Posts Tagged ‘Houston’

The Hugh Roy Cullen Legacy

March 15, 2011
 

 

Ezekiel Cullen Building, University of Houston.

Hugh Roy Cullen was one of those people who did very well in life, but who also came to the clear realization that holding on to money that could be used for some noble and larger purpose was the most foolish form of greed and miserliness. No miser was he.

Born July 3, 1881 in Denton County, Texas to Cicero and Louise Beck Cullen, Hugh Roy Cullen was the grandson of Ezekiel Wimberly Cullen. Ezekiel came from Georgia to Texas in 1835 seeking a better life. He. fought in the Texas Revolution against Mexico, eventually settling in San Augustine, Texas the seat of the new revolutionary government.

Raised by his mother in San Antonio, Cullen left school after the fifth grade, taking work at age 12 as a three dollars per week candy counter for a manufacturing concern. Cullen continued to study on his own, reading the classics and also further honing his math and science skills and knowledge. At age 17, he moved to Schulenburg and took to the cotton business like white on rice, becoming a successful agent in the sale and purchase of cotton. In Schulenburg, Cullen also met his future wife of nearly 55 years in the form of Lillie Kranz. The couple was married in 1902.

The Cullens moved to Houston in 1911, where Hugh Roy transferred his discovered skills in the business of land management to the booming new oil exploration industry, and right at the moment it was exploding as the big new American industry, especially in the area around Houston. Bringing in his first successful oil field, Cullen soon formed partnerships that helped him to put together his own oil company, Quintana Petroleum, and, by the mid to late 1930s, he was well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in America,

Then something happened.

Cullen’s only son, Roy, was killed in a tragic oil field accident in 1936, putting a major heartache on the Cullen family, but also opening the Cullen heart to give of himself in ways he may never before imagined possible. Cullen never forgot the obstacles he faced when circumstances limited his early family education. He looked around and found the University of Houston, just as the new school was struggling to find its feet as a provider of higher education to students could not afford to leave home in pursuit of a college education. In 1938, for starters, Cullen donated $260,000 for the construction of the Roy Gustav Cullen Building on the UH campus in honor of his deceased son.

By 1947, and now established as one of the wealthiest men in America, Cullen established the Cullen Foundation to handle the award of gifts to charitable causes, especially to those serving the needs of students with limited means for higher education. The foundation was governed directly by three of Cullen’s adult daughters and, in 1948, further substantial contributions to new building and program expansion at the University of Houston, Without the help of the Cullens, UH could never have become the force it is today in higher education, and a university now legitimately postured for becoming one of America’s designated Tier One universities.

The Cullen Foundation also provided the money and land purchase assistance that led to the establishment of Texas Southern University in the early years following the conclusion of World War II. Cullen Foundation support also provided support for programs served through Baylor University, In the end, most of the Cullen family wealth was donated to their foundation for distribution to worthy educational causes that primarily benefitted the needs of Houston’s college-age population.

Hugh Roy Cullen passed away on July 4, 1957 in Houston, one day after his 76th birthday. He died a complete success as a human being.

The legacy of Hugh Roy Cullen shall always be that he gave of himself to cause that were larger than any his own modest wishes for personal acquisition. That may have come easier for Cullen than some others for he was one of those people whose wealth was merely a by-product of his passion and never the goal in itself.

Cullen put it this way: “Giving away money is no particular credit to me. Most of it came out of the ground – and while I found the oil in the ground, I didn’t put it there. I’ve got a lot more than Lillie and I and our children and grandchildren can use. I don’t think I deserve any great credit for using it to help people. It’s easier for me to give a million dollars now than it was to give five dollars to the Salvation Army twenty-five years ago.”

The Cullen legacy was love. By any other name you may wish to call it, that’s what it still comes down to. As one of those kids you helped make education affordable, I just want to say again: “Thank you, Mr. Cullen, for being the man you were. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

 

Some Pecan Park History Notes

March 10, 2011

Once upon a time, in the late 19th century. there really was a rather large Pecan tree orchard in the area southeast of downtown Houston. As the city grew in that direction, the demand for residential space resulted in the purchase or managerial acquirement of the orchard area for the purpose of building and selling homes. The Magnolia Land Company sat in the middle of this new enterprise and began plating the land for individual property and street construction n 1925. Shell was the original building material for new streets and roads, but asphalt and concrete took over as the major infrastructure upgrades by the mid-1930s..

The larger region soon became known and was advertised as “Pecan Park,” and it covered an area that basically stretched out through multiple smaller neighborhoods that shared these current informal borders: Griggs Road boundaried the northern line; Broadway stood as the eastern wall; and old Winkler Drive and now the Gulf Freeway (I-10 S) covering the southern boundary and, curving around, and also becoming the western frontier of the area.

Most of the homes of Pecan Park were built during the 1930s and 1940s, with all of the original construction of usable space tapping out about 1955. Lot size typically fit into the 5,000 square feet zone, with houses ranging in size from 1,100 to 1,600 square feet. Almost all of them were one-story wood or brick bungalows, with styles ranging from Tudor, Cape Cod, and Ranch class architectures being the preferred choices. Homes typically had two, and sometimes three bedrooms, with a living room, kitchen, one bath, and a one-car garage, Hardly anyone had a “den.” For those of us who grew up there, “dens” and multiple bath rooms were simply an upscale concept, amenities to expect, if you lived in River Oaks, but not in Pecan Park.

