COLT .45s: The First Season
BY DON SCHIFFER (from the book "THE NATIONAL LEAGUE", published in 1963)
The Houston Colts were conceived in the plan for the abortive Continental League and were born in the expanded National League, a pregnancy which violated precepts of normal gestation. The Continental League? It lost its viability one year after its 1959 inception as "The Continental League of Professional Baseball Clubs."
Baseball - that is the National and American Leagues - was forced to recognize the existence of a group of cities which, in 1959, were clamoring for big-league stature. Denied the opportunity to enter either of the two existing circuits, five cities formed the nucleus of a new group which was known as the Continental League. One of the five cities was Houston, represented by a respectable front - which means lots of money - calling itself the Houston Sports Association.
The Houston Sports Association consisted of five majority stockholders, only one of whom, George Kirksey, had more than a vague idea of how the game is run. Kirksey, in the pre-World War II period, had been a first-rate baseball writer in the New York office of the United Press. After the war, he returned to his native Texas, opened a publicity office and kept up-to-date in the sport.
His fellow stockholders were pillars of Houston society and men of means, which is not a rarity in Texas. Craig Cullinan, Jr. Judge Roy Hofheinz, R. E. Smith and K. S. (Bud) Adams were the others who formed the nucleus of the H.S.A. They had already attempted to enter baseball by making offers for existing franchises at Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland before applying for a franchise in the Continental League. Here is where the seeds of the Houston Colt .45s were planted, to sprout 12 months later.
Kirksey, executive vice-president, was the spokesman of the group. He was delegated chief representative at all baseball conclaves with League and club officials. He was well aware of the problems involved in selecting top-notch front-office personnel, scouts, free-agent talent, organizing a farm system and the many hundreds of details which make for big-league efficiency. Kirksey couldn't do it alone and wasn't qualified in many of these areas. He convinced his fellow members that it was necessary to hire a general manager. All agreed with his choice of Gabe Paul, who had risen from the traveling secretary of Cincinnati to the Red's general manager.
Gabe, who began his baseball career as a 13-year-old batboy in his native Rochester, New York, welcomed the confidence placed in him and was anxious to face the challenge. He joined Houston early in '61, giving himself better than a year to prepare the Colts for their debut.
Paul prepared quickly and intelligently. He got in motion the machinery for a farm system, hired minor-league managers, interviewed scouts and worked harder than at any time in his long and honorable career. He was also faced with the happy problem of disposing of more than $300,000 in stock he held in the Cincinnati Baseball Club. League rules were quite clear that you couldn't work for one team and own a piece of another team in the same circuit.
To the rest of the baseball world, it seemed that Paul was eagerly accepted into the Houston way of life. Charming, friendly and intelligent, he seemed assured of a long and successful stay at Houston. The National League was satisfied that the HSA had had the foresight to engage Paul as its front-office boss.
Suddenly Paul was no longer at Houston. On April 27, 1961, one year away from Houston's first season in the big leagues, Gabe announced that he was leaving to accept a similar post at Cleveland. Baseball was shocked to read of Gabe’s defection to the American League. Gabe himself shed no light on the situation when he said, "I am leaving Houston for personal reasons. I have a good opportunity at Cleveland and believe it too good to pass up."
This was difficult to believe, especially when insiders knew that Paul had been given such inducements as higher salary and stock options before he consented to depart from Cincinnati. There was a rumor that Kirksey and Paul had clashed on policy. There were other rumors, all unfounded, many of which had to be firmly denied by Paul.
However, the most persistent of all the stories, and the one that seemed to carry the most weight, was that Gabe was not being permitted to run his own show. His decisions and the reasons for them, had to be passed on by at least one if not two of the leading members of the HSA. Gabe, who had been led to believe that he and he alone would make all front-office decisions on the diamond destinies of the Colts, found these harassments humiliating and refused to knuckle down.
