When I first met Clay Huntington, he was only my friend Janelle’s grandfather. He seemed like an important man. He sat in the press box at Mariners games. He drove a red Crown Victoria. He had something – I didn’t know exactly what – to do with the Mariners’ AAA team, the Tacoma Rainiers.
Now Janelle is my girlfriend. She has been for a couple of years. Clay passed away last week. He was 89 years old. If you live in Seattle and follow baseball closely, or live in Tacoma and follow local news at all, you probably heard about it. The term every obituary has used describe Clay is “civic icon.” It’s a formless phrase, but I think in this case it works. Clay’s purpose in life was defined first by his family, second by his community, and third by baseball.
It’s impossible to talk about him without talking about Tacoma, the Puget Sound, and really the entire Pacific Northwest. When I started this article, I was drinking coffee out of a cup with his face on it from some long-ago function at which he was honored. On Thursday, the Rainiers put together their own tribute to Clay. They carved CH into the dirt behind second base, they presented the family with a customized jersey, they played a video tribute and took care of everybody with a nice suite on the third base line.
Clay was Pierce County Commissioner. In 1976, he threw his hat in the ring for governor of Washington before dropping out due to low polls and sagging fundraising. Clay would have probably been a good governor – the kind of executive who finds compromises where they need to be found, runs the state efficiently, and is legitimately concerned with the well-being all of his constituents. But I’m not surprised his campaign stalled out. Clay was never one for the spotlight, and although a great advocate for causes he believed in, he lacked the requisite taste for self-promotion.
I mention Clay’s politics because they are an integral part of what he taught me. Clay was a journalist, a play-by-play man, a leading force in bringing baseball to Tacoma – and then keeping it there. He founded the Tacoma Athletic Commission and the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, which this year inducted Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. He was by all accounts loved and respected in the press box, the announcer’s booth, and even in the clubhouse.
His personal interests and mine lined up pretty squarely. I too love politics and baseball. I try, if not always as hard as I should, to be an active citizen. But the special thing about Clay Huntington, the thing that will stick with me, was the way he held these institutions in equal regard. To Clay, baseball was a crucial part of the fabric of the South Puget Sound. It was, if not necessary, then worth celebrating, and worth fighting for, and worth a lifetime of hard work on its own merits alone.
I sometimes struggle with this concept. I tend to write sports off as frivolous. I tend to disparage myself for spending more time reading about baseball than about the burgeoning war in Libya or about local politics or about whatever else that seems, at first glance, more weighty. Sometimes I tell myself I will only write about baseball until the time comes to write about something “more serious.” This, of course, is silly. Sports are plenty serious. They merit our attention not just as important cultural entities, but as enclosed worlds to be respected and appreciated on their own terms.
This is the lesson that Clay understood. Pursue your passions without doubt, without shame, and with a greater cause than your own ego in mind. Until the end of his life, Clay lived this. He went to work at the radio station he owned, typing away on his typewriter. He read every kind of magazine every month. What mattered was not whether he was reading The Atlantic or the Sporting News – what mattered was that he was reading at all.