Franchises at Birth:  The Colt .45s and the Mets (Part One)

A few weeks ago we introduced our first chapter on expansion teams, focusing on the Angels and Senators/Rangers. This time we’ll look at their National League counterparts, who came along one year later: the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets.

The Colt .45s: Expansion Draft

Everything’s bigger in Texas, so the saying goes, and of course this refers not just to ranches (and hairdos), but to boldness of ambitions. The Texas expansion team radiated this yee-haw spirit. Everything the Houston Colt .45s did, they did in a big way.

Take the team name, to begin with. There was nothing timid or conservative in the choice of “Colt .45s” as a moniker; this was not just the only sports team in history named for a make and model of firearm, but to have a decimal point in its nickname. The name was intended, of course, to convey a rootin’-tootin’ image of rowdy Old West cowboys, but what happened instead was that headline writers, and just about everyone else, quickly dropped the “.45s” appendage, and the team was commonly just called the “Colts”—conveying, instead, an image of gawky spindly-legged juvenile horses.

For the early Houston teams the image of baby horses was more fitting than blazing six-guns anyway. If committing to young players was the way to go for an expansion team, then it was deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas reasoning to commit to young players in the most extravagant manner, and so that’s what the Colt .45s did, as part of a bold and comprehensive master plan.

The master planner was Paul Richards, the tall, gaunt Texas native: the “Wizard of Waxahachie.” After having spent an extremely impressive decade as a field manager in the American League, Richards was hired by the Colt .45s in September of 1961, and given complete control of baseball operations. (In distinct contrast to the American League’s hasty expansion, the N.L. approached it deliberately; the franchises were awarded in 1960, and both new teams had more than a year to plan and build their organizations before playing their first game.) As a field manager, Richards had sparked the transformation of the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles from doormats to contenders, but he saw the Houston opportunity as the culmination of his 35-year baseball career.

In the N.L. expansion draft, conducted on October 10, 1961, Richards selected 21 players. As measured by Win Shares, his draft would rival that of the Angels’ as the most effective among the original four expansion teams. Houston’s 21 selections had accumulated a total of 573 career Win Shares, with a mean of median total of 13—the next-highest median was the Senators’ 8. More importantly, the Colt .45s’ expansion picks as a group would go on to compile a total of 550 WS, with a median of 15, by far the most of any team. The Colt .45s’ draft would yield no stars to compare with the Angels’ Jim Fregosi or Dean Chance, but it was a solid group, with five players with between 59 and 94 WS ahead of them.

The most fruitful of Houston’s picks was 23-year-old Bob Aspromonte, a slick-fielding infielder with minimal previous big league experience. He would step in as a productive regular third baseman for the next six years. The Colt .45s would also get excellent mileage from pitchers Dick Farrell and Ken Johnson.

The Mets: Expansion Draft

Of all the expansion teams, the New York Mets were the one that would seem to have had the most going for it. Like the Senators, they were a “replacement” franchise in an eastern city, but the similarities ended there: down to the colors on their uniform, the Mets were purposefully reanimating the spirit of both the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, incalculably more celebrated and successful entities than the old Washington Senators, and moreover the Mets were assuming the vast market potential of one-half of New York. Most fortuitously, the construction of the Mets’ ballclub was being placed in the accomplished hands of none other than George Weiss, prime architect of the most dominant dynasty in baseball history.

Weiss would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, and deservedly so. His record with the New York Yankees from 1932 to 1960, early on as farm director, and as general manager after 1947, was thoroughly brilliant. He demonstrated rare ability to judge talent, and developed a reputation as one of the shrewdest traders in the game. It was Weiss who had the foresight and courage to hire Casey Stengel as field manager in 1949, a move that was seen by most at the time as lunacy, and turned out to be pure genius.

But following the 1960 season, Yankees’ president Dan Topping made the judgment that the time had come for both Weiss, then 65, and Stengel, 70, to be retired. Weiss was provided with a lucrative severance package that prohibited him from accepting employment with any other American League club – an indication of the degree to which the Yankees, even though they believed it was time to go with younger management, still respected Weiss’ ability.

But nothing in Weiss’ agreement prevented him from working in the National League. So it was that on March 14, 1961, the newly constituted New York Mets named him President and General Manager. He was back in business, no doubt eagerly anticipating the task of building a ballclub from scratch, demonstrating to the Yankees and to the world that he was not, after all, too old. No doubt he saw the Mets as an ideal way to cap off his glittering career, to go out with a bang. What would occur instead was much more of a splat.

Weiss’ expansion draft was an odd one. His 22 selections totaled 765 career Win Shares, for an average of 35, the highest of any expansion team. But 429 of those 765 WS (56%) were tied up in Gil Hodges and Gus Bell, two veteran stars who were almost completely washed up. The bulk of the Mets’ list of draftees was actually quite young; their median total of 7.5 career WS was the lowest of any team except the Angels.

