A stroll down Houston Astros memory laneby Chris Jaffe
October 01, 2012
It’s just about over. After 51 campaigns in the National League, the Houston Astros are about to do what no team has done since the 1890s: switch leagues. They’ll be American Leaguers next year, and so now is as good a time as any to take a look back at what’s happened in the past.
This is not meant as a list of greatest moments. Houston has had plenty of great moments, mind you. They fought through what is quite possibly the best LCS ever, losing to the Mets in six games in 1986. Houston also took part in the greatest best-of-five LCS ever against the Phillies in 1980. Heck, even their only World Series appearance, in which the White Sox swept them in four games, is the most exciting sweep of all time. Plus, Houston has had many other great moments.
This retrospective is intended more or less as a list of the other stuff, the oddities and random happenings that make baseball so fun to watch. Yeah, a few great moments have been sprinkled in, as well, but this review is geared more towards the easily overlooked moments that will often be well-remembered by those that saw them.
If it’s not a tour of the main boulevards of Astros history, you’ll hopefully find this an enjoyable survey of its back alleys and side streets. Here are some of the oddities from Astros history:
April 10, 1962: The first game ever for the Houston Astros (well, Houston Colt .45s back then, but let’s not get bogged down in the details) goes great, as they stomp the Cubs, 11-2. That result is rather fitting because, despite being the expansion team, Houston will end the year with a better record than the Cubs.
June 30, 1962: Today’s Cincinnati-Houston game is called after seven innings for a very unusual reason: excessive fog. It’s so thick, the outfielders can’t even see home plate.
Sept. 4, 1962: The 18th time’s the charm. After losing their previous 17 encounters against the Phillies, the Astros finally beats them.
April 27, 1963: It’s an odd way to lose one as the Astros fall to the Reds, 1-0. The run is scored by Frank Robinson, who reached base due to catcher’s interference. It’s the only time he gets on base that way.
May 17, 1963: Not quite 200 games into their major league existence and Houston has its first no-hitter, as Don Nottebart keeps the Phillies hitless. Houston will have a great deal of success with no-hitters, notching 10 before fellow 1962 expansion squad the Mets get their first in 2012.
June 11, 1963: The Astros win on a walk-off grand slam, the first of eight walk-off slams in franchise history. Bob Aspromonte swats this one, and he’ll also belt the franchise’s second walk-off slam on Aug. 26, 1966. He’s still the only Astro to do to it twice. Today, Houston beats the Cubs, 6-2 in 10 innings.
June 23, 1963: In the second game of today’s double-header, Houston scores a run. Normally that’s not that big a deal, but it ends a 40-inning drought without a run.
Sept. 27, 1963: It’s kiddie core day! The Astros field the youngest lineup ever, with an average age of 19 years and four months. A total of 15 rookies appear in the game, including Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, and Rusty Staub. The Mets stomp them, 10-3. Another one of today’s kids, Jay Dahl, will die in a car crash in July, 1965 at age 19, becoming the youngest major leaguer ever to die.
Sept. 29, 1963: It’s the greatest one-game career of all-time as John Paciorek, older brother of future player and broadcaster Tom, gets his only moment of glory. He’s 3-for-3 with a trio of RBIs and three runs. Despite this, he’ll never play again in the majors.
April 23, 1964: Houston’s Ken Johnson throws one of the most disappointing no-hitters of all-time. Despite holding the Reds hitless, he gets the loss due to a pair of ninth-inning errors. He has no one to blame but himself, as he commits the error that puts the run on base. Actually, I suppose he can blame second baseman Nellie Fox, who commits the error that lets the run score.
April 12, 1965: Baseball enters the Space Age, as Houston plays its first regular-season game in the Astrodome, the first indoor stadium. They lose, 2-0, to the Philies. That sets the tone for scoring in the facility, which will become one of history’s great pitchers’ parks.
June 8, 1965: It’s one of the most aggravating losses in franchise history as Pittsburgh beats Houston, 7-6 in 11 innings, on one of the strangest and rarest of plays, a walk-off balk. Hal Woodeshick is the offending pitcher.
Aug. 13, 1966: Houston’s Dave Giusti nearly throws a perfect game, allowing just one baserunner, a single in the second inning by San Francisco’s Cap Peterson. This game also will go down in history as the first big league contest ever attended by longtime THT warhorse Steve Treder.
