Posts Tagged ‘History’

Minute Maid Park: Open or Closed?

April 11, 2011

Minute Maid Park, Home Opening Day, April 8, 2011.

When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it was the first time in baseball history that we had any kind of answer to the cancellation of games from bad weather on the outside and, even more ordinarily, it was the first time that an enclosed ballpark could be air-conditioned for every day joy and comfort.

That was all well and good, but somewhere over the years of “acclimation” to the everyday sameness of the  Astrodome’s everyday indoor game feel and look, a lot of people got bored with the varied positive effects from nature that were now missing from the game experience. Forget the rain, humidity, and heat for a minute. We all get it on that score. That’s what sold the domed stadium in the first place as a good idea. A venue that was virtually bulletproof from rain checks, one that could provide constant shade, comfort, and coolness was everything we thought we wanted back in the early 1960s.

And it’s what we got too. Except for that game in the late 1970s that was wiped out by flooding rains in the Dome area, everything else that has ever been scheduled for the Eighth Wonder of the World has come off as planned, I think.

What we didn’t count on at the start was the dull sameness that came from watching every indoor game under the enclosed artificial light tones of an inside day that never varied. Over time, we began to miss the periwinkle blue skies that occasionally visit us in the springtime. We missed the always impressive sight of those churning white cotton candy clouds of summer. We missed the scent and taste of breezes blowing in from the gulf on an early June evening. We missed the nip of a late season norther as it brought its forecast to us of the impending autumn season that was coming. We sometimes, if not often, even missed the old Buff Stadium feel of what it was like to sit at the ballpark and down a hot dog and beer under the normal conditions of hot and humid. In short, those of us who were old enough to have known an earlier normal ballpark experience simply missed the variety of everyday life that had now been taken from us by the sterile presence of the Astrodome’s unyielding, invariably predictable sameness.

Minute Maid Park, also April 8, 2011. Same day. Different look at twilight.

The “Ballpark at Union Station,” Enron Field, as we knew it in 2001, and Minute Maid Park, as we know it now, came with a retractable roof. That fact was a direct response to our thirty-five year experience in the Astrodome. When that new ballpark was planned, it came to life with a statement. We Houstonians wanted to keep our air-conditioning, but we also wanted the option of keeping the roof open as weather permitted. In practice, even though the pre-game option always remains with the Astros to open or close the roof, it seems to happen most often in early spring and early fall, when there is less hue and cry from some for the AC to be on with the roof closed at all times.

If I remember correctly, the Astros wanted to open roof for Game Three of the 2005 World Series against the White Sox, but I think they were over-ruled by Commissioner Bud Selig, in response to those who protested that the Houston club was trying to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents from Chicago.

I found that argument to be spurious and with no basis in truth. If you’ve ever spent any time in Chicago during the summertime, you know that the place doesn’t exactly feel like the North Pole at that time of the year. Opening the roof for an evening World Series Game in October seemed like no big game-breaker advantage for the Astros to me. In retrospect, who knows? Maybe leaving the roof open in 2005 could have helped the Astros win the two games in Houston they quickly lost.

Ten years and counting into the Minute Maid Park era, we still have one of the most beautiful and unique ballparks in the majors serving us in Houston. The sliding roof is an important feature. By keeping the roof open during pleasant weather days, and by opening it up at fair times in the late innings, the variation helps to keep the everyday experience of a day at the park from taking on the same look as all others.

Home Opening Day 2011

April 8, 2011

Opening Day, Minute Maid Park, Houston, 2010.

As Dolly Parton used to energetically sing, “Here We Go Again!” Baseball season is back, full blast.

It’s Friday, April 8, 2011, finally time for the home opening game of the Houston Astros in their fiftieth (YES, 50th) season of major league baseball. Astros broadcaster and SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) member Bill Brown has now written what we are all sure will be a wonderful book on Houston’s time as a major league baseball city. That work will not be released until next year, 2012, the actual 50th anniversary date of the club’s first 1962 season in the National League.