It would prove to be the least productive of any team’s draft, with a mean of 21.7 and a median of 5.5 career WS yet to come. Only four Mets’ picks—Jim Hickman, Bob Miller, Al Jackson, and Felix Mantilla—had substantial careers before them, and only Jackson would spend his most productive seasons with the Mets.

The Colt .45s: Years One and Two

Paul Richards was intelligent and intense, and had earned the reputation of an astute tactician as well as a difficult taskmaster. His signature style was to prioritize defense over offense. He also demonstrated remarkable skill at developing pitchers in both of his AL stints, primarily by training them to significantly improve their control. Richards immediately went to work in the same manner in Houston: He was instrumental in ensuring that Colt Stadium, the hastily-built temporary facility to be used while the Astrodome was under construction, would strongly favor pitchers, with 360-foot foul lines, tall infield grass, and dim lights. Recognizing that the pool of talent available to him was shallow, Richards figured his team’s best chance at competitiveness would be to keep the scores low.

He succeeded at that: Colt Stadium rivaled Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine as the most extreme pitchers’ park in the league, and the roster Richards fashioned, favoring glovemen over sluggers, was last in the major leagues in run production in 1962 and 1963. But in the manner of Richards’ Chicago and Baltimore teams before them, the Colt .45s, under field manager Harry Craft and pitching coach Lum Harris, became a spa for the revitalization of pitching careers: Farrell, Johnson, Don McMahon, Jim Umbricht, Hal Woodeshick, Don Nottebart, and Bob Bruce were among the journeymen who found new life in Houston, flourishing in the run-scarce environment. The staffs quickly exhibited the Richards trademark of being extremely stingy with bases on balls, tying for second-best in the league in walks per game in 1962, and finishing first in ’63. Thus the early Houston teams, while not really competitive, avoided any 100-loss seasons, and the ballclub immediately commanded professional respect.

It was in 1963, their second season, that the Colt .45s got their ambitious youth program fully underway. That year the Colts played as regulars, all year long, 19-year-old Rusty Staub at first base, and 22-year-old John Bateman at catcher, neither of whom had any previous experience above single-A. Twenty-one-year-old rookie second baseman Ernie Fazio played in 102 games, and 21-year-old rookie outfielder-shortstop Jim Wynn played regularly over the second half, primarily batting third. In the waning days of 1963, Houston put an all-rookie starting lineup on the field that, at an average age of 19 years and eight months, was the youngest ever in the major leagues.

Following the 1963 season, Bill Wise in The 1964 Official Baseball Almanac offered this assessment:

Paul Richards, general manager of the Colts, knew what he was doing. The veteran executive is building an organization around young players … Houston fans who care to wait that long could see a future for the frisky young Colts. All they had to do was imagine … hundreds of big-league innings etched into the faces of these young men and they could project a future October with bunting hanging from the proposed domed stadium.

Houston was seen to be playing it smart, patiently and methodically constructing what would ultimately, perhaps even inevitably, be a winning ballclub.

The Mets: Years One and Two

Hoo boy. This might take a while. Buckle that chinstrap tight.

It’s difficult to overstate just how horrible the early Mets were. Facing exactly the same competitive conditions as the Colt .45s, the Mets finished 24 games behind Houston in 1962. The Mets finished 18 games out of ninth place in 1962, and 15 back in 1963.

The ‘62 entry, losing the most games of any team in the twentieth century, remains the benchmark of baseball futility. Rob Neyer’s analysis concludes, “After studying this issue for quite some time, I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that the 1962 New York Mets were the worst baseball team in the twentieth century.” The only other ballclubs in history to be as wretched over a sustained period as the early Mets were the Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics in their bleakest periods, and the notorious St. Louis/Cleveland National League franchise of the late 1890s.

Fielding

The signature feature of the earliest Mets—the characteristic that most distinguished them from other bad teams—was extremely poor team defense. The Mets’ hitting and pitching were both terrible, but one can find other teams in the same period with comparably bad hitting or pitching. The early Mets were, however, unquestionably the worst fielding team of their era. In 1962 they committed 210 errors, the highest total by any major league team since 1946, and a total that has not been exceeded since—and was matched only by, you guessed it, the 1963 Mets.

In filling the vital defensive positions of shortstop and center field, fielding skill doesn’t appear to have been Weiss’ priority: The 1962-63 Mets didn’t commit to a legitimate major league fielder in either spot. The Mets were weak defensively where they needed to be strongest, and moreover, in their first two years they generally had no fielder better than average in any position.

Pitching

Poor fielding is, of course, the deadly enemy of any pitching effort, and thus the Mets provided their fledgling pitching staff with the most treacherous of operating conditions. This was especially unwise given that the collection of pitchers the Mets assembled, while not as catastrophically inept as the fielders, was the worst of any of the expansion teams. The best of the Mets’ starting pitchers in 1962-63—Roger Craig and Al Jackson—were so-so journeymen burdened by withering workloads, and Jay Hook was a just plain bad pitcher who was given 54 starts and 366 innings in those two years.

