Gene Elston's Remembrances

Anecdotes on the Houston Colt .45s/Astros
by Gene Elston

Gene Elston
"The Voice of the Astros"
Some memorable notes on Harry "The Hat" Walker

Astros manager Harry Walker (1968-72) was often labeled baseball's greatest teacher. You and your wife could be having lunch in the coffee shop and he'd be giving batting tips. Yet, he didn't know players by name, saying, "You there, on the end of the bench, pinch hit."

And he'd never leave well enough alone. That was especially true of Jim Wynn. Jim was a "take your cuts" kind of hitter. That didn't placate Harry. Wynn had great power for a little guy but when he'd hit homers, Walker told him to hit to the opposite field. He'd get on base more and Harry wanted him to hit leadoff and steal bases. Wynn would shake his head and try to comply. In 1969, he walked 148 times to tie the league record. But Jimmy'd say, "They're never satisfied with what I do". That lack of support hurt him; look at his roller coaster years.

Harry'd been around a long time and knew how to take a lot of grief, which was good, because the players gave him plenty. Pitcher Larry Dierker rode Walker night and day. Harry'd sit at the front of the bus with a hat over his face as the players in the back, led by Larry's writing and song verses. Almost all went back to Walker. One went:

Now Harry Walker is the one who manages the crew,
He doesn't like it when we drink and fight and smoke and screw,
But when we win our games each day,
Then what the hell can Harry say?

The tag line was. "It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro." I never asked Harry if he ever liked the thought or tune.

Some pointers on pitching from J.R. Richard

For many years, my broadcast partner was Loel Passe (chanting "Now your chunkin", "He breezed him one more time", "Hot ziggedy dog and 'ol sassafrass tea." "Chain me to the chair". "Peanut butter up and down, jam and jelly all around.") Loel was a legend and together we saw a lot, heard a lot and almost everything we did on the air was live.

One day came the kind of incident all broadcasters dread. I interviewed J.R. Richard in a full length, stand up field TV show prior to a Sunday game in St. Louis. My final question was, "If you had to throw one pitch in a tight situation, what would you throw?" J.R. said, "Well, Gene, I'd throw him a slider." And as he moved his hand across his groin area, he added, "I'd put it right in there, cock high!"

Maybe the spirits were to blame

In 1962, the National League expanded to Houston. Our first spring training was at Apache Junction, located in the Arizona desert, south of Mesa, where Chief Geronimo's warriors roamed. The way our club -- then named the Colt .45s -- played, you'd think Geronimo warred on us. There's been talk over the years about the Astros being born with a curse. Perhaps it wasn't wise to train in the shadow of Superstition Mountain, where Indian spirits and an old Dutchman's ghost were said to guard a lost gold mine. The Colt .45s didn't have bad luck until the first inning of their very first game. Al Heist, their best outfielder, stepped in a hole and broke an ankle, ending his career.

All sorts of casualties come to mind. Don Wilson, whom was accidentally asphyxiated in his garage. Another pitcher Jim Umbricht and traveling secretary Don Davidson died of cancer. Walt Bond to leukemia. Rookie Jay Dahl pitched in one big league game and was killed the next year in an auto accident. Yet think of our marquee names, Bobby Shantz, Robin Roberts, Pete Runnels, Nellie Fox, Joe Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Eddie Mathews, Don Larsen and Bo Belinsky.

How come the team's whole hasn't matched the sum of its parts? Maybe we shouldn't have gotten those Indian spirits mad!

Wisdom from and about the "Red Rooster", Doug Rader

Doug Rader played for the 1967-75 Astros and became known for his antics around the world. Doug would use our locker room as a driving range, teeing up a golf ball while guys dove for cover in lockers, behind trunks and under the whirlpool. Then he'd ricochet it around the room as players prayed it would hit someone else. Someone asked Larry Dierker once, "How come nobody took Rader's golf clubs away?" He answered, "cause they wanted to live."

Doug was that kind of guy. In one TV interview, Rader advised Little Leaguers to eat bubble gum cards. Digest the card information and become good ballplayers. Another time, he said, "eat the bases and home plate and they'd play better". Amazin'!

Jim Pendleton the franchise player?
Can anyone spare a cup?

