HITTING THE WALL...
The Astros had experienced some tremendous pitching performances during the 1960s, including four no-hitters, and the best they had to show for it was a .500 season. Despite the reputation of the Astrodome as a place where long balls went to die, management looked to field teams that could produce still more of them. To the common fan, it may have seemed like a good move but it became a recipe for mediocrity.
Behind the scenes, financial resources were getting thin. Judge Hofheinz had built an amusement park, a convention hall and a hotel to make his "Astrodomain" complete. Hofheinz also bought the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Some critics sniped that he already owned one.
The other ventures took money away from baseball and, after suffering a stroke, Hofheinz seemed too unhealthy, financially and otherwise, to own a major league team.
The Astros had turned a corner going into the season. The expansion era was over. They were now expected to be a serious contender. The new decade started with a bang. Doug Rader drilled a home run into the upper reserved (gold) seats in left field during an exhibition game on April 3rd. The seats were thought by many to be unreachable. Proving it was no fluke, Jim Wynn swatted a Phil Niekro knuckleball into the same section nine days later in a contest against Atlanta. "Juiced ball" theories quickly started after four other homers were hit that night, including another Wynn blast into the purple seats, just below the gold. The blasts of Rader and Wynn were marked with repainted seats. No other Astro ever hit one into that part of the stadium.
Before the season, Curt Blefary was traded to the New York Yankees for Joe Pepitone. The Brooklyn-born slugger felt like he'd been banished to the sticks after gaining fame in the Big Apple. Pepitone had a good start in Houston before he took a cue from Donn Clendenon and "retired". He "unretired" after the Astros worked a deal to trade him to Chicago. Bob Watson and rookie John Mayberry filled in at first base for the rest of the season.
Another ex-Yankee to make headlines with the Astros that year was reliever Jim Bouton. His book, "Ball Four", exposed the dark side of some of baseball's biggest heroes at a time when such revelations were taboo. He became a pariah to many within the sport for his tell-all tome and the Houston clubhouse seemed more tense knowing that the things said in private might someday show up in print.
The rookie who caught everyone's attention that year was a Dominican outfielder named Cesar Cedeno. Only 19 when he arrived in Houston, Cedeno showed he had all the tools to be a superstar. Comparisons to greats like Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays were frequent. He came from the minors in June and batted .310 for the rest of the season.
Cedeno wasn't the only Astro to hit well. Shortstop Denis Menke batted .304 and again led the club with 92 RBIs. Jesus Alou turned in a .306 average. The team batting average rose 19 points from the year before.
Unfortunately, the team ERA rose 63 points. Larry Dierker and Don Wilson again had winning records but the overall staff had a down year. Illustrative was the game Wilson won in Montreal on August 15th when he surrendered 16 hits. Fred Gladding came in to get the final out of the 7-3 victory, one of his team-leading 18 saves. Two weeks later, Wilson fell behind Nolan Ryan and the Mets before Wynn and Menke bailed him out, each bashing a pair of homers.
Houston finished fourth in the division with a disappointing 79-83 record. Cincinnati ran away with the division title, a scene that would be repeated often during the decade.
Maybe the balls were wound too tight in 1970. The next year, Houston's home run production was cut almost in half while the pitchers perked up with a team ERA of 3.13. It made no difference in the standings as Houston finished tied for fourth with the same 79-83 mark as the year before.
What was different were the uniforms. The team looked like a photo negative of themselves. What was navy blue was now orange and what was orange was now blue. Larry Dierker had them looking sharp on Opening Day with a 5-2 victory over the Dodgers.
season, the Cubs practically gave the Astros shortstop Roger Metzger. It
might have been fallout from the Joe Pepitone trade. The slender Texan
cracked the starting lineup as Denis Menke moved to first base.
Cedeno: All the tools.
Metzger began the first triple play in franchise history on July 16th against the Mets. He fielded a grounder by Cleon Jones, stepped on second base for the first out and threw to Menke for the second out. When Ken Boswell made a belated dash to third, Menke threw across the diamond to Doug Rader who tagged Boswell for the third out.
Jim Wynn survived a domestic stabbing incident but hit only .203 with seven home runs. Menke hit only one homer all season. Joe Morgan led the team with 13 homers and 40 steals. Bob Watson, relocated to the outfield, led the club in batting average (.288) and was second in RBIs (67).
Cesar Cedeno led the Astros with 81 RBIs and led the league with 40 doubles but he, too, suffered something of a sophomore jinx, batting just .264 with 102 strikeouts. He was also featured in the quirkiest play of the year. With the bases full against the Dodgers on September 2nd, Cesar blooped a pitch from Claude Osteen into shallow right field. The right fielder and second baseman collided trying to catch the ball as it rolled leisurely away. The Astros looked like a relay team as they circled the bases. It was a 170' grand slam homer.