My family of origin lived in Pecan Park at 6646 Japonica Street from 1945 to 1958. Mom and Dad paid $5,000 for our little 2-bedroom house when we moved in, but Dad added another bedroom when my little sister was born in 1949. My folks kept the place for a few years as a rental house after we all grew up and moved out. I don’t recall what Dad got for the place when he sold it in the mid-1960s, but it wasn’t a lot. Now I look on the Harris County property valuation site and see that the house is currently appraised at $89,000.

How can that be? With some homes in the nearby neighborhood literally falling down, how can that be? Apparently, it’s mostly, if not all, about location, location, location. The people who now own my childhood home seem to be doing a good job on its upkeep, but that may not be the big deal. Fifteen years ago, the house, and others around it, were appraised in the low 30K range, but something has happened since then.

Some Houstonians apparently are moving back inside the loop from the far suburbs these days. OK. So, Pecan Park is only seven miles from downtown Houston, tops, from my old place on Japonica. The location of these homes is driving up the cost of the land upon which all the old homes still rest. You will even see some evidence of new construction in Pecan Park now, and to the extent that some people are razing older houses and putting up two-stories in their places.

I should have bought my old house back at 30K when it was on the market for same a few years ago, but that thought rests among the least original I’ve ever embraced. When it comes to the “Land of Real Estate Deal Passovers,” how many of us have subsequently found ourselves lost in the land of “Woulda’, Coulda’, Shoulda?”

The shakier our dollar becomes, the harder it gets to think about where we should put the ones we have left, but real estate has a special attraction for me. Unlike stock values, real estate doesn’t disappear with the dawn. You might wake up one morning and read that your land is no longer worth anything, but, at least, you can still look out the window as the sun rises higher in the sky and see that it’s still there.

Being able to see it still counts for something.

As for Pecan Park, she will always be home to me, even if I didn’t buy my old house back when I had the chance, and even with all the changes the neighborhood has gone through over the passage of time. There’s just a part of my early years there that soaked into my bloodstream and never went away.

Have a nice day, everybody, and save some time for your own favorite healthy passions and reveries of life. Pecan Park covers a lot of that ground for me. In many ways, Pecan Park is simply the shell that once held the yolk of everything I am. And I like that idea.

Remembering the Eastwood

March 9, 2011

Eastwood Theatre, Houston, Opened in 1936.

The Eastwood Theatre once stood at the corner of Leeland Avenue and Telephone Road like the gatekeeper to the deep southeastern section of Houston’s even larger Eaat End. Opened in March 1936, the Eastwood stood as merely one of the legion movies houses of the suburbs, one of those close to home places where most Houstonians saw their movies in the days prior to television, dvd, dvr, and Netflick-like movie mail services. If you were a kid back in that day, it was also one of the places where you got your Saturday morning kid movie fix, usually some kind of blended diet of Roy Rogers, Charlie Chan, The East Side Kids, The Crimson Ghost, and Bugs Bunny. How good was that? Words defy description, and, even though my home field for the Saturday morning kid movie fare was the smaller Avalon Theatre at nearby 75th and Lawndale, the Eastwood ranked high on our available list of local movies houses. Others in our territory included the Wayside and Santa Rosa, both located further down the winding tour route that was Telephone Road – and also the Broadway over near Milby High School,

We could list movie places all day long and deep into the night, In the end, it was the part of our childhood in Houston and America that these places played in the lives of us who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They were the spark that lit the fuse and fed the hunger of our new and growing imaginations about a better life in a bigger world beyond the fences and gates of our own little cultures. Little did we all know back then how well we already had it on our sandlots, with our friends, and in our families. For the most part, we had it all. Except for the money that could buy us the cars, clothes, travel, and adventure that we saw on the movie screen, we pretty much had it all – and all we had to do was keep up with our homework. We didn’t have to spend January, February, and March either working on, or procrastinating about, filing our federal income tax reports.

In having less, we had more. We just didn’t know it. The fact was beyond our experience of those times. And we felt no tax on our movie-inspired dreams.

My memories of the Eastwood, in particular, include the fact that it was the place I got my first taste of the real world. You see, at age 14 in 1952, I decided to apply for my first job there. I saw being an usher as a nice way to pick up some money and watch even more movies for free. So, I got all dressed up one day.and went down to the Eastwood to talk with the manager, a nice man we all knew as “Mr. Vallone.” I think his full name was Rocco Vallone, but I am only sure of the surname.

Mr. Vallone listened kindly to my job request and then invited me to fill out an employment application. It was about April of 1952 when I applied, hoping to start after the summer break, but June came and I never heard anything. Finally, after a few quick jobs in the neighborhood, I hooked on with A&P Grocery as a package boy and forgot all about the Eastwood.

And now the rest of the story.

Flash forward twenty-five years. I walk into a doughnut shop on Gessner over on the Westside one morning and guess who’s in line ahead of me? Of course, as fate would have it, it’s “Mr. Vallone,” the same guy who took and, for all I knew, was still holding my open application for a job at the Eastwood. Should I just let this moment slide and say nothing?

