Posts Tagged ‘Houston Colt .45s’

Hal Smith, Catcher: A Tale of Two Smittys!

September 29, 2009

smith hal rsmith hal wHouston Baseball”s two Hal Smths were always being confused for one another. It didn’t help clarity much that they played ball in the same era and, worse, that they played the same position and both batted right handed. I’ve forgotten how often the same statement would come up from different friends at games during the 1962 first seson of the Colt .45s: “Oh yeah,” they’d say, “I remember that guy at catcher, that Hal Smith. He played for the Buffs a few years back.”

“No,” I’d have to answer, “this is not the same Hal Smith. This is the other Hal Smith, the one that got one of the big home runs for Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series!”

“Oh,” they’d usually reply. “You mean that guy for the Pirates wasn’t the same Hal Smith who used to play for the Buffs?”

If this conversation had been part of an Abbott and Costello routine, this would have ben the point where I went to the big question of the day, “Who’s on first?”

Instead of going the Abbott and Costello way, let’s just try to get these two Hal Smith straight and apart for whom they each actually were. To that end, we’ll go the use of middle name initials to help keep their two identities separate and apart:

Hal R. Smith (Harold Raymond Smith) (BR/TR, 5’10.5″, 185 lbs.) was born June 1, 1931 in Barling Arkansas. – Hal W. Smith (Harold Wayne Smith) (BR/TR, 6’0″, 195 lbs.) was born December 7, 1930 in West Frankfort, Illinois. Both were catchers.

Hal R. Smith played for the Houston Buffs of the Texas League over the course of two seasons (1954-55). He batted .259 with 5 homers and 39 runs batted in for the ’54 Buffs and .299 with 8 HR and 67 RBI for the ’55 Buffs. 1955 concluded Hal R. Smith’s six season minor league career (1949-50, 1952-55). Hal R. Smith the next six seasons catching for the St. Louis Cardinals (1956-61), returning briefly with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1965 for three hitless times at bat.

Hal R. Smith’s little time as a Pirate in 1965 didn’t help keep him straight from Hal W. Smith in the public mind. The Pirates were Hal W. Smith’s old team during the 1960 World Series – and that was the season in which Hal W. Smith’s home run in Game Seven kept Pittsburgh alive for Bill Mazeroski’s winning walk-off homer against the New York Yankees.

Hal R. Smith never played for Houston’s major league Colt. 45s or Astros. His career major league record with St. Louis (and three at bats with Pittsburgh) included a batting average of .258, 23 home runs, and 172 RBI. Hal R. Smith also maintains a website that includes much more information about his personal life and career. Here’s the link:

http://halsmithcards.com/bio.html

Hal W. Smith was an original 1962 original club Houston Colt .45! In fact, he caught the first pitch ever thrown in a Houston major league game and it happened at Colt Stadium on April 10, 1962. Bobby Shantz was the Houston pitcher in that landmark moment; future Hall of Famer Lou Brock was the Chicago Cubs lead-off batter.

Hal W. Smith batted .235 with 12 HR and 35 RBI for Houston during the first big league season. He returned to the Colt .45s in 1963 for limited duty action, batting .241 with 0 homers and 2 RBI. Over a 17-season professional baseball career (1949-64), Hal W. Smith played all or parts of 10 seasons as a major leaguer for Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Cincinnati. His career major league totals include a batting average of .267, 58 HR, and 323 RBI.

Hal W. Smith came to Houston in the 1961 first player draft stocking of the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s, but he never really went away from the place in Texas that became his home, even though he played two final seasons of pro ball beyond his stay in Houston after the 1963 season. Hal W. Smith and his wife now live in retirement near Houston in Columbus, Texas.

Like most good catchers and pitchers, Hal W. Smith had a memory for hitters’ weaknesses, even among those foes he had faced many years ago. I ran into Hal W. Smith at a 2004 baseball banquet in which I was signng “A Kid From St. Louis,” the book I had written with the late Jerry Witte, a slugging first baseman for the 1950-52 Houston Buffs. Hal W. Smith had played for Beaumont of the same Texas League in 1952 and he remembered Jerry Witte’s weak spot.

