Houston hoodoo ‘62

Nothing re-arranges the pecking order of a league like expansion. Typically, the new teams occupy the lowest rungs on the ladder, thus pushing the holdover have-nots higher up, if not towards contention, at least towards mediocrity.

Predictably, in the National League in 1962, the two expansion teams had losing seasons. The New York Mets’ epic 40-12 record is still legendary more than a half century later, while the Houston Colt .45s more or less performed according to preseason prognostications.

There were now 10 teams in the National League, but there was still a first division and a second division, now composed of five teams rather than four. Houston finished eighth, ahead of both Chicago and New York. The Colts’ record against N.L. foes was about what you would expect. They had losing records against all the first division teams: 7-11 against the Giants and 6-12 against the Dodgers (both finished the regular season in a tie for first place), 5-13 against the defending N.L. champ Reds, 5-13 against the Pirates, and 7-11 against the Braves.

As for the second division, the Colts were 9-9 against the sixth place Cardinals and had a winning record versus the Cubs (11-7). It was mildly surprising that they dominated their fellow expansion team, winning 13 of 16 from the Mets.

The real anomaly was the seventh-place Phillies. Though they were just one rung above the Colts in the final standings, they might as well have been the 1927 Yankees. By the time Labor Day rolled around, the Colts had lost all 15 games they had played against the Phillies. Going 0-18 for the season was a distinct possibility.

These days losing a season series against another team is fairly easy to accomplish, since non-division opponents play only one series home and away. Before the advent of divisional play, however, each team faced its opponents 18 times (down from 22 times in eight-team leagues). At that point in baseball history, no team had ever had a winless season series. For a National League expansion team to have a winless season against a first division team would have been unusual but understandable…but against the Philadelphia Phillies?

Before the 1962 season began, expectations were low for the Colts and Mets, but they had no track record. The same could not be said for the Phillies, who had been in business since 1883. Overall, the franchise record was lousy (two pennants in eight decades), and the Phillies had finished last from 1958-1961). That 1961 season had been especially bad, however. So how bad was it?

In 1961 the Phillies finished in last place with a 47-107 (.305 winning percentage) record, 17 games behind the seventh-place Cubs. When the redoubtable Robin Roberts can do no better than a 1-10 record with a 5.85 ERA, then a meltdown is underway. Even more alarming was the team’s major league record losing streak.

At the close of business on July 28, 1961, the Phillies had defeated the Giants, 4-3, in the second game of a double-header. Their record was a dismal 30-64. How much worse could it get? Usually that’s a rhetorical question; this time there was an emphatic answer.

The Phillies proceeded to lose 23 straight games to the Giants, the Reds, the Cardinals, the Pirates, the Cub, and the Braves. The schedule dictated that the Dodgers would be the only team not invited to the feast.

The Phillies managed to defeat the Braves 7-4 in the second game of a double-header on Aug. 20. That brought their record to 30-87. They were plumbing depths the Mets would explore the following season. And they didn’t have that adjective “lovable” to go along with their loser status.

That Aug. 20 victory sparked something, however. It launched the team’s longest win streak of the year… a big four games.

All of this happened the year before the Colts made their debut, yet even the 1961 Phillies had not been held winless by any of their opponents. They had even managed to defeat the pennant-winning Reds three times. Of all the teams in the N.L. in 1962, the Phillies were the one team the Colts should have been able to handle. So how to explain that 0-15 record?

Well, there was no rational explanation, so it was time to turn to the irrational. Cue Rod Serling for take one and have the stagehand light his cigarette. Or better yet, send in a witch doctor. That’s what the Colts did for a Labor Day double-header in Houston.

“Break the Jinx Night” featured Dr. Mesabubu of the Wauwautuau tribe… at least that’s how he was billed. Looking as though he had wandered out of the Skull Island dance fever scene from King Kong, he performed a pre-game ritual in front of the Phillies’ dugout.

Meanwhile, someone portraying Joe Btfsplk, a character from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip, was sent to the Phillies’ bullpen to put the hex on Art Mahaffey, the first game starter. Btfsplk was a traveling jinx who brought disaster to all in his presence. As drawn by Capp, he had a perpetual storm cloud hovering over his head.

For good measure, fans bringing good luck charms were admitted to the park for half-price. Despite all these Veeckian promotions, when the day was done, the Colts had lost two more (3-2 and 5-4) to the Phillies, making their season record 0-17 with just one game left the following night. Clearly, the extra efforts had been for naught…or had they? Well, 17,302 fans had shown up, so it wasn’t a financial loss. And maybe it took time for that mojo or juju or tofu or whatever to kick in.

On Tuesday, Sept. 4, the final meeting of the season between the Phillies and Colts took place. The Phillies sent Cal McLish to the mound while the Colts countered with Bob Bruce. When Don Demeter homered in the second inning to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead, the 4,537 fans on hand must have had that “here we go again” feeling. But no!

In the bottom of the inning the Colts answered with three runs and held the lead the rest of the way, adding one more run in the sixth inning. Final score: Colts 4, Phillies 1. Champagne, anyone?

The Colts had achieved victory in an unlikely fashion. The bottom of the batting order had done all the damage. Catcher Hal Smith was 2-for-4 with a double and two runs scored; shortstop Bob Lillis (who managed the Astros from 1982 to 1985) was 2-for-4 with a run scored, two RBIs, and a triple; and pitcher Bruce was 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs.

Just as important, after Demeter’s solo home run, Bruce (who would finish the season with a winning record of 10-9) went the distance and gave up only three harmless singles the rest of the way.

Incidentally, this was not Bruce’s greatest performance at Colt Stadium. A little more than two years later (Sept. 27, 1964, to be exact), he made history again, pitching the final game in the park’s three-year history, and authoring a 12-inning shutout against the Dodgers.