No way. I could not resist the opportunity for a little fun.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “aren’t you Mr. Vallone, the fellow who used to manage the Eastwood Theatre?’

“Why, yes I am,” said the startled, but smiling Vallone, as he turned to shake my hand.

“Well, twenty-five years ago, you took my application for work as an usher and promised to get back with me, but you never called.” I said. “I just wanted to know if you’ve yet made  decision. – Did I get the job or not?”

Mr. Vallone almost fell on the floor laughing. We small talked our way through both our doughnut orders with a few fond shared memories of the Eastwood, but I told Vallone, as we parted, “Nothing will ever top this moment in my Eastwood file.”

We said goodbye and Mr. Vallone, the man who always physically reminded me of William Bendix, this time, was gone from my life forever once he walked out the door of the doughnut shop.

For the record, I didn’t get the job. Some kids who showed up looking for work on the last day of school got the work as ushers. Mr. Vallone told me again what I already knew. “You  should have checked back with me,” he said,

.

Mykawa Road

February 24, 2011

Early Japanese Houstonians were Agricultural Pioneers.

Mykawa Road.

It sounds like a great book title, and maybe that’s one of the reasons it also now serves as the name of a local Houston rock band in 2011, but that’s not what it was about one hundred years ago. Back then, it was not even about the road itself, but the nature of what was going on in that very rural area of SSE Harris County, in what is now covered by zip code area 77048, north of the Sam Houston Parkway, east of Scott Street and south of Griggs Road,

During the 1950s, Mykawa Road was famous to my adolescent generation as the home of the “Hi Nabor” drive-in movie theatre, one of the many in our Houston circuit search for the perfect date flick. You traveled down a long asphalt stretch of two-lane darkness on Mykawa to reach a movie screen that shone brilliantly in the absence of light competition from any other source in the area. The theatre grounds rested upon some of the very rich rice field land made productively famous by the Japanese immigrant to Houston who originally settled here to cultivate the area.

Many people hold the impression that Houston’s Asian community began with the displacement immigration period that followed the end of the Viet Nam War in the 1970s. Not so. We’ve had a smaller Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Japanese population in the Houston area to some extent dating back to the 19th century. Of these groups, it was the Japanese, and one leader in particular, who led the growth here of a people who came to do a specific contributory kind of work in the greater Houston early community. The Japanese people came here to survive as some of earliest dedicated crop farmers.

Early Grafting of Orange Crops Fails as Houston Proves Too Cold.

Shinpei Maekawa was a Japanese National who came to the Houston area at the turn of the 20th century to raise crops that would prosper in the rich soil available to farmers of this area. Maekawa, whose name was inevitably re-spelled phonetically as Mykawa, was familiar with the abundant rains we receive and he came here with a very good idea that rice crops could flourish in our area.

The long road stretch that fingered its way south to the Japanese farmer’s land easily came to be known as Mykawa Road over time. And the kindly and industrious Mr. Mykawa proved himself right on target with rice. By 1906, his rice fields flourished. Another crop, oranges, did not fare so well. As shown in the previous post card photo, the Japanese came here with good knowledge of grafting as a significant help to orange crop productivity. What the Japanese farmers did not know at the time, as did none of their other racial farming peers, was the hard fact that Houston winters were simply too cold to make raising oranges a practical crop on the upper Texas coast. After a few hard freeze winters wiped everyone out, raising oranges north of the Rio Grande Valley was pretty much abandoned throughout the entire State of Texas.

Harvesting Rice on Mykawa Road in the Early 20th Century.

Planting rice in the Houston area, on the other hand, was here to stay – and it rapidly expanded to include much of the cultivable land west of Houston in the current Katy, Texas area. In fact, most of Houston’s and Harris County’s far western and southwestern neighborhoods have been built on lands formerly used for planting rice.

To the best of my knowledge, and I really have not researched the matter deep enough to be happy with all I don’t know about the impact of World War II on Houston’s Japanese-American population, there was no internment of citizens and land seizure policy that also came down so heavily upon the citizens of Houston. It’s bad enough those suspension of basic rights were illegally forced upon Japanese-American citizens in California.

If you have anything to contribute on how Japanese-American Houstonians may have been effected by World War II internment policies, please comment here. I will try to research the matter further too and post another column on this subject when new information merits the coverage.

The Orange Show for Visionary Art

February 15, 2011

The Orange Show, 2401 Munger St., Houston, TX.

Like contemporary art itself, The Orange Show in Houston does not lend itself easily to a neat and complete description that would mean much to a number of readers. Aficionados of the normal Houston Homeowner Association neighborhood would scream at first glance. This place has nothing to do with “fitting in,” or blending its exteriors into shades of grey or brown-tone fade for the sake of sameness – and it’s been that way at 2401 Munger Street in the Houston East End off the Gulf Freeway before you get to Telephone Road wile heading south since 1956.

A fellow named Jeff McKissack was the father  of The Orange Show back in 1956, when he started collecting and bringing home all kinds of paint and other building materials from demolished Houston architectural sites and began the conversion of his place into an ongoing, living tribute to the fruit orange, the color orange, and/or all things colorful in life. The former Houston mailman also had a background as a welder in the Houston shipyards after his tour in the military during World War II and he possessed the kinds of skills needed for converting vision into actual works of contemporary art. His whole house became a living creature of the art that originated in his mind, heart, and soul.