Opening Day at home after actually starting the season on the road against the arguably two best clubs in the National League kind of stains the snow of pure unadulterated hope and the Astros have the 1-5 record to back up that assault on dreams from reality, but so what? It’s early. Baseball is the sport of the long season. The important thing now for us baseball fans is simply the fact that its back, as are we who will be going to the game later today. Nobody could have guaranteed the next coming of this season’s new joy when the 2010 run ended, but here we are, those of us who survived the off-season wait. We are ready to give it a go one more time.

Speaking only for me, I’m not going to allow a lot of high expectations for the outcome of this 2011 Astros club spoil the joy of the season itself. We obviously have some problems that include pitching, hitting, fielding, and roster health, but I really believe we have a good everyday force going for us in the form of Manager Brad Mills and a great long-range plan for rebuilding the farm system and roster strength in the presence of General Manager Ed Wade. Back both those spots with the everyday presence of Astros Baseball President Tal Smith, the almost a half century icon of our entire major experience in Houston, and I would say that things are in the best hands available.

Here are some interest points in 2011 for me: (1) I will be watching to see if our two corner infielders (Johnson and Wallace) can show some strength as big league hitters. Both have to either hit for high average or long ball pop to justify their futures in the lineup; (2) We need to stop thinking of Michael Bourn as the future of the club. I like the guy, love him as a fielder, but he’s 29 years old, too up in years to be the future in a double-binded kind of way: (a) if he doesn’t hit far above .250 this year, the Astros cannot justify keeping him in center, but (b) if Bourn hits close to .300, they have to negotiate his 2012 contract with new agent Scott Boras. Where’s the upside on Bourn? (3) Starter J.A. Happ has good stuff, but awful control. That needs to improve;  (4) waiting and watching to see what happens with Jordan Lyles at Oklahoma City; and (5) to just chill out and watch for surprises.

Baseball games can run on for hours. just as the season itself spills all the way into next fall. To that, I say, “Thank God for both conditions. I just love getting trapped in the ballpark and by the season itself.

Play Ball, Astros! Give us your best shot!

The Ghost of Abner Doubleday

April 6, 2011

Abner Doubleday the Mystic appears to have been far more interested in Hinduism than he ever was in baseball. In fact, we have plenty of history that ties him to the former and nothing really credible at all that connects him to the latter.

Abner Doubleday did a lot of things in his life, but, as all informed students of the game now fully understand, inventing baseball wasn’t one of them. As a distinguished officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, it was actually Doubleday who ordered the first return cannon-shot on the Confederates who came and fired the first preemptive volley on the American forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Much later, Abner Doubleday served with the post-war occupation army in Galveston, Texas, when he took over in November 1866 as Major General of the Union forces stationed in the island city. He also served in Galveston as Assistant Director of the Freedman’s Bureau until August 1, 1867. During this time, on April 21, 1867, the 31st anniversary of the The Battle of San Jacinto for Texas Independence, the occasion was celebrated at the Battlegrounds with a game of base ball won by the Houston Stonewalls over the Galveston Robert E. Lees by a score of 35-2.

Although it’s always been rumored that the Galveston club included some Union soldier-players, it’s hard to see how these men could bring themselves to either play, or be accepted by, a team calling themselves the “Robert E. Lees.” If they did, it was a public relations move to top all others in the post-war South. Of course, if the Union boys did play a part in that 35-2 smothering that Galveston took from Houston that day, it may have set things back a step or too as well.

At any rate, there is no surviving evidence that Abner Doubleday even knew about the San Jacinto Day game of 1867, let alone, actually attended or participated.

After the war, Doubleday was living in San Francisco in 1870 when he applied for a patent to build the first railed street car service in the United States. When Doubleday was reassigned by the Army Recruiting Service from the bay area, he sold his cable car rights to the people who actually built the first such service in San Francisco.

On the spiritual side, Doubleday became active in the American Theosophical Society after a later move to New Jersey. In 1878, he became the group’s leader after the two founders moved to India for further study. The group held that their purpose was to explore and find the root threads that connect all religions, but they were heavily influenced, as was Doubleday too, apparently, by a lot of beliefs that come from Hinduism.

Doubleday understood and believed in both karma and reincarnation. If that were the case, it’s too bad he wasn’t also, at least, an avid baseball fan. Karma would have helped him understand the Chicago Cubs. Reincarnation (which, as I understand things, is about “keep doing things until you get it right”) could have helped him understand all of the Brooklyn Dodger World Series matches with the New York Yankees.

