Posts Tagged ‘Houston Astros’

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 2016.

“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 2016.

Al Rosen, Mickey Vernon, and the 1953 American League Batting Championship

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

During the summer that William Holden escaped Stalag 17, Audrey Hepburn gallivanted around Rome, and Burt Lancaster kissed Deborah Kerr on a Hawaiian beach, two sluggers edged toward a batting championship decided by one thousandth of a point—Al Rosen and Mickey Vernon.

Clevelanders celebrated Rosen’s 1953 trek, culminating in leading the American League in:

  • Runs Scored (115)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.613)
  • On Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.034)
  • Total Bases (367)
  • RBI (145—led the major leagues)

A hard-charging third baseman sacrificing prime years by serving in the Navy during World War II, Rosen was as prominent to Cleveland as Lake Erie, Public Auditorium, and the Park Building.

In Good Enough to Dream, his 1985 chronicle of owning the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League, sports writer Roger Kahn described an encounter with Rosen—at the time, Rosen was a baseball executive with the Houston Astros.  Rosen visited Kahn to see a game between the Blue Sox and the Astros’ minor league team based in Auburn, New York.

“‘You know, except for tonight’s score, I can enjoy this more than major league ball,’ Rosen told Kahn.  ‘The way the kids are so young and fresh.  The way you get so close to the game and to the fans.’  Rosen made his way toward the Auburn bus, offering me a wave, a man who lived each day fully and well and who would have to say ‘if only’ fewer times than almost anyone I knew.”

Mickey Vernon played most of his 20-year career in a Washington Senators uniform.  With a keen eye for baseball talent combined with blindness to prejudice, Vernon saw an emerging icon that could have made history with the Senators.  Matt Schudel’s 2008 obituary of Vernon in the Washington Post explained, “Mr. Vernon met an impressive young player, Larry Doby, whom he recommended to the Senators.  But because Doby was black, he went unsigned until Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier in 1947.  When Mr. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Doby was one of his teammates.”  Vernon played all of 1949 and part of 1950 in a Cleveland uniform.

Rosen came within a Chief Wahoo feather of winning the Triple Crown in 1953—he had a .333 batting average to Vernon’s .336 going into the last game of the season.  In a 2013 article, Tim Warsinskey of the Cleveland Plain Dealer recounted that Rosen had a prolific day at the plate, boosting his average to .336 by knocking two singles and a double against Detroit Tigers hurler Al Aber.  “Aber started the game for Detroit and was trying to finish it against Rosen, leading 7-3,” wrote Warsinskey.  “Rosen knew Aber well, because Cleveland had traded him to Detroit in June.  The infield was playing deep, almost inviting Rosen to bunt.  Rosen was a fairly good runner, but didn’t want to win the batting title on a bunt.”

A ground ball to Indians third baseman Ray Boone ended a Triple Crown possibility; while Rosen finished the season at .336, Vernon had a good game against the Philadelphia A’s.  Going 2-for-4, Vernon crossed the finish line of the 1953 season with:

  • .337 batting average
  • 205 hits
  • 115 RBI
  • 43 doubles (led American League)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 29, 2016.

Aspro the Astro

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Bob Aspromonte fit nicely with the cultural paradigm built upon a “boys will be boys” philosophy in the 1960s, the decade when Joe Namath swaggered while Dean Martin swigged, offering touchstones for male fantasies of being famous and female fantasies of being in the orbit of an Alpha Male planet.

A lifetime .252 hitter, Aspromonte spent most of his 13-year career with the Houston Astros né Colt .45s. A couple of months before the Colt .45s inaugurated Major League Baseball in Houston, Mickey Herskovitz of the Houston Post profiled the Brooklyn native in a February 1, 1962 article titled “Colts’ Bob Aspromonte Favorite of the Ladies.  “The Brooklyn bachelor is so handsome that you hate him instantly…except that Bob won’t let you.  He never loses his sunny humor, no matter how much kidding he gets about being a ladykiller,” wrote Herskovitz.

A 1969 profile by Al Thomy in the Sporting News queried about Aspromonte’s single status.  “Interviewing Bob Aspromonte in a posh restaurant staffed by micro-mini clad young ladies, is not unlike trying to carry on a conversation with a harried sultan in a chattering harem.  It is most difficult to keep his attention,” wrote Thomy in “Most Eligible Bachelor…How About Aspro?”

Attention by females, though an ego boost, mattered not to performance on the baseball diamond.  “All this talk about being a bachelor and the Valentino of baseball doesn’t help a bit when I make an error,” explained Aspromonte in the Thomy piece.  “It comes back at you from the stands pretty often.  Once in Houston, after a bonehead play of mine, a fan yelled out, ‘Hey, Hollywood boy, what are you doing out there on a baseball field?  You ought to be in pictures!'”