Lesson Number One: If homeowner associations controlled every square inch of urban life, there would be no spontaneous art in Pleasantville.

Orange Show Founder Jeff McKissack (1902-1980).

Ironically, McKissack’s major basic work on The Orange Show took place during the late innings of Houston’s reputation period as a killer of anything architecturally classic for the sake of more space for parking lots, strip centers, and billboards.

Lesson Number Two: Artist Jeff McKissack was building for Houston history while many Houston entrepreneurs were tearing things down for little more than their own personal gain.

It’s not really clear if or when the business of creative intent began to take over McKissack’s plan as an active effort to take his art to the people, rather than simply allow them to find it, but he opened his home as “The Orange Show” on May 9, 1979. To his disappointment, Houstonians failed, at first, to flock like flies to honey when the production opened.

McKissack withdrew in disappointment. Seven months later, and only two days shy of his 78th birthday, Jeff McKissack died of a stroke in the middle of his apparently stillborn creation, The Orange Show, on January 26, 1980.

Lesson Number Three: For The Orange Show, the death of founder Jeff McKissack turned out to be a Phoenix Bird experience.

Within a year of McKissack’s death art patron/civic leader Marilyn Lubetkin rallied a diverse group of Houstonian supporters to save The Orange Show for posterity. Along with people like Dominique de Menil to the rock group ZZ Top, a consortium was put together to purchase the stilled, but still vibrant Orange Show property and its collections from McKissack’s heirs.

The Orange Show Foundation was established in 1981 to re-open The Orange Show and promote support for its programs of contemporary art and art education to children. Today the Orange Show continues to flourish in the East End as a tribute to a Houstonian who believed in art and the expressive preservation of Houston hero.

For further information on The Orange Show and its range of public art programs, check out their official website.

http://orangeshow.org/

Jeff McKissack and my dad weren’t too different by way of background. Jeff was a little older than Dad, but they both grew up in small towns and moved to Houston as a result of World War II. Both were welders; both worked in Houston shipyards; and both bought property in the East End as places to raise their children. Both also found other income-producing lines of work after the big war ended and settled into lives as the men who took care of their families.

Like McKissack, Dad had a talent for art and storytelling too. He simply never gave himself permission to act upon these abilities until a heart attack later almost took him totally out of the game. And then he put them away again, once he recovered from the immediate threat of death. Like a lot of people, Dad had to almost die to take a peek at life outside the box. And maybe that was enough for Dad. Who am I to know or judge?

All  know is, thank God for Lesson Number Four: Jeff McKissack brought Technicolor, but especially orange, to the visual history of Houston. Hope you take the time to check out The Orange Show or its annual art car parade someday. I think you will have a good time.

SABR DAY IS FOUR-BAGGER

January 30, 2011

L>R: MONTE IRVIN, LARRY DIERKER, JIMMY WYNN.

The Larry Dierker Chapter of SABR (The Society for American Baseball Research) had a tag-em-all meeting yesterday, Saturday, January 29th, from 2-4 PM in celebration of our National SABR Day gathering at the Houston Sports Museum inside the Finger Furniture Store located on the historic site of old Buff Stadium (1928-1961) on the north side of the Gulf Freeway at Cullen. Sixty-eight members and guest signed the reception book and another twenty to thirty later unregistered show-ups ran the attendance count close to 100. Those who stayed for the whole baseball rodeo hardly missed a subject that had anything to do with the game, and especially with Houston history of same.

Chapter Leader Bob Dorrill

Chapter leader Bob Dorrill spoke about the importance of National SABR Day as the one day of the year that all chapters unite through out the land in a united effort to promote the purposes of SABR to all persons interested in the preservation and celebration of baseball’s history.

As General Manager of our vintage base ball club, The Houston Babies, I received a beautifully framed team photo of the unforgettable club itself, thanks to a brief, but forever appreciated acknowledgment from field Manager Bob Dorrill. All I can say is thanks. I love you guys to pieces. – I just wish that you’d stop going to pieces in the middle of a game. Maybe this year will be better. Go further – I really think it will be. Take it one more foot slide forward: I believe in you, Babies! This year we are going to scorch the pastures of Southeast Texas with all the power of our innate, but, so far, unused playing ability.

In that light, Chapter namesake Larry Dierker talked about Houston’s early professional start in the 19th century as the Houston Babies. On a kidding note, Dierker wondered if any city or town ever began with a more humiliating nickname. Seriously, he then launched into an interesting summary of how Houston flowed and ebbed as a baseball town over the years. He painted a moving picture of the mind with his account of how Houston Buffs fans once started out from homes as far away as five miles away and began their walks to the ball games played at Buff Stadium, the park pictured in the mural behind the table in first featured photo. – By the time these walking fans reached the ball park, their singular steps had flowed together into a river of Buff fans, now converging upon that earlier version of our baseball heaven.

Jimmy Wynn and Monte Irvin both talked openly about their playing days in response to questions from the crowd. Scott Barzilla of SABR spoke briefly about his new book, “The Hall of Fame Index,” and visitor Dick “Lefty” O’Neal was also recognized for his book, “Dreaming of the Majors; Living in the Bush.” Those two gentlemen, along with Jimmy Wynn and SABR’s Bill McCurdy, who recently collaborated on “Toy Cannon: The Autobiography of Baseball’s Jimmy Wynn,” were also on hand after the meeting to sign copies of their various works.

