On April 10, 1962, 50 years ago today, it all started in old Colt Stadium off OST near Fannin, as the Houston Colt .45s played their first official National League game on Opening Day upon a playing field that many of us fans would soon enough come to know as “The Skillet” as the Houston summer heat descended upon us.
Major League Baseball officially started in Houston as the new and young Colt .45s blasted their way to an 11-2 Opening Day win against the Chicago Cubs. Little Lefty Bobby Shantz, no spring chicken himself, got the first start and win, striking out future Hall of Famer Lou Brock as the first our and “K” victim in franchise history. Houston’s Bob Aspromonte reached first base with the first base hit in franchise history and Roman Mejias then provided the big offensive club with two home runs and six RBI for the Colt. .45s. Hal Smith also homered as the second player to hit a long ball for the locals in an official game.
When all was said and done, it was both a joyous start and a deserving tribute to Judge Roy Hofheinz and the other Houston Sports Association founders who contributed in their own unique ways to bringing Houston most deservedly into the world of major league baseball. Time and space press us into summary mention 0f those people who are even today the reasons why we have the new Jim Crane Era to celebrate in 2012, but hopefully, we shall never forget any of the men who were in the lineup that first Opening Day, or behind the broadcasting booths, or in the front office, or writing the stories that both sewed and sold our local legends and history of Houston MLB baseball.
Judge Hofheinz was our local version of P.T. Barnum and the visionary whose dream for a covered baseball stadium would soon enough bring the Astrodome to Houston in 1965 and change thinking and construction on sporting venues for all time. Craig Cullinan was the well placed and dedicated Houstonian who turned the wheel of Houston’s power structure behind support for the city’s bid for a major league club at the pregnant moment of great opportunity. R.E. “Bob” Smith was the primary Houstonian who climbed on board with the HSA, lending his money, power, and land to the plan for making the Judge;s dream a full-blown working reality. George Kirksey was the local writer, publicist, and bon vivant who worked throughout most of the 1950s in behalf of Houston’s building case for membership in the big leagues.
Too much in the shadows until now was a young Houston Post sportswriter named Mickey Herskowitz. Throughout the 1950s, Mickey wrote pieces on a lot of the ideas expressed by Kirksey in behalf of the Houston MLB cause. Mickey’s powerful command of expression gave the Kirksey ideas, plus plenty of his own, some powerful wings – flying them all the way into the hearts and minds of the decision-makers on Houston’s bid to the big dance in baseball. In 1959-60, a series that Herskowitz wrote in behalf of Houston’s cause may just have been the final push the drive needed, as Houston was approved in 1960 for one of two new franchises for the National League in 1962.
Also, let’s never forget Gene Elston, the golden voice who broadcast Houston big league games from 1962 to 1986 on his way to becoming one of two Houston media icons, along with Milo Hamilton, to be recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame as Ford Frick Awards for radio/tv broadcasting.
Jimmy Wynn and Larry Dierker stand out as early franchise playing icons with the Colt .45s, although neither man was around on that memorable day of the big start fifty years ago. Broadcaster Loel Passe was here fifty years ago, as was broadcast engineer Bob Green. We don’t want to forget those guys and all they did to bring the ongoing story of the Astros into our homes either. Bill Brown wasn’t around from the start as a telecast presence, but his 25 seasons (1987-2012) in the Astros booth are on track to exceed every other local game-play-by-play voice.
Most of all, and I have saved his name until last because he shall always belong in the company of the first when it comes to any serious mention of Houston baseball history in the big leagues, let us never forget the contributions of former President Tal Smith. A very young Tal Smith came to Houston with the first man HSA picked as their new GM, Gabe Paul. When Paul left for the same GM post in Cleveland, well before the Colt .45s ever hit the ground, Tal Smith stayed on to assist the first both-feet-on-the-scene GM, Paul Richards, to help put together a staff, a plan, and a roster based largely upon discarded talent from the other established clubs. Tal remained to oversee the construction of the Astrodome, the introduction of remedies to the roof-visual problems, including the utilization of Astroturf (c), the development of a farm system, the hiring of the manager who finally brought field success to the club, Bill Virdon, enjoying years of success and steady progress as both the club’s GM and Baseball President, as well as another shot as over-site supervisor of Houston’s third major venue, this time downtown, the park originally known as Enron Field and now called Minute Maid Park.
Tal’s Hill is a prominent reminder and symbol of all the obstacles that Houston has faced and worked hard to overcome in its first half century. May it remain with us always as the perpetual reminder of both the man it’s named to honor – and the effort it’s taken of so many to get us this far into the success lane of big league baseball.
Nothing good comes easy. And life itself comes with more than a few Tal’s Hills.
Happy 50th Birthday, Houston MLB History!