Walter Bond: A ballplayer who was big in stature and big of heart

added 9/30/2007 by James Anderson

Walter Bond
The year was 1964. Colt .45s catcher Jerry Grote was sitting in the dugout at Colt Stadium watching the .45s taking batting practice. The newly acquired Walt Bond stepped in the batting cage to take his swings and laced several frozen ropes just a few feet above second base that carried over the 420 ft. sign in centerfield. Jerry just shook his head in amazement.

It so impressed Jerry Grote that the feat apparently made the circuit around the National League because years later Dodgers' outfielder Dusty Baker shared the story with Walt's son Donald Bond.

As the Colt .45s were closing out their spring training schedule they headed to San Antonio to play their Double A farm club the San Antonio Missions in an exhibition game. The local broadcaster announced that with the 20 to 30 mile an hour wind blowing in directly from right field, they were not going to see any balls reaching the right field fence that night. When it was Walt's turn at the plate, Walt hit a laser shot directly into the teeth of the gale blowing in from right field. The ball carried over the fence for a home run. There were several seconds of silence in the San Antonio broadcast booth and then the short comment, "Unbelievable! I didn't think anyone could do it!"

Bond on deck
Walt Bond's statistical legacy as a ballplayer is found in the record books of the Houston Colt .45s. Standing at 6'7" tall and weighing between 235-250 lbs, Big Walt Bond had his best year as a Houston Colt .45 in 1964 when he hit 20 home runs and drove in 85 runs -- the first true power-hitting ballplayer in team history. Playing at Colt Stadium in that heat, humidity and mosquitos and with the long dimensions of the stadium down the lines and to the power alleys, 20 home runs was quite an accomplishment for a young Walter Bond. Looking like a young and bigger Willie McCovey, Walt appeared to be on the path to a great career in baseball.

But sadly, at the young age of 29, Walter Bond would succumb to leukemia on September 14, 1967.

Walter Bond's legacy as a baseball player and as a person is what this story is about.

Walter Franklin Bond was born in Denmark, Tennessee on October 19, 1937. How Big Walt got into baseball is shared by his son Donald Bond:

Scouts for the St. Louis Cardinals were in town and Walt told his older brother Willie that they should go check it out and see what happens. Walt's older brother did not want to go even though he was considered the better of the two athletically. Walt made the tryout and was signed by the Cardinals to their Instructional League team. At some point shortly thereafter a racial problem occured that grew to the point that nearly got the team bus overturned. As a result it also got Walt and the other negro players on the Cardinals instructional league ballclub traded. Walt went to Cleveland.

Unfortunately, that's the way things went back in those days. Because of his tremendous size and power and I'm sure his color, Walt was hit an inordinate amount of times during Spring Training with the Indians. Opposing pitchers were trying to make their respective teams and when Walter had hit a long home run off an opposing pitcher, the next time up, knowing he was likely going to be thrown at, backed off the plate a bit and was still hit in the head by a high and inside fastball. The ball was thrown so hard that it cracked his batting helmet. In those days, money was not a huge commodity with ballplayers and you either made the team or you went back to washing dishes for a living. Baseball was also a serious business.

Bond slugs one, 1964
Big Walt took it all in stride and waited for his opportunity. He never complained but a stint in the Army was to change his life in more ways than he could ever know for it was while in the Army that Walt was first diagnosed with leukemia. Not being the type of person to let it get to him, all Walt could think of was finishing his required stint with the Army and returning to the Cleveland Indians. Worrying that the other players had a step on him Walter trained vigorously to get back in shape.

From The Hardball Times, the following showed the talent of the young Bond during his initial season with the parent club:

He (Walt) made his 1962 major league season debut on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, in Minnesota. Indians manager Mel McGaha put Bond in the starting lineup, playing right field and batting cleanup against Twins ace righthander Camilo Pascual. Bond was collared, going 0-for-4 and striking out twice, and the Indians lost 4-3.