Former Houston Buff Larry Miggins told some of his best anecdotal baseball stories. No one tell ’em quite as well as the old Irishman. Miggins and Vin Scully attended the same high school in New York City. While they were there, Scully predicted that he would be broadcasting major league games and would be behind the mike on the date that Miggins broke into the big leagues with a home run –  and that’s exactly what happened. Scully was calling the game for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Larry Miggins broke into the big leagues for the St. Lois cardinals by hitting a home run off Preacher Roe. – How’s that one for A SABR Day spine-chiller?

Ton Kleinworth of SABR designed and presented a brand new trivia contest called “Name That Player.” SABR’s Mack WIlson then followed Tom with a nice little multiple choice trivia contest. The winner, Mark Wernick of SABR, received a Larry Dierker action figure donated by Mike Acosta of the Houston Astros.

Dave Raymond of SABR and the Houston Astros radio broadcasting crew gave us a nice conservative, but optimistic evaluation of the 2011 club. Dave sees the Astros as having a lot more pop up the middle with the additions of Cliff Barnes at shortstop and Bill Hall at second base. Both are hardscrabble infielders with long ball capacity, but low OBP figures. Low OBP was a problem last year and needs to improve, according to both Raymond anyone else who is paying attention. The pitching is adequate and we may be only a key player development breakthrouh away from getting back into the thick of things.

Greg Lucas of SABR and Fox Sports followed Raymond with a nice cap on the NL Central for 2011. According to Greg, the Cards, Brewers, and Reds are the frontrunners, but the Astros and Cubs may get back into contention on an eye-flick. Lucas only discounts the Pirates due to their bad pitching.

Between the lines of these comments from Raymond and Lucas, the gentle hum of spring hope was beginning to germinate – and isn’t that exactly what it’s supposed to do this time of year?

As for me, I dove deep into history. I (Bill McCurdy) offered the challenge that we need to develop a chapter plan for researching and accurately writing Houston early baseball history from 1861 to 1961. That century span covers the documentable era of time that passed between the formation of the first Houston Base Ball Club through the last season of our minor league Houston Buffs.

Curator Tom Kennedy welcomed one and all to the beautifully refurbished Houston Museum of Sports History. Couched on the site of the still embedded home plate from Buff Stadium on its original spot, owner Rodney Finger and the Finger family deserve incredible appreciation for all they have done and continue to do to preserve this important artifact marking on the trail of Houston’s baseball history. Now, if we can only rouse the same effort on the task of tagging and noting the significance of earlier venues, where the first Houston Base Ball Club was formed in a room above J.H. Evans’s store on Market Square in 1861; where the Houston Base Ball Park existed downtown when our first professional club took the field here in 1888; and when and where, for sure, the first game was played at West End Park on Andrews Street. I refuse to go in the ground until those facts are sorted out and published somewhere by someone who cares about Houston baseball history.

The Giants finally retired Monte Irvin's #20 in 2010.

My extra treat was all tied into the ninety minutes or so that I spent driving Hall of Famer Monte Irvin to and from the meeting, between downtown and the west side. I couldn’t begin to share everything we talked about in the space we have here – and I wouldn’t, anyway, on the grounds that he spoke to me in confidence on a lot of baseball subjects with opinions that are his and his alone to divulge in a public forum.

You probably have figured this one out from hearing him speak: Monte Irvin is one of the kindest, truest gentleman you could ever hope to meet. He attributes his long life to having a wonderful, guiding mother and a whole lot of luck. When pressed, he will concede that genes help out too, but he clings pretty close to the wisdom too that “to become an older person you first have to survive being a younger person” and, as far as Monte is concerned, that’s where the luck comes in.

I can share one Monte Irvin Story. Almost apologetically, I asked Monte about that 1951 steal of home in the first inning of Game One in the Giants’ 5-1 World Series victory over the Yankees. I realize that I probably was about the 5,000th fan to ask, but I couldn’t help myself.

Monte was on third with a triple. Allie Reynolds and Yogi Berra were the battery for the Yankees. And Bobby Thomson, a right-handed batter, as you well better know by now, was at the plate. All of a sudden, Monte breaks for the plate. He is stealing home, and he does so successfully, sliding under Berra’s tag for the Giants’ second run in the first stanza on one of the too few days the ’51 Series went the Giants’ way,

“When did you know for sure you were going to try that steal of home?” I asked.

“I pretty much knew it going in,” Monte says. “I had stolen home five or six times during the season and I also was quite familiar with that slow deliberate delivery style of Allie Reynolds. Reynolds threw hard to make up for the slow delivery, but he usually threw high, which was what he was doing in that moment with our batter, Bobby Thomson. I knew I had a good chance of making it. I also had talked with Leo Durocher prior to the game and he had given me the green light to try, if I saw the opportunity.  By the time Reynolds saw what I was doing, he was already in motion to launch another high, hard one. That didn’t change. The pitch came in high and hard. I came in low and hard. By the time Yogi can get his glove down to tag me, I’m safe. Had Allie thrown it low and hard, he probably would had me. It didn’t work out that way.”

