If ever a ballpark generated more headlines than the baseball team, it was the Harris County Domed Stadium. Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was buying control of the team from the other partners, dubbed it "The Astrodome" and, thank goodness, the name stuck. Gone were the days of stifling heat and merciless mosquitoes. Under glass, it was 72-degree comfort in plush theater seats. There were luxury suites and an enormous scoreboard. To baseball purists though, the sacrifices for comfort came at a price. To Houston fans, it made the losing product on the field easier to endure.
The Astrodome's debut came on April 9th in an exhibition game against the American League's dynasty, the New York Yankees. The new palace, ballyhooed by Hofheinz as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", was christened in fine fashion. Turk Farrell had the honor of pitching before a packed house while Yankee legend Mickey Mantle got the first base hit and the first home run in indoor competition. Ron Brand would achieve the first hit for the Astros. President Johnson halted the action temporarily when he arrived and joined Judge Hofheinz in the judge's apartment built above the right field stands. LBJ left before the game was done but those who stayed got their money's worth. It was player-coach Nellie Fox who would close the curtain on a memorable night, driving home Jim Wynn in the 12th inning for a 2-1 victory.
on April 12th was less thrilling. After 24 astronauts from NASA tossed
out the "first pitch" to their baseball namesakes, Phillies lefty Chris
Short silenced the throng with a four-hit shutout. Richie Allen of Philadelphia
swatted the Dome's first National League home run in the 2-0 decision.
Wynn: "The Toy Cannon".
Bob Aspromonte was the first Astro to set off the scoreboard's Home Run Spectacular for its intended purpose on April 24th against Vernon Law of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wynn would set it off again two innings later. New York broadcaster Lindsey Nelson got to explore another unique feature of the new ballpark when he broadcast a Mets game from the gondola 200 feet above second base on April 28th.
As visiting teams adjusted to the new conditions, the Astros launched their first ten-game winning streak, climaxing with a doubleheader sweep of Chicago on May 1st. Though tied several times, the winning streak would continue to be a club record until 1999.
Joe Morgan left his mark in the team's record book when he went six-for-six in a twelve-inning loss to the Milwaukee Braves on July 8th. Morgan and Wynn established themselves as regulars on the team that year. Wynn led the Astros in batting average (.275), homers (22), RBIs (73) and steals (43). Farrell was again the team's pitching leader with 11 victories.
In August, the Astros signed Philadelphia legend Robin Roberts to a contract. Cast aside by the Phillies two years before, Roberts got revenge on August 9th when he blanked the Phils, 8-0, on a four-hitter. He beat them again in Philadelphia on the next road trip.
The Astros topped the two-million mark in home attendance as fans came from all around to see the new stadium. But the change of scenery made little difference in the standings. Houston finished 65-97 and once again landed in ninth place.
Just as the stadium was the headliner of the 1965 season, the ground was the big news of 1966. When the Astrodome opened, players had trouble seeing the ball when it was hit in the air because of the glare of the glass panels in the roof. Day games in the Dome were marked by players ducking from flies and pop ups they couldn't see. The solution was to paint over the panels to reduce the glare. When that happened, the grass could no longer grow. So the dead sod was replaced the next year with an artificial surface made by Monsanto which was soon called "Astroturf". Underneath this rug of fake grass was a layer of sand over a foundation of concrete. Batted balls hopped more reliably but they bounced higher off the artificial turf and grounders seemed to accelerate as they rolled past fielders. It took some tweaking but the new zippered surface would eventually gain acceptance.
The first game played on the new carpet was on April 18th. It was the first major league win for 21-year-old Don Sutton of the Los Angeles Dodgers, beginning a Hall-of-Fame career that included two seasons as an Astro.
Grady Hatton became the new skipper after Luman Harris was fired. Houston got hot in more ways than one. In May, they climbed into second place in the National League standings. Joe Morgan and Sonny Jackson appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a franchise first. Morgan would also become the first Astro to be named a starter on the All-Star team but he couldn't play. He had broken a kneecap before the mid-summer event.
The Astros received another major setback when Jim Wynn was lost for the season after crashing into the outfield fence in Philadelphia on August 1st. Wynn still led the club with 18 home runs. Rusty Staub batted .280 and paced Houston with 81 RBIs and 28 doubles.
If anyone had a good year, it was pitcher Dave Giusti. The righthander won 15 games, including a one-hitter on August 13th when he outdueled San Francisco ace Juan Marichal. He was potent with the bat too, driving in six against Cincinnati on August 21st while tossing a six-hit shutout. The six-RBI mark was a team record that stood for 23 years.