Jim Pendleton may be the only guy in baseball history acquired for a franchise. Jim was an original Colt .45's outfielder who came to Houston (1962) because of Bobby Maduro. Muduro owned the Jersey City franchise in the International League in 1961 and wanted to purchase the Jacksonville territory and move his team to that city. At the time the Colt .45's owned the rights to the Jacksonville territory. However, Maduro could not buy the rights since his money was in a Cuban bank account and unobtainable. The silver lining was that Maduro owned Pendleton's contract, so Houston's set up a trade, "Give us Pendleton and we'll give you our rights to Jacksonville."

One day, Jim was on first base when Al Spangler hit a ball to deep right centerfield. By the time Pendleton reached third it ws clear something was wrong. He slowed up then stopped, and started up gain. I thought maybe he was hurt. Yet Spangler's ball was hit so deep that Jim continued and slid into home safely. There he laid, and the catcher and umpire started laughing. Later we found out that Pendleton had lost his cup. It had fallen out of his jock strap when he rounded third, fell down his pant leg and was hanging down around one of his knees about the time he hit home plate!

Brunettes can be dangerous for a married man

In the early '60's the Colt .45's were awful but intriguing. We had a pitcher named George Brunet who pitched into his 50's in Mexico. George was a vagabond who played for a bunch of clubs (26) in the majors and minor leagues. Once, when the Braves traded Brunet to the Cardinals, the St. Louis publicity man caught hell from his wife after she intercepted a phone conversation telling him what time to "pick up that "brunette" from Milwaukee at the airport." Brunet was like most of our players at the time, either past or before their time.

To throw or not to throw -- that is the question

Rusty Staub was 18 when he came up to the big leagues. He was playing first base when Colts' pitcher Hal Woodeshick picked off the runner. Unfortunately, he also picked off Staub. Rusty said it was his fault but that he was blameless when it happened again. We were playing the Mets and Rusty told Woodeshick, "I'm going (toward the plate) on the first pitch, so whatever you do, throw to the batter." According to Staub, Woodie nodded, Rusty charged in and the next thing he knew, Woodie threw over to first. The ball almost hit Rusty in the ear.

Score that one 1 to 8

Maybe the Astros Pitching Disease stemmed from the time Turk Farrell faced Henry Aaron. Hank lined a drive back to the mound that hit Turk smack in the forehead. The ball bounced off and was caught in centerfield for an out by Jimmy Wynn.

Showdown at high noon?
How the hair dryer won the West

I don't know when hair dryers came into vogue. The first time I saw 'em was in the clubhouse in San Diego soon after Joe Pepitone had joined the Astros. Following our game with the Padres and upon entering the dressing room I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was Pepitone, stark naked wearing gun holsters, one on each hip, parading around and in each holster he had a hair dryer. This was my introduction to the hair dryer - a cowboy in disguise with only his "guns" and holsters on his naked body - it could only be Joe Pepitone in all his glory with his bald head.

A message from God

J.R. Richard had just pitched a game in which he got himself into early trouble, straightened out and won the game. Now, there are a lot of players who go on pregame shows and without asking, mention the help of God. J.R. was one of them, liked to talk about religion. In this interview, my partner Loel Passe asked what his problem was in the early going. And, J.R. said, "Loel, I'll tell 'ya. I was having trouble out there and all of a sudden I felt something on my shoulder and I looked up and here was a little bird." Loel looked and sounded startled. J.R. continued, "And this little bird was evidently sent down by God and he told me to straighten up and go out there and win the game and that's how I turned things around." Loel was now taken aback but recovered to ask, "Then what kind of pitches were you using about that time to make the change?" And J.R. said, "Sh-- Loel, I'll tell 'ya". No better time than now to go to a commercial!

From Tartan Turf to AstroTurf

One of the great changes in the game of baseball in the past 40 years debuted in Houston in 1966. But its roots (no pun intended) was artificial turf's debut about one year after the opening of the Astrodome on April 9, 1965. The Dome's first game was an exhibition between the newly named Astros and the New York Yankees. But prior to that series, management got its first hint of problems during an exhibition game a day earlier against their Triple-A farm club. The problem was the glare from the Astrodome ceiling.