Near 90 showed up for SABR Day in Houston

Before we arrived back at Monte’s place at the end of the day, he had started reminiscing about the many Giant teammates that are now gone. That pretty much is going to happen when you live as long as Monte has. He turns 92 on February 25th.

I finally blurted out, “Listen, Monte, you may have gotten this far by being lucky, but you are here for a reason. And part of that reason, as I see it, is to help baseball people remember what’s really important about the game and life itself. We need you to hang around forever as our role model, our teacher, and our national treasure.”

Monte smiled. “I’ll give it my best shot,” he promised.

SABR Day in Houston was a great day in general. A lucky day for some of us. And a blessed day for us all.

Houston’s Biggest Sports Stories, 2010

December 31, 2010

Once again, its New Years Eve. I can’t really improve on the piece I wrote last year about this annual date we all have with hope for better days to come. Having said that, here’s a link to “Happy New Year, Friends” from 12/31/2009:

https://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/new-years-eve-icons/

2010 was a little bit a year on the downside for Houston sports. I couldn’t begin to pick the biggest poison for all of us because they all ache worst for those whose hearts are buried deepest with a particular sport or team, but these disappointments come to mind:

Rice: The Owls basketball team did what they always seem to do most often – and that’s suck big time and often on the “L” column side of the C-USA standings. Coach Wayne’s Graham’s baseball team again beat up on the C-USA competition, but ultimately failed to qualify for a trip to the College Word Series in Omaha. The football team had a losing record, but they beat UH in the Bayou Bucket and also ran up a couple of stratospheric scores against the competition late in the season. Sadly, Rice still only draws about 15,000 fans a game for football and could really benefit from greater community support at the Rice Stadium gate.

UH: The Houston Cougars finally qualified for the March Madness tourney for the first time in this millennium under former coach Tom Penders, but their one-and-out showing was not enough to save the man’s job. James Dickey was now taken over the basketball program as head coach as has Todd Whitting taken over the helm in baseball as head coach from Raynor Noble. Football at UH, of course, was rocked when Heisman hopeful OB Case Keenum was lost for the season in the Cougars’ third game against UCLA. It was mostly downhill from there, with an encouraging substitute performance by freshman QB David Piland.

TSU: One of the bright spots this year came compliments of the TSU Tiger victory in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. The Tigers are back and hoping for a resurgence in their baseball and basketball programs as well.

St. Thomas University: STU has resumed competitive basketball as the Celts. At least, they are playing again.

Houston Baptist University: The Huskies are off to a disappointing 1-10 start in basketball.

Pearland: What a year for this big little Houston area city! The Pearland little league baseball team made it all the way to the finals of the American Division Championship game in Williamsport, PA. Then the Pearland (HS) Oilers won the 5-A, Division 1, state football championship. Not much room for any downsides in this little neck of the Houston woods.

Houston Dynamo: The soccer team didn’t win anything this year – nor have they been able to work our a “done deal” on public support for a downtown stadium to house professional soccer in Houston, 2011 should be a pivotal year for the future of this struggling sport in our town.

Houston Aeros: I have no idea beyond my dim awareness that they seem to have found a level of mediocrity that spares them the spotlight from all of us barely casual fans. I can’t even call myself a fan. I’m just a guy who reads the sports page – and one who will check out anything there that looks like the standings in some area of competition.

Houston Rockets: The “Waiting on Yao Ming” show seems to have found a curtain with the recent news that the Chinese giant  has once more gone down for the season with another foot injury. Where it goes from here may lead to the same medicine that came suddenly to the baseball Astros in late season via the “addition by subtraction” route. Sometimes we cannot find our new way until we give up all hope in the old way. The Rockets have to let go of Yao to find their new way.

Houston Astros: 2010 was a disappointing year from a win-loss standpoint, but things did get better once the club let go of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman and started working overtime on a commitment to youth. Of course, Drayton McLane’s decision to sell the club is the big factor effecting the future of the Astros. I, for one, will be disappointed to see Mr. McLane go. We were fortunate in Houston to have him with us as long as we did.

Houston Texans: Very disappointing. To go from a 9-7 finish in 2009 to a double digit loss total in 2010 is pretty awful, no matter how close the boys came to winning. It doesn’t matter. The ancient Greeks had a name for this sort of thing in their theaters too. Any play that ended with a dagger to the heart was called a “tragedy.”

Houston Babies: Under the management of Bob Dorrill, the Houston Babies enjoyed the completion of their third straight season of vintage league, 1860s era base ball, playing a barnstorming schedule of games against other clubs, like the Richmond Giants, the Montgomery County Saw Dogs, Katy, and the Boerne White Sox. One hope for 2011 is that these groups will agree upon the establishment of a regular season schedule of league games for the spring and fall playing periods. There is no disappointment among vintage ballers. It is a game that springs directly from everything that made base ball beautiful in the first place. All we do is get together and carry forth what makes the game of ball in pastoral meadows the curative tonic that heals the ailing human spirit.

That’s if for me in 2010. If you have a favorite moment from Houston sports over the past year, please write about it here. The Pecan Park Eagle welcomes your comment.

Til tomorrow, if there is one,  take care. Stay safe. And don’t be stupid.

Happy New Year, Everybody!