Oh well. Count me among those who don’t mind that baseball made a temporary mistake in naming Doubleday and Cooperstown as the inventor and birthplace of baseball. What a beautiful setting that place really is. If baseball was not invented there, as the experts and evidence now shows that it was not, I’m just one of those who agree that it should have been.

Baseball: A Matter of Time

April 5, 2011


"Hitting is timing. The pitcher's job is to upset the hitter's timing." - Warren Spahn.


For a game that isn’t governed by the clock, baseball is endlessly effected from start to finish by the way players handle the timing of just about everything thing they do. Even batters work beyond the wisdom of Mr. Spahn to upset the timing of pitchers too. A good hitter may sometimes take a certain hittable pitch for a strike in a non-critical situation in the hope that his decision will make its way into the pitcher’s book on what to throw the batter at a later time. When that strategy works and the batter then delivers with a key hit, we must fairly conclude that batter, indeed, has upset the pitcher’s  timing on when and where and to whom he throws that last hit-bound pitch.

Mr. Spahn’s statement, of course, comes up on every pitch. If a batter is thinking fastball, up and in, and the pitcher throws him a curve, low and away, or a change-up that left the hand looking just like a fastball at its release point, the chances are strong that the batter’s timing will be way off any chance of hitting the actual pitch delivered.

A pitcher who can do that sort of thing often enough will keep the batter’s club off the ball’s sweet spot marriage of objects often enough to make pitching look like a piece of cake or a walk in the park. In the old days, when pitchers like Spahnie were allowed to finish what they started, one of the great joys was watching the innings roll by as a succession of pop flies, easy grounders, and occasional strike outs. Warren Spahn was on his game, upsetting the timing of the batters he faced, and well on his way to winning again.

Beyond the pitcher-batter cat-and-mouse game on timing, look at all the other ways it comes up in baseball. Take base runners, for example. Good base stealers aren’t all speed, although no one can deny the importance of fast feet. Quickness enters into the picture too, along with a runner’s ability to note facts like how much of a lead he can get off a certain pitcher, how the catcher watches and throws, how many precise steps are open to him on a lead from any base, how’s the running soil he has to travel. All these considerations and other go into the runner’s timing on an attempted steal – and they are probably 90% of the timing differential between safe and out.

On defense, fielder positioning is absolutely key to the timing on all “make-the-0ut” plays. “In or out” and “left or right” are the cross-hair choices on where each fielder is going to play every pitch in every game situation. Connie Mack, the fifty year manager of the old Philadelphia A’s, was an obsessive proponent of these micromanagement points throughout each game. If Mack did not think a fielder was handling that function, he would be up on the dugout steps, signaling the changes he wanted from a fielder with a rolled-up scorecard.

The less range possessed by a fielder, the more important ii is that he starts out standing nearest the spot of greatest batted ball probability. The timing on a Carlos Lee catch, for example, is helped a lot by how easy it is for him to be where he needs to be when the ball comes down from the sky. Because of his limited foot speed, the balls that Lee cannot reach often make him appear to have no range at all. I’m not here t argue that point, just to note that the better you are at anticipating the flight plan of the batted ball, the easier its going to be to cover your range deficiencies.

Now, Joe DiMaggio, for example, was noted for his graceful timing on long run catches. That quality, I think, goes back to Joe D’s uncanny ability to position himself in personal range to the space he would need to cover over the area where the ball was most likely to fly. Things like moving a couple of steps left on right-handed batters hitting against a fastball pitcher were second nature to the great DiMaggio. His shifts got a lot more subtle and complex than simply that one single example – and on every pitch too.

Timing is everything, but on defense, it starts with positioning.

Corner infielders position themselves to defend against all kinds of hitting possibilities on balls hit though the infield. Late in a close game, they may defend against the extra base hit down the line to the potential sacrifice of their positioning on bunts or singles slapped through the wider holes that now exist between their spots and the middle infielders. The middle infielders make their own positioning adjustments too. Play for the double play? Get the out at first? Defend against the hit? All these questions and more go into the positioning decisions that will influence an infielder’s timing on the play that actually unfolds.