For the next four months Houston built on the foundation laid by Paul. While other Colt officials assumed the duties of general manager, Kirksey began to cast around for a man to replace Gabe. Kirksey knew that to run efficiently a team had to have a firm general manager. Otherwise it could not survive. He looked toward Baltimore where his long-time Texas friend, Paul Richards, was the field manager of the Orioles. Richards, who had at one time served in the dual role of field and general manager of the Birds, consented to take the Houston job. Thus did the former ambidextrous pitcher out of Waxahachie, Texas, who had been a catcher at Brooklyn and Detroit and field manager of the White Sox, doff his uniform for the first time in more than thirty years.
Richards' first move was to tap Harry Craft as manager. Craft, a classy center-fielder at Cincinnati in the 1930's and early '40's, had previously managed the Kansas City Athletics. He had started the 1961 season as a member of the Cubs' revolving panel of coaches and had been sent to handle Chicago's Houston farm club in the American Association. Craft was popular in Houston and was most patient with young and inexperienced personnel. Richards knew that he would have to stock the Colts with youngsters. What better teacher than Craft, he reasoned.
In addition to acquiring personnel on the field and in the administrative ranks, a ball park was required. This seemed assured when voters in Harris County approved a $20 million bond issue for a domed stadium. This was to be the ideal field, seating 43,581 for baseball and 52,913 for football. Air-conditioning was to be installed in this new-look amphitheatre, and a plastic domed-roof would cover the field to keep the playing area free from rain and wind during games.
"Never a postponement of a sports event in Houston," was the boast, and the $15 million structure was to be the forerunner of 21st century stadia. But even in Texas things seldom run according to plan. Legal squabbles developed, work was delayed at the start and the project got off to a grudging start. It soon became obvious that there would be no new stadium for the Colts in '62 and immediate steps had to be taken if Houston was to play in front of the home folks.
Plans were put into immediate effect to construct a temporary park on the land adjacent to the area in which the permanent stadium was to be erected. This time the legal hassles were at a minimum and a 32,000-seat park was, indeed, ready for opening day.
Everything had been acquired, or was in the process of being acquired, except for that pivotal commodity - ball players. The National League was to take on the burden of stocking the Colts and New York Mets. The procedure was for each of the present eight teams to file no later than September 20, 1961, a minimum list of 15 players, seven from the team's squad of 25 as of August 31, 1961, and eight from those minor-leaguers and optionees currently under contract with that major-league team. Thus each team was to put 15 men in the expansion bowl, making a pool of 120 players from which the Colts and the Mets were to choose their personnel for 1962. Both Houston and New York were required to select at least two players from each 15-man-list. Each player was to cost $75,000. Thus a total of 16 players - the number each new team had to pick - would cost each club $1,200,000. If either the Colts or Mets wanted to take a third player from the 15-man-list of any team, another $50,000 was the price.
There was an added inducement, one which, however, did not exactly make the Colts and Mets see pennants in their dreams. On each of these 15-man squads, certain players were designated as "premium players," and came at the bargain rate of $125,000 each. However, neither the Colts nor Mets could choose more than one premium player per squad. Houston shopped carefully, deciding to take Dick Farrell, Hal Smith, Joe Amalfitano and A1 Spangler as its premium selections. These four were to form the nucleus of the Colts only because they cost more than any of the remainder of the 19 players already purchased.
Farrell was a relief pitcher with a crackling fast ball and a sizzling temper. He had started at Philadelphia and was traded to the Dodgers. Failing to ingratiate himself at Los Angeles, he was placed in the expansion pool and Richards, who knew the importance of quality relief hurling, took a chance that he and Craft would be able to make a better man of Farrell.
Smith was a triple threat choice. A catcher by profession (Kansas City and Pittsburgh), he had also proved an acceptable replacement at third and first. A new team must adjust and make changes. Smith was valuable because he could fill three positions.
Amalfitano was a name Houston was surprised to see on the draft list. Joe had been given a sizable bonus by the Giants when they were still in New York. Given little opportunity to play, he was sent to the minors and learned to do an adequate defensive job at second, shortstop and third. He also learned to use a bat, and the Giants got him back in the draft. A utility performer of great promise, he also came prepared to play just about any post in the infield.