Aug. 21, 1966: Dave Guisti doesn’t need teammates today. He not only throws a complete-game shutout but also drives in six runs thanks to a pair of bases-loaded (and bases-clearing) doubles. The Astros trounce the Reds, 11-0.
Sept. 27, 1967: Houston tops the Phillies, 1-0 in 11 innings, a game notable because this is the fifth time on the season that Philadelphia ace Jim Bunning has lost a game by a score of 1-0. He goes 17-15 despite a 2.29 ERA and six shutouts.
April 15, 1968: The Astros win the longest shutout of the 20th century, 1-0 over the Mets in 24 innings. The run is unearned. Here’s how the final inning went; single, balk, intentional walk, runner-advancing groundout, intentional walk, and then an error by the shortstop to end the mess.
June 9, 1968: Due to the recent assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte refuse to play today against the Pirates. It’s the only game Staub misses all season. Pittsburgh’s Maury Wills also sits it out.
July 14, 1968: Astros pitcher Don Wilson fans 18 to tie a nine-inning-game record in today’s 6-1 win over the Reds.
July 20, 1968: Houston loses 1-0 to the Giants when Willie Mays scores from first on a teammate’s single.
July 24, 1968: Houston tops the Dodgers and their ace Don Drysdale in a manner that must humiliate Drysdale. In one inning, Drysdale walks two batters, hits a third to load the bases, and then hits another to drive in the game’s only run.
Aug. 28, 1968: Houston loses to the Giants on the rare walk-off walk. Bobby Bonds gets the free pass for a 4-3 win. That night, the Astros travel to Chicago for a series with the Cubs. As they arrive at their hotel, the Conrad Hilton, where the 1968 Democratic National Convention is going on, a riot breaks out in the street pitting Chicago police officers against anti-war protesters.
May 1, 1969: Yesterday Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney no-hit the Astros. Today, Houston’s Don Wilson no-hits the Reds. In late September, Maloney will nearly no-hit Houston again, allowing just a third-inning single to Joe Morgan.
July 18, 1969: Houston blows a nine-run lead against the Reds, losing 10-9.
July 16, 1970: The Cubs lose a heartbreaker in Houston, 2-1. Chicago starting pitcher Ken Holtzman allows just two hits but loses on a pair of unearned runs. Billy Williams hits a would-be home run in the ninth, but it hits one of the Astrodome’s speakers and drops foul.
Aug. 8, 1970: Giants pitcher Skip Pitlock hits an inside-the-park homer run against the Astros, and that proves to be the difference in a 6-5 San Francisco win.
June 14, 1971: Joe Morgan receives a walk-off walk for a 5-4 win over the Pirates.
Sept. 5, 1971: Houston prospect J.R. Richard makes one of the greatest pitching debuts in history, fanning 15 in his first big league game.
Sept. 24, 1971: It’s maybe the greatest pitchers' duel in franchise history, as Ken Forsch faces off against San Diego’s Clay Kirby. Forsch lasts 13 innings, and Kirby goes 15, but the game goes 21 before Houston wins, 2-1. Forsch’s Game Score of 98 is topped by Kirby’s 109.
April 29, 1973: This time, the Astros win on a walk-off balk. They top the Mets 4-3 when New York’s Tom Walker makes the embarrassing play.
May 31, 1973: The Astros get the first two Cubs out in the first inning, so when infielder Doug Rader makes a misplay to keep the inning alive, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Instead, the Cubs turn that error into 10 unearned runs en route to a 16-8 victory.
July 14, 1973: Steve Carlton doesn’t just shutout the Astros, he also homers against them too. Philadelphia wins 7-0 behind Carlton’s dominating performance.
Sept. 2, 1974: Houston edges the Reds, 4-3, in part because former Astro Joe Morgan is called out on the bases. The Cincinnati city council is so appalled that they pass a resolution denouncing the umpire’s call as “atrocious.”
July 21, 1975: Against Houston, New York’s Joe Torre has a day from hell, grounding into four double plays. Supposedly, he has to be snuck out of Shea Stadium to escape the irate Mets fans. Houston wins, 6-2.
May 29, 1976: Brotherly love, Niekro style. Houston’s Joe Niekro hits the only home run of his career, and it’s off big brother Phil. It also proves to be the difference in Houston’s 4-3 win.
