Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Baseball in Houston ... it feels right

     The New York Yankees open this season tonight in Houston, and other than Yankee Stadium, that's a great setting, in my opinon. I'm very partial to baseball to Houston.
      Because other than Shreveport's ballparks, the ones in Houston meant the most to me. And the cities shared a Texas League history -- with teams in Dallas and Fort Worth, too -- for more than 40 years.
Colt Stadium (bottom right) in Houston, where I saw my
first major-league games, predecessor to the Astrodome.
(Houston Chronicle photo) 
       I never went to Buff Stadium, the longtime home of Houston's minor-league teams that stood four miles southeast of downtown along the Gulf Freeway (Interstate 45). It's long gone, torn down; there is a Houston baseball museum as part of the grounds there.
       But I can identify with Houston's major-league stadiums -- old and new.
       I saw my first MLB games at makeshift  Colt Stadium, in 1963. Johnny Podres almost pitched a no-hitter for the Dodgers in the first game I saw; Juan Marichal pitched and Willie McCovey and Willie Mays hit home runs for the Giants the next night. More on these games below.
       I saw Sandy Koufax pitch in the Astrodome the year it opened, 1965 -- in a packed house of more than 50,000; Dad and I sat in the fifth deck, high up in right field ... behind the foul pole.
       I made almost yearly trips to that giant structure -- the Eighth Wonder of the World, as they called, through the middle 1970s. Took Jason to a game there when he was still a kid; covered the MLB All-Star Game there in 1986.
       This blog piece primarily is for my old friends from Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana because they can identify with this. For a decade -- from the time Houston joined the National League in 1962 through 1971 -- it was the closest major-league team we had in proximity.
       Many baseball fans in my area were partial to the St. Louis Cardinals because before the Colt .45s/Astros, the Cardinals' games were on radio in our area ... with Harry Caray and then Jack Buck and Joe Garagiola as the announcers.
      When the Texas Rangers came into existence in 1972, it brought the American League into our area and gave the Astros a challenge for fans from North Louisiana and East Texas.
       Before Houston had an MLB team, I know some of my friends saw their first major-league games at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. You could make the lengthy drive up there or take the train out of Shreveport, and the Athletics -- never very good -- had a local tie; the Shreveport Sports were their Double-A farm team from 1959 to 1961. So some of the Sports players moved up to KC.
      Even if the Colt .45s/Astros weren't our favorite team, we got all their games on radio (with the very professional Gene Elston as the main play-by-play man and the biggest "homer" in MLB history, Houston legend/cheerleader Loel Passe, as his partner) and we got a 15- to 20-game package on TV -- almost all on weekends.  Harry Kalas joined the broadcast team for six years, starting the year the 'Dome opened.
      (The only TV alternative in those 1960s years was the major network's "Game of the Week," first on CBS with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, which after the network bought ownership of the New York Yankees meant just Yankees games, and later on NBC, with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek announcing.)
      Many a night I didn't go to sleep or begin studying until the Astros' game was finished on radio. And because you didn't have up-to-the-second updates available everywhere then, it was a way to keep up with what the Yankees were doing; I was always waiting for Gene, Loel or Harry to give the American League scores and game details.
      We became very familiar with the Astros, who never won much or rarely contended for their first 18 seasons. But they had a lot of stars and we had our favorites -- Rusty Staub (the kid from New Orleans who made the majors at age 19; Jimmy Wynn ("The Toy Cannon"), Little Joe Morgan, John Mayberry, John Bateman, Larry Dierker.
      And much later, when the Astros did become a power in the years of Nolan Ryan and James Rodney Richard, I felt good for them and their fans, and felt their heartbreak when they lost thrilling National League Championship Series in 1980 and 1986.
      It was even better in 2005 when they finally did win the National League pennant. But still there was more agony; they didn't win one World Series game.
      Now that they're in the American League, they're the Yankees' rival. So, no, I won't be pulling for the Astros the next three nights.
      Colt Stadium was built in less than a year, a bare-bones stadium with absolutely no shade. So it was miserable there during the typical humid -- and hot -- Houston nights and many day games were a true test of character. It seated about 33,000 -- more than three times what Buff Stadium held -- and was built as a stopgap until the Harris County Domed Stadium -- the world's first indoor football/baseball stadium -- next door would be ready.
      Dad and I didn't go down there during the first season, but I broke into the big leagues, so to speak, the next year. I still have the programs from those first two nights, including the play-by-play on the middle (scorebook) pages.
      The dates were Sunday and Monday, Aug. 4-5, 1963, and the crowds were relatively small -- 14,237 for the Dodgers' game; 11,822 for the Giants the next night.
    The Colt .45s, a year after becoming an expansion team, would finish 30 games below .500
    The Giants were the defending NL champions, having lost to the Yankees in seven games in the '62 World Series (I was thrilled). The Dodgers that year would win the NL and sweep the World Series (I was not thrilled).      
      Both teams were loaded with future Hall of Famers. This was the first time I'd ever seen black ballplayers in person; the Dodgers' lineup included Maury Wills, Jim "Junior" Gilliam, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and John Roseboro. We missed seeing Don Drysdale and Koufax pitch the two previous games, but Podres -- hero of the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1955 World Series victory -- was great that Sunday night.
      Although it was so hot, and trainers were fanning him with towels between innings -- from our seats, we could easily see into the Dodgers' dugout -- he stayed in the game because the Colt .45s didn't have a hit through eight innings. Podres even hit a two-run double off opposing pitcher Ken Johnson.
      Thought I might see a no-hitter in my first big-league game, but in the ninth, Johnny Temple -- the old Cincinnati Reds' star second baseman -- led off with a single up the middle. Podres hit the next batter, and promptly was pulled from the game. Larry Sherry came in and quickly finished off the 4-0 victory.
      The next night, the Giants came to town with four future Hall of Fame players in their lineup (the three previously mentioned, and Orlando Cepeda). The great Marichal -- No. 27, with the giant leg kick during his windup -- pitched for San Francisco, but the Colt .45s scored twice off him in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie. Then Don Nottebart, pitching for Houston, weakened and McCovey hit a home run in the eighth, his 33rd of the season, as the Giants tied it 4-4. In the ninth, Mays broke the tie with a two-out homer to left field, his 28th of the season.
      Surprisingly, the Colt .45s then won it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth off reliever Jack Fisher -- born in Shreveport. A single by Bob Aspromonte started the inning; singles to center by Al Spanger and Carl Warwick drove in the tying and winning runs.
      Great memories of my first two major-league games.
      I've made one visit to Houston's current ballpark, Minute Maid Park. Love the location at the edge of downtown, beautiful building, love the retractable roof, the grass field (not the brick-like Astroturf). I'm not crazy about the quirky outfield twists -- the hill in center, the way the fence juts out where the bullpen is located -- or the cozy (for hitters) left-field wall, above which the replica train runs, but that's just me.
      The Astros have fallen on hard times (again) in recent years and that's too bad because Houston -- the fourth-largest city in the country -- deserves better. Maybe the team's new ownership and the Ryan family influence (Reid and now Nolan) will help revive the franchise.
      I know that for now the Rangers enjoy having the Astros in their division (Texas won 17 of their 19 meetings last year). And I know that the Yankees will be expecting a tough time in Houston  the next three nights.
      I assure you this -- they will be playing in a city that loves its baseball. It always has.