The selection of Spangler was shrewd and calculated to take advantage of the spacious Colt park. Young and fast, possessing little hitting power for an outfielder, he was ideal for the leadoff position and was judged to be a proper defensive replacement. Also, he had youth and ambition, and fitted in smartly with the future of the Houston youth movement.
In addition to Farrell, the other pitchers plucked from the grab bag were Dick Drott, Ken Johnson, Jim Golden, Paul Roof, Jesse Hickman, Bobby Shantz, Jim Umbricht and Sam Jones.
Joining Smith as a catcher was Merritt Ranew. Infielders selected were Dick Gernert, Bob Aspromonte, Norm Larker, George Williams, Bob Lillis and Eddie Bressoud.
Outfielders acquired were Roman Mejias, A1 Heist, Ed Olivares and Don Taussig.
Unlike the Mets, who chose more recognizable names in order to rekindle National League interest in New York, the Colts based their selections on potential and future trading value. Results were to prove that Houston's planning was more scientific than New York's. Richards, although an American Leaguer, had excellent contacts in the National League, and be listened to the wise counsel of Bobby Bragan, his director of personnel who had been hired by Paul. Paul had convinced the owners that immediate attendance figures were secondary to securing the nucleus of the talent which, in the future, would make Houston a force in the League.
When it came to judging pitchers, Richards was without a peer. He deliberately sought hurlers who had varied repertoires. He didn't want to lean exclusively on fast-bailers or breaking-ball pitchers. Instead, he shrewdly selected an assortment, mixed with youth and experience, balanced by left-handers and right-handers.
Richards and Craft knew they had to build on defense. The spacious area of the temporary Colt field negated the power hitter and the emphasis was on speed and the line-drive batter. In relation to what was available, the Houston fans were far from shortchanged.
The Colts assembled for their first training camp at Apache Junction, Arizona. Enthusiasm was clearly evident as Craft worked with his hand-picked squad of other teams' castoffs and the battalion of pitchers was clearly the strongest part of the Houston lineup. All players hustled with the verve of a starry-eyed rookie, each anxious to play his role in this new phase of National League history, and they won 17 of their 28 exhibition clashes.
April 10th in Houston was overcast and windy. The weather threatened to turn wet and the conditions were far from ideal to celebrate the opening of the circuit's newest team. The Mets' game at St. Louis had already been rained out, so Houston hogged the spotlight.
It was bumper-to-bumper traffic down South Main Street, but there was still an hour to game time. There was confusion at several entrances to the field's parking lots, and many of the 25,271 who turned out to welcome the Colts never arrived in time to see Bobby Shantz make his first pitch a strike.
Shantz was the perfect choice for the opener with the Chicago Cubs. The little lefty, who later admitted that he was more nervous than at any other time in his career, had an easy time after the Colts came up with a four-run first in the third inning. Two threerun innings, in the seventh and eighth, and Houston had happily put away the Cubs, 11-2. Mejias, a hand-me-down from Pittsburgh, blasted two homers, Hal Smith cracked one and the Colts were off and running. For the record, Houston's first tally came on Aspromonte's single and a triple by Spangler.
Craft's opening lineup had Aspromonte, 3b, Spangler, cf, Mejias, rf, Larker, 1b, Pendleton, lf, Smith, c, Amalfitano, 2b, Buddin, ss, and Shantz. All but Buddin and Shantz were to be instated on a permanent basis throughout the season.
The Colts could do nothing wrong in their first short home stand. Hal Woodeshick wrapped up the Cubs the next night, 2-0, requiring some assistance from Dick Farrell. And Chicago proved the perfect guest the following day, dropping its third straight, 2-0, as Dean Stone applied the whitewash with a three-hitter. It was a sensational beginning for the frisky Colts and probably created several false illusions among the more excited Texans who now felt they had a club which would prove a power in the League.
Houston left its friendly arena and started its initial road trip at Philadelphia. There reality reared its ugly head. But throughout the year the Colts never fell to 10th place and, due to their torrid pitching, were seldom regarded as breathers.