“I knew how to get him out,” Hal W. Smith offered, “You threw him a high inside fastball. He’d swing at it and miss just about every time. Couldn’t lay off of it. – You never threw him the same pitch low and outside. He had these long arms that allowed him to go out there and get those low ones out of the zone and send ’em on a long golf ball ride, far over the left field wall.”

Amazing! Almost as amazing as the hope that this little article will now help people keep the identities of Houston baseball’s two “Hal Smith catchers” separate and apart.

Minute Maid Park: Making the Case for Character and Tradition.

August 10, 2009

Minute Maid Park 3 Ten seasons deep into its life as a baseball venue, the place that began as Enron Field at Union Station before its reputationally redemptive  transformation into Astros Park, and then Minute Maid Park,  is alive and well – and building surface patina by the layers-worth on its quirkiness as yet another one-of–a-kind home to Houston baseball. That tradition of uniqueness in Houston is steeped in the six major parks that have served as home to our professional baseball warriors since 1888.

1) Houston Base Ball Park (1888-1906). The forerunner of West End Park at 601 Andrews Street and Smith Avenue, south across the street from the lustre of local history that is Antioch Baptist Church, HBBP is about 90% certainly the same forerunner site of the 2,500 seat ballpark that followed it in service. HBBP seated about 300 people on wooden bench stands, but it offered few amenities we see as necessary today for enjoyment at the game. The problem for research here is nailing down something from one of the agate-type newspaper stories of its time that clearly notes its location beyond doubt. From my research of the real estate plattes from that era, I cannot see any other place in the near downtown area that would have served its purpose as well as the long open field on Andrews. That site is now part of the Allen Center, but no city plaque exists to mark it as the cradle of Houston’r professional baseball history. (Houston real-time base ball birth goes back to April 1861, when the first Houston Base Ball Club was formed in the room above J.H. Evans’s Store on Market Square. As soon as we are able to confirm the precise location of Mr. Evans’s Store, we will be able to petition the City of Houston to mark that spot too as the real birth site of baseball in Houston.

West End Park 2) West End Park (1907-1927). For twenty-one seasons, for sure, the 2,500 seat wooden grandstand ballpark near downtown served as the home of the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League. Rookie Buffs center fielder Tris Speaker helped cristen the place in 1907 with some dazzling play in the cavernous outfield while also leading the Texas League in hitting that year with a .314 batting average. During this same two-decade period, a young man from Austin named Fred Ankenman gradually took over running the Buffalo stampede into local hearts as chief executive under local ownership and later as President under the club’s ownership from the early 1920s by the major league St. Louis Cardinals. West End Park was a nice place, but it was never big enough to house the future plans of the fellow that ran the Cardinal operation – a fellow named Branch Rickey, the man who served as the genius of minor league farm team design and hands-on micromanager of all moves pertaining to Cardinals baseball. After the Cards won their first World Series over the New York Yankees in 1926, Rickey and Ankenman acquired a parcel of land on the rail lines that flowed east from downtown Houston. They built a $400,000 jewel of a ballpark on what was then called St. Bernard Avenue. That street later was renamed as Cullen Boulevard. The ballpark they built there was christened as Buffalo Stadium on April  11. 1928. Ironically, Union Station, at the corner of Texas and Crawford, was one of the principle places that fans caught the trains and street cars for transportation in the afternoons to Buffalo Stadium on game days.

Buff Stadium Mural 3) Buffalo/Buff Stadium (1928-1952); Busch Stadium (1953-1961). Subtract the three lost years in which the Texas League was closed down during World War II (1943-45) and “Buff Stadium” was home to Houston baseball for 31 active seasons from 1928 to 1961. I’m, of course, absorbing those few final seasons in which the place was technically renamed as “Busch Stadium” into that figure. Most of us diehard Buff fans never accepted that name change in the first place.

