Houston General Managers

Historical Timeline - 1960 to 1980
by Gene Elston

Tal Smith has been with the Colt .45s/Astros organization since December of 1960 – brought down from Cincinnati and appointed the Colts farm director. I will itemize later the offices he held in this 1960-1980 period.

Paul Richards was not the first general manager. At the same time that Tal joined the club, the former GM of the Reds Gabe Paul was hired as Houston’s first GM. He had informed Cincinnati owner Powell Crosley in July of 1960 that he would leave the Cincinnati organization to look elsewhere and the Colts opening popped up in October of 1960 and he agreed to come to Houston on a three year contract. His stay lasted only six months as he and Roy Hofheinz differed on how the club was to be run and their personalities, to say the least, were not compatible. Paul quit and later signed on as GM of the Indians.

So, here is a rundown on the Colt.45s/Astros general managers of this early period:

Gabe Paul - October 25, 1960 to April 27, 1961;
Paul Richards - September 7, 1961 to December 12, 1965;
Spec Richardson - July 27, 1967 to July 10, 1975.
Tal Smith - August 7, 1975 to October 27, 1980.
(Please note the absence of that title in 1966)

Richardson, to the best of my knowledge had been with the Buffs when the Houston Sports Association was formed. He played a big part in settling the indemnity plan for the territorial rights with the American Association and would be appointed the Colt .45s business manager in 1962.

Grady Hatton hooked up with the organization as a special assistant on November 7, 1960 and would manage the Buffs for the first month of their season in the AA in 1961. He then was made the Colts director of player personnel and moved on to manage the teams’ Triple-A club at Oklahoma City in 1963-64-65.

In regard to the teams’ presidents over this period – in the first year of play (1962) Craig Cullinan was the president; Cullinan was also the first to bankroll the club before the entrance of R.E.(Bob) Smith and Hofheinz. Cullinan was also a minority stockholder as was George Kirksey.

George Kirksey was a former sportswriter, public relations man and most of all the original force, along with Cullinan, behind the drive to bring major league baseball to Houston. A drive that probably began in Kirksey’s mind as early as his days when he was sports editor of the United Press. He was a Major in the Ninth Air Force Public Relations Office and on duty D-Day reporting the action from his Marauder on the invasion coast. It was the beginning of his love for France, and he considered himself a protégé of Ernest Hemingway and following his baseball days he retired to France to write and drink wine. Kirksey was a native Texan, born in Hillsboro. He was fatally injured in France in May of 1971 while in another love of his life - an automobile – probably his favorite a BMW –which as every one who ever rode with him knows they had a rather erratic ride. He was one of the most garrulous, energetic, enthusiastic persons I have known and that despite the fact that he hardly ever wore socks. I loved the guy and it still bothers me that he and Cullinan never received the recognition for what he did for baseball here in Houston and his home state of Texas.

After my moment of silence I shall return to the presidents of the Colt.45s: 1963-1972 Hofheinz, 1973 Reuben W. Askanase, 1974 T.H.(Herb) Neyland, 1975-76 Sidney Shlenker, 1977 Tal Smith president and general manager.

Now let us digress to 1965 when Richards got the boot from the Judge along with Luman Harris on December 12 1965. At this point there had developed somewhat of a split in the front office and on this subject I can only speculate. So I’ll speculate! Hatton, who had won two out of three pennants and finished third in the other at Oklahoma City had been rumored in a sort of non-subtle announcement by Hofheinz that Hatton would succeed Luman Harris. However, later the Judge would hold a press conference that Hatton would NOT be the skipper--which I thought to be very strange since it was the first time I ever had heard of bringing the press together to announce that someone was not getting a job. Whatever the split, if any, was compromised by Hofheinz’ announcement that a 'triumviate’ had been selected to run the team sans the term GM. The three were Tal Smith, Spec Richardson and Hatton. The only change in the official list was a change in John Mullen’s title from assistant GM to executive assistant GM.

The titles of the selected three to mastermind the situation was as follows: Spec VP business manager, Tal VP director of player personnel and Grady VP field manager. At the time I thought this experiment, if that is what was, and it turned to be worse, rivaled the many infamous decisions made by the Cubs owner P.K.Wrigley – especially his college of coaches in 1961.

This setup lasted until July 27, 1967 when Richardson was given the full title of VP general manager. Grady was now the manager and Tal remained as VP director of player personnel. Hatton would be fired on June 18, 1968 and was replaced by Harry Walker who the year before had been fired by Pittsburgh. Hatton remained in the organization as a VP in various capacities in the player personnel department through 1975.

The opening of the Astrodome in 1965 also marked the beginning of the end of the close relationship between the Judge and the chairman of the board and the big money behind the Astros R.E.(Bob) Smith. To put it bluntly Smith was suddenly being ignored and it started on opening night in the Dome when Smith and his wife Vivian were not invited to the executive suite to celebrate the event with the honored guests including the President of the United States Lyndon Johnson.

During this period I became a close friend of Smith’s and this is how he related the rift between the two. He told me he had been shut out of all activities, was not contacted in any way about club policy, that the Judge had even stopped sending him press releases and it was becoming obvious their longtime business partnership was in real trouble. It all came to a head the day Smith went to the Dome seeking a showdown and found that Hofheinz had changed all the locks to the offices. I will never forget R.E’s exact words when he told me one day while we were both taking our daily workouts at the President’s Health Club – “Gene, we were discussing the situation and both of us were yelling at each other and in the heat of the argument I said, 'Roy either I buy you out, or you buy me out.’ I knew as soon as I said it I’d made a big mistake – but, I couldn’t go back on my word.” Smith would later invoke the buy-out clause of their ownership agreement demanding that the Judge purchase his 53 percent share in the Houston Sports Association, but Smith later said I always told everyone 'Don’t underestimate Roy,’ but deep down he didn’t think the Judge could do it.

Hofheinz did it but it was the beginning of the end for the Judge. His financial maneuverings led him on a track for the take over of the club by the Ford Motor Company and General Electric credit corporations

This, in my opinion, was one of the greatest loss to a baseball franchise ever suffered – the loss of a great owner with a lot of money that could have contributed to a different look today. The tragedy due to the ego of one man that wanted to control every facet of a franchise. I have often summed up Roy Hofheinz as a great contributor to baseball with his outstanding entrepreneurship but his downfall was that he had to be number one with no close number two. As a business man I categorized him as 'the dumbest genius in the world.’

Earlier we left Tal Smith as the farm director of the Colt.45s – in April of 1963 he was pulled off baseball when the Judge appointed him as his assistant to the president as the liaison for the fine tuning of the construction of the Astrodome. He was returned to his baseball duties in 1966 and in November of 1973 Tal left the Astros to join George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. Asked to return during the turmoil of the early 1970’s he came back to Houston in November 1975 as executive vice president and general manager. In 1977 he was appointed president with many additional duties including that of general manager.

The final item I would like to clear up was a statement concerning Tal and Pat Gillick. Gillick was brought into the Houston organization by Tal as assistant farm director in 1964. Gillick was a former minor league pitcher in the Baltimore organization who wanted to get into the business end of the game. When Tal moved to the Yankees he took Gillick with him and on his return was helpful in getting Pat the GM job at Toronto and again assisted on his move to Seattle –they remain the greatest of friends.

Gene Elston- Feb. 19, 2003