Cooperstown Confidential: Resurrecting the Houston Colt .45sby Bruce Markusen
March 16, 2012
Whitewashing history is not a good idea.
When I hear about television stations that won’t air re-runs of the “Little Rascals” because of the racist stereotyping of some of the African-American characters, I cringe a little bit. We’re erring in two ways here. First, we’re preventing younger generations from learning the ways that Hollywood contributed to the racist culture that existed prior to the Civil Rights movement. We’re also missing an opportunity to teach that such stereotyping is not the way to do things. By acting as if the “Little Rascals” never happened, we’re losing out on a teachable moment, while also denying ourselves some of the comic joy that those programs provided.
In other words, we’re accomplishing nothing.
The “Little Rascals’” situation is not completely analogous to the recent controversy surrounding the Houston Astros and the resurrection of their old Colt .45s uniforms. But it did come to my mind a few weeks ago, when the Astros announced, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of their team, that they would wear their original uniforms from 1962. That’s when the expansion franchise was officially born as the Houston Colt .45s. Major League Baseball initially responded by saying that it would not permit the 2012 Astros to display the Colt .45 pistol on April 10 and 20, based on the belief that such a uniform feature would advocate or promote gun violence.
Upon further review, MLB rescinded the order, saying that it would permit the Astros to display the gun on the uniform. That is the right thing to do. To deny the pistol’s presence on the uniform would be to deny the Astros’ own history. The fact is that the gun was part of the original jersey, and should be part of the retro throwback uniform. Acting as if the gun did not exist on the jersey serves political correctness, but it does not accurately frame, or explain, what is a part of Houston’s baseball history.
More importantly, there was a good reason that the Houston franchise named itself the Colt .45s and adopted the pistol as part of its logo. Remember this was 1961-62, when street violence involving guns had not yet become as pervasive as it is today. This was before the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X. This was before the race riots of the 1960s, the serial killers of the 1970s and '80s, the terrorism of the 1990s and today.
In 1961, the new Houston franchise held a “Name The Team” contest. A man named William Neder was the first to submit the entry of “Colt .45s,” which was chosen as the winning nickname. It struck a chord with Houston ownership. After all, the Colt .45 has often been described as the “gun that won the west,” an integral part of the history of states like Texas throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
First introduced in 1873, the Colt Single Action Army Revolver was used by the U.S. Army in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. The most popular handgun on the American frontier, it was used in the American Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, and the Mexican Revolution. It’s certainly understandable why an expansion franchise in the heart of Texas would have chosen, in the early 1960s, to acknowledge the role of the Colt .45 in its history.
It’s also understandable why, given street violence and raging debates over gun control, we might not want to rename the Astros the Colt .45s today. (New Astros ownership has indicated some willingness to consider a nickname change for the franchise; perhaps adopting the compromise name of “Colts” would be a consideration.)
But a name change is not happening here, at least not yet. The Astros simply want to recognize their history on Sundays with an accurately depicted throwback uniform. And it’s right that MLB is allowing the Astros to do just that.
I hope the Astros will take the next step and explain why the Colt .45 was originally adopted as part of its logo in the early '60s, and how things have changed since then.
Pontifications aside, the Astros played as the Colt .45s in 1962, ‘63, and '64. It was not until 1965, to coincide with the move to the Astrodome and to take advantage of Houston’s reputation as the Space City, that the franchise was renamed the Astros. As a result, those first three seasons have become somewhat lost by time.
We’ve all heard the stories, some comical and some frightful, about how bad the Mets were during their inaugural season of 1962. The original Colt .45s were not nearly as ghastly.
With a domed stadium in Harris County several years away, the Colt .45s needed an interim ballpark. They spent $800,000 of their own money to build Colt Stadium, which was billed as an “auxiliary” park and required only five whirlwind months to build. (It was finished literally one day before the start of the 1962 season.) The temporary ballpark, built on a reclaimed plot of marshland, featured only 32,000 seats, which were painted an array of rainbow colors.
The spectrum of colors made the park look nice, but without any kind of a roof or overhang, fans and players were left completely exposed to the searing sun and heat. The open air stadium was also left vulnerable to hordes of flying gnats, described as being the size of small birds by Rusty Staub and other Colts players. Some mosquitoes were said to be so large that they had beaks! (Well, not really.) While the gnats attacked from above, rattlesnakes occasionally made their way onto the stadium’s thick grass. Thick fog also posed a problem. Given the heat, the humidity, the snakes and the gnats, Colt Stadium sometimes had all the charm and pleasure of a swamp.
Equipped with mostly veteran castoffs, the Colt .45s played close to .500 ball over the first six weeks of the season before settling into the losing pattern adopted by most expansion teams. By June 16, they fell 16 games out of first place. On Aug. 21, they were officially eliminated from the National League pennant race. The Colt .45s would finish the season at 64-96, a respectable record for an expansion club. That put them 24 games ahead of the 120-loss Mets and six games better than the Cubs, who had the advantage of being an established team.
