Four men were chiefly responsible for bringing Major League Baseball to Houston. George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan began the early efforts to lure an existing team to Houston. R.E. "Bob" Smith, an oil and real estate magnate, was brought in for his financial resources. Judge Roy Hofheinz, the former Mayor of Houston and Harris County Judge was brought in for his salesmanship and political aplomb. They formed the Houston Sports Association as their vehicle for gaining a big league franchise.
generating interest from major league owners, the four joined in with several
other would-be owners from other cities. They announced a plan to start
their own circuit, the Continental League, to compete with the established
National and American Leagues. That pressure, and a desire to protect new
markets, caused both existing leagues to expand by two teams. Houston won
a franchise in the National League to begin play in 1962. The Continental
League ended before it began.
Founding Fathers: (L-R) Smith, Hofheinz, Kirksey, Cullinan, GM Paul Richards.
Hofheinz convinced the National League owners that the sweltering Houston summers would not be a problem because he planned to build an indoor baseball stadium based loosely on the Coliseum in Rome. Bonds were passed and construction began but, until it was ready, the team needed a place to play. On some reclaimed marshland south of town, Colt Stadium was built on the same land that would eventually hold its famous successor. It was built on the cheap with little to protect fans from the weather or other hazards. True baseball fans hardly cared. Houston had become a "major league" city.
The new Houston team was named the "Colt .45s" after a "Name The Team" contest was held. The colors selected were navy blue and orange. The first team was a collection of cast-offs stocked primarily through an expansion draft held after the 1961 season. The Colts made their choices alternately with the New York Mets, the other expansion franchise that put the National League at ten teams. Harry Craft was named to be Houston's first manager.
The Colts' first big league game was April 10th at Colt Stadium. It was Judge Hofheinz' 50th birthday. Bobby Shantz pitched a complete game as Houston bombed the Chicago Cubs, 11-2. Bob Aspromonte got the first hit and scored the first run. Roman Mejias was the offensive star with two home runs. The Colts blanked the Cubs the next two days, sweeping the first three games in franchise history. They were tied for first place! But then they took their first road trip and found that life in the National League was not nearly so easy.
For decades, Houston was a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals and many of their star players had come through Texas on their way to the majors. The first game against the Redbirds on April 24th meant a little extra. Don Taussig homered for the game-winner in a 4-3 victory. Hal Woodeshick was the winning pitcher.
The Colt .45s captured their first doubleheader sweep on June 2nd, dumping the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field by scores of 10-6 and 10-3. Catcher Hal Smith, a World Series hero in Pittsburgh two years before, led the Colts to victory. Outfielder Carl Warwick, acquired from St. Louis in a trade for Shantz, delivered six hits in the twinbill. Ironically, Forbes Field became the worst place for Houston success during the decade.
The weather was always a factor at Colt Stadium but one night a thick fog rolled in to cut short a 7-3 victory over Cincinnati. It was a blessing for Craft who got to the hospital in time for the birth of his first daughter.
Richard "Turk" Farrell was the team's best pitcher that first year - and he lost 20 games! Known around the league for his late night binges and frequent pranks, his lighthearted manner kept the team loose during those early years. Turk was named to represent Houston in both All-Star Games held that season. Farrell and Bob Bruce each won ten games to lead the ballclub.
Mejias was the Colts' best hitter, pacing the team in batting average (.286), home runs (24), runs batted in (76) and stolen bases (12). He was traded to Boston after the season.
The Colts finished in eighth place with a 64-96 record, ahead of both the Cubs and the Mets. They still got a taste of pennant pressure as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants played them in crucial late-season games. Houston was the victim when swift Dodger Maury Wills became the first player to steal 100 bases in a season. The Dodgers and Giants ended in a tie with San Francisco winning a playoff to reach the World Series. The Colt .45s, on the other hand, felt glad to have been better than two teams in their first year of existence and wished the improvement would continue into the next year.
The second season brought plenty of changes as the team tried to find the right mix of veteran players while introducing raw young talent from the minors. The results hardly changed in the won-loss department. The Colts ended in ninth place with a 66-96 mark.
led the club again with 14 victories while lefty Hal Woodeshick posted
eleven wins and ten saves out of the bullpen. But the year's best pitching
effort was turned in by Don Nottebart who tossed
a no-hitter on May 17th in Colt Stadium against Philadelphia for a
All-Rookie Lineup: Four future All-Stars on the right - Jim Wynn, Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jerry Grote.
Houston became the first National League team to play night games on Sundays. The league lifted their ban after teams complained about the Texas summer heat the previous year. The first such night game was played on June 9th against the Giants. Veteran Hal "Skinny" Brown was the hero, blanking San Francisco for six innings after Farrell left in third inning with an injury.
Juan Marichal of the Giants got revenge on June 15th when he no-hit the Colts, 1-0, at Candlestick Park. Lost in the details was that Dick Drott tossed a three-hitter for Houston.