Aspromonte started his career in 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing one game.  After spending three seasons in the minors, Aspromonte rejoined the Dodgers, in Los Angeles by this time.  A two-year tenure in Tinseltown gave Aspromonte a gateway to starlets, though discretion was the better part of valor for the baseball bachelor.  “I don’t like to throw names around,” Aspromonte told Thomy.  “Frankly, I am not interested in having people know my private business.  But I will say I have met actresses who are delightful companions, intellectually stimulating and have intense interests in their careers.”

Houston selected Aspromonte in the National League expansion draft for 1962, the same year that the New York Mets débuted, filling the void created when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated the Big Apple for California.

During his tenure in Houston, Aspromonte entered Texas baseball lore when he knocked three home runs to fulfill promises to Bill Bradley, a 12-year-old who suffered blindness and later enjoyed the restoration of eyesight; it is a feat particularly noteworthy because Aspromonte, though a reliable hitter, hit 60 home runs in his entire major league career.  Bradley bestowed favorite player status upon Aspromonte while listening to the team’s games on the radio.

Aspromonte played seven seasons in Houston, two in Atlanta, and one in New York with the Mets.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 13, 2016.

The Millionth Run

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Baseball is a game marked by milestones of achievements—3,000 career hits, 300 career pitching victories, 100 RBI in a season.

It’s also a game marked by milestones reached when opportunity meets happenstance.  Players attain an illustrious position in the annals of baseball history simply by being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time—Mickey Mantle hitting the first home run in the Astrodome to inaugurate the facility known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, Al Downing pitching the 715th home run ball to Hank Aaron, Bobby Thomson hitting the Shot Heard Round the World.

On May 4, 1975, Bob Watson stood on the precipice of a baseball milestone born from the opportunity-happenstance marriage.  Geographically speaking, he landed on second base in the first game of a Giants-Astros doubleheader at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

Thomas Rogers led his article “Astros’ Watson Scores Millionth Run” in the New York Times with an explanation of baseball’s trek to 1,000,000 runs.  “By a margin of approximately four seconds, Bob Watson of the Houston Astros yesterday scored major league baseball’s [sic] heavily publicized and eagerly anticipated one millionth run.  It came 99 years and 12 days after Wes Fisler of the National League’s Philadelphia team was the first to circle the bases successfully,” wrote Rogers.

Giants pitcher John Montefusco walked Watson, the Astros’ first baseman and cleanup hitter, to start the second inning.  Watson stole second base, then journeyman outfielder José Cruz followed with another walk, leaving catcher Milt May the opportunity to ignite history by hitting one of his four home runs for the 1975 season.  “As the ball rocketed off teammate Milt May’s bat and headed deep to right, Watson tagged up and held his breath.  Home run!  Elated, Watson forgot all about the record and started to jog home.  His teammates, alerted by a message flashed on the scoreboard that major league baseball’s [sic] 999,999th run already had been tallied, began to yell at him, and Watson started to spring.  He just beat Cincinnati’s Dave Concepcion, who was rounding third 2,000 miles away, to score the millionth run,” wrote Jim Kaplan in the article “All-American but not an All-Star” in the July 14, 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Watson’s gifts included a $1,000 Seiko watch, a place at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the shoes he wore during the historic moment, and, of course, notoriety.  MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart quoted Watson in his 2012 article “Game to Remember: Bob Watson” on the Houston Astros web site.  “When I really think back, the one thing that stands out for me is Houston, except maybe for Cesar Cedeno, we were off the beaten track,” Watson said.  “I think my fan mail was something like four or five letters a week, or something like that.  Scoring the 1,000,000th run, it increased to 50-100 per week.  It got me on the map a little bit, and I ended up being the answer to a trivia question.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 15, 2014.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Friday, November 11th, 2016

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training gives the underdogs from southern California’s North Valley League a shot at the Houston Toros—a bigger, stronger, and faster team.  Where else could the climactic game take place but the Astrodome—the post-modern Eighth Wonder of the World.

With Tatum O’Neal and Walter Matthau from the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears absent in this 1977 sequel, the Bears need a pitcher, a coach, and a way to get to Houston.  Timmy Lupus, the team’s worst player, cannot travel with the team because he broke a leg while skateboarding.

Enter Carmen Ronzonni, a friend of Kelly Leak—the Bears’ star player.  Employing a maintenance worker bordering on mute, the Bears construct a scheme to have him masquerade as the coach with basic sentences to greet the parents.  After the parents drop off the kids, Kelly et al. take a van to Houston.  During the Bears’ voyage, the audience hears Looking Good, a song performed by James Rolleston, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel and music by Craig Safan.