If Cedeno carried the potential of future stardom on offense, James Rodney Richard held the same potential as a pitcher. The 6'-8" giant made his big league premiere on September 5th against, ironically, the Giants. J. R. struck out 15 of them to tie the debut record Brooklyn's Karl Spooner set in 1954. Richard won, 5-3, to cap a doubleheader sweep.
Larry Dierker won 12 games before the All-Star break but was then sidelined with an elbow injury. Don Wilson took his spot on the All-Star team, pitched two scoreless innings in Detroit, then completed a 16-win campaign.
The natives were growing restless for a winning team. The Astros would pull off one of the most controversial trades in their history during the off-season. It was a major shakeup that made the ballclub look foolish and yet also made them winners.
The Astros sent Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister to Cincinnati in return for first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and utilityman Jimmy Stewart. Morgan would develop into a two-time Most Valuable Player with the Reds as Cincinnati won three National League titles and two World's Championships. The Astros solved their problem at first base. It is often viewed as the worst trade in team history, although many feel Morgan would have never produced as well if he had stayed in Houston.
Certainly, May was no slouch. A power-hitter who fielded his position well, May was a two-time All-Star with the Reds and became one again in 1972. Lee hit his "taters" with regular frequency. He whacked 29 in his first season in Houston, hitting .284 and driving in 98.
May anchored a lineup that was turning into a powerhouse. Jim Wynn, Doug Rader and Cesar Cedeno gave the Astros four players with 20 or more homers while Bob Watson added 16. All five drove in 80 or more runs.
Cedeno did even more, leading the club with a .320 batting average, stealing 55 bases and making great plays in the field. He made the first of four All-Star game appearances that season. Cesar became the first Astro to hit for the cycle on August 2nd, leading a 10-1 thrashing in Cincinnati.
Rader was also flashing leather at third base while coming through with clutch hits despite a .237 batting average. As a club, Houston led the league with 708 runs.
The explosiveness of Houston's new offense was never more apparent than when they entered the ninth inning in San Francisco on April 23rd, trailing 7-3. The Astros exploded for ten runs as May clubbed a three-run homer and Cedeno got two hits in the inning to give him five for the day. The "Orange Crushers" won, 13-7.
Even shortstop Roger Metzger caught on, taking Bob Gibson deep for his first major league homer on May 10th. May banged out four hits, including another tater, to key a six-run rally that shocked St. Louis, 10-7. The Astros moved into first place in the Western Division.
The pitchers had moments to shine as well. Lefthanders Dave Roberts and Jerry Reuss were acquired to give Houston four accomplished starters. Larry Dierker and Don Wilson each won 15 games. Jim Ray won ten and saved eight pitching in relief. When Dierker tossed a one-hitter at the New York Mets on June 19th, he and Reuss tied a major league record with back-to-back one-hit efforts.
The Astros were playing the first winning season in their history but were losing ground to red-hot Cincinnati. Management made one last move, firing Harry Walker as manager and naming fiery Leo Durocher to replace him. Durocher had skippered the 1951 New York Giants to a miracle late-season finish, but his best days had left him. The Astros finished 16-15 under "Leo The Lip", a distant second place to the Reds. Still, the 84-69 strike-shortened record was the best to date and second place was the best finish in their history. They didn't know it then, but it would be the closest they'd come to claiming a title for several more seasons.
The bombing continued the following year as the same five Astros delivered 16 or more homers . But the run production tapered off. Houston scored 27 fewer runs even though they played nine more games. Lee May paced the team with 28 homers, including three in one game against the San Diego Padres on June 21st, and 105 RBIs. Cesar Cedeno batted .320, pounded 25 homers and swiped a club record 56 bases. Bob Watson hit at a .312 clip and drove in 94 runs. Doug Rader drilled 21 long balls and drove home 89 runs. Jim Wynn contributed 20 homers despite a season-long slump.
and Roger Metzger, though lacking in the power numbers, both hit .250 or
above and displayed solid defensive work around second base. Metzger led
the National League with 14 triples. Helms provided clutch hits like the
two-run single that completed a 9-7 comeback win in Montreal on July 8th.
Metzger and Helms: Solid around second.
The only major change to the lineup was an illness that forced catcher Johnny Edwards to sit. Skip Jutze, acquired from St. Louis during the off-season with Johnny Bench-like raves, filled in well behind the plate but he hit just .223 with no homers while standing next to it.
It was the pitching that faltered. Larry Dierker and Tom Griffin both missed substantial time with injuries. Don Wilson struggled and spent time in the bullpen. Dave Roberts (17 wins) and Jerry Reuss (16 wins) stepped up to lead the staff. Ken Forsch and J.R. Richard took turns in the rotation. Richard got his first big league shutout against the Dodgers on August 1st. The bullpen was a mess, with nobody earning more than six saves.
