If you have a utility player who wants to play all nine positions, just wait till after Labor Day. Every time it’s happened in major league history (Bert Campaneris, A’s, Sept. 8, 1965; Cesar Tovar, Twins, Sept. 22, 1968; Scott Sheldon, Rangers, Sept. 6, 2000; Shane Halter, Tigers, Oct. 1, 2000), it was during the final four weeks of the season.
If you want to add Minnie Miñoso to the roster, as the White Sox did, so he could add two more decades (the 1970s and 1980s) to his major league playing record, go ahead and do so, but only in the waning days of the season.
In short, if you want to do anything that looks like a minor league publicity stunt, go right ahead, but not until September – and only if both teams have nothing to play for. What better way to describe the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets at the beginning of the final weekend of the season on Sept. 27, 1963?
The Colts had certainly experienced their share of speed bumps during the season. Starting on June 16, for example, the team endured a 10-game losing streak that included four consecutive shutouts (June 20 vs. Cubs, June 21-23 vs. Reds), tying a major league record.
As the season came to a close, the Colts were actually on a roll, having won four in a row, six out of seven, and 10 out of 12. It was too little too late, however; they were mired in ninth place in the National League with a record of 64-95. Eighth place, occupied by the Pirates, was way out of reach.
The Mets could only envy the Colts. The Mets were firmly entrenched in 10th (hence last) place with a 50-109 record, 14 games behind the Colts. On Sept. 12, the Mets embarked on an eight-game losing streak. They managed to squeak by the Giants (5-4 on Sept. 21), then lost four in a row; so when they arrived in Houston for the last three games of the season, they had gone through a 1-12 stretch. As bad as the Mets’ season had been, however, it was superior to their inaugural season of 1962 when they won just 40 games. A 25 percent increase in victories certainly qualifies as progress.
The Colts could boast of no such improvement. In their 1962 inaugural season, they had gone 64-96, and their sophomore season was pretty much an encore, which equates to a disappointment. But the team did have its strong points, most of which involved pitching.
Since Paul Richards, a former catcher, was the Colts’ GM, an emphasis on pitching was to be expected. That was how he had elevated the Baltimore Orioles to respectability. Colt Stadium, the team’s temporary home, was 360 feet down the lines and 420 to center field, and the humid, subtropical air was not conducive to long-distance hitting, so emphasizing pitching was sound strategy.
Ken Johnson, Dick Farrell and Don Nottebart were all in double figures in victories and the latter threw the first no-hitter (albeit tainted by an unearned run in the fifth inning) in franchise history. The team ERA was 3.44, which landed the pitching staff in ninth place in the NL, yet that figure was not far removed from the league average of 3.29. Today, of course, a pitching staff with a 3.44 ERA would be competing for tops in the league.
The real feel-good story of the pitching staff was the emergence of journeyman Hal Woodeshick, a non-roster invitee to spring training, who emerged as one of the NL’s top relievers (1.97 ERA in 114 innings plus an All-Star appearance). Curiously, Woodeshick claimed that Rusty Staub, then a rookie first baseman, had taught him how to throw a slider, which made all the difference in his career.
Aside from pitching, the Colts were less than noteworthy, and local baseball fans agreed. With three home dates left, attendance was barely over 700,000, last in the National League, and a precipitous drop from 924,456 in 1962.
September had been the Colts’ best month – their only winning month. Having gone 14-10 before the final three games, a winning month was assured.
No matter what their record, the Colts would never have packed ‘em in at Colt Stadium, a jerry-built, short-timer of a ballpark in south Houston. The Texas-sized mosquitos were relentless and fans passing out from the heat was common. As a result, the league agreed to allow the Colts to play on Sunday nights. The first such contest on June 9, 1963 (a 3-0 victory over the Giants), resulted in the best crowd (17,437) of the season. All through the season, the Astrodome was under construction, and fans could think cool thoughts while monitoring its progress across the parking lot. Meanwhile, they were stuck with Colt Stadium.
With nothing to play for at the end of the season, the Colts were free to stage a classic publicity stunt. Why not? Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Now where have I heard that before?
So Houston manager Harry Craft filled out his lineup card with all rookies for the last Friday night game (Sept. 27) of the season. It had never been done before, so far as anyone knew, so the game could be promoted as an historic contest. Notably, the average age of the starting lineup was 19 years and four months, in stark contrast to the Mets, who had cast their lot with veteran players.
Craft had an undistinguished six-year career as a player. His eight years as a manager were equally nondescript, but so were the rosters of his teams. His managerial career includes a couple of footnotes, however. He went into the books as the first-ever manager of the Houston major league franchise on opening day 1962, and he had been part of the Cubs’ famed college of coaches the year before that.
As the years passed, Craft was probably surprised to discover that his all-rookie lineup included a number of players who had gone on to notable big league careers. In fact, if we were grading the starting lineup, most of them passed with flying colors.