Seating 8,000 people originally, Buff Stadium eventually expanded down the left field line  to handle as many as 11,000 seated fans – with a total gate potential of over 13,000 when the outfields were roped off to accomodate a standing room only crowd. A 1951 spring exhibition game betwen the Buffs and the New York Yankees with DiMaggio and Mantle playing in the same outifield drew well over 13,000 – and that standing-in-left-center-field gate inscluding my dad, my brother, my best pal, and me. The pictures in my mind from that day still cry out for development. I shall forever regret not having my camera with me on that storybook day.

colt stadium 4) Colt Stadium (1962-64). It was never intended as anything more than service as a temporary home for Houston’sn new major league club, the Colt .45’s – and it’s just as well. The place that many of fans called “The Skillet” was tough enough during the work week night games, when Houston’s vampire squad mosquitoes feasted upon this congregation of human flesh and blood, but it was worse than Dante’s Inferno on weekends under the direct fiery blaze of the sun. With no overhead protection, and with the surrounding parking cement reflecting all that heat back up into the humidor-like confines of Colt Stadium, people dropped like flies at daytime weekend games. For those conditions, the short-lived Colt Stadium earned a place in baseball history. It forced the ball club to seek permission for night baseball on Sundays, something that had been unheard of previously due to all the blue law notions about the role of baseball on the Lord’s Day, anyway. Attedance at Sunday night games in Houston was so improved that it led to other clubs playing games at that night time slot also. It wasn’t long before televised Sunday Night Baseball became a fixture among the viewing habits of fans.

We have Colt Stadium to thank for that little ripple on the wall of history.

astrodome 5) The Astrodome (1965-1999). Judge Roy Hofheinz dubbed it as ” the eighth wonder of the world” once he renamed the Harris County Domed Stadium as “The Astrodome” – the new home of the newly renamed Houston Astros. Looking back now, I have to admit to something that I think almost all of us experienced back then in those more innocent and  far less jaded days of big change. – The idea of a domed stadium just blew us all away. We could not  imagine any ballpark that could be built to protect the game from weather – that wouldn’t also interfere with the flight of most high-arching fly balls.

As it turned out, it wasn’t fly balls hitting the roof that presented a problem. It was the outfielders being able to see fly balls as they flew into the camaflauge of the ceiling beams and roof-side window lights that was their new background. You hard core fans know the rest of this story. The Astros painted the ceiling windows to make it easier for fielders to see the flight of high batted fly balls. That action killed the grass and led to the introduction a new articial surface material called Astroturf –  and many other changes from that point forward.

For, at least, the third new stadium in a row, Houston had produced venues that led to broader change; Buff Stadium became the model for the construction of upscale ballparks in minor league cities; Colt Stadium led to Sunday Night Baseball; and the Astrodome led both baseball and football to the use of Astroturf as a field covering.

Unfortunately, the Astrodome also became the “cookie-cutter” model for multi-purpose venues that would principally serve as home to both baseball and football as a cost-reducing incentive on the side of promoting public support for professional sports. Similarly dimensioned stadiums soon opened in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. None of these other places had roofs, but New Orleans soon enough built a second domed stadium for football that vould have been used for baseball too, if the city had possessed a big league club.

Minute Maid Park 11 tals hill

6) Minute Maid Park, 2000-2009 & Counting. Our current downtown ballpark represents Houston’s commitment to the retropark, baseball only, or principally baseball, movement that began in Baltimore during the early 1990s. As such, MMP came to life bearing certain quirky features of three great ballparks from baseball’s early years. I like them all, but let’s parade them out there for those who may not have noticed the lineage on these particular features. (a) The Polo Grounds: Although the dimsensions of MMP are not as extreme, the short porches on the foul lines and the deep center field distance is remindful of the much steeper rectangle that governed the flight of baseballs in the old Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Many people who quickly notice the short distance down the line at MMP are not so quick to note that dead center in MMP is 35 feet further away than it was at the Astrodome. (b) Fenway Park: The distance down the left field line at MMP is the same 315 feet that governs the same area at Fenway Park in Boston. We don’t have a “Green Monster” wall in left, but we do have a pretty tall manual scoreboard there (another retro feature that makes playing the ball off the wall) anything but routine. That “Crawford Boxes” seating area has become one of the great places to watch baseball too. I’ll take it over the cookie-cutter wall and seating area in left field at the Astrosome any day of the week. (c) Crosley Field. We have Astros President of Baseball Operations Tal Smith to thank for the elevaed hill shown in the picture at left. “Tals Hill,” as its aptly called, is a double throwback to a feature that had been built into Crosley Field (then known as Redland Field) when it was built in 1912. Instead of leveling the field up to street height when they finsished the field, they simply covered the last few feet as a gradually climbing, fifteen degree incline to the street. Someone back there saw one of two advantages to this feature. In the days prior to warning tracks, the incline gave fielders a buit in message that they were nearing collision with a fence. The second use of the hil was to provide graduating sight lines for fans standing in the outfield during SRO games. Tal remembered the left field hill feature from his early days with the Reds organization and spoke out in favor of its inclusion in the new Houston ballpark. Thank goodness, he did. The Hill – and the on-the-field flagpole that Tal also suggested – are two of the most enjoyable features at Minute Maid Park. In the decade they have been in place, they have ended no careers – and they have produced some of the best catches we’ve ever seen.