June 15, 1976: It sounds impossible, but there is a rainout in the Astrodome today. The dome itself if fine, but seven inches of rain make it impossible for the umpires, stadium personnel, and most fans to get there.
July 6, 1976: J.R. Richard allows 18 baserunners but ends the day with a complete-game shutout. In today’s 10 inning, 1-0 win over the Mets, he walks 10 and allows eight hits, but no one scores.
Sept. 6, 1976: Cincinnati takes an 8-0 lead over Houston but barely holds on to win, 9-8.
April 21, 1978: It’s time for another one of baseball’s rarest plays, the walk-off triple play. Ron Cey hits into one to end today’s Dodgers-Astros game.
Sept. 24, 1978: Houston’s cumulative franchise record bottoms out at 228 games under .500: (1,254-1,482).
May 1, 1979: Houston loses in dramatic fashion, blowing a three-run lead in the 11th inning on a walk-off grand slam by St. Louis’ Roger Freed.
Aug. 21, 1979: Jeffrey Leonard has an at-bat out of Twilight Zone. First he flies out—no wait, he didn’t. The shortstop had called for time just before the pitch. Given a second chance, Leonard singles. No, wait—he doesn’t. Players weren’t in position, so that doesn’t count. On the third try he flies out—and this one sticks. He was 1-for-3 in one at-bat. The NL later will uphold Houston’s protest and award Leonard a single, but they still lose, 5-0.
July 20, 1980: A mere 26 days ago, Craig Reynolds had the first walk-off sacrifice hit in franchise history. Today he gets the second (and still only other) one. In both cases, fielding errors let the winning run score.
Oct. 5, 1980: For the third straight day, the Astros lose to the Dodgers by one run, causing the two teams to end the regular season tied for first. This impressive pennant race finale doesn’t have too much hold on the national popular memory, probably because the Astros won the tie-breaker game, going against the comeback narrative. Then again, maybe it’s just been overshadowed by the 1980 NLCS, which is easily the greatest LCS of the best-of-five era.
May 8, 1981: Tom Seaver hits a home run while throwing a complete-game shutout against the Astros. The losing pitcher is fellow 300-game winner Don Sutton. Yeah, he briefly played for Houston.
Sept. 26, 1981: Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan makes history by throwing his fifth career no-hitter, one more than Sandy Koufax. This is the only one Ryan gets as an Astro.
June 4, 1982: Here’s a random one, even for this list. Despite getting 10 runners on base, Houston ends the day with none left on. Eight score and two are erased on the bases in an 8-3 win.
Sept. 5, 1984: Nolan Ryan passes Steve Carlton as all-time strikeout champion when he whiffs Chili Davis here.
July 27, 1985: Houston loses to the Mets, 16-4, despite allowing zero earned runs. That’s right, due to a series of errors, all 16 runs the Mets score are unearned.
July 22, 1986: It’s one of the greatest pitchers' duels of the decade when Montreal’s hot prospect Floyd Youmans tangles with Houston veteran Nolan Ryan. After nine scoreless innings, Youmans has allowed just two hits and Ryan only one. Youmans allows a homer in the 10th to lose it. Ryan also fans 14 in the game.
Sept. 2-3, 1986: It’s one of the last games suspended due to darkness. The Astros eventually top the Cubs, 8-7 in 18 innings, with 14 frames being played on Sept. 2 and the rest the next day. Both teams score one in the ninth and, incredibly, each gets three in the 17th. A grand total of 53 players appear in the contest.
Sept. 21, 1986: Padres rookie Jimmy Jones damn near throws a perfect game in his debut outing. He retires 27 of the 28 batters he faces, allowing a triple by, of all people, opposing pitcher Bob Knepper. It’s the only time Houston’s pitcher gets the hit in a one-hitter.
Sept. 23, 1986: Jim Deshaies fans the first eight Dodgers he faces.
Sept. 19, 1988: Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser shuts out the Astros. It’s his fourth straight shutout and gives him 40 straight scoreless innings as he’s two-thirds of the way to his record 59 straight innings without allowing a run.
June 3, 1989: Houston eventually tops the Dodgers, 5-4 in 22 innings. Houston’s pitchers throw 218 strikes, the most known for one game. They toss 335 pitches in all. Rafael Ramirez wins it with a walk-off single, the latest walk-off hit in franchise history.