Shortstop Sonny Jackson set a league rookie record with 49 steals while leading the Astros with a .292 average. John Bateman set career highs with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs. Houston's record improved to 72-90 and an eighth-place finish but the ballclub, now filled with blossoming young talent, displayed the inconsistencies of their youth.
Like the turbulent decade, this year was a tough read. It featured some of the top performances in club history and marks that would last more than 20 years but the Astros had to rally past the Mets to avoid finishing in last place. For the record, Houston finished in their now customary ninth place with a 69-93 mark. It was their sixth straight season with a winning percentage below .450.
From the beginning, the team had never really settled on a first baseman and wouldn't until 1972. On New Year's Eve, the Astros traded for third baseman Eddie Mathews, a great slugger with the Braves while in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. Mathews wound up as the next Houston first baseman. He paid dividends on Opening Day as he helped the Astros beat his old teammates, 6-1, with two hits. On July 14th, Mathews would slam a three-run homer off Juan Marichal in San Francisco for the 500th homer of his major league career. At the time, only six others in baseball history had reached that milestone.
On June 7th, the Astros erupted for a 17-1 victory over St. Louis that has never been surpassed as the most lopsided win in club history. Houston banged out 23 hits, four by catcher Ron Brand.
Rookie Don Wilson, who had just one big league appearance before the season began, won ten games. None was more meaningful than the no-hitter he pitched on Father's Day against the Atlanta Braves. His feat on June 18th was the first no-hitter in team history to also be a shutout and the first to be pitched at the Astrodome.
Jim Wynn had his best season. The 5'-9" outfielder was noted not only for the frequency of his home runs but also for the distances. He blasted a homer out of the deepest part of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field on July 23rd, reaching a Little League diamond beyond the fence. In his native Cincinnati, "The Toy Cannon" launched a bomb at Crosley Field on June 11th that could have literally stopped traffic. The clip of that highlight has made its way into at least two Hollywood films.
Wynn delivered in the 1967 All-Star Game too with a pinch-hit single that was the first hit by a Houston player in the star-studded series. He set club records with 37 homers (2nd in the league) and 107 runs batted in (4th in the league). Rusty Staub set a team mark for batting average at .333 (5th in the league) while leading the circuit in doubles with 44. Staub also singled at the All-Star Game.
Cuban-born Mike Cuellar became the ace of the pitching staff, winning 16 games. The lefthander threw two shutout innings at the Midsummer Classic. It was the first time in franchise history that the team had more than one All-Star.
After Mathews was traded late in the season, the Astros called up from the minors a fiery young redhead named Doug Rader who hit .333 in 47 games. The ballclub featured a lot of star material. It was a case where the whole didn't equal the sum of their parts.
The nation's turmoil spilled onto the baseball diamond. The start of the season was delayed after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was killed two months later, baseball teams were left to decide on their own whether to postpone their games. Astros management chose not to stop playing but Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte sat out in protest. Both were traded after the season.
of Judge Roy Hofheinz appeared in a Dallas newspaper with a bullseye over
it. Major League Baseball had announced plans to expand into four more
cities in 1969 and Dallas was not one of them. It irked them even further
that Montreal, Quebec, would be joining the National League instead. Some
in Dallas were sure The Judge had something to do with the snub.
Morgan and Menke: Exciting double play tandem.
The Astros got another taste of life's realities when they traveled to Chicago in August. They arrived just after the riotous Democratic National Convention had ended. Bused to the same hotel where the Democrats were headquartered, the team was driven through a gauntlet of angry hippies and Vietnam War protesters. The stench of tear gas awaited them as they were snuck in through the rear entrance by Chicago police.
On the field, it was "The Year Of The Pitcher" as moundsmen dominated the game as never before. A foreshadowing came at the Astrodome on April 15th. Tom Seaver of the Mets and Don Wilson of the Astros hooked up in a scoreless duel that kept going and going. It didn't end until six hours later when shortstop Al Weis let a grounder by Aspromonte roll through his legs in the 24th inning allowing Norm Miller to score the game's only run.
Dave Giusti fired a two-hitter in a 1-0 shutout over Cincinnati on May 22nd. He matched that with a two-hitter against the Cubs on June 26th. Wilson tied a big league record with 18 strikeouts during a 6-1 triumph over the Reds on July 14th.