Despite losing that one game to the Colts in 1962, the Phillies finished the season at 81-80, their first season above .500 since 1953, and their first appearance in the first division since 1955, when they had played .500 ball. And they had the Colts to thank for it—the Mets too, since the Phillies had a 14-4 record against them. That’s a combined record of 31-5 against the expansion teams. Against the established teams, the Phillies were 50-75, a mere .400 winning percentage… an improvement over 1961 but hardly cause for excitement.

None of the other established teams had a better record in their match-ups against the two newcomers. For the record, the Pirates won 29, the Dodgers 28, the Reds 26, the Giants 22 and the Cardinals 22. The Cubs actually finished with a losing record (16-20) against the two new teams.

I don’t know if Vegas made book on the Phillies winning 17 of 18 from the Colts in 1962, but I’m sure the odds against it would have been phenomenal. I think the Colts were on the right track in blaming the supernatural for their inability to beat the Phillies, but I don’t think they realized what they were dealing with.

Typically, when one speaks of a curse in baseball, one is dealing with a team with a long history. So how can we account for a curse being placed upon a first-year team? Well, we’ve all heard of haunted houses… so how about a haunted ballpark?

Buff (short for Buffalo) Stadium had been the home of the minor league Houston Buffaloes (the team name derives not from the shaggy ungulates but from Buffalo Bayou which runs through Houston and eventually widens to become the Houston Ship Channel) since 1928.

For the most part, the Buffs played in the Texas League and were a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals (in fact, the relationship was so close that the Cardinals almost moved to Houston in the early 1950s). Such famed Cardinals as Dizzy Dean, Chick Hafey and Joe Medwick had played for the Buffs.

When Houston was awarded a major league franchise, it was assumed Buff Stadium would be expanded to 30,000 or so seats while the Harris County Domed Stadium was being built. The Colts’ owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, hired Harry Craft, the last manager in Buffs history (they were a Cubs Triple-A team in the American Association in 1961), to pilot the Colts in their first year. He did not extend a similar offer to Buff Stadium.

Hurricane Carla, which had damaged the ballpark just after the conclusion of the Buffs’ 1961 season, likely played a part in changing his mind. He decided that spending $2 million to throw up Colt Stadium was preferable to repairing and expanding Buff Stadium.

Colt Stadium was the first ballpark to be built from scratch as a temporary major league facility. It was never used for minor league ball and never intended to be permanent. General manager Paul Richards, a pitching-oriented guy, made sure Colt Stadium would be pitcher-friendly, because pitching was about all the team had going for it in the early days of the franchise.

Colt Stadium didn’t have much going for it, but it did prove that indoor baseball in Houston was the way to go. Thanks to the Houston heat, the major league prohibition against Sunday night games was lifted, and Colt Stadium hosted the first Sunday night game in major league history on June 9, 1963.

Given the Colts’ humble beginnings, Colt Stadium was never possessed by pennant fever, though the legendary mosquito problem made malaria a distinct possibility.

Heat and mosquitoes, as well as the team’s lackluster performance, torpedoed attendance once the novelty of big league ball wore off. Despite its small capacity (less than 33,000), Colt Stadium never hosted a sellout, though the team drew 924,456 (marginally more than the Mets) during its inaugural year.

What distinguished Colt Stadium was its location. It was erected next door to the domed stadium site, where construction work was already under way. As a result, fans could monitor progress every time they came to Colt Stadium.

There was no better way to heighten fans’ anticipation for the opening of what came to be known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. After all, no one alive in the early 1960s had ever seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World while it was still a work in progress. Hofheinz knew that “real” big league ball would not arrive in Houston until his team had a permanent home. In a sense, the Colts spent three years doing marketing for the Astros.

Though venerable old Buff Stadium had been replaced by a pre-fab, disposable ballpark, it wasn’t totally out of the picture. The Colts used it as a practice facility. In fact, the Houston Oilers of the old American Football League also used it for that purpose (before they moved to the Astrodome, they played their regular season games at the Rice University and University of Houston stadiums).

My theory is that Buff Stadium was haunted by the rude treatment it had received. The ghosts of Texas League past could do little to strike back at Hurricane Carla, but they could place a curse on that fledgling team that had dislodged the Buffs and then jilted Buff Stadium in favor of some rinky-dink Tinker Toy of a ballpark!

Well, what better curse to place on a team than to make it winless at the hands of a team whose name was almost synonymous with losing?

The record shows that Buff Stadium was demolished in 1963 (to construct a furniture store, no less!), and the Colts’ won-loss record showed no off-the-chart results that season. So were the ghosts evicted when Buff Stadium came tumbling down? As I understand it, evil spirits can be driven out but they cannot be destroyed. If so, then what happened to the ghosts who haunted Buff Stadium?

Like parasites, evil spirits are not always apparent from day one. Have you ever seen a horror movie where the residents of an old house immediately realize that the joint is haunted? Of course not. Whether the spirits are quiet or restless, it may take months, even years, before the residents come to the inevitable conclusion.

When Bob Bruce finally beat the Phillies, was the curse lifted… or just transferred? Did the ghosts, like a parasites, jump to the closest available host, like Pazuzu, the demon in The Exorcist, going from Linda Blair to Jason Miller? Of course, the closest team to the Colts, at least physically, when they finally beat the Phillies… was the Phillies.

Now I can’t prove that the Buff Stadium ghosts vacated the Colts and moved in with the Phillies immediately after that Sept. 4, 1962 game. But if they did… then what they did to the Colts in 1962 was nothing compared to what they did to the Phillies in 1964!

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Comments

  1. Frank Jackson said...

    Sorry about the error in paragraph 23…the Phillies were in 7th place in 1962, which was certainly not the first division then or any other season.

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