Aug. 3, 1989: It’s as ugly a start as possible for Houston. In the first, they allow the Reds to get 14 runs off 16 hits. The Astros lose, 18-2.
Aug. 29, 1989: The Houston Astros are on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in Cubs history, as an 9-0 Houston advantage turns into a 10-9 Cubs win in 10 innings.
June 11, 1991 Mark Portugal lasts 10 innings for the Astros. It’s the last time any Houston pitcher goes that long in a game.
Aug. 10, 1991: Uh, okay. Today’s Astros-Braves is held up for five minutes as medical staff tries to get a moth out of the ear of outfielder Mike Simms.
May 8, 1992: Houston pitcher Butch Henry gets his first hit, and he gets it in style. It’s a three-run, inside-the-park home run. However, Houston loses anyway, 6-3.
July 7, 1992: For the first time in 18 years, an outfielder gets an unassisted double play. It’s Pittsburgh’s Andy Van Slyke, who doubles Houston’s Ken Caminiti off second base.
July 27, 1992: The Astros start a franchise-record 26-game road trip as the Astrodome will host the 1992 Republican National Convention.
July 21, 1993: Houston shortstop Juan Uribe does the seemingly impossible: take a walk on ball three. Home plate umpire Harry Wendlestedt lost track of the count.
July 18, 1994: Houston rallies from an 11-0 deficit against the Cardinals to win, 15-12.
May 29, 1995: Marlins pitcher Chris Hammond hits a grand slam against the Astros, helping Florida to a 9-7 win.
May 13, 1996: Houston’s Brian Hunter leads off today’s game against the Cubs with a hit. It’s all downhill from there as Chicago pitcher Steve Trachsel doesn’t allow another hit all game. But one is enough, as Hunter’s leadoff effort prevents the Astros from being no-hit.
July 20, 1996: Houston’s Derek Bell does something no one else ever does, get a walk-off hit against Greg Maddux. His bottom-of-the-ninth single against the Braves legend gives Houston a 2-1 win.
Aug. 2, 1997: Houston backstop Brad Ausmus becomes the first person to wear the “Catcher Cam” for Fox Sports during a game.
Aug. 3, 1998: Astros reliever C.J. Nitkowski has some very definite control problems, as he plunks three consecutive batters in today’s game against Florida.
June 13, 1999: It might be the most ghastly moment of any Astros game, as team skipper Larry Dierker has a grand mal seizure in the dugout during the eighth inning of today’s Astros-Padres game. The game is suspended, and Dierker is rushed to the hospital. He’ll come back after missing a month.
April 11, 2000: A new era begins as the Astros play their first game in their new park, then called Enron Field but now called Minute Maid Park (a.k.a., The Juice Box).
May 22, 2000: Houston blows a big lead, allowing seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to lose, 10-9 in 10 innings, to Milwaukee. It’s the biggest comeback in Brewers history, but only 3,913 are on hand to see it.
May 24, 2000: This just isn’t Houston’s week. They take another seven-run lead and again blow it, this time losing 9-7 to Philadelphia. They’re the first team to lose a pair of seven-run leads in one week.
Sept. 27, 2001: In the first Cubs home game since 9/11, Sammy Sosa homers his first time up against Houston and gets an American flag from the first base coach, which he carries with him the rest of his way around the bases.
July 2, 2002: In a mix-up, the first inning of today’s Cubs-Astros game is played with non-regulation baseballs. Practice balls are used instead. Somehow the nation survives.
July 6, 2002: While playing in Pittsburgh’s new PNC Park, Houston’s Daryle Ward becomes the first player to hit a homer into neighboring Alleghany Park. It’s a grand slam, too, as Houston wins, 10-2.
June 11, 2003: It’s one of the strangest no-hitters of all-time as six pitchers combined to shut down the Yankees. Starting pitcher Roy Oswalt has to leave after one inning, and relievers Peter Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner all keep the Yankees from getting a hit.
April 18, 2005: Atlanta tops Houston, 1-0 in 12 innings, on an inside-the-park home run by Ryan Langerhans. It’s the second straight start by Houston’s Roger Clemens where his team has lost 1-0.
April 23, 2005: For the third consecutive time, Roger Clemens is on the wrong end of a 1-0 game. For the second straight time, the run scores in extra innings. St. Louis ace Mark Mulder gets the complete-game shutout in the 1-0 win in 10 innings. It’s the first 10-inning, complete-game shutout since Jack Morris in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series.