Houston hosted the 1968 All-Star Game at the Dome. As might be expected with the world's best pitchers throwing in a notorious pitcher's park in a year of superlative pitching performances (Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA, Don Drysdale's 56 consecutive scoreless innings, Denny McLain's 31 wins), the showcase became a 1-0 shutout for the National League.
Grady Hatton was fired as the Astros manager. Harry "The Hat" Walker replaced him. The good news was that the team tied their best record to date - a 72-90 mark. The bad news was that they finished in last place, one game behind New York.
The Astros could be thankful for one win they didn't deserve. On September 7th, Atlanta's Hank Aaron was rounding third and heading home with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth when he suddenly lost his balance and fell down. Doug Rader took the throw and tagged him out. With new life, Houston came back for a 6-3 victory. It proved that even the great ones sometimes fail, a lesson for which a last-place team could find solace.
Expansion and trades had dramatically changed the Houston Astros for the coming season. In the past 18 months, the team had lost or traded away Aspromonte, Bateman, Brand, Cuellar, Giusti, Jackson, Staub and closer Claude Raymond. Some of the new faces were catcher Johnny Edwards, outfielder Jesus Alou, infielder Denis Menke and pitcher Denver Lemaster.
Curt Blefary was the new first baseman in town. He came from the Baltimore Orioles for Cuellar after the trade of Rusty Staub to the expansion Montreal Expos turned sour. Originally, the Astros had agreed to get Alou and slugger Donn Clendenon for the popular Staub but Clendenon retired rather than agree to play in Houston. Instead of voiding the deal, new baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Montreal to rework the trade. The Expos sent two pitchers and cash rather than Clendenon, who was then traded to the New York Mets and World Series glory.
Yes, the Mets, who entered the National League along with Houston in 1962, not only won the league crown to finish the decade but topped the Orioles for the World's Championship. It meant the Astros had suddenly run out of excuses. Expansion provided two more teams that were worse than Houston and the six-team divisional alignment provided a new type of pennant race - one the Astros would quickly find themselves in.
April ended with a 4-20 record capped by a 10-0, no-hit loss to Cincinnati's Jim Maloney. Don Wilson was angry with the way the Reds showed up his team and sought revenge. He got it in most dramatic fashion, tossing the second no-hitter of his career on May 1st. He had yet to turn 25, but Wilson stood behind only Sandy Koufax for career no-hit wins.
From that, the Astros ignited. Six days later, the defense set the tone when they tied a major league mark by turning seven double plays. Blefary set a record by participating in all seven. By the end of the month, the Astros had put together a ten-game winning streak. Doug Rader was a key contributor. His grand slam in the bottom of the ninth on May 27th sunk the Phillies, 6-2. The next night, with the bases full again, Rader singled for a 7-6, ten-inning victory. Afterwards, Rader apologized to the fans for not winning the game with another homer.
The infield tandem of Menke and Joe Morgan provided sock as well as defense. Morgan clubbed 15 homers and swiped 49 bases, combining power and speed. Menke led the club with 90 runs batted in.
Houston was the center of the world's attention in late July as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The Astros provided their own moon shots during a July 30th doubleheader in New York. Menke and Wynn belted grand slam homers in the same inning, the first time it had happened in the National League since 1890. Even the pitchers got into the act as Larry Dierker spanked a homer off Nolan Ryan and portly closer Fred Gladding got the only hit of his career.
The bats were still hot in Montreal as Blefary tagged a ball so far that it tried to cool itself. Blefary would end the year with 12 round-trippers. Jim Wynn would lead the assault with 33 home runs.
On September 10th, Wynn and Menke struck again to beat the Dodgers, 8-1. The Astros were tied for fourth in the new Western Division but they were only two games out of first place! After seven fruitless seasons, Houston fans could cheer their team in an actual pennant race. Club management was given permission to print World Series tickets.
The pressure proved to be too much. Three days later in Atlanta, Dierker was one out shy of a no-hitter when Felix Millan broke it up with a single. Dierker continued the scoreless tie through the twelfth. The Astros broke through for two runs in 13th only to see ex-teammates Jackson and Aspromonte lead a three-run Braves comeback. It was a turning point as Houston slid to fifth place and Atlanta went on to win the division.
Dierker could console himself four days later when he beat San Francisco, 2-1, to become the team's first 20-game winner. It was a magnificent season for the 22-year-old who logged four shutouts, 20 complete games, 240 strikeouts and sported a nifty 2.33 ERA. His team could also celebrate the first non-losing season in franchise history, going 81-81. The achievement paled compared to the Mets Miracle but it signaled a new era of competitiveness for the Houston club.
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