And the whole time this is all happening, the pitcher and catcher are quietly thinking: “What can we do on the next pitch to upset the timing on what this guy at bat thinks is going to happen next?”

Speaking of timing, the Houston Astros play their 2011 home opening game this coming Friday night, April 8th. It can’t come soon enough. In fact, it may already be coming too late to spill unadulterated springtime hope all over us longterm Houston fans. As with timing in the actual playing of the game, positioning is critical to the instillation of fresh season hope – and starting off the new year 0 and 3 in Philadelphia isn’t exactly expansive to the range needed for reaching anything close to great expectations for a 2011 playoff berth in Houston.




Cubs Curse and The Stockholm Syndrome

March 31, 2011

This photo was taken at Minute Maid Park in 2009. Now it's 103 years and counting since the last Chicago Cubs team won a World Series in 1908 - and sixty-six years since the Cubs last played in a World Series back in 1945.

They keep on losing, but still they come. 2011 will be no different. The Chicago Cubs shall continue to take their lumps at Wrigley Field and all the other arenas of major league combat, but still their fans will come to watch and obnoxiously cheer them on, showing up in full Cubs regalia here at our place in Houston and elsewhere.

Why do they do it? What’s it all about? When they reasonably know from an experience that exceeds the lifetimes of .999999 of all Cubs fans, and we are talking about “losing” here, how do the fans of the Cubs continue to muster even the spring hope of winning? We Cubs outsiders probably never will understand it completely, if at all.

The closest condition I can point to as a fit as an explanation for Cubs fans and their ongoing support for their team in spite of all evidence to the contrary that winning is probable is the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” from psychology. So, what’s the “Stockholm Syndrome?”

in 1973, four Swedes were held captive in a Stockholm bank vault while their violent robber captors held off a siege from police with threats of violence toward their innocent hostages. Later interviews with all four hostages confirmed that each hostage had become identified with their captors during the siege, Some had even contributed to their captors later legal defenses in court. Psychologically, this reaction was viewed as a mental defense by the hostages against getting hurt by their captors during the siege. In a childlike way, the hostages had identified with their captors to try to build a bond that would keep the armed robbers from harming them under fire. They weren’t simply acting. Their minds were being taken over by a belief system that allowed them to justify their support for the bad guys.

This condition, if you will, of course, derived its name from where it was first noted in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. This “Stockholm Syndrome” has since been identified in several other subsequent situations involving hostages who survived by forming a supportive bond with their captors. Pretty crazy sounding stuff, I know, but remember: We’re talking abnormal psychology here, folks, the kind of stuff that happens to people under long-term threatening situations in which victims are held captive in ways we would all hate as a thought about it ever happening to us.

So, how does the “Stockholm Syndrome” fit as an explanation for Cubs fans? I think it works like this: After one hundred and three years of removal from their last World Series title, the whole Cubs culture is now held hostage by the reality that “losing is a way of life.” Admit it or not, Cubs fans expect to lose – and the fate of losing has now even taken on status as adorable veneration. Whether it’s a memory of the Billy Goat Curse or the Steve Bartman Reach, Cubs fans take it all in stride as integral parts of their destiny to go down in disaster in the final reel of each passing season. They may pretend to believe in winning a World Series as a possibility, but everything in their collective conscious and unconscious experience tells them that losing is always their inevitable rest stop.

Cubs fans cannot even play the card that’s available to most other fans from the original sixteen franchises, other than the St. Louis Browns. Cubs fans cannot even brag that their 90-year old great-grandfathers remember their last Cubs World Series champion. All the great-grandpa Cub fans from 1908 have been in the ground or smoked into urns for years now. And, if there is a survivor from 1908, it’s not likely that he holds on to any memories of relevant import.

“Tinker to Evers to who?”

“That’s right, Grandpa! Who’s on first!”

Yes, I think the “Stockholm Syndrome” is a cap that fits the Cubs Nation well. They are a culture totally dedicated by experience and expectation to the reality of losing as a way of life for their kind. I guess we could stop short and just call it a bad case of “1908-itits” that affects our North Chicago brethren and their WGN convert-level class, but that descriptor doesn’t carry the issue far enough.