Visiting clubs took unkindly to Houston. The lights, they complained, could be improved. Outfielders had trouble tracking down drives hit between them. Infielders claimed it was difficult to move out on short pops. Batters beefed about certain "blind spots" while the pitcher was delivering.
The heat took more than its normal toll. Day ball was especially cruel during July and August and few pitchers survived a nine-inning workout in the heavy humidity and mean sun. Umpires, usually a sturdier breed than the players, moaned the assignments that brought them to Houston and several had to be treated for heat prostration.
The lights may not have passed inspection by the performers but they were the best friends of the largest mosquitoes extant in the Western Hemisphere. The flying nuisances attacked Colt and foe alike and insect repellant was standard equipment in both dugouts.
Morale on the club remained high. The only complaints Craft had were over base hits and defense-he would have liked more of both. His outfielders did not cover the ground in acceptable fashion; too many of his hitters swung inoffensive bats.
Three changes in the Colt scheme of things helped the team do better than was generally anticipated. Craft solved a problem at shortstop when he used Bob Lillis at that post. Johnny Temple was acquired from Baltimare to fill in at second; and Carl Warwick was obtained from the Cardinals to lend a defensive hand in the outfield. All did their jobs superbly, and because the pitching continued to be high quality stuff, the Colts went on to win 64 games and lose 96, finishing in eighth place.
They even won two season series - taking 11 from Chicago and 13 from New York - and divided their 18 contests with St. Louis. Philadelphia was something else again, the Phillies trampling Houston 17 times.
Farrell was the club's hardest worker. Burly Dick stuck to business and showed his appreciation of the confidence placed in him by Craft and Richards, who made him over into a starting pitcher for the first time in his career. "Turk" was one of the four N.L. pitchers to strike out more than 200 batters (203) and his 10-won, 20-lost record was not a true index of his value to the club. He relieved, started and was ready to pitch his arm off for his bosses. His 3.01 earned-run average placed him among the League leaders and stamped him as a genuine star.
Ken Johnson, who had failed at Cincinnati, Kansas City and St. Louis, was another who would have been extremely effective. He won seven games and then suffered wretched luck and ended up losing more tough struggles than any on the staff.
The relief work was fantastic. Don McMahon, in a slump for three years at Milwaukee, chipped in with a 1.69 ERA; Jim Umbricht, overlooked at Pittsburgh, was almost as effective with a 2.01.
The attendance battle between the Colts and their fellow freshman in the league, the Mets, was won by Houston. New York, which set a target of one million - as did Houston - trailed the 924,456 turnstile count recorded at the Colts' temporary home.
Front-office chores never end and the long-distance telephones on the desks of Craft and Richards were in constant use after the last putout of '62 was entered in the ledger. Richards knew what Craft needed to make '63 even more profitable -- but he could do nothing about the construction plans of the permanent stadium. The target date was now set for 1964, and the temporary quarters would have to be used again.
Richards got the league to help beat the intolerable Houston heat and the green light was given for Sunday-night ball in Texas, another "first" for the National League, and a move which will help boast weekend attendance and soothe the red-hot nerves of the visitors, Colts and umpires.
More trades were made to help make the 1963 club more tenacious. From San Francisco Richards obtained pitcher Dick LeMay and outfielder Manny Mota. This transaction cost him Amalfitano, but Craft was certain that in J. C. Hartman, George Williams and Lillis he had a sufficient number of infielders.
Mejias, who led the club in hitting, home runs and runs batted in, was sent to the Boston Red Sox. In return, the Colts welcomed Pete Runnels, the only native Texan (Lufkin) on the squad and the 1962 American League hitting leader. Also from Boston came Carroll Hardy, a speedster and a sound defensive demon. Another deal was made with Milwaukee, Larker moving to the Braves for pitcher Don Nottebart. This last trade was at the suggestion of McMahon, who had been a bull pen associate of Nottebart at Milwaukee.
As long as Paul Richards is permitted to judge flannel-clad merchandise and make the moves he feels are best, the Colts are assured of a bright future. Youth, speed and ambition are what Paul requires. Remember, he did the same in building at Baltimore. Follow this formula and the Colts have no place to go but up.
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