Billy “Little Napoleon” Costa

BILLY COSTA, SS, HOUSTON BUFFS, 1947, 1951-52.

During their 1947 Texas League and Dixie Series championships season, the Houston Buffs featured one of the most effective and compact keystone combinations in minor league baseball. Billy Costa (5’6″, 155 lbs.) at shortstop and Solly Hemus (5’9″, 165 lbs.) at second base weren’t going to have the mass and altitude to fire over the heads of too many oncoming runners at second base on the double play, but they more than made up for their small physical sizes with a give no quarter attitude about winning. That factor was evident to the very last play of the 1947 season.

In the final game of the season at Buff Stadium, the Buffs trailed the Fort Worth Cats by half a game and they were tied with the Cats in the bottom of the 9th inning. Costa came in to score the game and pennant winning run from second base on a hit by center fielder Hal Epps and the Buffs were off and running from there.

“Costa was a hustling little ballplayer,” the late Jerry Witte used to say, “but he had that complex that little guys always seem to have. They run their mouths big time to make up for their lack of size and Costa was no different. I used to break up a lot of his long speeches in the clubhouse by asking him something like, ‘what’s that you say, Little Napoleon? You’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you.'” Jerry Witte was Costa’s teammate and the starting first baseman for the Buffs in 1951-52. “I didn’t mean no harm and Billy knew that I was just reminding him in my way that we’d heard his dadgum speech about all the things he was going to do about thirty times before he even started this latest rendition,” Jerry Wittte added.

No one could argue with Costa’s effort, but his bat, unfortunately, fell short of his plans for it over the long run. Still, in his ten season, all minor league career (1941-42, 1946-53), Billy Costa hit a respectable .265 with virtually no power. In 4,046 official times at bat, Billy hit only ten career home runs. He never got his cup of coffee in the major leagues. He never even got to smell it perking in the parent Cardinal clubhouse. As was the case for many players during the reserve clause era, Billy Costa never put up the kind of stats that would keep him from getting lost in the talent-deep farm system of one of baseball’s premier talent developing clubs.

By the time that Billy Costa was free of the Cardinals and playing out his final season for the 1953 Beaumont Exporters as a 33-year old veteran, he also had stumbled or “miracled” his way into his best season at the plate by hitting .293 in 140 games. Billy had come down with a case of adult polio infection the previous season at Houston and, for a while, it appeared that he might not even walk again, let alone be well enough to continue playing baseball. The affliction seemed to challenge Costa and he came back in 1953 in a way that far exceeded any of his earlier seasons.

It was just too little too late.

Billy Costa retired after the 1953 season and went into business and then politics in Houston. A few years later, Costa pursued a successful election to the Harris County Commissioners Court, where he served honorably for quite a while. Billy died of a heart attack about thirty years ago, but not before he found a way in his life after baseball to deliver on some of those earlier promises as a politician.

I no longer am able to recall what Billy Costa promised or delivered as a member of Commissioners Court, but the feeling that he did alright lingers with me anyway. I guess that’s a big part of what makes a politician seem OK. If he or she can make us voters think they’re working for us, even when they are not, they are able to sleep with themselves at night. When some of that behavior also extends to the goal of covering up their tracks in self-serving or unlawful acts, a lot of the blame has to also fall back on us for going to sleep at the wheel.

All I know is Billy Costa inspired me as a kid. When he came down with polio, I agreed to say the rosary in his behalf everyday for the rest of my life if God would allow him to recover, which He did – and he did. I’m a little behind in my childhood promise these days and can only hope that God will cut me some slack for an over-the-top commitment by a heartbroken kid back in 1952. If He does not, I guess I’d better stop writing and start praying.

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2 Responses to “Billy “Little Napoleon” Costa”

  1. Tal Smith Says:

    Hi Bill,

    I have really enjoyed your postings – particularly the vignettes on former Buffs. As I think I have told you before, I didn’t arrive in Houston until November 1960 as the Colt .45s were being established.
    But, prior to getting my first job in baseball in 1957, I was a staunch Cardinal fan and followed the exploits of their farm clubs as best I could through The Sporting News and their various publications. So, I have reallly related to your fine articles on Billy Costa, Larry Miggins, Al Papai,
    Red Munger, Jack Creel and others of that era.

    Best regards.

    Tal

  2. Serge Masse Says:

    Costa was my size and there is nothing wrong with that.
    If us little guys hustle, it is to proove that we are as good as the taller people, not because we have a complex of superiority.

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