In Memory of Jim Pendleton

`Guv'nor' helped make Houston major league
by Mickey Herskowitz, Houston Chronicle
March 24, 1996

(c) Houston Astros
Carl Warwick was calling with the kind of news you really don't want to hear one week before opening day, if you must hear it at all.

Jim Pendleton was dead.

One of the original Colt .45s, Pendleton played only one season in Houston, the first one, and that made him a special figure to those familiar with the history of this often troubled franchise. He was known as "The Guv'nor," spoken with a distinct British air. It was the way he addressed nearly everyone, but the term fit him most of all because he exuded a sense of dignity and manners.

You might ask yourself why these qualities are not as readily identified with the American sporting character. You might also reflect on the irony of the two nicknames worn through the years by the Houston baseball team. They were the Colt .45s in honor of The Gun That Won the West. They became the Astros in 1965 when the club moved indoors and the city itself was leaping into the Space Age.

Today, budget cutbacks again threaten the future of the space program, while the Colt .45 and other nifty handguns are making a comeback. We will trouble this thought no more, except to note that one must be sensitive at all times to the cycles of life.

To those who played alongside him, Jim Pendelton's place in the team's history is far out of proportion to his length of service. He was already a 38-year-old relic who had seen prior duty with Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Paul Richards, the general manager who designed the team Houston put on the field in 1962, reclaimed the Guv'nor from Jersey City. He had been shipped to the minors four different times by big-league clubs. This was a man who never took good fortune lightly.

He was the last of a generation of baseball players who had seen action in World War II, in the South Pacific. He signed his first pro contract as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, three years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line. Jim hit well enough that the Dodgers moved him to shortstop so he wouldn't have to compete with the likes of Duke Snider.

He made the All-Star team at shortstop in Triple-A ball, but his path to the majors now was blocked by Pee Wee Reese, like Snider a future Hall of Famer. In 1953 the Dodgers traded Pendleton to the Braves, who were in the process of moving from Boston to Milwaukee.

So began the odyssey that would take Jim Pendleton to Houston, where he looked good wearing the big iron on his shirt. As a rookie with the Braves, he had batted .299, and in one game he hit three consecutive home runs. But a year later he lost his job to a skinny kid named Henry Aaron.

One way or another, this was a fellow who would figure in a lot of history. Somewhere between Wichita, Toledo and Jersey City, the Guv'nor must have realized he was never going to be a star, but he never gave up and he never lost his gentle disposition.

Which is one reason some of his former teammates, Warwick, Al Spangler, Bob Aspromonte, Hal Smith and Hal Woodeshick, were calling around town this weekend, letting others know that Jim Pendleton had just died of a heart attack, at 72. It ought to be acknowledged that there was some uncertainty about his age, but no one ever thought of Pendleton as being old, certainly not in 1962. He could still run, although perhaps not with the warp speed of his swinging youth, when he captained the track and basketball teams at his high school in Missouri.

With the Colt .45s, where Aspromonte was the only starter under 28, Jim was classified as an "elder statesman."

For those who wish to wallow in nostalgia, this was Houston's starting lineup on opening day of 1962, as major-league baseball moved into the southwest:

Bob Aspromonte, third base.
Al Spangler, center field.
Roman Mejias, right field.
Norm Larker, first base.
Jim Pendleton, left field.
Hal Smith, catcher.
Joey Amalfitano, third base.
Don Buddin, shortstop.
Bobby Shantz, pitcher.

For an expansion team, composed of so-called discards and rejects, the Colt .45s enjoyed a giddy opening series, sweeping the Chicago Cubs behind three lefthanded pitchers - Shantz, Woodeshick and Dean Stone. The 5-foot-7 Shantz, the one-time glory tot of the old Philadelphia A's, recorded Houston's first big-league victory in spite of an arm so sore he underwent hot pack treatments between innings. Roman Mejias was the hitting star with two home runs and six runs batted in. Houston ran up the score on the Cubbies, winning 12-4.

At least half a dozen of the original .45s made their homes in Houston, including Warwick, a TCU graduate who joined the club after the first month in a trade with St. Louis for Shantz.

Warwick credits Pendleton with helping to create a closeness on the team that left no room for racial tensions. "He got along with everybody," said Carl. "He was always trying to get Mejias to loosen up and talk more. He'd tell him, `Roman, when people say nice things to you, don't just nod. Smile and say thank you.' "

Pendleton always seemed to be the guy in between the guys who grabbed the brass ring. But he was well equipped to handle reality because there was no selfishness in him. The fans sensed this and rooted for him. He played eight years in the majors and eight in the minors and had an unusual distinction: he never pulled a muscle. Once, when Doc Ewell, Houston's cagey trainer, suspected that Pendleton was hiding an injury, he said, "Are you sure you're OK?"

"Doc," said the Guv'nor, "with these old bones you got to be sure. You can't guess."

He helped bring big league ball to two new cities. In Milwaukee, the fans went crazy, giving the players free groceries and free dry cleaning. "We couldn't buy anything," he once said. "And how they cheered. They cheered when you hit home runs. They cheered when you flied out. They cheered even when you failed."

In Houston, the fans didn't go quite that crazy, but those with long memories still have a soft spot for that '62 team.

Pendleton never earned more than $16,000 in a year playing baseball, but he had no regrets. He lived quietly in Houston. It didn't take him long to make more money working at Suniland Furniture than he did as a big-leaguer. But his love for the game was never about money. He looked forward each spring to the new season, to the ritual of renewal. A good and interesting man will be missing when this one starts.

Sadly, heaven can't always wait, even for opening day.