But it was in the bullpen that the Mets’ pitching was most dreadful. All of the other expansion teams were able to scrounge around and come up with a few reliable relievers, but the Mets were utterly unable to do so. The Mets’ bullpen was last in the NL in ERA in both 1962 and 1963, and last in the major leagues in Saves both years as well; their 1962 total of 10 Saves was the least of any team since 1954, and undoubtedly the least any team will ever again achieve.

Hitting

Since Weiss gave such short shrift to fielding and pitching, one can only conclude that he believed it was at the plate that the Mets would show whatever strength they had. Such a plan wouldn’t be without logic: To take advantage of the extremely short foul lines in the Polo Grounds, one might build a team around pull-hitting power, and give opponents a run for their money in a high-scoring environment.

If indeed this was Weiss’ plan, he didn’t muster nearly enough offensive talent for it to work. The Mets’ hitting was a weakness from the start. They hit 139 home runs in 1962, sixth in the league, but that was a function of the Polo Grounds; on the road the Mets hit just 46 homers—last in the majors. (The 1962 Colt .45s, a team deliberately centered on pitching and defense in a way that the Mets weren’t, hit 61 road homers.) The 1963 Mets’ total of 35 home runs away from home was not only again last in the majors, but the least of any team in the National League between 1946 and 1968. No expansion team could be expected to be an offensive powerhouse, but each of the others featured at least a few strong hitters in their early years. The Mets were completely unable to follow suit. They were last in the major leagues in team OPS+ in both 1962 and 1963.

Managing

The most egregious blunder of all that Weiss committed was his choice of field manager. Casey Stengel hadn’t sought the Mets’ job: After being cashiered by the Yankees, Stengel, a wealthy man through shrewd investments, was a happily retired champion, enjoying himself with his wife at home in southern California. But Weiss spent most of 1961 hounding him with phone calls, telegrams, and personal emissaries, and Stengel relented on October 2nd.

Stengel had, of course, been a brilliant manager through much of his tenure with the Yankees. His signature tactic of liberal platooning, audaciously unorthodox in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, had so influenced other managers that by the early ‘60s it had become the accepted standard. Therefore Stengel’s deployment of it no longer constituted a competitive advantage. Moreover, while always beloved by the quote-hungry press, Stengel, a protégé of Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw, had never been very popular with his players, and by 1960, the 70-year-old was increasingly unable to relate to the twenty-somethings in his charge. The Yankees’ World Series loss to a clearly inferior Pittsburgh club provided an excuse for the team to terminate Stengel’s services, and in replacing him with a 41-year-old with no major league managerial experience (Ralph Houk), the Yankees were plainly indicating that Stengel’s ability to communicate with modern players had become problematic.

None of this fazed Weiss, who would have no other manager. Thus Stengel, who would turn 72 in July of 1962, was put in charge of a brand-new ballclub, pervaded with young players, as not only the oldest manager in baseball at the time (the next oldest was 53), but the oldest manager other than Connie Mack to yet work in the major leagues.

The New York sportswriters were overjoyed: Ol’ Case was colorful, cheerful copy. But Stengel’s mastery of press relations, never better than in his tenure with the Mets, was not matched by a capacity to encourage and develop young players. A doddering inability to remember his players’ names was rollicking good fun in the newspaper columns, but not an endearing or confidence-building trait from the perspective of the players themselves. Stengel literally fell asleep on the bench on a regular basis.

He was a living caricature of his once-great self: as Roger Angell put it, “a walking pantheon of evocations … the hobble, the muttering lips, and the comic, jerky gestures.” Stengel was the real star, the only star of the Mets’ show, and his ubiquitous anachronistic presence served as a daily suggestion to Mets’ players that they weren’t a legitimate ballclub, but rather something of a barnstorming exhibition, a clown act. In this atmosphere it wasn’t only difficult for a player to excel, but in fact it became easy, almost cheerfully expected, for a player to fail, the more outrageously the better. The mood Stengel fostered was one of zany, surreal hilarity in the face of defeat; conspicuously lacking were seriousness of purpose, expectation of excellence, and the profound intolerance of failure that steels successful enterprises.

Next Time

Next week we’ll pick up the progress (or lack thereof) of both franchises in years three through six.

References & Resources
A terrific resource on the early Houston franchise is Robert Reed, Colt .45s: A Six-Gun Salute (Houston: Lone Star Books, 1999).

No definitive biography of Paul Richards has yet been written, which is a glaring omission from the baseball library. A good profile of him can be found in Bill James, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today (New York: Scribner, 1997), particularly pages 195-198.

A good accounting of the formation of the Mets, and the hiring of Weiss and Stengel, is by Don Schiffer, and found in Ed Fitzgerald, ed., The National League (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), pp. 297-304.

Rob Neyer’s analysis of the 1962 Mets is found in Neyer and Eddie Epstein, Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), pp. 162-164.

Several quotes from players revealing their exasperation at playing under Stengel with the Mets can be found in the marvelous book by Danny Peary, We Played the Game (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1994).

The Roger Angell quote describing Stengel is from his masterful The Summer Game (New York: Popular Library, 1972), p. 23.

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