Earlier this month Jay Rockey, the last of the top organizers and managers of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, died at age 90. Rockey was the fair’s head of PR and largely responsible for making the fair a global phenomenon. He went on to become the dean of Northwest public relations executives.
Not every idea he came up with was a winner, however. When I interviewed him for my history of the Space Needle, Rockey told me about one of his biggest embarrassments. It seems especially appropriate to retell the story now both to remember Rockey’s career but also because baseball season will kick off later this month—the Mariners’ home opener is March 29. Rockey’s firm used to do PR for the M’s.
The story starts before the fair in New York city on October 1, 1961—the Space Needle was still under construction and the fair wouldn’t open until April 21 of ‘62. Roger Maris of the New York Yankees hit his then record 61st home run on a waist-high fastball from a Boston Red Sox rookie pitcher named Tracy Stallard. Baseball history was made. A young fan in the stands, Sal Durante, a truck driver from Coney Island, caught the famous homerun ball and received his 15 minutes of fame.
Jay Rockey was trying to think up ideas to promote the fair. The fair’s theme emphasized science and technology, but there was old-fashioned hokum too—like girlie shows, a giant Paul Bunyan cake, Belgian Waffles and amusement rides in an area called the “Gayway.”
Rockey got the idea to recreate the famous Maris homerun catch. The fair paid for Sal Durante to come to Seattle. Tracy Stallard, the former Boston pitcher who served up the record-setting pitch to Maris, had been sent down to a minor league team at the opposite end of the country. He was playing for the Seattle Rainiers. Rockey wanted Stallard to drop the ball off the Space Needle’s observation deck and would pay Durante $1,000 if he could catch it. It would be a spectacular stunt, just right for national TV.
Don Duncan, reporter for the Seattle Times, called up a professor at the University of Washington to find out how fast the ball would be going when it hit Durante’s mitt. The physicist estimated it would be traveling at 130 mph—fast enough to kill or severely injure anyone it hit. A lethal stunt would be bad press indeed. Besides, the Needle was already having some trouble with fairgoers throwing coins off the Needle into a nearby exhibit that featured a pool of water. Fortunately, they hadn’t hit anyone.
The stunt was downgraded from the Needle to a not-so-tall Gayway Ferris wheel. When the day came, the ball was dropped for practice five times and each time Durante caught it. But on the final drop, the one for the money, it hit and bounced out of Durante’s mitt. A huge groan went up from the crowd. The big stunt was a flop.
Rockey gamely said, “He did okay until he dropped the greased one,” but the joke was on the flack. Fair boosters didn’t want to be on a blooper reel.
Rockey told me they paid Durante a $1,000 anyway—probably less a prize than hush money--and hustled him out of town on the first train going east before the fiasco would generate any more publicity.
One picture captures Rockey’s reaction to the dropped ball. Rockey is at the center of the photo with an “oh, shit” look on his face as his best-laid plans fell foul.
Let’s hope that’s not the look on the faces of Mariners fans at the end of this season—as is had been for so many others. Hope springs eternal for PR professionals and baseball fans.