McGaha gave Bond another shot in the next game, on Tuesday night the 18th in Kansas City, again starting in right field, batting fourth. But against Athletic's righthander Dan Pfister, Bond had little more success, producing just an infield single in four at-bats. The Indians lost yet again, 6-1, their fifth straight defeat.

But he was in the lineup again the next night, facing K.C. righthander Ed Rakow, in the cleanup spot and playing right field, and now Bond made some noise, big time. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning, a two-run double in the third (chasing Rakow), and another two-run homer in the seventh, off Dave Wickersham. His six-RBI performance led Cleveland to a 10-9 victory.

Bond had three singles and an RBI on Thursday evening against the A's, and his place in the Indians' starting lineup was assured. He played every inning of every game for the remaining 10 days of the season, batting fourth or third (being dropped to the sixth slot just once, against Angels southpaw Bo Belinsky). He continued to hit up a storm, connecting for home runs against Don Lee, Dean Chance, Bob Botz and Julio Navarro in home-and-away series against the Angels. All in all, in 12 games Bond blasted six homers, three doubles and 10 singles, scoring 10 runs and driving in 17. With Bond at the core of the lineup, the Indians finally ended their long slump, winning eight of their final 10 games.

To say the young Bond impressed his coaches is an understatement, yet at the beginning of the 1963 season Walt was sent down to AAA ball for some "more seasoning". The fact is, the rumor had gotten back to the Indians' front office that Walt was suffering from a serious blood disorder called leukemia although Walter had told the Indians that the disease was inactive and this was indeed confirmed by military doctors.

Bond gives pointers to Houston kids
Still, the Indians would later trade Walt to the Houston Colt .45s. Houston General Manager Paul Richards had decided at the time to take a chance on Walt even though he was aware of the disease. After being given a physical by the Colt .45s team physician Dr. Hatch Cummings it was confirmed that he indeed was suffering from the serious blood disorder and that it was in the inactive stage.

As I mentioned earlier, Walter was not the type to complain. He knew that he was dealt a bad hand in life and he also knew that the disease would eventually take its toll but he never let on to his friends or family members. At least outwardly, Walt performed as a man less worried about his own well-being and more about getting the job done on the field and continuing to share his time off the field with local youngsters teaching them the different facets of the game of baseball.

After being traded to Houston, Walt Bond seemed to find his niche. Given an opportunity to play everyday, he put up impressive numbers for a youngster finally playing his first full season in the big leagues. Not only that, but Walt was the type of person who enjoyed being around kids and spent much of his own free time in the local Houston community teaching youngsters the art of playing baseball.

The "Magnificent Seven"
Eventually, he and teammates Jim Wynn and Joe Morgan would join a group of friends including Harlem Globetrotter basketball player Tex Harrison to form a basketball team they named "The Magnificent Seven" and traveled to local Houston schools to play charity games to help secure financial support for local Houston schools sports programs.

As a young Colt .45s fan I saw Walt Bond play and he immediately reminded me of a younger but bigger Willie McCovey. After the 1964 season came to a close, it appeared that Walter Bond was going to be a mainstay in the Houston line up. Like many other Colt .45s fans, I didn't know at the time that Walt was suffering from leukemia. In those days, there wasn't ESPN and 24 hour sports stations digging into every area of a professional athletes personal life. We were lucky to catch the team on TV on a Sunday because that was the only day the team was on television and only if they were on the road.

Bond shags one at the fence
When the team changed their name to the Astros and began playing ball in the new Harris County Domed Stadium in 1965 - or "The Astrodome" as it eventually would be referred to, Walt Bond didn't seem to be the same Walter Bond that had lead the team in home runs and runs-batted-in the previous season. To this day, I was convinced that as early as 1965 the disease began to take it's toll on Walt, as was later confirmed by teammate Bob Bruce.

