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Our nostalgic look back at Astros history takes us to the 1970s, when the Astros experienced plenty of down years but were ultimately setting themselves up for a more fruitful run in the next decade. Houston Chronicle Harry Shattuck covered the Astros during that era, and when we closed the Dome down in 1999, we asked him to give us his recollection of the Astros in the ’70s. This is what ran in the commemorative game program Oct. 1-3, 1999.
By Harry Shattuck
It was the worst of times. It was the best of times.
As a team and an organization, the Astros spent the 1970s on a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, an emotional experience perhaps best summed by two-time National League All-Star pitcher Joaquin Andujar who — on more than one occasion — philosophized, “everything about this game can be explained by one word. And that one word is ‘you never know.'”
We do know this: At the decade’s conclusion, Astros players and their fans were clinging to new hope that a long-anticipated division title was on the horizon.
That championship would have to wait another year. But the framework for success was established, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Houston franchise at the decade’s midpoint seem almost on the brink of collapse — with 97 losses and an average home attendance of only 10,593 per game in 1975 and an ownership takeover by credit companies when Astrodome mastermind Roy Hofheinz endured financial difficulties.
Against all odds, and largely due to the timeless efforts and patience of General Manager Tal Smith and manager Bill Virdon, the Astros recovered — on the field and with the fans. And when new owner John McMullen announced the signing of free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan on November 15, 1979, the darkest period in club history was clearly over.
For old time’s sake, though, let’s climb back on that roller coaster.
Along with the spills, there were ample thrills:
This was a decade when the Astros’ first genuine superstar, center fielder Cesar Cedeno, won five consecutive Gold Gloves, stole 50 or more bases in six seasons, hit 20 or more homers three times and twice batted .320.
A decade when young phenom James Rodney Richard came of age as one of baseball’s most feared pitchers, winning 18 or more games in four consecutive seasons.
A decade when outfielder Jose Cruz earned his first of four Astros MVP awards (in 1977).
A decade when Larry Dierker, whose tenure as a Houston favorite had begun on his 18th birthday almost 12 years earlier, pitched a no-hitter on July 9, 1976 — his final season with the club as a player. (And who could have imagined 23 years ago how much Dierker would continue to mean to the city as a broadcaster, newspaper columnist — and now as manager.)
The 70’s also brought us the “foamer.” The “arm farm.” And the first “rain-in” in Major League history on June 15, 1976, when a 10-inch downpour flooded much of the city, making it impossible for umpires, fans and stadium officials to reach the Astrodome and resulting in postponement of the Astros-Pirates game.
It wasa a decade, too, when diminutive Joe Morgan, whom Houston fans had embraced as early as 1963 when he first joined the Colt .45s, evolved into a Hall of Fame second baseman.
Alas, Morgan’s main heroics came not with the Astros but as a stalwart of rival Cincinnati’s two-time World Champion Big Red Machine. Indeed, his departure to the Reds on November 29, 1971 — with pitcher Jack Billingham, shortstop Denis Menke and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister for first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart — will forever be remembered as one of the worst trades in club history.
Fan favorites Jimmy Wynn and Doug Rader departed in trades, too — but not before the Toy Cannon had powered 223 home runs and played 1,426 games as an Astro and the Red Rooster won five consecutive Gold Gloves (1970-74) at third base.
The decade was also tinged with sadness.
Don Wilson, one of Houston’s most successful pitchers ever and the only Astro to pitch two no-hitters, died tragically at his home prior to the 1975 season, shy of his 30th birthday.
Hofheinz, who inspired the Astrodome’s creation and served as the club’s chairman of the board until 1976, was confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling stroke. Hofheinz died in 1982.
On the field, consecutive 79-83 seasons in 1970 and ’71 precipitated the Morgan trade as Astros management — seemingly with a different philosophical approach at every turn – sought to boost the team’s power potential by acquiring established slugger Lee May.
Although the deal proved a long-term disaster, it did pay some immediate dividends. The Astros slammed 134 home runs — a club record at the time — in 1972, and their 84-69 record marked the first above-.500 finished in franchise history. Overall, May produced 81 home runs and 299 RBI during three seasons, then moved on to Baltimore in a trade that delivered third baseman Enos Cabell to Houston.