  1. From Louis DeLuca: The Astrodome was like Mecca for me when I was a kid. Never attended a game at Colt Stadium unfortunately. But I grew up listening to the most underrated broadcaster ever, Gene Elston, who to me, belongs with Scully, Harwell and Buck as the best in the business. (I hated when Loel Passe took the mic, though). Thanks for sharing this. Brought back lots of great memories.

  2. From Jimmy Russell: Loel Passe was the worst major-league broadcaster of all time. (Now you chunking, Turk!) (Turk Farrell).

  3. From Bud Dean: I too have great Astrodome memories. It was fun to read this blog since we are of the same era, and yes, I was one of those die-hard Cardinals fans from the old days, but did like the Astros.

  4. From Tommy Canterbury: Wow. I was, with you, the world's biggest Yankees fan (not from New York). True. From 1954, when I was 7 and forward, I have the memories, cards, etc. to prove it. Our SportsCare business has the major billboard down the first-base line on the field Mickey played on in Joplin, Mo., in the minors.
    Sorry to say I'm not a big Yankees fan any more and my No. 2 team years ago was the National League's St. Louis Cardinals. Now they've been No. 1 for quite a while. We have had an office in St Louis for the past four years and it's been a pleasure. My client there has season tickets, and much more; baseball is THE sport in that city. We are blessed to work with some of the Cardinals stars through clients Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital and SSM H'Care.
    If you haven't read "The Painted House" by John Grisham, I suggest it: baseball, murder and a Southern setting, our age-group's understanding of what baseball meant to a 7- or 8-year-old in those days.
    But, I actually sent this message to say hello to the new season and to wish you a good one. I was, like you, a baseball fanatic by ages 8 and 9. We were a country family with limited funds but my Dad ( who died at 93 two months ago) took me to Houston to see the Colt .45s play St Louis and Los Angeles. Bob Gibson pitched the Cardinals to a win and hit a home run. Don Drysdale pitched the Dodgers to a win. Got all these great autographs on the 15-cent game program (framed it years later). The players all came to the edge of the stands and signed, talked and let us take pictures. Amazing. I thought I was in heaven.
    I love basketball and football (Saints nut), but baseball was my personal best sport and I enjoyed practice as much as the games. My God, those were fun times.
    Thanks for the memories.

  5. From Glenn Theis: Your article on baseball in Houston brought back some good memories.
    In 1965, Highland Baptist gave us a senior trip to Galveston and to the Astrodome. We got to the Astrodome in time to watch batting practice; the Astros were playing the Cardinals. It was the year the Dome opened.
    I got a foul ball hit by Nellie Fox. I went over to the rail looking for Nellie (I was a big fan of his) but could not find him. Rusty Staub came over. He was a rookie and was poor-mouthing himself, saying he should not be there. But he did sign my ball. A groundskeeper came by and offered to take the ball to the dugout and get Nellie to sign it. After about 20 minutes, he came back and gave the ball to me. It was signed by Nellie, Bob Aspromonte, Red Schoendienst, Dick Groat, Bob Gibson, and a few others I can’t remember now. Unbeknownst to me, as you can tell, he had taken it to the Cardinals dugout as well. I still have it in a cover on a shelf in our office at home.
    Another trip to Houston a few years later was with James Gillespie and T-Willie Moore. The Phillies had a hard-throwing right-hander (I forget his name). I asked them both to call the pitches. Gillespie did much better because he was a hard thrower, especially compared to T-Willie. One big first baseman for Philly hit a line-drive home run so hard that it hit a seat and bounced really hard. We went around by that seat and it was now broken -- in a fairly new 'Dome.
    Thanks for reminding me of the good memories.

  6. From Ellace Bruce: Enjoyed the blog. It brought back my memories of the two parks. In talking about Colt Stadium, you failed to mention the mosquitoes. The Dome was an amazing place to watch a game.

    1. Coach Bruce is correct: I did forget to mention the mosquitoes at Colt Stadium; that place was known for them. There were often many more mosquitoes than fans in the stands.