A primary culprit in Houston’s losses was a lack of offense. The Colt .45s scored only 592 runs, the worst total in the National League. That explains why All-Star right-hander Turk Farrell lost 20 games despite a respectable ERA of 3.02. (Farrell kept his sense of humor, though, as one of the team’s biggest partiers and its most prolific prankster.)
The Colt .45s had only one legitimate power hitter, 31-year-old outfielder Roman Mejias, who was drafted from the Pirates; he hit .286 with 24 home runs, and his hustle made him a fan favorite. So how did the Colt .45s reward him? They traded him to the Red Sox for American League batting champion Pete Runnels, who had seen his best days in Boston before a rapid decline in Houston.
In 1963, the Colts dove full bore into a youth program. General manager Paul Richards, one of the more innovative minds of his day, placed seven first-year players on his Opening Day roster. The group of rookies included three 19-year-olds: Staub, who played first base; outfielder Brock Davis; and pitcher Chris Zachary.
With such a youthful team, the Colts .45s harbored no illusions of either respectability or even mediocrity. Beginning with the second week of the season, the Colts found themselves in ninth place for almost the entire summer. They bottomed out during a long road trip in June, when they lost 14 of 15 games. Their offense was shut out four games in a row during that stretch.
As in 1962, the lack of hitting ability stood out as the team’s biggest weakness, and was exacerbated by Colt Stadium’s vast dimensions, which included 395-foot power alleys. The Colts hit 62 home runs, by far the worst total in the National League. Their leading home run hitter, burly 20-year-old catcher John Bateman, led the team with 10 homers. And no one came close to hitting .300—outfielder Al Spangler took team honors at .281. With even a middling offense, the Colts would have fared much better than their final record of 66-96.
Given the realities of youth and expansion, the Colt .45s tried a bold experiment in the final weeks of the season. On Sept. 27, Richards and manager Paul Richards concocted an all-rookie lineup. The nine starters averaged 19 years and four months. Six more rookies entered the game as reserves, before veteran outfielder Carl Warwick finally broke the first-year logjam.
The baby Colts lost to the Mets that day, 10-3, but the Houston brain trust put some legitimate developing talent on the field. The all-rookie lineup included future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, two borderline greats in Staub and center fielder Jimmy Wynn, and a premier defensive catcher in Jerry Grote.
Unfortunately, only Wynn developed his full potential during his tenure in Houston. Morgan, who was a good player in Houston, would become a great one with Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” Like Morgan, both Grote and Staub departed in ill-advised trades that cost the team a chance at contention in the early 1970s.
The franchise played its final season as the Colt .45s in 1964. The season, which also marked the swansong at steamy Colt Stadium, featured a series of unusual developments, including a tragedy. Just before Opening Day, popular Colts pitcher Jim Umbricht, only 33, died of cancer. Young outfielder John Paciorek, who had debuted in 1963 by going 3-for-3 as a rookie, hurt his back and never again played in the major leagues. He retired with a batting average of 1.000.
Runnels, the two-time American League batting champion, hit so poorly for the Colt .45s that he drew his release only six weeks into the season. Hard-luck Turk Farrell reached the 10-win plateau faster than any major league pitcher, but then won only one additional game over the final four months of the campaign. In perhaps the crowning moment of surreal improbability, right-hander Ken Johnson pitched a no-hitter against the Reds in late April, only to lose the game in excruciating fashion, 1-0.
Somehow the Colt .45s managed to hover near .500 until about midseason, before they wore down under the heat of the summer. The second-half collapse cost Craft his job; he was fired as manager on Sept. 19 and replaced by coach Lum Harris. By the end of the season, the Colt .45s succeeded only in matching their record from the previous year, with a total of 66 wins.
Particularly frustrating for the Colt .45s was the lack of improvement in their young players. Young veterans like first baseman Walt Bond (who would die from leukemia three years later) and third baseman Bob Aspromonte provided punch from the corners, but the true youngsters, Staub, Wynn and Bateman, all struggled badly enough that they earned demotions to Triple-A.
The trio’s lack of hitting created a major drag on the offense, which once again failed to support a respectable pitching staff. A 31-year-old journeyman named Bob Bruce leapt from obscurity to win 15 games and become the staff ace. Johnson was a capable No. 2 starter. In the bullpen, lefty relief ace Hal Woodeshick, Canadian right-hander Claude Raymond, and a 34-year-old World Series veteran named Don Larsen all pitched reliably.
Perhaps the frustration of the Colt .45 years was best epitomized by the fortunes of a pitcher named Hal Brown. (Yes, the Colts did have a pitcher named Skinny Brown.) The hard-luck right-hander lost nine of his first 10 starts. When he picked up his second win on July 24, he received the slimmest of run support in a 1-0 nail-biter. He would win only one more game, finishing the season at 3-15, despite a less-than-awful ERA of 3.95. The 39-year-old right-hander would never again appear in a major league game.
The Colt .45s would never appear again either. The team owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, facing a lawsuit from the Colt Firearms Company over the use of the nickname, decided to change the image of the franchise. After consulting with astronauts at NASA, Hofheinz settled on Astros, a shortening of the word Astronauts. Thus, the Colt .45s officially made their way into oblivion.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.