The Astros were going through managers almost as fast as they were players, too, with Harry “The Hat” Walker yielding to colorful Leo Durocher during the 1972 season and Durocher, in turn, giving away to one of the game’s genuine gentlemen, Preston Gomez, prior to 1974.
In 1975, the situation hit rock-bottom. The Astros lost 10 of their first 14 games, and at the season’s halfway point the record was 28-53. Fan apathy was such that only 3,427 showd up for one game against the Cubs in June.
As Hofheinz was losing control of the franchise ownership to creditors, Tal Smith — an integral part of the organization’s leadership from its inception through 1973 — was lured back from the New York Yankees, whom he had joined as executive vice president.
There was no questioning Smith’s baseball savvy. But he inherited a team with previous little talent. A budget dwindling as swiftly as the fan base. And a temportary ownership — General Electric, and Ford Motor credit companies in large part — that had no desire to operate a baseball organization and whose main objective was to find a new buyer.
What to do? How to rebuild during a period in which the very face of baseball — with player salaries escalating and the prospect of mass free agency — was undergoing dramatic change?
In retrospect, it could be argued that the creditors — and Astrodomain executives that included Sidney Shlenker, T.H. Neyland and Warren Genee — save the franchise during the latter half of the decade by shrewdly allowing Smith (who assumed the dual role of general manager/president in 1976) the flexibility, if not always the money, to make critical decisions.
Step one was the hiring of Virdon, a former Pirates and Yankees manager, on Aug. 19, 1975, 12 days after Smith’s appointment.
Step two was the decision to place new emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.
Step three was the conscious effort to tap every available resource in the organization’s farm system and to evaluate each potential transaction for its long-term potential, not as a band-aid quick fix.
New enthusiasm grew rapidly. The Astros didn’t knock down any fences in ’76 — indeed, their team total of 66 home runs fell shy of Mark McGwire’s individual total last year — but they stole 150 bases. And a pitching staff anchored by 20-game winner Richard, Dierker and Andujar totaled 42 complete games and 17 shutouts.
Smith’s trades, often questioned at the time because of the unknown nature of the acquisitions, reaped major dividends. Overall, there were 30 transactions in four years. Among the most significant: Andujar came from St. Louis and third baseman Art Howe from Pittsburgh following the ’75 season; utility man Denny Walling from Oakland in ’77; catcher Alan Ashby from Toronto, shortstop Craig Reynolds from Seattle and infielder Rafael Landestoy and outfielder Jeff Leonard from Los Angeles, all in ’78; and reliever Frank LaCorte from Atlanta in ’79. Smith signed pitcher Vern Ruhle as a free agent after Detroit gave up on him during the 1978 season.
The minor league system produced outfielder Terry Puhl, catchers Bruce Bochy and Luis Pujols and the “arm farm” as one after another, the Astros summoned unsung fuzzy-cheeked pitchers from the minor leagues. Some enjoyed only brief moments in the spotlight; others, notably reliever Joe Sambito, developed into All-Stars. But this parade of enthusiastic young talent — combined with an influx of scrappy veterans — captured the fancy of the fans.
There were veteran surprises, too. Joe Niekro, for one, had floundered between the major and minor leagues for years as a reliever and worked primarily out of the bullpen as an Astro from 1975-77. Given a chance as a full-time starter by Virdon in ’78, Niekro went on to become the club’s all-time winningest pitcher.
Ken Forsch, a starter-turned-reliever and a National League All-Star in 1976, reclaimed a full-time spot in the rotation in ’79 — and promptly threw a no-hitter in his first start of the season.
The Astrodome was a fun place to be, too, especially on “foamer night.” If a designated Houston player hit a home run — or in later variations, a prominent opposing player struck out on cue — it meant free beer for all spectators.
In 1979, the decade’s final season, the Astros compiled their best record yet at 89-73 and attracted 1.9 million fans to the Astrodome — the highest home attendance since 1965 when the stadium opened as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Joe Niekro pitched 21 victories, J.R. Richard struck out 313 batters, Joe Sambito saved 22 games, Bill Virdon was named Manager of the Year and the Astros battled the Reds to the wire before Cincinnati won the West Division title by 1 1/2 games.
A spectacular turnabout was almost complete. The roller coaster came to a halt. And the stage was set for a championship celebration.
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