A subplot reveals Kelly’s other reason for traveling to Houston—his long gone father.  Kelly confronts him at a factory.  Initially, Michael Leak agrees to be a figurehead so the team can have a legitimate coach, something they hadn’t considered.  But his status too changes; the Bears realize he can help them in their game against the Toros.  Kelly’s already strained relationship with his father continues to fracture during a tense moment in a practice where the father eclipses the son as the team’s leader.

Right before the game at the Astrodome, Tanner, the wise-cracking shortstop, gives a locker room speech mirroring the climactic “Win One for the Gipper” speech in Knute Rockne, All-American, a movie he saw late at night while the rest of the team was asleep in the hotel room.  Tanner’s speech could easily be titled “Win One for the Looper” in a nod to Lupus.

The four-inning game between the Toros and the Bears takes place between the games of a doubleheader at the Astrodome.  Only one problem, though.  The powers that be call the game on account of time.  Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeno of the Houston Astros appear in the dugout.  When they find out that the game ended prematurely, Watson exclaims, “Come on, let the kids play!”

Inspired, Michael Leak takes the field and shouts, “Let them play!  Let them play!”  Kelly joins him in the chant, signaling a new relationship between the two Leaks.  The Bears follow suit, as does the Astrodome crowd.  Meanwhile, Tanner refuses to leave the field, evading the two suited gentlemen trying to capture him.

Caving under the pressure, the decision makers resume the game.  Carmen slams an inside-the-park grand slam for a Bears victory.  The Bad News Bears in Japan followed, marking the end of this 1970s baseball movie trilogy.

Boston Globe film critic Bruce McCabe wrote, “The film is perhaps most successful when it stops trying to figure out exactly what it’s supposed to be and goes for a certain kind of laugh.  One such moment is when a loony groundskeeper is conned by the kids into pretending to be their manager.  Another is when the van, filled with adolescent and preadolescent boys, backs up on a freeway to give a ride to a comely young hitch-hiker who has decided she’d rather not be a passenger.”

A version of this article originally appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 1, 2014.

1963: The Year of the Rookie

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

1963 was the Year of the Rookie, offering standout players from hitting masters to ace pitchers.

Pete Rose débuted in ’63 with the Cincinnati Reds.  Nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” for his aggressive style of play, Rose compiled a record indicating greatness to come: 170 hits, 101 runs, 25 doubles, nine triples.  His batting average was a respectable .273.  Not a power hitter, Rose notched six home runs in his rookie season.  For his efforts, Rose won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Rusty Staub also made his first major league appearance in 1963.  With the Houston Colt .45s, progenitor of the Astros, Staub ended the season with a .224 average.  But the outfielder’s affable personality, not his statistics, made him a fan favorite wherever he went in his 23-year career, especially the New York Mets.  Stab gave the Keynote Speech at the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference, sponsored by Hofstra University in 2012.  Staub’s career ended in 1985.  It included stints with the Detroit Tigers, the Texas Rangers, and the Montreal Expos.

Jimmy Wynn, a Staub teammate in Houston, also made his début in 1963, coming from the Double-A San Antonio Bullets in the Texas League.  Wynn also played for the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Atlanta Braves.  In 2005, the Astros retired his #24.

Joe Morgan, a key component of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, also enjoyed his first major league season in 1963.  A fixture in Houston, Morgan moved to Cincinnati in 1972.  When the Reds won the World Series in 1975 and 1976, Morgan won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award for both seasons.  Morgan’s career also boasted tenures with the Houston Astros, the San Francisco Giants, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Oakland Athletics.

Ron Hunt broke into the major leagues with the fledgling New York Mets in 1963.  He was one of the bright points as the Mets struggled to erase the memories of a 40-120 record in the team’s genesis season of 1962.  Hunt smack 145 hits, including 28 doubles, for a .272 batting average.  He was the runner-up to Pete Rose for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, in addition to being the first player from the Mets to be on a National League All-Star team.  Gary Peters, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1963 with a 19-8 record and a 2.33 Earned Run Average.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 15, 2013.

Bouton, Baseball, and “Ball Four”

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Jim Bouton peeled back the veneer protecting Major League Baseball in his 1970 exposé, Ball Four. It reads like a friend sharing secrets with you over a couple of beers at a baseball game.

Bouton, a quasi-phenom pitcher in the early 1960s with the New York Yankees, he won 39 games in two seasons, wrote about his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros. 1969 was the Pilots only season; they became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

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Houston, You Have A Problem

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

A once venerable symbol of the future is on the precipice of being an ignored relic of the past.

The Houston Astrodome. The first domed stadium. The 8th Wonder of the World.

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