"That Ball Is In Astro Orbit"

added 5/25/2009 by James Anderson

On April 18th of this year, Harry Kalas’ body lay near home plate at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Ballpark. He became just the fourth person to lie in repose on a major league baseball field, joining legends Miller Huggins (1929), Babe Ruth (1948) and Jack Buck (2002) to be the only other men so honored.

That should say something for how Phillie fans adored their broadcaster who died suddenly of a heart attack while in Washington D.C. on April 12th. Harry had been broadcasting for the Phillies since 1971 and had become an icon in Philadelphia. He was also well known for narrating highlights for NFL Films and calling NFL radio broadcasts on Westwood One. As a result, Harry's baritone voice became one of the most recognizable to sports fans all over the country.

But, Harry Kalas was not always the beloved voice of the Philadelphia Phillies. Long before he called the final out in the Phillies' 2008 World Series victory, long before he called the Phillies' great 1980 playoff victory against the Houston Astros and long before he became the signature voice of NFL Films, Harry Kalas had already built a reputation as the young new voice of the Astros.

Astros broadcast crew in 1970.
(L to R) Engineer Bob Green, Harry Kalas, Gene Elston, Loel Passe.
In 1965, he joined the duo of Gene Elston and Loel Passe because the Astros were venturing into television and it required expanding the broadcast crew to three so coverage could be possible when the team was both on television and radio at the same time. It was Harry's first work as a major league broadcaster. On radio, Harry conducted interviews during the pre-game and post-game shows then did play-by-play duties during the middle innings.

Prior to coming to Houston, Harry worked as the Sports Director for radio station KGU in Honolulu and was broadcasting games for the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. How the Naperville, IL native came to Houston is still vague. According to former Astros broadcaster Gene Elston, radio station KPRC hired the broadcasters back in those days so, as a result, the specifics of Harry's hiring have apparently been lost to history. But his talent was obvious, despite not having yet turned 30 years of age.

During this period of time, nobody in major league baseball outside of Houston ever heard of Harry Kalas and Houston fans were happy to keep it that way. One of Kalas’ first Astros games was the opening of the Astrodome. He was at the microphone when catcher Ron Brand swatted a triple for the first Houston hit inside their new home. Other Astro highlights that were narrated by Harry’s voice included Eddie Mathews500th home run, rookie sensation Cesar Cedeño's first big league homer and one of the most memorable tape-measure shots in the career of slugger Jimmy Wynn. There were many more memorable calls by Harry that were well-kept secrets in and around Houston back in those days.

Let's take a step back for a moment. When the Houston major league franchise came into the National League in 1962, the team called themselves the Colt .45's to coincide with Houston's "wild west" image. It was a concept Judge Roy Holfheinz did not really care for. The Judge seemingly was interested in having a more progressive and modern image for the new ballclub but majority owner R.E. "Bob" Smith, George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan overruled Holfheinz' idea and they went with the name Colt .45's.

When President Lyndon Johnson used his clout to have Congress appropriate funds for building the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in his home state, the Judge saw an opportunity to change the image of his team. It finally came to a head a few months before Smith sold his majority ownership to the Judge.

As the new Harris County Domed Stadium began taking shape just a stone's throw from Colt Stadium, Judge Holfheinz began a campaign to rename the team. Supposedly, it was to be a contest by fans to give the Colt .45's a new name but Judge Holfheinz had already jumped on an idea for naming his new team the Astros - short for astronauts - in keeping with his desire for a new image of Houston as the "Space City" with NASA having been built just south of Houston. The Harris County Domed Stadium was also given a new nickname "The Astrodome".

At the same time, problems between the ballclub and the Colt Firearms Co. were becoming a thorn in Holfheinz' side. The Colt Co. demanded to be paid a percentage of all Houston Colt .45's promotional material for the use of the Colt Firearms' copyrighted name. Here was an opportunity for Holfheinz to put a permanent end to the issues he was having with them.

A young Harry.

It was into this new modern environment of change in Houston that Harry Kalas walked when he was hired on as a new broadcaster for the re-named Houston Astros. The ".45s" logo disappeared from the caps, to be replaced by a star overlayed by the letter "H". The new Astros jersies had a stitched "Shooting Star" logo on the front of their uniforms and a new logo on their sleeves depicting the Astrodome with baseballs orbiting the dome like space satellites.

The young Harry Kalas picked up on this new space age image of the team and city and appropriately invented his new home run call. Everyt ime an Astro player would hit a home run, Harry would yell into the mic "That ball is in Astro orbit!" In fact, one of the more memorable signature home run calls by Harry occurred on July 23, 1967 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. It was one of those rare Sunday tv broadcasts so it was one of those feats that Houston fans got to see everywhere. Harry was behind the mic in the tv broadcast booth when Astros center fielder Jimmy Wynn hit one of his monster home runs in the sixth inning off of Pirates pitcher Pete Mikkelsen. The ball cleared the 457 ft. sign in center field, a feat that had rarely been duplicated in the history of the old stadium. That section of the ballpark was so deep that the Pirates used to roll their batting cage up against the wall at the 457 ft. marker. Balls were seldom hit that far so they figured no harm done. Harry called it and in his usual dramatic fashion (audio courtesy of the Houston Astros).

Every Astros fan today who was around back then still remembers Harry's signature Astros home run call. In 1971, Harry Kalas would leave Houston to join the Philadelphia Phillies where he stayed until his passing in April of 2009. Many Astros fans were not happy with Harry's leaving to say the least. We had gotten used to having one of the most dynamic broadcast crews in baseball with Gene Elston, Harry Kalas and Loel Passe. Houston fans had simply become spoiled and wanted to keep the status quo.

As the years passed and Harry's tenure with the Astros slowly faded into the past, some of the long time Astros fans began to recall the days when Harry Kalas' signature home run call was heard over the airwaves. No one could seem to settle on just how Harry used to make his call. Very little if any audio of Harry's home run calls was in existence. Thus a debate ensued on the exact wording of it. Was it "That ball is in Astros orbit!" or was it "That ball is an Astros orbit" or was it simply 'That ball is an Astro orbit!" In fact, I think there were a few other renditions of Harry's home run call that other long time fans swore by.

Harry in the Phillies booth.
Finally in April of 2008, when the Phillies came in to Houston for a three-game series, Astros' play-by-play announcer Bill Brown walked over to the Phillies' broadcast booth before the game and posed the question to the man himself. Kalas quoted it in his familiar voice to Brownie: "That ball is in Astro orbit!" Thus, after many years and many arguments, Harry Kalas cleared it up for his Houston fans. Sadly, when Brownie asked Harry how he used to make that signature Astros call, it would be just one year and three days later that Harry’s unique voice would be forever stilled.

Harry had called over 5,000 Phillies games and received the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. Phillie home runs, of course, were not “in Astro orbit”, so Kalas settled on a more simple “outta here” to describe Philadelphia's bombs. In later years, players recalled how Harry would befriend the newer players and help them adjust to life in Philadelphia.

Phillies fans everywhere mourned the passing of Harry Kalas but there is a group of long time Astros fans who also mourned his passing. Harry had also left his mark in Houston, never to be forgotten as long as there is still a breath in those Houston fans. "That ball is in Astro orbit!" will long be etched in the collective memories of those long time Astros fans everywhere.

We had Harry Kalas first, but we eventually had to share him with the rest of the world.

James wishes to thank Bob Hulsey and Mike Acosta for their help in putting this column together. Photos provided through the Houston Astros and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.