That First AFL Championship Game

December 30, 2010

January 1, 1961: A half century ago - and I was there to see it.

It was January 1, 1961 and, ah yes, I remember it well!

In their first year among the other founding partners in the new American Football League, the Houston Oilers were preparing to take on the Los Angeles Chargers in the first ever new professional football conference’s championship game at Jeppesen (now Robertson) Stadium on the University of Houston campus. And I was there with my girl friend, Sandy, to take it all in. We were young and fresh out of UH as new Cougars on the Houston job market back then, but we were able to obtain affordable tickets on about the north end 20 yard line in the preferred sun-at-our-backs west grandstands – in spite of that now seemingly dire financial fact.

What was the bare bones of that money fact? Well, as a 1960 psychology graduate, and waiting on an affordable opportunity for graduate school at Tulane, I was getting paid $339 a month as a full-time family case worker at what was then known as DePelchin Faith Home and Children’s Center here in Houston. Sandy was doing what most young women did with college training in 1960. She was not working as a teacher or nurse, so she had taken a job as a legal secretary. Of course, this was the era in which guys were expected to pick up the tab on all social outings, anyway, and, make no doubt about it, going to see the first AFL championship game of a half century ago was 99% my need and idea. Our female partners back in that day simply did not speak up and say, “Hey, Boob! Why don’t you make sure we get tickets for that first major sport championship game in Houston history!”

January 1, 1961: Our Game Faces Were On! You also dressed up for big games back then.

The game was great and quite exciting. The weather started brisk, but seemed to heat up with the action on the field before the 32,183 capacity crowd that showed up to view the biggest sporting event to that time in Houston history. “Old Jepp” was the Oilers’ home field during the 1960 inaugural season under Coach Lou Rymkus as Quarterback George Blanda and LSU Heisman Trophy Winning Running Back Billy Cannon led the baby-blue-sky adorned Oilers through their half of the first major championship season. Now all the men in blue had to do was knock off the visiting impostors from the West Coast to grab hold of the big boast that our Houston would be the permanent home to the first AFL football kings.

For those who stayed home that day, the first AFL championship game was being televised over ABC-TV with Jack Buck handling the play-by-play and George Ratterman and Les Keller handling the analyst/color roles. Forget instant replay and watching the game on a VCR later. There was no such thing back in 1961. You either saw it live or missed it completely.

The pre-San diego Chargers gave the Oilers all they could handle.

The Oiler offense sputtered in the first quarter as the Chargers’ Ben Agajanian banged home field goals of 38 and 22 yards for a 6-0 Los Angeles lead.

A 17-yard TD pass from George Blanda to Dave Smith early in the second quarter drew first blood for the Oilers, pulling the club ahead, 7-6, but that advantage failed quickly when Agajanian kicked another field goal from 27 yards to put the Chargers back on top by 9-7. A George Blanda field goal of 17 yards would put the Oilers ahead at halftime by 10-9.

The afternoon and our Houston fan appetite for winning went into halftime with a decided hot flash for the idea of winning it all.

#20 Billy Cannon racks up another gain on the ground.

The Oilers added some breathing room in the third quarter when QB George Blanda capped a drive hitting receiver Bill Groman in the end zone from 7 yards out for a 17-9 expansion on the lead. LA came back with a drive capped by a Paul Lowe dive run that again narrowed the Charger deficit to a single point at 17-16.

Going into the fourth quarter it was still anybody’s game at 17-16 Oilers and we all began to feel that curious teeter-totter between joyous hope and dreadnought fear of something going terribly wrong. Fortunately for Houston fans, the realization of dreadnought fears was little more than the hint of Houston’s future back in 1961.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on the 12-yard line down near the south end zone, Oiler QB Blanda dumped a little pass off to RB Billy Cannon on the right side. Cannon took it on the fly and poured his heels into g-force traction. He took off down the sideline, coming our way on the other side of the field, and leaving all pursuers in the dust. Just as he once had done to Ole Miss while at LSU in 1959, Billy Cannon had stunned a foe and done the deal.

Our 32,183 voices roared as one. With little time remaining in the game, Houston now led 24-16 and we were on our way to our first citywide celebration of something that felt like a world championship.

After the game, many of us went to Valian’s for pizza. What better way to commemorate a championship. We poured pepperoni and anchovies all over the thing.

Now I’m just glad to be around long enough to remember things that happened in Houston a half century ago.

In spite of all the bad things people have learned to say about you since that time, Bud Adams, thanks for acting upon a dream that made big league sports in Houston available to the rest of us. And thank you, “Old Jepp,” for lasting this long as a daily reminder of Houston’s salad days in big time sports. It will be too bad for local history if UH decides to take apart all of your architectural exterior in the construction of its new venue on your current site.

Happy New Year and Fondest Memories, Houston! – And remember too – our best days are still out there – still yet come! Let’s all try to hang around for the party, OK?

A Houston That Might’ve Been

December 14, 2010

Without cars, Houston might've grown no wider than today"s "Inside the Loop" area.

The problems of mass transportation in Houston are virtually unsolvable unless we finally get it into our collective heads that they are almost absolutely necessary. I say almost because the alternatives to mass transit will always be out there: (1) We can continue to live large portions of our working days stuck in our 0ne-person-per-car traffic jams, covering long distances each on our drive-ins from hinterlands; or, (2) Others of us can find ways to contain our lives in one of those constantly developing smaller sections of Greater Houston and simply only venture beyond our personal world gates when we absolutely have to go elsewhere.

