasn't in baseball."
Those Rainier shares, which eventually burgeoned through stock splits into 10,000 shares at $18 each, allowed him to buy property in Queen Anne, including the apartment house, which he eventually sold at a healthy profit.
It allowed him to buy a house for his parents, and the one he still lives in, crammed full of baseball memories of guys like Kewpie Dick Barrett, JoJo White, Bill Lawrence, George Archie, Jack Lelivelt — the heroes of a generation of Seattle youngsters.
"When Mr. Sick took over and put those winning teams in here, Seattle turned into one of the best baseball towns in America," he said stoutly. "A lot of beautiful guys played baseball in those days — good kids, hard-nosed guys."
Slowly, he has watched nearly all of them pass on. Vanni jokes that no one will be left to go to his funeral — which nearly took place in 2001. His son came to pick him up for a memorial service for legendary newspaperman Emmett Watson (a brief member of the Rainiers) and discovered Vanni in the throes of a blood infection.
Vanni was rushed to Swedish Hospital, where he declined so rapidly doctors debated whether to take him off life-preserving machines. His family did not allow it, and Vanni miraculously pulled through.
As the senior Vanni puts it now, with typical bluntness: "I was dead! They had given me last rites and everything. They wanted to pull the plug on me, but my son said, 'No. Not yet.'
"By God, I could hear those guys talking, but I couldn't do anything about it. Isn't that something? I was in another world, for three days. I couldn't voice my opinion or anything. I came out of that, and I've been going ever since."
Vanni may be a bit gaunt, and move slower than an old base stealer would like, but his mind is amazingly sharp. He can remember the name of the loan officer who turned him down some 50 years ago, and just about everyone he played against, coached or managed, with a telling anecdote about each and every one.
"He has a mind like a steel trap," Vanni's son said. "He can tell what pitch someone threw him in a championship game, recall stories and situations like yesterday.
"He's a fighter. He pulled out (of the infection), and now he's like the Energizer bunny. He keeps on going."
Vanni, who retired after his season with the Pilots, is a little curmudgeonly about the state of major-league baseball, but he remains a devoted and passionate follower of the Mariners. The club has done right by him, given him a lifetime pass and his own parking spot, but Vanni rarely ventures to Safeco Field.
Former teammate Len Tran, living in Puyallup, sees a little bit of Ichiro — one of Vanni's favorites — in him.
"He was a hell of a player, a slap hitter like Ichiro," said Tran. "He'd find holes, had great speed, was a good base stealer. He didn't have a great arm — his downfall. And one thing about Edo — he always made a lot of noise. He liked to put on a show for everyone."
Those days are long gone, but Vanni is still making a lot of noise. The legend lives on, right where it started, on Queen Anne.
"One time," said his son, Edo, "I was driving him to an Old Timers Game at the Kingdome — him, John Neznevich, the umpire, and Emmett Watson — and Dad looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. 'You know,' he said, 'they still remember us.' "
Forget Edo Vanni? In Seattle? That would be like forgetting baseball.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org