Bill McCurdyMinute Maid Park is a monument to baseball uniqueness among all other sports. As many fine writers have pointed out, ad nauseum, baseball isn’t controlled by the clock. Theoretically, a game could go on from here to eternity, if the score remains tied at the end of each full inning. It also doesn’t play out on an even gridiron, as does football. Baseball plays out on whatever field fits the reality of the community it serves – and you cannot blame your losses on the field of battle – unless you are just a loser looking for another easy excuse for your own failures.

For example, in one of my last years of adolescent baseball glory, I played a number of games in a center field area that I shared with a pretty good sized oak tree. I’d like to blame the oak tree for my lack of success that season, but I cannot.  The oak tree had no surprisingly agile moves out there in deep center. Unfortunately, neither did I.

History of Houston Baseball Team Nicknames!

July 29, 2009

Mud Cats

When it comes down to baseball team nicknames, we weren’t always the Astros in Houston. Going all the way back to 1867, Houston baseball has been represented on all the various levels of competition by at least thirteen different identities – and these are simply the ones we are able to uncover with a little easy, but broadscale research smf dome “count ’em on my fingers” match. (Thirteen is the figure I got for a total after adding up all, but one of the bold type nicknames that follow in this post.)

The Houston Stonewalls are our first nickname reference. Hot on the heels of the recently concluded Civil War, the 1867 Stonewalls took their name in honor of former Confederate General Stonewall Jackson only two years after the conclusion of the war between the states, ths contributing to the idea that Houston discovered “base ball” through its association with Unionists in Prisoner-of-War camps. Not so. Remember? You’ve heard it from several times over st the old Chron.Com site: The first Houston Base Ball Club was formed at a meeting above J.H. Evans’ store on Market Square in downtown Houston on April 16, 1861. That foundation was poured only weeks after Texas already had seceded from the Union, but it happened so near the advent of conflict that base ball would have to wait until the war was done to get rolling locally. When it did, the Houston Stonewalls went into action on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1867 and defeated the Galveston Roberts E. Lees by the runaway tally of 35-2. Yep. The Galveston nickname also helped cement the wrong understanding about when and how baseball first came to the greater Houston area. I’m not saying that no Houstonians first learned of baseball through their Civil War experiences. I am saying that we have the evidence that proves the formation of base ball activity in Houston prior to the outbreak of Civil War conflict.

Our next notable nickname came about on March 6, 1888, when the newly formed Houston Babies, the first fully professional club representing our city took the field downtown at the Houston Base Ball Park to engage the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the first local representation of our city’s name in this new venture. Team nicknames held as much permanence as a men’s dress shirt back in the 19th century. The “Houstons” simply acquired theirs by being the last club to formally sign up as a member of the brand new Texas League in its inaugural 1888 season. Hence, people in the media hooked the locals with the quickly unpopular nickname of the Houston Babies. The Babies had every reason to cry in that first game as the Cincinnatis walloped them, 22-3, and the Babies added thirteen errors, six alone by pitcher Tim Flood,  to their first professional effort.

It didn’t take long for the 1888 Babies roster to rebel against their idenity with infancy. Things were fairly literal back in those days too. So, the Houston players looked down at their solid red stockings and somebody said aloud, with a smile and a finger snap too, little doubt: “Say! Why don’t we call ourselves the Red Stockings?” They played the rest, and the bulk, of their first professional season as the Houston Red Stockings, also, I feel sure, in some unconscious referential tribute to the Ohio team that whacked them at the start.

