M. Kates: Signing Off on Astros History

 

SIGNING OFF ON ASTROS HISTORY

Maxwell Kates

By Maxwell Kates

 

Visit the home of any SABR member and without question you will be inundated with memorabilia and books. My own house is no different. One corner features a long row of autographed baseballs, including one from the Houston Astros’ 50th anniversary celebration in 2012. Now you may wonder, where does a collector from Canada come to own this particular baseball? What you are about to read is the story behind the ball. It details how I obtained it, who signed it, and how I identified three seemingly unintelligible signatures.

Jim Kreuz

The story begins at the silent auction on the floor of SABR 44, held at the Sonesta Hotel in the Galleria section of Houston back in 2014. A tall man with a moustache wearing an autographed St. Louis Cardinals jersey was presiding over the silent auction items on Thursday. His name was Jim Kreuz and he asked if I were interested in any items. The array of prizes included autographed baseballs from Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, a piece of the original Astroturf from the Astrodome, and the first pitch at the SABR game. And there was a baseball that caught my eye.

Ball Panel Signatures on Panel with Astros Fifty Years Logo

“That’s a nice item,” Jim advised me, “and it carries a low starting bid of $20.00. You know, it once belonged to the Toy Cannon.” Only a ground ball away from Jim and I, there was the real Toy Cannon. He was signing copies of his autobiography of the same title along with his co-author by the name of McCurdy. Anybody know the guy? The Cannon was the nickname of early Astros slugger Jim Wynn. In eleven seasons of Houston National League baseball, Wynn slugged 223 home runs and 719 RBI, including one in 1970 that landed in the centre field bleachers of the cavernous Astrodome. The seat where the ball landed was painted with a toy cannon and ultimately presented to Wynn when the Dome was closed in 1999.

As part of the Colt .45’s panel held earlier in the day, Wynn responded to a question on a cue card about a home run he hit at Crosley Field in 1967. Proving that Steve McQueen did not hold the monopoly on ‘Cincinnati kids,’ Wynn launched a home run above the Hudepohl scoreboard before landing on Colerain Avenue, not far from his childhood home and where his parents still lived. Following the 1973 season, Wynn took his star to Los Angeles where he propelled the Dodgers to their first National League pennant in eight years. He retired in 1977 after tours of duty with the Braves, Yankees, and Brewers.

Jimmy Wynn
The Toy Cannon

I quickly registered the minimum bid in an auction that closed at 5:00 on Friday. But I had competition. Another gentleman, let’s call him Gary, also had his sights on the ball. No sooner did I bid $20.00, Gary bid $30.00. I bid $40.00, Gary bid $50.00. Then I developed a strategy. “Let’s see if anybody else places any bids.” There were none. Gary was the only other person who wanted the ball, so I thought, “Let Gary think he’s going to win. Then I’ll swing in for a bid at 4:59 pm on Friday. Otherwise this could spiral out of control.”

The plan seemed to work except for one flaw. A third party decided he wanted the ball and bid $60.00. Now Gary raised the ante to $70.00. Time flew at SABR 44 and before long, it was 4:40 pm on Friday. I returned to the pit where the silent auction items were on display. So did Gary. I knew if I were too eager, Gary would outbid me and possibly price the ball out of my reach. Instead I hovered. As I waited for the clock to strike five, I approached the auction sheet that corresponded with the baseball and wrote my name and suite number. Sold for $80.00. Then I took the ball back to the room – and that’s when I learned that Gary was staying next door to me!

J. R. Richard
A Sweet Spot Signature

At quick glance, I was able to identify the names of most of the signatures. Let’s start with the name on the sweet spot, J. R. Richard. Born in Louisiana, the 21 year old J. R. struck out 15 San Francisco Giants in his first game with the Astros back in 1971. An imposing figure on the mound standing 6’8″, he won at least 18 games annually from 1976 to 1979. In 1978, he became the first righthanded pitcher in National League history to eclipse the 300 strikeout barrier. J. R. repeated on his success in 1979, not only leading the league with 313 strikeouts but also a 2.69 ERA. Sadly, a dream 1980 season which featured a record of 10-4 and a 1.96 ERA was cut short in July when he suffered a massive stroke. J. R. Richard remains one of the most beloved figures in Astros history.

Fittingly for a team based in the state of Texas, the ball is signed by a number of native Texans. There was Carl Warwick. A slugging outfielder from Dallas, he played parts of two seasons with the Houston Colt .45’s before retiring to a career of real estate in the Bayou City. Then there was Ron Cook, a native of Jefferson who pitched in parts of two seasons for the Astros in the early 1970s. Number 10 on the ball belongs to Roger Metzger from Fredericksburg. Hardly a ‘metzger’ in the field, Roger won a Gold Glove at shortstop in 1973 and retired with a .976 fielding average. Among his eight seasons with the Astros, he led the league in triples twice. Roger Metzger was traded in 1978 but a year later, the Astros got Craig Reynolds. The first native Houstonian to play for the Astros, Reynolds perpetuated stability in eleven years at shortstop before retiring to become a minister. Although Greenville native Burt Hooton never actually pitched for the Astros in his fifteen year career, he served as pitching coach for several years in the 2000s.

Ball Panel Signatures
of
Ron Cook, Roger Metzger, and Terry Puhl.