“Itis” is a medical suffix that usually gets attached to any condition arising from acute irritation. And that doesn’t fit the affliction that blankets the Cubs den. Their condition is chronic. And it stopped being merely irritating about a thousand baseball blood baths ago. Cubs fans had to either die from losing or start adoring its inevitability. Like the people who got vault-stuffed in Stockholm, Cubs fans chose the latter – to start adoring their captor – and their’s was named “Loser.”


Sounds Like Old Times

March 30, 2011


I can hear this baby now. Can you?


My lifelong interest in the past, all things old, and the musky smell of old newspapers in some out of the way library somewhere, sooner or later, had to lead me through all the ways we experience life through our senses. One doesn’t merely read or think about the past, whether it’s the Civil War, local history, family matters, or the journey of American baseball from the pasture lands to the city. To grasp the past as closely as we are able, and without a physical time machine, we must be open to ways that enable us to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it, and, yes, hear it too.

And, if you have a sixth sense, plug that one in as well. That sixth sense may even be the key to learning how to tune in your five physical senses to the same daunting challenge. In fact, and here’s what I have found, the more free you are to play with the five senses in your mind, the easier it is to make room for a total sense of what some moment in the past may actually have been like.

Let’s take a simple example that surrounds many of us daily to explore how this works, especially in the attics of older homes.

Most attics are not visited too often. In that sense, attics are like little time capsule pictures of what things were like on the last day anyone went there to place, remove, or rearrange things. In Houston, we probably have some unceremonious attic arrangements in places like River Oaks and the Heights that have not been reconfigured since the 1930s – or even the 1920s.

So what?

So, assuming the owner’s permission, or being the owner yourself, go to such an attic storage place. Turn on the light, or bare open the usually paint and dust caked attic window, if there even is one. See what you can see. Try to imagine how each item got there. Who left the empty coke bottle on that two by four ledge over a half century ago? Smell the musk of age and air confinement. Sense the heat. Depending on the time of year, the attic temperature may not be especially conducive to long visitations. There also will be things in sight that you certainly would be afraid to taste – or even touch.

But what do you hear? If sound from the outside yard and street is available to you in 2011, what was out there in 1937? Would you recognize the sound of manual lawnmower blades, if your heard them? Would you be surprised by the louder, more guttural  sound of car engines from the 1930’s as they passed by? How about the music of Benny Goodman or Guy Lombardo playing over a radio somewhere and now wafting its way to the attic?

And who was the child that once played with that little mechanical version of Donald Duck that you’ve just found and wound and sent quacking across the attic floor? Do you now think that same kid may have also had a daddy who once owned and then stored a copy of the famous 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card somewhere up here in this same attic?

Are you catching a second wind on that thought and thinking you may want to stay here and visit the past a while longer? Or is that just the lust for buried treasure taking over?

No matter what, when you finally do come down from the ancient attic, did the use or idea of using all your senses help you do a little simulated time traveling? If so, you are probably now better prepared than ever to do some kind of historical research. Once we learn to turn all our senses on to the time period we are investigating, I think we learn faster and, in some cases, we see connections we might otherwise miss altogether.

Just my wide open mental meanderings on a sort of rainy morning in March 2011.

Murmurs of Murderers’ Row

March 29, 2011


The 1927 New York Yankees, The Stuff that Baseball Dreams Are Made Of.


Little is left to say about them. They roared through the new power-driven baseball world of the Roaring Twenties, winning 110 games during the 1927 American League season and then rolling over the Pittsburgh Pirates of Pie Traynor and the Waner Boys in a four-game sweep. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig battled each other all season for the pure Yankee privilege of breaking Babe’s pure Yankee record of 59 home runs in a single season. Gehrig finally ran out of gas, but the Bambino poured it on in September to finish with 60. The slumping Gehrig had only 47, but both totals were far more than any other hitter in the big leagues could muster in 1927.

