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Blast From The Past:
The Houston Colt 45s

by Clay Coppedge

The first major league baseball team in Texas was the Houston Colt .45s, now the Houston Astros. Of course, we also have the Texas Rangers baseball team now but it all started with Houston, and the determination of legendary Houstonian Roy Hofheinz. Hofheinz took on Major League Baseball by threatening to start a new league that would compete with the American and National Leagues. He won, though his teams rarely did.

Hofheinz was recruited to the cause of bringing big league baseball to Houston because he was clearly one of those people who knew how to get things done. Steve Rushin, writing in the August 16, 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated, described Hofheinz this way: “The Judge smoked 25 cigars a day, great tobacco-filled dirigibles that befit a man of his dimensions: the 57-inch waistline, the cuff links as big and loud as cymbals, the long Cadillac limousine in which he drove himself through Houston. It was said that Judge Roy Hofheinz could not find a chauffeur willing to work his hours, which were roughly the same as a 7-Eleven's.”

When baseball expanded from eight teams to 10 in both the American and National League in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets became National League teams. That led to questions like “What the hell is a Met?” Houston ran a “Name The Team” contest which resulted in the team being named for the “gun that won the West.”

Colt .45 games were played at old Colt Stadium, which was located in a “reclaimed” marshland, which is to say the stadium was located in a mosquito bog. The mosquitoes apparently never got the eviction notice because they thrived, multiplied and grew to startling sizes at old Colt Stadium.

Harry Craft was the team’s first manager and Richard “Turk” Farrell was the team’s ace pitcher. Farrell managed to lose 20 games in the team’s inaugural season but with a respectable earned run average of 3.02. Craft once went to the mound to take Farrell out of a game in which hits were flying off opponents’ bats as if from a rivet gun. “Where the hell you been?” Farrell asked, tossing Craft the ball. “I coulda been kilt out here.”

The team’s top hitter was a kid from Latin America named Roman Mejias, who hit 24 home runs and drove in 74 runs (truly Ruthian numbers by Colt .45 standards) in that first season. Houston responded to this effort the way it would continue to respond to outstanding performances, by trading the star player to another team; Mejias was traded to the Boston Red Sox.

My favorite player on the original Colt .45 team was Bob Aspromonte, a slick-fielding third baseman who never flirted with the Hall of Fame but fulfilled my own modest expectations of a Texas baseball hero. He also seemed to have a direct pipeline to the cosmos.

In 1963, a boy by the name of Bill Bradley was struck by lightning and blinded during a Little League practice in El Dorado, Arkansas. He was sent to Houston for medical treatment and Aspromonte, like a true Lone Star version of Babe Ruth, not only went to visit the child in the hospital but also promised to hit a home run for him.

Talk about Ruthian. The Babe was famous for keeping that kind of promise to sick childrten but Ruth had 714 home runs in his career, including 60 in the 1927 season. Aspromonte hit exactly 60 home runs in his entire 13-year career. His promise to the blind boy of Arkansas required a more reckless and substantial faith but Aspromonte came through; he yanked one out of Colt Stadium that night.

Little Billy Bradley visited Houston for treatment twice more (supposedly his eyesight returned) and each time Aspromonte promised he would hit a home run for him. Not only did Aspromonte follow up on the promise both times, both home runs were grand slams. The odds of that happening are even greater than the odds of Houston winning the World Series this year, but it happened just that way.

Other players challenged and eventually replaced Aspromonte in my hierarchy of heroes. Jimmy Wynn, Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan all made their major league debuts with the Houston Colt .45s and all three put up some eye-popping numbers, though the team continued to struggle.

In what proved to be a disturbing trend for Houston’s long-suffering fans, Houston traded all three players. When Houston elected to play its scheduled game after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Staub and Aspromonte sat out the game in protest. Both were traded at season’s end. Wynn ended up as a key contributor to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Joe Morgan would be traded to the Cincinnati Reds in a move that had a major impact on both teams and on baseball history. Morgan provided the spark plug Cincinnati needed to crank up its Big Red Machine and win some World Series titles while the Astros, sans Morgan, continued on a treadmill to oblivion for many more years. The trade was a travesty that would not see again until 1989 when the Astros offered to cut Nolan Ryan’s salary and he understandably signed with the Texas Rangers.

At some point, Houston had apparently decided that no player with a chance of making it to the Hall of Fame, or even a few All-Star games, would ever retire as a Houston Astro.

The team was known as the Colt .45s for just two years, morphing into the Houston Astros in 1965 with the opening of the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome. Hofheinz asked astronaut Alan Shepard if he would object to the name “Astronauts” for the baseball team. Shepard, who was such an avid sports fan that he took golf clubs with him to the moon, had no objection. Hofheinz shortened the name to Astros, but headline writers shortened the name to ‘Tros and then to ‘Stros.

My loyalties to the ‘Stros have ebbed and flowed over the years, though I’ve never stopped following the team. The Colt .45s are special to me because they occupy a place in my childhood and serve as a nostalgic counterpoint to modern day Major League Baseball.

It was a different world when the Houston Colt .45s were playing. Today, if somebody did what Bob Aspromonte did for little Billy Bradley, a cynical public and press would probably accuse Aspromonte and Bradley of somehow rigging the whole thing or Aspromonte would be accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs whenever Bradley visited Houston. Either way, it just wouldn’t be the same.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 19, 2009 Column

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