Also having signed the ball, an eyewitness to perhaps more Astros history than any other person. His name was Larry Dierker and he created much of that history himself. Joining the Colt .45’s in 1964, he pitched his first big league ballgame on his 18th birthday, striking out Willie Mays in the 1st inning. Dierker’s best of thirteen seasons in a Houston uniform was in 1969 when he won 20 games, completed 20 games, and struck out 205 batters in which he registered a 2.33 ERA. In 1976, his final year with the Astros, Dierker no-hit the Montreal Expos on “foamer night” at the Dome. After eighteen seasons in the broadcast booth, he returned to the dugout, managing the Astros to four division titles in five years. With two books to his credit, Dierker’s accomplishments make a fellow proud to be an Astro (and yes, he wrote that song as well).

Johnny Edwards, who caught six seasons of Astros baseball, is on the ball. He recorded 1,135 putouts and 1,221 total chances in 1969, the first of three consecutive seasons in which he led the league in fielding percentage among catchers. In a fourteen year career which also included stops in Cincinnati and St. Louis, Edwards caught a whopping 109 shutouts.

Larry Dierker – Cesar Cedeno

In 1970, a year after Edwards joined the club, the Astros promoted Cesar Cedeno from the minor leagues. Hailed as the heir apparent in the National League to Willie Mays by manager Leo Durocher, Cedeno won Gold Gloves annually from 1972 to 1976, achieving the tandem of 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases in three of those five seasons. Twice hitting for the cycle and twice leading the league in doubles, Cedeno also batted in 102 runs in 1974. A mainstay in the Astros’ outfield for twelve seasons, Cedeno was joined in 1977 by Terry Puhl. A native of Melville, Saskatchewan, Puhl batted a robust .526 in the 1980 NLCS despite losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. Puhl remained an Astro for another ten years, retiring with a lifetime .993 fielding percentage.

A more modern player to have signed the ball was Shane Reynolds. An Astros pitcher for eleven years, he enjoyed his most successful season in 1998. He won 19 games and posted a 3.51 ERA for an Astros team that won 102. One of the better control pitchers of his era, Reynolds won 103 games in a Houston uniform, including 7 shutouts among 20 complete games. Scipio Spinks, Ryan Bowen, and Jack Howell also served and they also signed the ball.

More Ball Signatures
Top to Bottom, Scipio Spinks, Ryan Bowen, Burt Hooton, and Craig Reynolds.

Now, to identify the three mystery signatures. Attending the Astros game on the Saturday of the SABR convention, I was told that Jim Wynn would be there and that he could decipher the signatures. The first appeared to read “GR 45.” Excluding the 2014 season, there were eighteen different Astros to wear the uniform number 45. One of them was Gil Rondon, who pitched briefly for Houston in 1976. By deductive reasoning, I identified the first mystery signature as Rondon’s.

The second signature looked a lot like a second Cesar Cedeno but with a more intense emphasis on the two letter C’s. It definitely appeared to be a Latino signature; looking at it more closely, could it have been a rushed Jose Cruz? Perhaps the two C’s were actually an A and a T? Alex Trevino, perhaps? I had nothing better to go on. Trevino played thirteen seasons as a catcher in the majors from 1978 to 1990, including parts of three with the Astros. After he retired, he returned to the Astros for several years as a Spanish speaking announcer.

Top to Bottom:
Jimmy Wynn, Carl Warwick, Larry Dierker, Johnny Edwards, and Craig Biggio (See next Biggio card for verification).

Which brings me to one final signature. It did not look much like anything but a pen stroke, a number 8, followed by another pen stroke. It seemed rather incredulous that any player would simply sign his name by drawing a number. The 8 had to be something else, perhaps the letter R, the letter L, the letter B…then I had an idea. In the recesses of my mind, I knew I had recognized the signature from my own collection. I still have all my autographed cards and went to look at the signature. Comparing the autograph on the ball to the one on the baseball card, the two signatures matched. Yes, I was looking at a Craig Biggio autograph.

A Signed Craig Biggio Card

The most successful position player in Astros history, Biggio joined the team as a catcher in 1988 before moving to second base three years later. He earned seven All-Star Game berths, four Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, and led the truncated 1994 season in stolen bases. Biggio, along with Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman, formed the “Killer Bees” in the middle of the batting order on a Houston team which made the playoffs six times in nine years between 1997 and 2005. As part of his farewell tour in 2007, Biggio rapped his 3,000th hit. He retired with 3,060 hits, along with 1,175 RBI, 414 stolen bases, a .281 batting average and a .984 fielding percentage. Biggio also held the distinction to lead off 53 games with home runs. In 2015, one year after Houston hosted the SABR Convention, Biggio was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There you have it, fifty years of Astros history documented on a baseball by the signatures of the players who created that history, documented that history, and most of all, earned that history. Of course, if the 50th anniversary celebration was the most illustrious in Astros history, that feat was certainly eclipsed on Saturday by those who watched the game. The Astros 4, the Yankees nothing, and it’s off to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers in the World Series.

********************

The preceding essay was a submission to The Pecan Park Eagle by freelance writer Maxwell Kates.

 

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

 

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2 Responses to “M. Kates: Signing Off on Astros History”

  1. maxwell1901 Says:

    Thanks for publishing the paper, Bill.

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