The 1927 New York Yankees were the hammer that established and reaffirmed this one baseball franchise in The Bronx as the kingpins of the game. Nobody did it better. And no other club, from there to the part of kingdom come we now know as 2011 would do it more often. When we  think of World Series, most of us think of it as “New York Yankees versus who?” When we think of World Series winner, most of us simply mind slip into the next forward gear, “New York Yankees over whomever!”

And the deal is simple. You don’t even have to like the Yankees to think this way. You just have to be around the game long enough on a year in, year out, day in, day out basis. If that doesn’t condition you into thinking that the Yankees always have the best chance of winning over any of the other clubs, you are either lying about your closeness to the game, or else, you are completely steeped in a state of denial that is only fully available to fans of the Boston Red Sox.

Back to home runs for a minute. In 1927, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs were more than all but three clubs in the major leagues hit as a team – and all three of those clubs were National League teams. The New York Giants hit 109; the St. Louis Cardinals hit 84; and the Chicago Cubs hit 74. Of the 439 homers struck by all American League hitters in 1927, Ruth (60) and Gehrig (47) of the Yankees had 107. That’s a healthy 24% plus a few percentage points more of the league total.

And the ’27 Yankees were not just Ruth and Gehrig. Look at this typical starting lineup for the club that came to be known as Murderer’s Row:

(1) Earl Combs, cf BL/TL (.356 BA; led AL in hits with 231 and triples with 23.)

(2) Mark Koenig, ss BR/TR (.285 BA, 150 hits, 19 doubles)

(3) Babe Ruth, ef BL/TL (.356 BA. led AL with 60 HR; 158 Runs; 137 Walks; .486 OBP; and .772 SLG.)

(4) Lou Gehrig, 1b BL/TL (.373 BA, led Al with 52 doubles; 175 RBI; and 447 total bases.)

(5) Bob Meusel, lf BR/TL (.337 BA, had .393 OBP and 103 RBI)

(6) Tony Lazzeri, 2b BR/TR (.309 BA; had 18 HR and 102 RBI.)

(7) Joe Dugan, 3b BR/TR (..269 BA)

(8) Pat Collins, c BR/TR (.275 BA; .407 OBP)

The pitching staff featured Hall of Famers Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00) and Waite Hoyt (22-7, 2.63), plus the great Urban Shocker (18-6, 2.84), Wilcy Moore (19-7, 2.28), and a few other terrific arms that any club today would kill to possess.

I don’t really expect the 2011 Yankees to walk over anybody or even reach the World Series. On the other hand, if they got there, as per forever, it would be soon lost among the least surprising outcomes in baseball history. In the Hall of Great Expectations, the New York Yankees carry the biggest load in all of sports, not just baseball. Some of their fans will not even allow them the liberty of an occasional off-day, let alone a multiple game slump or complete off-year.

Blame the ’27 Yankees. That’s pretty much where the Yankee search for perfection got front-loaded. And that idea wasn’t hurt any by the Yankee clubs of Marse Joe McCarthy in the late 30s and early 40s or the Casey Stengel boys of 1949 and the 1950s. All the Yankees needed from there to totally seal their ridiculous aspirations was to be purchased someday by an owner who thought the team could literally win every game.

I think that one happened too.

For me, the 27 Yankees and their gaudy 110-44 record were an accomplishment of great astonishment to my childhood years of early study about the history of the game. Ruth and Gehrig became, and will always be, my  two biggest heroes from baseball history as one result.  This time of the year, they are a reminder that the baseball season is upon us again. Time for those enjoyable pauses from everyday life that only take place at the ballpark.

Thank God for baseball. And thanks too, God, for the ’27 Yankees.





Early Houston Buffs and Browns Connection?

March 28, 2011

West End Park, Home of the Houston Buffs, 1907-1927. Published by permission of the City of Houston Public Library, Houston, TX.

Thanks to another little article from the Houstorian, some new/old/recycled questions and answers about the Houston Buffs and West End Park are again recycled and now come at us hard as researchers, loudly begging for further exploration. As we move further into our new SABR Chapter major research project, “Houston Baseball, 1861-1961, The First One Hundred Years,” this is the sort of thing that our team will need to explore with effort that goes way beyond quick and easy, incomplete conclusions.