1889 was another uniform shirt-change year. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats captured the city’s first professional championship by capturing the Texas League crown under the field leadership of Big John McCloskey, the man remembered today as the “Father of the Texas League.” The Mud Cats were declared the league champion after collapsing under financial pressure in August, but only a mere three days prior to the day the whole league folded too. As the old saying goes, you can’t sing your way to the bank without any “do re mi” on hand, and the early professionals of Texas baseball suffered painfully through the dollar version of tonsillitis.

The 1895 Houston Magnolias had a mediocre season, but the 1896 Mags took the pennant of a league that now calling itself the Texas-Southern League. Apparently, Magnolia bloom and die. Without further research and discovery, I can offer no evidence of the Magnolia going foward as a Houston team nickname beyond their championship season.

The Houston Buffalos appear for the first time in 1903, when the city fields a mediocre team in the South Texas League. The nickname resurfaces in 1905-06, when the club is still a member of the South Texas League. For the first time, the city has a nickname that is strongly connected to the city. Buffalo Bayou is the principal waterway among several similar flowing streams that thread their way through Houston. Running through downtown Houston and very near the original venue for games, Buffalo Bayou personalizes the nickname identity of the club with the image of the city. Once the club returns for its long engagement in the Texas League (1907-1958), it remains the Houston Buffalos/Buffaloes/Buffs through the crack of minor league doom in Houston – and that includes the final three years of the Houstons Buffs as members of the American Association (1959-61).

In 1904, the Houston Wanderers of the same South Texas League take the field under manager Claude Reilly. Of interest is the fact the club is so-called in honor of their 1903 manager, Wade Moore, and a brief time then they were informally known as “Wade’s Wanderers” from Houston. We’ll count Wanderers as one nickname of its own, but we shall respect the rights of all who care to spend energy on making a case for two separate nicknames in this instance.

From 1924 through 1958, minor Negro League baseball thrives in Houston through one club and a two-nickname history. Houstonians John and James Liuzza establish and run a black baseball club that starts out as the Houston Monarchs and then transforms into the Houston Black Buffs. Over this entire period, Arthur Lee Williams is the lone manager in the club’s long history. The club collapses from a decline of interest in Negro League ball that bombs attendance after integration changes the face of all organized baseball.

Speaking of the Negro League declining years, the 1949-50 Houston Eagles are the death rattle editions of the proud Negro League major level club that once represnted the City of Newark, New Jersey. They ived here long enough to give us another local nickname for our tt board.

Of course, our city went into the major leagues as the Houston Colt .45s in 1962, but that identity was changed in 1965 when Judge Roy Hofheinz of the Houston Sports Association changed their identity to match up with the new space theme he was building around the new world’s first domed stadium. The Houston Astros would play in the Astrodome from 1965 through 1999. The same ongoing Astros (by nickname, at least)  have continued to play forward in the National League from 2000 through the present time, 2009, at the downtown venue now known as Minute Maid Park.

One more name deserves placement on this list.  Since 1947, and taking nothing away from the fine national championship  program at Rice University, the University of Houston has also represented our proud city name literally. Playing all these years under only four head coaches (Lovette Hill, 1947-1970; Rolan Walton, 1971-1986; Bragg Stockton, 1987-1993; and Raynor Noble, 1994-2009 & counting). The Houston Cougars have also made several trips to the College World Series bearing our beloved identity as “Houston” in blood red letters across their uniform breasts. When they started the UH baseball program in 1947, they also shared Buff Stadium as their home park with the Dixie Series Championship club that was building on that same site with the Houston Buffs. If that combination of qualifiers doesn’t get the Cougars on this list, nothing else should. Also of sidebar note here is that one of the UH  Cougars’ first ballplayers back in 1947, pitcher Bill Henry, by name, was the first UH alumnus to then go forward to a successful major league career.

What’s in a baseball team nickname? Now I’m thinking again of a more recent product of Houston Astros in search of an answer. And here it is: Sometimes it’s simply  a ball club that can win games in the most exciting of ways. Maybe we should have counted the “Killer Bees” among our favorite Houston formal team nickname sobriquets!