By late June, the Colts offense reminded some Texans of the Dust Bowl days. They were blanked for 40 consecutive innings, lost 8-1 with Howie Goss getting the lone run home, then began another scoreless streak of 30 innings. Houston was mired in a ten-game losing streak before Al Spangler homered to break the hex on June 26th. The Colts came back to life and beat the Milwaukee Braves in 13 innings with a 7-2 miracle.
As the season wore on, Craft put youngsters in the lineup more frequently. Houston's first "bonus baby", 19-year-old Daniel "Rusty" Staub appeared in 150 games and got his first big league homer on June 10th against one of the league's best pitchers. A pair of 21-year-olds, Ernie Fazio and Jim Wynn, also saw significant playing time. Another rookie, 23-year-old catcher John Bateman, led the Colts in homers (10) and RBIs (59).
Speaking of youth, the previous year third baseman Bob Aspromonte befriended a young Arkansas boy who was struck by lightning at a baseball diamond. When Aspromonte visited the nine-year-old in Methodist Hospital, the kid asked that his hero hit a home run for him that night. The third sacker wasn't much of a power hitter but he agreed to try. As fate provided, Aspromonte blasted a homer.
The child returned to Houston for additional eye surgery in 1963. When Aspromonte saw him, the lad asked again for a home run. The third baseman smashed a grand slam to beat the Cubs, 6-2. The Ruthian tale was getting publicity for the new team. When the kid came back to town in July, he asked Aspromonte for still another homer. Stuck in a terrible slump, Bob was afraid he'd disappoint the boy. Instead, he beat the Mets with another grand slam. Some suggested the Colts take the kid on the road.
By late September, the Colts sometimes looked like Little Leaguers themselves. On September 27th, the club hosted the Mets and sent out an all-rookie lineup. Houston lost, 10-3, but it was a preview of coming attractions. On the final day, 18-year-old outfielder John Paciorek had a career. He got three hits, scored four times and drove in three runs. Paciorek hurt his neck the following spring and never played in the majors again, retiring with a 1.000 career big league batting average. For a team in search of direction, at least the Colts weren't dull.
As the domed stadium took shape in the background, fans and management began to grow restless about the lack of success on the field. Aging veterans with winning backgrounds had been acquired to provide leadership while tutoring the young guns. Two-time American League batting champ Pete Runnels, 1959 A.L. Most Valuable Player Nellie Fox and 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen were among the big names brought in to lure fans as they wrote postscripts to their big league careers.
Manager Harry Craft wanted to play the experienced men but the front office wanted to showcase the up-and-coming talent. In the end, Craft was fired late in the season. He was replaced by one of his coaches, Luman Harris. No progress was made in the standings. Again, the Colts were 66-96 and finished in ninth place. In three seasons, the Colt .45s had proven they were clearly better than the New York Mets, but not much else.
The year began on a sad note as pitcher Jim Umbricht died of cancer just before Opening Day. The reliever was the only pitcher to post winning records in each of the first two seasons. He did this despite mid-season surgery in 1963. Umbricht was just 33 years old.
His roommate, Ken Johnson, drew the assignment for the traditional Opening Day in Cincinnati. With President Lyndon B. Johnson in the stands, Ken Johnson beat the Reds, 6-3. For the first time, Houston was in sole possession of first place. The results would be much different when the Reds came to Houston. On April 23rd, Johnson did not surrender a hit but lost the game, 1-0, on two ninth-inning errors. It was a major league first - to pitch a no-hitter and still lose the game.
Houston was relatively hot for the first two months of the season. On June 21st, they completed a four-game sweep of the Braves to run their record to 32-34. Turk Farrell had already notched ten wins but then came down with a case of Johnson's luck, winning just one more game the rest of the year to finish at 11-10. The ballclub's fortunes would turn similarly.
First baseman Walt Bond led the hitting attack that season. He slugged 20 homers and drove in 85 runs. Bond would lose his own battle with leukemia in 1967. Popular Bob Aspromonte paced the Colts with a .280 average while showing a knack for clutch hitting.
Despite the no-hitter by Nottebart, the Philadelphia Phillies gave the Colts more grief than any other opponent in their three years. Not only did the Colts lose often but trips to Philadelphia were chaotic. On September 1st, the Colts almost couldn't get out of their hotel. A Philly radio station erroneously reported that the Beatles were staying at the same location and every exit was mobbed with fans of the Fab Four. Finally arriving at Connie Mack Stadium, the Colts dropped another one to the Phillies, 4-3, on four solo homers.
The last rookie to make his major league debut as a Colt was pitcher Larry Dierker. He started on his 18th birthday and lost to San Francisco. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the Houston franchise.
In the last game at Colt Stadium, Bob Bruce blanked Los Angeles, 1-0, in twelve innings. It was his 15th win of the year, setting a team record. Jim Wynn drove home Rusty Staub to give the ballpark a fond farewell.
Judge Roy Hofheinz was fighting a lawsuit with the Colt Firearms Company over the ballclub's use of the "Colt .45" name. With the team preparing to move into a futuristic new stadium, the judge wanted a new name for his squad - something original for which he could be the plaintiff the next time there was a suit. He consulted with some of the astronauts at NASA about honoring them with his new "nickname". They liked it. The Houston entry in the National League was about to be reborn.
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