A few of the players, however, were little noted nor long remembered. So how to grade them? Not an F, rather…
Starting pitcher Jay Dahl, only 17, was the youngest pitcher to start a major league game since 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall started for his hometown Reds in 1945. Dahl’s debut went as badly as Nuxhall’s, but the long-term results couldn’t have been more different. Nuxhall resurfaced in 1952 and played through the 1966 season, but Dahl never played in the big leagues again. He had played part of the 1963 season in the minors (appropriately, the Colt .45s’ entry in the Single-A Georgia-Florida League was known as the Colt .22s) and done fairly well, but hardly enough to warrant such a quick promotion to the majors. After sitting out the 1964 season with back problems, he went back to the minors in 1965. He died in a car crash in Salisbury, N.C. at the age of 19.
Third baseman Glenn Vaughan was a local boy from Houston’s Lamar High and the University of Houston. He had made his major league debut just one week before at age 19. By the time the weekend (and the season) was over, so was his big league career. Vaughan gave it one more shot at Triple-A Oklahoma City in 1964 then retired, went back to college, and eventually opened his own insurance agency. Vaughan was a nephew of Hall of Fame (not till 1985, however) shortstop Arky Vaughan, but apparently he was not capable of channeling his uncle. In fact, Glenn’s nickname was Sparky. Get it? Arky…Sparky? How quirky…or should I say quarky?
Dahl and Vaughan had the briefest of major league careers, but the other starters persevered with varying results. So let’s work our way through the rest of the lineup.
If you’ve never heard of right fielder Aaron Pointer, you have lots of company. His 1962 season consisted of just five at-bats, all in the Sept. 27 game. After that, it was back to the minors, but he resurfaced with Houston (rebranded as the Astros and playing in the Astrodome) in 1966 for 26 at-bats, and in 1967 for 70 at bats. Then it was back to the minors and finally to Japan. His major league totals are 21 hits in 101 at-bats. Though he remained active in sports, officiating in Pac-10 and NFL games, and as parks and recreation director in Pierce County (Tacoma), Wash., he never achieved the name recognition that his siblings, the Pointer Sisters, did. Nevertheless, in 2008 he was inducted into the Tacoma Hall of Fame.
Left fielder Brock Davis was only 19 years old when he debuted as a pinch-hitter for the Colts on Opening Day in 1963. Then it was down to Double-A San Antonio in the Texas League, where he hit a mere .196 in 214 at-bats. That would hardly warrant a return trip to Houston, yet there he was, back with the Colts on Sept. 27. He played briefly (three at-bats) for the Colts in 1964 and the Astros (27 at-bats) in 1966. Nevertheless, he kept plugging away in the minors, was drafted by the Cubs in 1970, and came to bat three times for them that season.
Then he finally got some playing time. When he hit .256 for the Cubs (77 for 301) in 1971, he was still classified as a rookie. The next season, he hit .318 (49 for 154) for the Brewers. Perhaps at age 28, he had finally found his place in the sun. Nope, he went back to the minors in 1973 and stayed there through 1975. He had played the equivalent of one full season (141 for 543, .260) in the Show, which was more than Dahl, Vaughan and Pointer could say. So we must also give him A for effort.
While those four players may have been exploited for the sake of fielding an all-rookie lineup, the same cannot be said for the other five starters whose worthiness became obvious in subsequent seasons. Their lengthy major league careers speak for themselves. So they are graded accordingly:
Shortstop Roland Thomas (Sonny) Jackson played 12 years in the big leagues. When he made his debut in that Sept. 27 game, he was clearly not ready to stick, but he was only 19. By 1966, he was the team’s regular shortstop. His .292 batting average vaulted him to second place in rookie of the year voting behind Tommy Helms. His subsequent offensive seasons were less productive, and he played his last big league game with the Braves on his 30th birthday. After that, it was back to the minors, and he retired at age 32. Yet when all was said and done, he had played all or part of 12 seasons with Houston and Atlanta.
Catcher Jerry Grote came to bat just five times in 1963. In 1964, he came to bat 298 times but hit a mere .181, so it was back to the minors for a year, after which he was traded. The transaction probably received little attention at the time, but it was a steal for the Mets: Grote toiled for them from 1966 into the 1977 season (he was an All-Star in 1968 and 1974), while the player they gave up, Tom Parsons, was banished to the minors for the next four seasons.
Grote never set the world on fire offensively (a .252 average with little power) but his defensive skills made him a big asset. To this day, he remains the Mets’ career leader in games caught (1,176). He is in the Mets Hall of Fame, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, and the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame (honoree plaques on view in the Alamodome).
Center fielder Jimmy Wynn was a converted shortstop who made his debut on July 10, 1963 at age 21. Though he stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 160 pounds, his surprising power garnered him his famed nickname, “The Toy Cannon.” He played 15 years and accrued 291 home runs even though the pitcher-friendly Astrodome was his home park for nine seasons. He was an All-Star with the Astros in 1967 and the Dodgers in 1974 and 1975. The sixth row of the upper deck in the Astrodome used to have a seat with a toy cannon painted on it to indicate where one of Wynn’s longest blasts (on April 12, 1970), a two-run homer off Phil Niekro, landed. Highly popular in his heyday as well as today, he is now a Community Outreach Executive with the Astros.
