It might be an extravagant exaggeration to claim that Houston’s major league baseball franchise is the product of the Red Planet. * But over their 51 years on the Texas coast, the Astros have more often than not come from out of left field. * What they have lacked in winners, they’ve more than made up for in wackiness. * This is, after all, the ballclub originally christened as the Colt .45s because that was the tool that won the West and would then, symbolically at least, win the National League. * Now that merits one of those LOLs. Har-har-hardy-har-har. * The Colt .45s and their fans endured loss after loss in each of their first three seasons, not to mention a mosquito infestation at a makeshift ballyard. * In 1965, they moved into their new Astrodome and became the Astros, equal parts Saturday Night Live skit and ballclub.
The team’s grounds crew that first season was outfitted in “earthmen” uniforms and used vacuum cleaners once AstroTurf was installed, and outfielders ran for cover because the glare from skylights made routine fly balls mystery missiles.
That’s not to say the ’Stros were not ahead of their time. They were merely the first Texas baseball town of woe, paving the way for a second, in North Texas, in 1972.
Though today they revolve in completely different competitive orbs, the Rangers and Astros are now more than neighbors. Friday night, the Astros make their first visit to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington as a stakeholder in the American League West.
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And they bring with them a history of unconventional characters not even second to a Mel Brooks creation.
Judging by the outfits
The Astros initially played under the standards of their eccentric owner, Roy Hofheinz, known by many as simply “The Judge.”
Before he became a baseball owner and face of the Houston baseball franchise, Hofheinz had been a state legislator, Harris County judge, mayor of Houston and political aide to Lyndon Johnson’s early political career.
He also made a fortune in radio and broadcasting.
There was no better example of his flamboyance than the requirements he set for his traveling players, whose airport ensemble included a blue western uniform with a white shirt, black cowboy boots and a belt buckle with a chrome-plated revolver on it.
And they carried replica Colt .45s.
Imagine what the TSA would think today.
The indignity of 96 losses in 1962 proved too much. The players finally said enough is enough.
Former Astros play-by-play man Gene Elston once opined that the Astros were born cursed after having spent their first spring training at Apache Junction in Arizona, the one-time home of Geronimo.
“Perhaps it wasn’t wise to train in the shadow of Superstition Mountain,” Elston wrote for Astrosdaily.com, “where Indian spirits and an old Dutchman’s ghost were said to guard a lost gold mine.”
The National League approved the use of colored baseballs during 21 scheduled day games at the new Astrodome in 1965, if for no other reason than to reduce the risk of someone — fan, player or concessionaire — being killed or maimed.
The glare created by the more than 4,500 skylights in the dome ceiling — designed to give the Bermuda grass field its needed sunlight — created an obvious hazard of being unable to see hit baseballs.
In the end, it didn’t matter whether the balls were yellow, orange or red cherry — no one could see them.
The experiment didn’t last very long. Officials finally decided to cover the ceiling and introduce the world to artificial AstroTurf.
Hard liver, err, living
One of the more infamous Colt .45s/Astros was a guy who played there only briefly.
Astros scouts and coaches loved pitcher George Brunet’s live arm, and what expansion team doesn’t need pitching.
One problem with him, though, was his fastball wasn’t nearly as fast as his speed to get to a bar after games, a work habit that often left him out of shape and tempermental.
He made 17 appearances for the 1962 team, including 11 starts, and registered a 4.50 ERA.
His tenure was short, though his career, which started in the early 1950s, continued until he was in his 50s! After bouncing around several more years in the majors, Brunet’s journey took him to Mexico, where not even a heart attack in his mid-40s made him consider quitting.
Author Bruce Markusen estimated that over a 37-year-career, Brunet pitched 6,000 innings before finally hanging it up at age 54 in 1989.
He died — of a heart attack — two years later.
Turk Farrell was said to have made his way to his first spring training, in 1962, walking from his hotel to the remote outpost that served as the team’s playing facility in Arizona carrying a .22 pistol and shooting snakes and cans and whatever else.
He was also one of the team’s best pitchers in those early years, quipping after losing 20 games that first season: “You have to be good to lose 20 or the manager wouldn’t keep sending you out there.”
That’s baseball logic.
Farrell was also part of one of the scariest moments in those early days, taking a line drive off his head.
Depending on whom one listens to, one of three things happened:
In one account, that of Gene Elston’s, the ball ricocheted off Farrell’s head and into center field, where Jimmy Wynn caught it in the air for an out.
According to another story, it fell in center for a hit. Another account says the ball was caught by second baseman Joe Morgan.
Whatever the case, Farrell stayed in the game with a big knot on his forehead. He was an Irishman, after all.
Those were different days.
Before he became unhinged as manager of the Rangers from 1983-85, Doug Rader was a loose cannon as a third baseman for the Houston Astros from 1967-75.
He was said to have on more than one occasion used the home team’s locker room as a golf driving range. As he teed up a golf ball, teammates desperately looked for an avenue of retreat before Rader turned the room into a pinball game.
A little known fact about the Colt .45s/Astros: Gabe Paul was actually the team’s first general manager, though he left after about six months because of philosophical differences with owner Roy Hofheinz.
That led to the hiring of Paul Richards, who enjoyed a combative relationship with Hofheinz through three losing seasons.
At the news conference announcing his firing, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle told Richards, “Well, you know, Paul, there are times when the judge is his own worst enemy.”
“Not as long as I’m alive,” Richards replied.
Gene Elston also recalled a story about J.R. Richard, one of the Astros’ bright stars before a stroke interrupted and eventually ended his career.
After a game in which he struggled early but rebounded to pitch well and win, Richard said divine intervention was the key.
“I was having trouble … and all of the sudden I felt something on my shoulder and I looked up and here was a little bird. And this little bird was evidently sent down by God and he told me to straighten up and go out there and win the game.”
What you talkin’
Carl Everett spent two relatively quiet seasons with the Astros and was one of their best players during the team’s run to the NL Central championship in 1999, the last of three consecutive division triumphs.
But perhaps it was in Houston that he lost his mind, because controversy seemed to follow him thereafter, hitting a low point in Boston when he told a reporter that he doubted the existence of dinosaurs because no one had seen them, but was sure of Adam and Eve because someone had.
Carl Everett was one of a few handfuls of players who have been with both the Astros and Rangers.
Pete Incaviglia, Ken Caminiti, Phil Nevin, Mark McLemore, Billy Hatcher, Rusty Staub and, of course, Nolan Ryan are among those.
Carlos Lee was another. Acquired for his bat by the Rangers at the trade deadline for a hoped-for pennant run in 2006, he sometimes more resembled Spike Lee as a power hitter in Arlington.
He left after the season, signing as a free agent with the Astros, where he rebounded to produce fairly well in five seasons.
Not all was lost with the Lee trade. As part of that deal, the Rangers also received a young outfielder named Nelson Cruz.