The Astros Cap That Never Was

By Maxwell Kates

 

Writer Maxwell Kates

Earlier this month, I was standing in the Astros’ gift shop at Minute Maid Park waiting for a stadium tour to begin. Among other merchandise, they were selling every kind of Astros’ caps imaginable. Blue caps, gold caps, orange caps, World Series caps, caps shaded like the Texas flag. There were historic caps. Shooting star, tequila sunrise, Colt .45s. And that’s when two men asked me to identify a cap which appeared altogether new.

“Excuse me, Sir,” they asked.

“How may I help?”

“You look someone who works here.”

“No Sir, I don’t even work in this country. Are you here for the tour?”

“Well,” one of them answered, “it’s raining outside and our wives are looking at quilts all day, so …. yeah, that’s why we’re here.”

I soon discovered that one of the men was from Louisiana and the other was from Georgia. The Louisianan’s name was Norman LeBrun and I never did catch the Georgian’s name. They pointed me in the direction of a white cap with an orange crest and what appeared to be a three-dimensional letter A.

Phantom Astros Cap

“Have you ever seen one of these before?”

“No I’m afraid I haven’t.”

I was stumped but determined to understand what this cap was and why the Astros were selling it for $30.00 in their gift shop.

It turns out that the cap was designed to be worn by the Astros for the 1975 season but never actually introduced to the public for retail sale. Ten years prior, the Houston Colt .45s moved from mosquito-ridden Colt Stadium into the cavernous Harris County Domed Stadium. At the same time, the team changed its name to Astros. After experimenting with several cap styles in spring training 1965, the Astros settled on a blue cap with a white letter H on an orange star. The stadium, now known as the Astrodome, was dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ as team owner Judge Roy Hofheinz was lauded as a genius. Over two million spectators were lured by the charms of the Astrodome to watch a 9th place Astros team finish with a record of 65-97. After the 1970 season, by which time the Astros had failed to finish in the first division or surpass a record of .500, the team decided to invert their colour scheme. The caps were now orange with a white letter H on a blue star.

Larry Dierker Wearing 1974 Astros Uniform.

After contending briefly in 1972 (2nd place, 84-69), the Astros returned to mediocrity. Meanwhile, Judge Hofheinz’s financial empire had begun to crumble, pushing the team to the brink of bankruptcy. The Grand Huckster knew he had to adopt dynamic marketing if he wanted to bring the fans back to the Astrodome. The Astros turned to the New York-based advertising agency, McCann Erickson, to design a new uniform. The result was a radical design that sent shockwaves throughout baseball. Now the game looked remarkably different in 1975 than it had five years prior. Flannels had been replaced by polyester as the standard look of white at home and grey on the road could no longer be taken for granted. Rolling Stone writer Dan Epstein, who authored “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 1970s,” attributed the sartorial revolution to the advent of colour television:

“The explosion of color in major league uniforms was certainly related to the rise in popularity (and the decline in cost) of color televisions in the U.S.” Epstein continues “1972 was the first year that color TVs outsold their black-and-white counterparts; it was also the first year that color sets outnumbered black-and-whites in American households.” Even with the Oakland A’s clad in green and gold, the Atlanta Braves looking like Evel Knievel, and the Cleveland Indians dressed as Bloody Marys in spikes, the Astros still managed to turn heads with their new haberdashery in 1975.

The Astros unveiled a uniform with horizontal orange and yellow stripes spread across the sleeves and torso. It included an orange belt, white pants, and a “crotch-accentuating fashion choice…the player’s number was also affixed to the right front of the ensemble.”

Tom Griffin Modeling the 1975 Astros Prototype Uniform.

Now have a look at the uniform Astros’ pitcher Tom Griffin is wearing. Something appears unfamiliar, right? Look to the very top of the photograph. That was the cap that Norman and his Georgia pal were questioning. But what’s the story behind the cap? Gary Rollins, vice president of communications for the Astros, remembers:

“The original design had a white cap with an orange bill,” Rollins told Paul Lukas in 2017. “Now there was a country club just outside of Houston, in Atascocita, that had just come out with a logo, an ‘A’ with a star, that really looked neat. So I went in there and said ‘Can we buy that from you so we can use it on the uniform?’ They said ‘Buy it? Just give us the tickets and we’ll give the damn thing to you!”