Thus, as the 1965 season progressed along with the acquisitions of the young phenom, Rusty Staub, outfielder Lee Maye from the Braves and first baseman Jim Gentile from Kansas City it was obvious that Walt Bond's days with the team were numbered. Relegated to spot duty, Walt no longer had a starting spot in the team lineup. He was soon to be traded to the Minnesota Twins and this promising young and talented ballplayer's career mysteriously came to an almost complete halt.

Walt Bond had so impressed fans of the young Houston Colt .45s ballclub that many as myself came to Colt Stadium just to watch him play and his departure from the team mystified us all.

Bond on the boards
Shortly after being traded to the Minnesota Twins, Walt finally began to suffer seriously from the illness and came back to Houston where he entered a local hospital for treatment. From that point, the disease began to take its final toll on the big man and it did so very quickly. Shortly after that, Walter succumbed to the disease in the Houston hospital.

As this fan would also later suspect, even though Walt never outwardly complained about his illness he talked about it privately with teammates as early as 1964-65 in the team clubhouse. As former Colt .45s/Astros pitcher and teammate Bob Bruce recalled,

We talked about his (Walt's) illness in the clubhouse. I recall Walt mentioning struggling from time to time because he had spells in which he didn't feel well and it effected his play, but it stayed in the clubhouse and was never discussed openly with others.

In effect, here was a tremendously talented young ballplayer, bigger and stronger than Willie McCovey whose 1964 stats in his first complete season as a major league ballplayer showed great promise - not knowing that had he been free of the disease that would eventually take his life at such a young age - likely would have put up much more impressive numbers than he did in the 1964 season.

Bond and Joe Gaines
Walter Franklin Bond passed away at the age of 29, an age when most ballplayers are just beginning to reach their peak. We'll never know how great a ballplayer he could have been. All I can say is, this young fan in 1964 was deeply impressed with Big Walter's tremendous power and his surprising speed for a big man.

Legendary Houston sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz had this to say when Walt Bond passed away:

I will always wonder if Walter Bond was one of the bravest men I ever knew, or one of the most stubborn, or both.

I can only repeat some of what former Colt .45s team physician Dr. Hatch Cummings said about Walter Bond in a letter to Houston Post columnist Clark Nealon when Walter passed away in 1967:

Walter Bond died today and I am sad because I have lost a friend and a patient. During the several years that I have known Walter, I have liked him as a person and respected him as a man. It has been my sad duty to stand by - and help when I could - while a strong proud man succumbed to a relentless disease....he (Walter) showed the strength of character and will that only champions possess. It was an exhibition of courage, and in the best tradition of baseball.

Aspromonte, Kasko, Morgan, Bond
When you think about it, Big Walter Bond would have fit in well with "The Killer B's" of the Houston Astros of the 1990s. Houston Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich once referred to his two consecutive championship Houston Rockets teams as "having the heart of a champion". Big Walter certainly had a "heart of a champion" too.

It would have been nice had a completely healthy Walt Bond came along a little later in life to the Houston Astros to add his big "B" to the Astros "The Killer B's". I truly believe in my heart that Big Walter Bond would have added even more greatness to that now-famous "Killer B's" nickname originally begun by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.

But, that's not reality. Big Walter came along back in the early stages of a young and struggling team called the Colt .45s while at the same time having to deal with a disease that would plague him througout his career. Walt left a legacy of friends who had nothing but respect for him and considered him a man of great character and pride. In my mind that is a greater legacy that defines a real champion - one who champions his fellow man.

Aspro congratulates Bond at plate
I'll never forget Big Walt Bond and his prodigious home runs and I know there are a lot of long-time Colt .45s/Astros fans who will always remember him too. Walt etched his name into the history and lore of major league baseball in Houston, becoming one of the early stars who helped lay the foundation for the new and loyal Houston fans so many years ago that was pivotal in affecting the growing number of second and third generation of loyal fans of today's Houston major league baseball franchise.

-- James Anderson, September 2007

My deepest gratitutde to Walt Bond's son Donald Bond who helped tremendously in piecing together many of the dates and incidents mentioned in this article.