The Houstorian article, for example, concludes that in 1909,  “the (Houston) Buffaloes were part of the St. Louis Browns farm system,” and it seems to be a conclusion based largely on the fact that, by 1910, “the following Buffaloes were playing for the St. Louis Browns: Roy Mitchell (P), Jim Stephens (C), Frank Truesdale (2B), Patrick Newnam (1B), Hub Northen, Joe McDonald, Art Griggs, Dode Criss, Alex Malloy, and Bill Killefer.” From what I was able to confirm through the minor league data files at Baseball Reference.Com, the Houstorian’s conclusion are correct as to the joint participation of most of these players as both Buffs and Browns.

Houston may have had some kind of working agreement with the Browns in 1909. That factor needs further research. It is rash, however, to conclude that the Buffs were part of the Browns “farm system” in 1909. Back then, major league clubs did not own minor league clubs. That kind of ownerships was viewed as sinister to the idea of a level playing field among all big league clubs. Further study of the Browns-Buffs arrangement in 1909 is needed. That’s the only true and safe end we may now touch based on what we know, so far.

Here’s a link to the Houstorian article that stirs up historical information like a first scratch in the ground of artifacts:

If you are a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, or if you think you might be interested in joining us in the biggest research challenge in Houston Area Baseball History as a new member of SABR, please get in touch with me, Bill McCurdy, @

We are in the early stages of organizing our research work plan for scouring all available resources that will provide us with the best information we can find on the growth and evolution of baseball in the Houston area from the time of its first organization in 1861 as the “Houston Base Ball Club” through its last season as the minor league Houston Buffs in 1961.” If you have a passion for baseball, time for research, the patience and eyes for studying old newspaper and other public records on microfilm at the library, please consider joining our team. The final product will be a scholarly published historical work on the full history of baseball in Houston prior to the coming of the major leagues in 1962. Profits from this book will be dedicated to the support of SABR and its other programs in the Houston area – and everyone who does the research and writing that makes it possible will get their names credited to this legacy work on a major aspect of Houston and Harris County history.

If you have the time, the passion, and the patience for it, we need your help now.

The Houston Baseball History Project Wants You!

History Creates Fascinating Possibilities

March 27, 2011

Monorail, Inc. placed this demo line at Arrowhead Park in Houston in 1956.

While surf-sifting for new sources of information on local history last night, I came across this wonderful new site called “The Houstorian.”  In the little time I’ve had with it, it seems to me that it does a pretty fair job of pulling together some pretty interesting patches of Houston area history, the kind of information that’s important to all of us who care about make sense of our past for what it may also teach us about our future.

Here’s a link to the Houstorian’s WordPress website:

More pointedly to my subject this morning, here’s a link to the Houstorian’s treatment of how a four-year period of legalized parimutuel betting (1933-37) during the Great Depression led to the opening of Epsom Downs and to horse racing in Houston and an attempt to revitalize betting and liquor-gy-the-drink in the 1950s. Their summary of how that whole scenario played out it is the best I’ve ever found. Here’s the specific link to it:

My point is rather simple about two matters. Both are clearly only my retrospectives on what happened as a result of how things played out: (1) Because parimutuel betting was not returned to legal status, the new track complex built at OST and Main could not succeed as a horse-racing- for-the-fun-of-it attraction. “Arrowhead Park,” as it came to be called, converted in purpose to midget stock car racing, becoming the place where a young hot wheels Houstonian named A.J. Foyt, among others, first cut his teeth on the way to racing fame and fortune. (2) The park also became a place where a Houston company named Monorail, Inc. installed a brief demo line of their new silent and speedy product that they hoped might be the answer to Houston’s burgeoning mass transit needs.

Here’s how I see the unintended consequences of these two actions:

(1) Had parimutuel gambling been approved and the OST/Main Street track succeeded, my guess is that we never would have seen the Astrodome go up where it did. That adjacent land would have already found some other commercial commitment from R.E. “Bob” Smith to other purposes ancillary to the the successful betting track. If not, it’s possible that the success of gambling in Houston might have steered Major League Baseball away from jumping on Houston as a site for one of their first two expansion clubs in the National League. Or they would have at least found another site. It’s doubtful that MLB would have looked favorably upon plans for a new ballpark just two blocks away from a heavy gambling enterprise. (2) Monorail could have worked beautifully for mass transit in Houston, but it had no chance, not from the git-go. By the 1950s, the vested interests in freeway construction already were about to fully commit by their political and financial actions to the building of the Eastex, North, Katy, and Southwest freeways to go with their already-on-the-ground-and-stalling Gulf Freeway and their plans for all the new upscale suburbs they were also building in the distant hinterlands. And why not? Gas was cheap back then and probably would remain so forever. Right?

