Let’s face it. Whether they’re up or down, having a great season or not, the Astros have Houston’s heart.
It is easy to forget, but Houston has not always been a major league city, both literally and metaphorically. Sure, the city was known for oilmen with longhorn hood ornaments, tough cowboys and big money, but until real estate tycoon R.E. "Bob" Smith and Judge Roy Hofheinz teamed up to bring baseball to town, sports were a bit of an afterthought. We needed a little pizzazz.
And that is exactly what we got.
The Egyptians did it with pyramids. The Greeks with statues. Hofheinz and Smith did it by building the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” And it didn’t happen overnight.
The duo formed the Houston Sports Association to try and convince Major League Baseball to give Houston a franchise. When that didn’t work out, they collaborated with other wannabe MLB owners to form the Continental League.
The Continental League folded before it ever got up and running, but it put enough pressure on MLB to get Houston noticed.
In 1960, Hofheinz and Smith were awarded a franchise to begin play in 1962. That was just the beginning.
The owners held a contest for residents of Houston to name the fledgling franchise and settled on the Colt 45s. The Colt 45s struggled on the field in 1962, finishing in eighth place out of 10 teams in the National League. 1963 was a little bit better with stars Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan and Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn all making their Major League debuts. But the team was far from a winner. Colt Stadium wasn’t doing much to impress anybody. All Hofheinz and Smith had to do was give the city something that could live up the majesty of the pyramids. No problem.
Hofheinz first thought of the concept of an indoor sports stadium in 1952. He and his daughter were regulars at minor league games at Houston’s outdoor Buffalo Stadium. Not only did Hofheinz not like living in a minor league city, he didn’t much care for rained-out games and seventh inning stretches spent whacking away at mosquitos. Everybody told him that Houston just didn’t have the climate for big league sports. The truth is, the critics just didn’t have his vision or creativity.
While today it might be hard to find a big city without a few indoor stadiums, at the time Hofheinz might as well have told people he was relocating the team to Venus. But he stayed true to his vision and again accomplished something that the experts declared impossible. The Astrodome opened its doors in 1965, and the world’s collective jaw dropped. At the time it, was one of the most impressive architectural structures on the face of the earth. Houston was being noticed.
By ’65, Hofheinz was the sole owner of the Colt 45s. He changed the name to the Astros to complement the space fever that was simultaneously putting Houston in the national spotlight. Houston had something that every other great city in the world could look at and marvel. And the city fell in love.
But the baseball part was still a work in progress. Throughout the 1970s, the Astros struggled on the field, but after the storm the city had weathered to get a team, Houstonians still felt as if things were coming up rainbows. So much so that the Astros actually decided to slap a rainbow on their uniforms in 1975.
The ”Dreamsicle” jerseys were considered an abomination by many and appeared on many an “Ugliest Jerseys of All Time” list.
But eventually the world had to admit it is one of the most spectacular designs of all time. By the 1990s, the rainbow jersey had become the throwback jersey of choice for big time rappers, stylish teenagers and thousands of other people with better taste than the pundits.
While the 1970s did introduce Houston to the personality of centerfielder Cesar Cedeno as well as pitcher and future manager Larry Dierker, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the organization really got cooking. The Astros entered the new decade with a new owner, John McMullen. McMullen wasted no time proving he was serious about winning. Two of his first moves were to sign the legendary Nolan Ryan and to bring back Joe Morgan, who won two World Series and MVP awards during his time with the Cincinnati. Reds. In 1980, the beloved J.R. Richard became the first Astros pitcher to start an All-Star game before a heart attack forced him to retire. Nonetheless, for the first time, the Astros were poised to make an impact beyond architecture and style.
That same year , the Astros met the Philadelphia Phillies in a series that featured several classic pitcher duels, an infamous triple play that wasn’t and a legitimate shot for the Astros to go to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. After taking a 3-1 lead in the five-game series, The Astros dropped two in a row and fell just short. Each of the last four games of the series went into extra innings. It would not be the last time the Astros were involved in an all-time classic.
In 1981, the new Astros superstars won a one-game playoff with the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to postseason. The result was one of the most exciting playoff series in MLB history and the first of many more playoff appearances for the Astros organization
In ’86, led by Cy Young winner Mike Scott and the Ryan Express, the Astros knocked on the door again. Unfortunately, they lost the NLCS to the New York Mets in six games. The Astros dropped a 15-inning heartbreaker in the final game, widely considered one of the most exciting baseball games ever played.
By the 1990s, the Astros were one of the best teams in the National League. They won a franchise best 102 games in 1998, and won the division title in ’97, ’98 and ’99. Perhaps more importantly, the team forged a new identity with new owner Drayton McClane and superstars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Bagwell and Biggio worked hard to transform the Astros into an organization that won year in and year out, and they succeeded.
The Astros became the hottest ticket in town.. When the team moved into their new home in 2000, the Astros instantly became one of the most popular, affordable ways for Houstonians to spend time out with family or friends. And the excitement created by the new atmosphere at the ballpark now known as Minute Maid Park, did not go unnoticed.
Bagwell and Biggio eventually were joined by superstars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. Houston natives Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte defected from Yankee-land to solidify the roster, and in 2005 the Astros finally made it to the World Series. They lost, but almost 20 years after losing to the Mets, it was pretty sweet to get a whiff of the Promised Land.
A lot of things are changing in the Astros organization these days. It’s been a tough few years for fans but new owner Jim Crane is promising big changes. The team will be moving to the American League in 2013 and the organization is taking steps to make games even more accessible and fun for fans.
For 50 years, Houstonians have treated their Astros with love and affection. And there is no changing that.