Houston didn’t have to develop along these lines, but it almost had no choice. As one of the newer developing major cities of this country that sprung up west of the Mississippi River, Houston quickly got caught up in America’s eco-political addiction and sale of the spontaneous combustion engine to “We, The People” during the early decades of the 20th century.

What a campaign that was. It must have been as tough as it is for drug dealers when they try to sell crack cocaine to street addicts. The people wanted their own wheels – and these came in stages. First the forces behind the gas-powered engine sold communities on the bus as a superior mode of transportation than the train or street care because it wasn’t contained to a fixed route. Once approved, rail tracks were pulled up so that there was no going back. Then the campaign shifted from busses to cars. “Why wait on the bus when you can plan your own trip with a personal automobile”

They Ford and Chevy salesmen forgot to tell us what will happen once a quarter million of us started planning the same trip to work every day at the same time on the same old two-lane street to downtown. By the 1940s, in Houston and elsewhere, we were getting the message that “super highways,” or so-called “freeways,” were needed to solve the problem of traffic jams.

Houston got its first superhighway in 1948 with the opening of the Gulf Freeway. It solved very few needs for long and it has been in a state of continuous updating ever since, as it apparently always will be. It’s just the nature of the beast. The driving dynamic is the constant growth of a population in which all new members also want to drive their own personal autos alone each day over streets that never get wider on their own,

The problem with mass transportation in Houston now, whether it’s by bus or train, is, “Who is going to use it?” The other driving force against useful public transit is the growing fear of people that  their lives may be in greater danger from random acts of violence as passengers on public vehicles.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe there isn’t one. In fact, one of our larger problems in America today may be the naive belief that every problem we create has a solution that simply needs to be located at a later date. Oh really? Is that what we are counting on in the matters of our huge national debt and the big tab of that bill that’s now owned by China?

As for the smaller matter of “the Houston that might have been,” had we not grown up with the personal auto, my guess is that the actual city today would only cover a land area that is roughly, if not perfectly, comparable to the space within our present 610 Loop. It would be without a loop, or any other freeway, of course, but it would have rail service to all of its not-so-distant-from-downtown points.

Houston North would run no further north than Crosstimbers, just north of the present day 610 Loop.

Houston West would end at the far western side of Memorial Park, pretty much along the trail of our current 610 Loop and heading south along Post Oak Road to South Main.

Houston South would trail along the area that is currently 610 Loop, south of Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. (Parts of Houston West and South would be cut out by the cities of Bellaire, West University Place, and Southside Place.

Houston East would also take a raggedy-patch route as far southeast as Park Place, up Old Galveston Road to Broadway, north to Harrisburg, and over the Ship Channel to take in Denver Harbor, and on north to present day Loop 610 North, give or take few blocks, here and there.

Downtown Houston would have remained the heart of local business activity and retail marketing, and it would have grown as the hub of Houston’s mass transit rail system, cultural and sporting events, and entertainment district. With a few exceptions. like the present growth of our cultural, sporting, and museum venues in and near downtown today, it would have been a very different Houston from the one we actually built – had it not been for the automobile.

We can’t know if the rail system version of Houston would’ve been better for us because we don’t know how we would have grown up personally had we not fallen in love with the idea of the personal car so many years ago.

Our love affair with the automobile may have caused some problems with traffic and the environment that have no real solutions to them in a world that continues to depend on freeways and oil-based fuel. Our hope has to be that it has also sparked the scientific genius we shall need to work our way out of the problems that come with our dependency on cars  – and that we are not stuck with a fatal attraction to something that eventually wipes out our “precious” way of life.

Who is the Biggest Icon in Houston Major Sports History?

December 7, 2010

Who was Houston's biggest and brightest major sports star?

This morning I yield to a long-time urge – and that is to ask each of you this simple question. – Who do you think has been Houston’s biggest star over the years among all the great athletes who have passed through our city to play professional baseball, football, or men’s basketball for one of our local teams, plus any who may have boxed professionally as Houstonians?

There’s no poll included here. If you want to cast a vote, you need to leave a comment in the section that follows this column, even if it’s just to type the name of your choice. You are free and encouraged, of course, to write as much as you want on why you support this particular person.

Candidates from hockey, soccer, collegiate sports, wrestling, auto racing, and the Houston Comets women’s team have not been encouraged for inclusion in this query because of the basic supposition that none of these sports had or have wide enough community appeal to be considered that important to a wide segment of all Houston sports fans.

That being said, you remain free to cast support for an athlete from one of the minor, or more restrictively popular sports. Just keep in mind the question here before you as you do: Here it’s about who has been the biggest star for most Houstonians – not just to you or a smaller group of local fans.

My remarks on the question raised by this column are just our start. The subject will not be covered until enough of you write the answer in the comment section below – and please invite your friends to do so too. And remember also. Even if you have seen a name recorded here many times over, your opinion still counts too. Go ahead and write in their name again.

Notice that I have not stated a single name that’s out there as a specific candidate. I think we all know the handful of superstar people who are most deserving of this honor.

So, round up the usual suspects and let the voting/commenting begin!