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Bars where Pete has had a drink

Friday, October 07, 2005

Sneakers, Seattle

In 1903, while the area south of Jackson Street was still largely unfilled tideflats crossed by the old planked First Avenue, George W. Hoffman saw the completion of one of the earliest masonry structures built this far south, and opened a carriage factory and blacksmith shop there. (seattlegov) 77 years later, in a narrow strip of the first floor, a joint called "Stanley's Ticker Tape" opened, with a mechanical tickertape machine displaying sports news installed above the bar. Despite being next door to the recently constructed Kingdome and the NFL and MLB teams it brought to Seattle, Stanley's struggled and lasted only a few months before he sold the business to Ron Danz and Jim Fullenwider.

Danz and Fullenwider ran a 110-seat deli sandwich shop called EATs, in the space that would later become part of the current Jazz Alley. With input from their wives, they greatly expanded the sports theme, adding a chalk board where they collected the autographs of athletes, a collection of star athlete's shoes, and -- driven by the challenge of a space "about as wide as 2 bowling lanes" -- an unheard of number of TVs, so that fans could watch games (the very limited selection before cable) from anywhere in the joint. They opened as "Sneakers" April 23, 1981.

50 days later, the Major League Baseball strike was announced, and would eventually cost 38% of the regular season schedule. Far before all the modern condos were added to the area, the new business struggled, and eventually welcomed Dick Oldham in as a third partner -- and added even more TVs. A couple years later, Fullenwider and Danz would sell their portions to Oldham. The bar continued to actively collect an idiosyncratic set of memorabilia and autographs from local players/patrons and players from around the country. Sneakers was often listed as one of the best sports bars in the nation.

When lineman Reggie McKenzie was traded to the Seahawks, he flew in a chef to teach the Sneakers crew how to make spicy chicken wings like they did back in Buffalo, NY (hence, "Buffalo Wings"). A bit later this would lead to a contest that involved a few more Seahawks players. As one owner describes it, "Back then as a marketing scheme we offered all you could eat wings on Wednesday for $12 I believe.  A bunch of Seahawks tried to beat the record of the day.  Joe Nash and Jacob Green would come in together, Jacob ate 73 once which was pretty good but the real stud was an average size guy that worked down 1st Ave at Sears, now Starbucks HQ,  he was about 5’10” 160lbs and ate 147 of our Buffalo Wings, I think he broke the old record by about 60 wings, if I had not seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it." (Jim Fullenwider, personal correspondence).

But I'll always remember Sneakers for a much more personal reason. In January of 1996, I got an unusual opportunity to sell some of the stock I had in our private company. Four years before that, my wife's breast cancer had begun metasticizing into other parts of her body. She'd outlived the estimates, but we knew she was dying. The stock sale gave us a considerable amount of money, the ability to pay off mounting credit card debts, and the chance for me to tell LeRoux "We can do anything you want to do." This was after the miracle 1995 Mariners season and the first thing she said was, "Let's buy season tickets!"

We did, and in '96 we went to every game she felt well enough to attend. And after almost all of those games, we'd head over to Sneakers for drinks and to play the NTN satellite trivia game. Sneakers would fill quickly after the games, and LeRoux's legs didn't work too well by then. So I'd sneak out to the Kingdome runway to watch the last out, then dash over and save us a seat, and she'd come trudging over after watching the end of the game from our seats.

We had a lot of fun. We got to recognize all the Kingdome vendors and other regulars who would often play trivia after the ballgames. Of course this included Ed the Tuba Guy, whom all the regulars could imitate, including his regular outburst of "I disagree!" whenever he missed a question (which was often). "Tuba," my wife once shouted at him, "You don't have your tuba!" "He explained that they didn't let him bring it into the restaurant, and a passing waiter remarked, "Well thank God for small favors." "I disagree!" said Ed.

This kind of pleasant banter and distraction is especially welcome when you could use some breaks from more depressing realities. I can't tell you how much I loved those nights and those silly trivia games. But in mid July LeRoux went into the hospital and then the hospice, where she had to follow the Mariners on the radio. On the morning of August 25th, a hospice volunteer woke me from the chair next to her bed where I'd sleep and informed me, "Sir, Cheryl has died."

October 12th of that year was the last day before Sneakers closed (eventually to be purchased by new owners and renamed "Sluggers.") I went down, played trivia again, and dropped a note to Dick, the owner, about how much the place meant to Cheryl and me. Dick came over to talk to me and invited me to a private closing party the next day. I attended of course, and Dick bought my dinner, read a letter from Mayor Rice and the note from me, and finally had Ed play inside the restaurant. And before the night was over Dick gave me two glass mugs with the Sneakers logo on them, which I now keep, as I always will, in a cabinet with the most prized glassware I own.



(I am grateful to James Fullenwider for corrections and additions to a previous version.)

538 1st Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104
Est. April 23, 1981 - Closed Oct 12, 1996 - Building constructed: 1903
Previous bars in this location: Stanley's Tickertape
Subsequent bars in this location: Slugger's

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