Progress would not be allowed to interfere with profit. Not in mid-20th century Houston.

Joe E. Brown’s Baseball Movie Trilogy

March 26, 2011

Alibi Ike (1935)

Many of you may not remember comedian Joe E. Brown. The guy worked America’s funny bone in movies a very long time ago now. In fact, he was 80 years old when he passed away in 1973, so you are duly forgiven, but still regretfully deprived if he played no part in your earlier cultural education about life in America and our special love for the game of baseball.

Known for his rubbery face, his very large mouth, and his long-winded, comically framed ability to hold a singly sung or shouted note,  Brown made a trio of movies during the 1930s that were all dedicated to one of the most overworked fiction themes in baseball novel and movie history.

These movies were “Fireman Save My Child” (1932), “Elmer the Great” (1933), and “Alibi Ike” (1935). All cast Joe E. Brown as the naive country bumpkin with incredible talent for baseball. “Fireman,” the first, is both the worst and hardest to come by as far as viewings are concerned. It may hit the screen at TCM (Turner Classic Movies) every now and then, but I’ve never seen it there. In fact, I haven’t seen it in years. “Elmer” and “Ike” are both easier to see and acquire through TCM or by DVD. Order them at TCM or through Amazon.

Famed sports writer Ring Lardner had a hand in writing the scripts for both “Elmer” and “Ike” and maybe that’s why each of these movies had Joe E. Brown coming up as the star that finally led the Cubs to pennant and World Series victories back in the 1930s. After all, Cubs fans of that era were starting to get a little fed up in 1933 with the fact that they had not won it all since 1908.

In each case, Joe’s baseball character falls into the beguiling hands of the slick city girl hustler who leads him astray – and into the deeper clutches of mobster-based gangsters who entrap or kidnap him as a result of gambling losses into missing “the big game” until he is able to fee himself and get back to the ballpark in time to save the day.

The ploys of each film run together for me now. I do recall that Lucille Ball’s character actor for Fred Mertz (William Frawley) plays Joe’s Cubs manager in “Alibi Ike,” while the great Olivia DeHavilland makes her screen debut in the same film as his home town girl. She would go on to take a supportive sctress Oscar four years later in “Gone With The Wind.”

In “Fireman,” Brown stars for the Cardinals; the other two films arrest him as a Cubs hero. In “Ike,” a climatic scene plays out through a night game at Wrigley Field.  It’s supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago, but the film was actually shot at the lighted Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. The fact that Wrigley Field Chicago would not have lights until 1988 did not bother the continuity folks working the “Alibi Ike” script one little iota.

Whoever handled continuity for “Alibi Ike”  must also have had a kid who later handled the casting of right-handed New Yorker Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams.” Who’s going to notice the difference, or even care? Right?

"Are you ready to win another big pennant for the Cubs, Ike?"

“Ready to win another pennant for the Cubs, Ike?”

Joe E. Brown’s son, Joe Brown, later served a successful term as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, causing the elder Brown to cast his lot as a dedicated Bucs fan. In 1950, while the younger Brown was coming up as the GM for the Pittsburgh farm club Waco Pirates, the late Buddy Hancken served there too as the club’s field manager. According to Buddy, Joe E. Brown was so involved in his son’s movements there that he came to Waco for about a month and sat on the bench with the club in uniform to be a part of it all. This field access also provided the old showman with an opportunity to act out some of his own shadow-ball routines on the sidelines as the mood and inspiration struck.

One doesn’t have to be crazy to be a baseball fanatical, but it helps. It also helps if the fanatic possesses some entertaining talent. And Joe E. Brown had far more of the latter than he did of the former. Baseball misses his insanely talented dedication to the game.