Free publicity for a team that was virtually broke. It sounds like an offer the cash-strapped Astros could not have refused. So why did they?

A Houston Astros 1975 Program Cartoon Feature.

At the time, the Astros’ general manager was the unpopular and parsimonious H. B. ‘Spec’ Richardson. At the helm since 1968, Richardson managed to de-jewel a team on the cusp of contending. In a series of Hofheinz-engineered trades, he dispatched Mike Cuellar, Bob Aspromonte, Rusty Staub, John Mayberry, and most infamously, Joe Morgan, all for less than the sum of their parts. Rollins recalls Richardson’s reaction to the new avant-garde cap:

“No, Gary, we can’t do that. We have over 1,000 caps in storage that we’ve already bought for next season.” Consequently, the Astros retained their 1974 caps despite the otherwise dynamic change in their outward appearance. With some modifications to the original design, the Astros unveiled their rainbow uniforms on Opening Day 1975. The home and road uniforms were identical, as evidenced by the under-noted photograph of J. R. Richard pitching at Wrigley Field.

J. R. Richard, pitching in Chicago in 1975. ~ At home ~ or on the road, the same new uniform equally glowed.

Although Houston fans grew to appreciate the rainbow design, it was not without its objection. Dan Epstein derided the uniforms as “something…smacked of chain motel bedspread or 747 jumbo-jet upholstery.” To Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Charlie Hough, a native of Honolulu, they looked “like Hawaiian softball uniforms.” Adding insult to injury, the new look did not help the Astros on the field. In 1975, they posted their worst record of the 20th century, 64-97, good for last place in the National League West. The ownership of the team would soon be assigned by a collection agency to Hofheinz’s creditors. By midseason, Spec Richardson was gone as general manager, replaced by Tal Smith of the New York Yankees.

As Smith told Paul Lukas, “…it was quite a change from the majestic pinstripes to the flashy rainbows. But I really liked the design.” Smith acknowledged the public relations issues faced by the Astros, insisting that “the uniform was an important step. The one thing I did not care for was the circle on the back of the jersey…I lobbied pretty hard to get that changed for the next season.”

1975 Astros Manager Preston Gomez studies the field as pitcher Doug Konieczny walks away. ~ (Notice how pitchers walking away in photos always make you think that something bad just happened?)

Also worth noting, as evidenced by the above photograph, is the number 40 in a black circle on manager Preston Gomez’ left shoulder. The patch was a memorial tribute to pitcher Don Wilson, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in January 1975.

By 1979, the Astros had found a new owner in New Jersey shipbuilder John McMullen. The team contended with a record of 89-73 before signing Nolan Ryan to a free agent contract. The rainbow design remained unchanged but soon underwent several alterations. The Astros abandoned the orange caps in 1982 and scrapped the rainbow design altogether in 1986.

Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax, 1980.

Sometime around 2002, the Astros’ rainbow uniform design became popular within the ‘rapper’ culture. The Astros have since reintroduced the jerseys as alternates and they do indeed sell them at Minute Maid Park. More recently, the Astros understood that the prototype cap has become legendary amongst collectors. Hence their inclusion among gift shop merchandise.

To Norman LeBrun and your friend from Georgia, now you know the rest of the story.

Here’s a shot of two contemporary Astros (or should we say “temporary” Astros) wearing the rainbows in 2018. ~ Can you tell from this picture and our subtle single clue who they each might be?

 

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

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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One Response to “The Astros Cap That Never Was”

  1. Rick B. Says:

    Maxwell,

    Great info on the history of the cap that never was. I just ordered one online.

    Now, can you ask your sources about another bygone cap, one that I believe was only worn during spring training in 1965? It had only a big H on the crown (no star) and the H was in a different style than the one that was used until the changes made during the Drayton McLane era.

    I have TCMA baseball cards of Ron Brand, Don Larsen, and Hal Woodeshick wearing that cap – I can scan them & email you the images if you’ve never seen it.

    The late Cooperstown Cap Company apparently made that cap, but I found out about it much too late. I saw one on eBay once, but it was much too large for me. I wonder if any company would ever make this cap again. I don’t see why not, since retro items are quite popular.

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