First baseman Rusty Staub started his major league career as a 19-year-old in 1963 and lasted through the 1985 season with the Mets. After establishing himself as a full-timer (and an All-Star in 1967 and 1968) with Houston, he was traded after the 1968 season and became one of the original Montreal Expos. Dubbed “Le Grand Orange,” he was an All-Star each of his three seasons north of the border. He was a 1976 All-Star with the Tigers, for whom he served mostly as a DH. He retired with 2,716 hits and 292 home runs and was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 1986 based on nine seasons of service with that franchise.
Second baseman Joe Morgan started at age 20 with the Colts in 1963, and finished up with Oakland at age 41 in 1984. Even more diminutive (five=foot-7”) than Wynn, Morgan was a good second baseman during his tenure in Houston, but he became a great second baseman, and developed as a power hitter, after he was traded to the Reds in 1972. He was inducted into the Reds’ Hall of Fame in 1987 and entered Cooperstown three years later in his first year of eligibility. A long-time commentator on network telecasts, he is now back with the Reds as senior advisor to the president and chief executive officer.
Not that it matters, but that Sept. 27 game resulted in a 10-3 Mets victory. For the most part, the rookie position players did nothing to disgrace themselves. Morgan, Wynn, Staub and Vaughan had two hits apiece. Unfortunately, Brock Davis made two errors, resulting in three unearned runs. The big stumbling block was Dahl, who was hit hard and lasted just 2.2 innings. After three innings, the Mets had an 8-0 lead and the Mets, behind lefty Al Jackson, coasted the rest of the way. The results were also disappointing at the box office: A a mere 5,802 showed up at Colt Stadium for the historic contest.
One unanswered question is why manager Craft didn’t follow through and finish the game with an all-rookie lineup. As the game went on, he sent in other rookies, such as third baseman Ernie Fazio and catcher Dave Adlesh. After he removed Dahl, he sent in rookie pitchers Dan Coombs, Joe Hoerner (who would go on to pitch in 493 major league games, all in relief) and Jim Dickson. Then in the bottom of the eighth, Craft sent up veteran Carl Warwick as a pinch-hitter, and in the ninth, he brought in veteran pitcher Dick Drott. Given the lopsided score and the game’s lack of importance, Craft could have kept it all-rookie from start to finish. Why he chose not to do so is hard to fathom.
The Colts’ last two games of the season were not all-rookie but close to it. On Sept. 28, Vaughan, Morgan, Staub, Wynn, John Bateman, Fazi and Ivan Murrell were in the starting line-up. Bateman and Murrell, who did not play in the Sept. 27 game, both went on to play 10 seasons in the majors. Behind Nottebart, the Colts cruised to a 9-1 victory, the team’s 65th of the season, thus clinching a one-game improvement over 1962.
The last game of the season was an almost-all-rookie lineup. Third baseman Bob Aspromonte was the only veteran in the starting lineup. Vaughan, Morgan, Wynn, Staub, Murrell and Bateman started the game, along with pitcher Chris Zachary and right fielder John Paciorek. Dickson and Adlesh also appeared in the contest.
Ironically, the rookie who had the best day had the shortest career. Paciorek went 3 for 3 with two walks, three RBIs, and four runs scored. Unfortunately, a chronic back condition flared up and he returned to the minors for the rest of his career, retiring from the Waterbury Indians of the Double-A Eastern League after the 1969 season. Of the three Paciorek brothers, John had the shortest tenure in the big leagues. Brother Jim played one season (1987) for the Brewers, and Tom played 18 seasons, amassing 1,162 hits to go with a .282 batting average.
The Sept. 29 game not only marked the beginning and the ending of John Paciorek’s career, it also marked the last game for pitcher Jim Umbricht, one of the franchise’s few bright spots, who had gone 8-3 in 140 innings with a 2.38 ERA in 1962 and 1963. After battling melanoma throughout the 1963 season, he died on April 8, 1964, five days before the Colts’ season opener in Cincinnati. For what it’s worth, he went out a winner on Sept. 29, as he was on the mound when the Colts opened a big lead on the way to a 13-4 victory.
All things considered, it was a successful weekend for rookies in Houston, even if the total attendance for the weekend series was just 12,267. Colt fans were also scarce in 1964, but after the opening of the Astrodome in 1965, the attendance took care of itself.
It is surprising, given the talent on display in the waning days of the 1963 season, that the Astros remained doormats in subsequent seasons, finishing ninth in 1964 and 1965, eighth in 1966, ninth in 1967, and 10th in 1968. Ironically, the Mets, who had gone with veterans in the early years, won a title in 1969, while the Astros finished fifth in the NL West, ahead of only the expansion Padres.
The Astros did not finish above .500 or in the first division till the strike-shortened season of 1972, when they fashioned a record of 84-69, good for third place in the six-team NL West.
Houston did not reach the postseason until 1980. By that point, all the 1963 rookies save for Staub and Morgan had retired, Craft was collecting Social Security, and Colt Stadium had been dismantled and shipped off to the Mexican League.
So, 25 years after their first postseason appearance, the Astros finally reached the World Series.
And 53 years after the franchise’s great rookie weekend, it’s still waiting for that first title.