The skylight structure had some 5000 plastic panels, allowing light to enter to help the growth of grass, but sunshine proved to be the players' enemy. Fly balls were lost in the glare. To combat this severe problem a light blue translucent acrylic was applied to a portion of the roof, reducing the glare and allowing flyballs and pop-ups to be seen and caught. But, solving that problem caused another - daylight coming into the Astrodome was cut by 25 to 40 percent - now the grass would not grow.

Looking back, you wonder if Judge Hofheinz really wanted grass inside the building. Did he have something else on his mind? Edgar Ray wrote a book called The Grand Huckster: Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz, where he says the judge had an artificial surface placed at old Colt Stadium to test its durability even as the Astrodome was being finished. Hofheinz had the Harris County Sheriff's Posse ride horses, the University of Houston football team to scrimmage and had cars run over the turf -- brought elephants from the circus to urinate on and trample it. It was obvious from the start that the judge saw the Dome as multipurpose. Grass would pose problems for events such as auto and motorcycle races, rodeos, concerts, conventions and even bullfights. I think he envisioned fake grass even as the indoor stadium was being built.

At the time, the Monsanto Company was using what was called Tartan Turf on various track and field events but it did not look like grass and the judge turned the project over to Tal Smith, who had been reassigned from his baseball duties to find a solution to the grass problem. Tal found a private school in Providence, R.I. that had a gym with such a surface and went to the school in the fall of 1965 and ran several tests, such as running, walking and bouncing balls off it, coming to the conclusion that it might work. Hofheinz then took over and persuaded Monsanto to name the surface AstroTurf because of the publicity it would bring to the company (typical of the judge). The irony is that the year the Astrodome opened, a Texas A&M study showed the grass could grow indoors -- not knowing that the dome's roof, in its original design, would not be compatible with the sun.

The Duke goes down for the count

1968 was the "Year of the Pitcher", especially the night the Mets and Houston were in a 0-0 tie going into the last half of the 24th inning. The Astros won when Al Spangler hit a ground ball between Al Weis' legs and Norm Miller scored. Two things about the game. It was the longest night game ever played to conclusion in the big leagues, and second, John Wayne was in town to make a movie on the life of oil well firefighter Red Adair. Our radio booth was next to the Astrodome Club, where fans ate, drank and on occasion drank to extreme. That's where I first spotted Wayne who appeared to be completely relaxed and enjoying the game. Later, when the club had closed he and his party had moved into the empty broadcast booth adjacent to ours and our movie star was absolutely sloshed. Soon after, his two body guards assisted him from the booth. That's my rememberance of The Duke.

I demand a refund!

After the draft took place in late 1961 for the start of the '62 expansion, Casey Stengel said, "The Mets is great. They give everybody a job just like the WPA" (Works Project Administration under FDR during The Depression). Paul Richards was the general manager of the Colt .45's and he wasn't as amused with what his club had picked up in the draft. In fact, the merchandise so depressed him that he wanted to give it back. Paul couldn't understand how the New Yorkers were so satisfied with a draft so bad it later led to 120 losses. Richard was so appalled about the players HE got in the draft that he made a real offer to the Phillies to trade their entire rosters straight up.

Not as long as I'm alive!

Down the line, Colt '45's General Manager Paul Richard and owner Judge Roy Hofheinz were at odds and Hofheinz eventually fired him. At the press conference, Mickey Herskowitz, a writer for the Houston Post, who had followed baseball and other sports for many years, said. "Well, you know Paul there are times when the judge is his own worst enemy." To which Richards replied, "Not as long as I'm alive."

Howdy Podnahs!

Judge Hofheinz was the closest person we had to an eccentric. He made the club's traveling party wear western outfits on the road: blue suits with black cowboy boots gilded in orange, black cowboy hats and a belt buckle with a pistol and "Colt .45's" embossed.

The "uniform" was accented with an orange tie, white shirts with red baseball stitching throughout. It was no wonder when the team appeared in airports and hotels people hooted and shouted remarks such as: "Where's the rodeo and are tickets available for the circus". General Manager Paul Richards finally got fed up, went to Hofheinz and told him (or suggested) that he give up the traveling garb -- that it was an embarrassment to the organization. Hofheinz, as much as he loved his idea, and hated to give in -- relented. (I'm sure it was another notch that led to Richards' firing). Oh, yes, the entire traveling party was obligated to participate in "show time" - that included me - mine is still intact, hanging in the closet waiting to go on display in some baseball museum.