Leo Durocher complained about the modern ballplayer, took ill during midseason, and decided that retirement wasn't such a bad idea. Nobody knew it at the time, but the season finale in Atlanta would be the last of his Hall-Of-Fame career. The stadium was packed on September 30th but it wasn't to say goodbye to Leo. Hank Aaron was one homer shy of Babe Ruth's career home run record and many VIPs, including Gov. Jimmy Carter, were there to see him tie and maybe break baseball's most hallowed mark. Dave Roberts "held" Aaron to three singles and Houston won, 5-3. Durocher went out as a winner with his club finishing 82-80, even though they had slid back to fourth place.
Durocher's third base coach, Preston Gomez, was promoted to manager. He is the only minority ever to skipper the Astros. Under his leadership, Houston returned to .500 at 81-81 and ended another year in fourth place.
There were three major changes to the team besides the managerial reigns. The Astros traded Reuss to Pittsburgh for catcher Milt May. He gave the righty-dominated Houston lineup a lefty to ponder while providing good defense and batting .289. To take Reuss' spot, the Astros dealt Jim Wynn to Los Angeles for Claude Osteen. Wynn's spot in right field was taken by rookie Greg Gross, another lefthanded bat who led the club with a .314 average.
Despite Gross' lofty average, he did not make the All-Star team. Cesar Cedeno did as he paced the club with 26 homers, 102 RBIs and 57 stolen bases. Lee May was second in each category with 24 round-trippers and 85 RBIs.
The 1974 season might be called "The Year of The Weird" as the unexpected happened often. It began on Opening Day as the Astros were beating San Diego. Padres owner Ray Kroc got on the public address system and apologized to the fans for his team's poor play. Doug Rader responded afterwards that the McDonald's magnate shouldn't treat ballplayers "like a bunch of short-order cooks". When the Astros returned to San Diego on June 28th, the Padres held "Short Order Cooks Night" and sat the chefs behind the Astros dugout to chew out Rader for his choice of words. Trailing 5-4, with two outs in the ninth, Rader was up at the plate with a chance to get in the last word but he flew out to left as John Grubb (appropriately) smothered the ball to end it.
Roger Metzger was injured when he collided with a pitcher during warm-ups before an April 29th home game against the Cubs. The team found out they didn't need him, bombing Chicago, 18-2. Lee May had five hits including a pair of two-run homers in the nine-run sixth inning. Gomez gave Lee the rest of the night off or he might have done more damage.
Bob Watson had it worse during perhaps the ugliest moment in team history. During the nightcap of a doubleheader in Cincinnati on May 12th, Watson slammed into the left field fence chasing a fly ball. His glasses shattered and he lay on the warning track face up with broken glass around his eyes. Riverfront Stadium "fans" pelted the prone outfielder with cups, beer, ice and insults. He would need twelve stitches.
Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia cracked the hardest-hit ball in the history of the Astrodome on June 10th and got a single for his feat. With the bases full against Osteen, Schmidt drilled a shot that appeared headed for the famous scoreboard. Suddenly, a loud clank was heard and the ball headed back to center field. It had hit a speaker that dangled from the ceiling and fell harmlessly to earth. None of the Phillies were sure what to do so they each advanced only one base before Cedeno threw the ball back in.
It must have been "Singles Night" on August 5th when the Astros dropped the Giants, 7-2. Houston had 18 singles, five of them by Gross, in a 19-hit performance. The lone extra-base hit? A double by pitcher Don Wilson.
Wilson was pulled by Gomez in the bottom of the eighth inning on September 4th, even though he was throwing a no-hitter. Thanks to two walks and an error, Wilson was trailing Cincinnati, 2-1, when he was lifted for a pinch-hitter. Coincidences abound. The man who hit into the error was Pete Rose, the man who also hit into the fateful error during Ken Johnson's 1964 no-hitter. The manager, Gomez, had once taken pitcher Clay Kirby out of a game under similar circumstances while managing in San Diego. Gomez had said that if he ever again had to take out a pitcher who was losing while throwing a no-hitter, he'd do the same thing. Kirby was seated in the Reds dugout when Wilson was yanked. A no-hitter would have been Wilson's third, making him just the second man to ever reach that milestone. Mike Cosgrove gave up a meaningless single in the ninth. Houston lost the game and the no-hitter. Five months later, they lost Wilson who would die of carbon monoxide poisoning, along with his 5-year-old son Alexander, when he passed out in the garage of his Houston home with the car engine still running. He was 29 years old.
Dave Roberts tossed a one-hitter during the fastest game in team history. He outdueled Philadelphia's Steve Carlton on August 24th, 1-0, in one hour and 26 minutes. Metzger singled home Larry Milbourne with the game's only run.
Tom Griffin, a hard-luck pitcher since his dazzling rookie season in 1969, led the team with 14 victories. Dierker and Wilson each won eleven. Despite being competitive, the Astros knew a rebuilding movement would soon be underway. Judge Hofheinz would soon be forced to sell the team to a partnership led by Ford Motor Credit Co. It was fitting for a team in need of an overhaul.