April 29, 2005: Finally, Houston scores for Clemens in a game that was historic even before the first pitch. Today, Clemens faces fellow 300-game winner Greg Maddux in the first meeting between two pitchers who’ve each already won 300 since a Don Sutton-vs.-Steve Carlton game in 1987.
April 18, 2006: For the first time since April, 1962, the all-time Houston Astros record is at .500: 3,507-3,507. Aside from the opening months of their existences, only four expansion franchises have ever made it to .500: Houston, Kansas City, Toronto, and Arizona. Currently, all are under .500. Houston’s record will peak at four games over .500 a few weeks later and then, after decades of quality ball, they’ll enter into their current downward spiral. By May 14, 2006, Houston is back at .500 and has been under it ever since.
May 21, 2008: Astros starting pitcher Shawn Chacon finally gets a decision. He had a no-decision in each of his first nine starts, a record to start the season. He beats the Cubs to become 1-0 on the year. A month later, the team will suspend Chacon for grabbing GM Ed Wade by the neck and throwing him to the ground.
Aug. 13, 2008: In the sixth inning against Houston, eight straight players come to the plate without recording an official at-bat. The bases are loaded with no outs when the following occurs: 1) walk (drives in a run), 2) sacrifice fly (scores a run), 3) intentional walk, 4) sacrifice fly (scores a run), 5) hit by pitch, 6) walk (scores a run), 7) hit by pitch (scores a run), and 8) hit by pitch (scores a run). Barry Zito is the pitcher for the first six non-at-bats, and Barry Sadler hits the last two guys.
Sept. 14, 2008: The Astros play a home game in Milwaukee. With a hurricane headed for Houston, the team’s owners didn’t want to cancel the game until the last minute for fear of losing revenue. Thus, the players didn’t know what was going to happen (and if they should evacuate their families) until later than they should have. Completely out of sync and with other things on their minds as the hurricane hits Houston, the Astros themselves are hitless, as Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano tosses the first Cub no-hitter in over 30 years. The next day, Zambrano’s teammate Ted Lilly has a no-hitter going until late in the game. Houston was making a play for the wild card until this happened, but these events completely take them out of sync.
May 20, 2009: Oops. Manager Cecil Cooper gives the umpire the wrong lineup card, causing Michael Bourn to be called out for batting out of order.
July 2, 2009: There is a 62-minute delay in today’s Padres-Astros game as a swarm of bees invades left field in the ninth inning. Eventually, a beekeeper solves the problem.
Aug. 24, 2010: In a marathon Phillies-Astros game, pitchers end up taking the role of position players. Roy Oswalt mans left against his old team in the 16th inning, and Houston pitcher Wesley Walker also serves in the outfield. Houston wins, 4-2.
April 22, 2011: Houston’s Hunter Pence makes the rare four-base error, allowing Jason Bay of the Mets to score.
July 26, 2011: Sometimes it doesn’t make any difference what moves a manager makes if the players aren’t that good. Houston calls on three pinch-hitters in the ninth inning against St. Louis, and all three strike out.
Aug. 16, 2011: Houston tops the Cubs, 6-5, on a walk-off grand slam by Brian Bogusevic. Of the eight walk-off slams in franchise history, it’s the only one hit with the team trailing by three runs. Yeah, those are nice to get.
Sept. 24, 2011: It’s officially the 200,000th major league game since 1876 when Houston falls 4-2 to Colorado in 13 innings.
June 13, 2012: Houston loses to the Giants when Matt Cain throws a perfect game. Cain fans 14 along the way, a new record for a perfecto.
Aug. 6, 2012: Houston has one of the worst plays in memory. Tied 4-4 against Washington in the top of the 11th, the Nationals have a man on first with none out when they try to bunt the runner into scoring position. Hilarity ensues.
Houston’s first baseman and pitcher both run into each other when the go for they ball, and the third baseman has to jump over them to avoid a three-way pile-up. When they finally get their bearings, one of them throws the ball toward first, but the hurried throw sails into right field. The lead runner heads for home to score the go-ahead run. A good throw would have him, but instead the ball is thrown away. Two errors, and a really stupid looking collision, combine to let the wining run score.
That’s a rather bleak way to end this piece, but then again, the Astros have had a few bleak seasons recently.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.