HOUSTON ASTROS

Eric M. Pfeifle, rev. by Christopher Bean
Houston Astros Logo
Houston Astros Logo. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Robert Everett Smith (left) and Roy M. Hofheinz (right)
Robert Everett Smith (left) and Roy M. Hofheinz (right) Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Astrodome
Astrodome. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Joe Morgan and Cesar Cedeno
Joe Morgan and Cesar Cedeno. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

HOUSTON ASTROS. The Houston Astros, a professional baseball team, belong to the West Division of Major-League Baseball's American League. Prior to 2013 they played in the Central Division of the National League. Big-league baseball came to Houston in 1962 after Roy M. Hofheinz, with the help of wealthy oilman Robert Everett (Bob) Smith, gained control of the Houston Sports Association. Hofheinz was a flamboyant former judge and mayor of Houston who controlled the Astros until the 1979 season. The Houston Colt .45s, the original name of the franchise, began play as an expansion club in 1962. In their first game, the Colt .45s beat the Chicago Cubs eleven to two in front of 25,271 fans in temporary Colt Stadium while awaiting the completion of the Astrodome. That first club finished a surprising eighth in the National League, ahead of the Cubs and the expansion New York Mets. The next two years saw identical ninth-place finishes, with the only highlights being no-hitters thrown by Don Nottebart in 1963 and by Ken Johnson in 1964. The Harris County Domed Stadium, otherwise known as the Astrodome, opened in early 1965, and the team changed its name to the Astros. The stadium occupied 9½ acres and rose 208 feet above the playing surface. The Astros lost the first official game in the Astrodome two to zero to the Philadelphia Phillies. The 1965 season was a financial success, drawing 2,151,470 fans to the new building, but the team once again finished in last place. In fact, despite Don Wilson's no-hitter in 1968, the team still had not finished higher than ninth place since its inaugural season. The quality of play over this stretch was poor, but Judge Hofheinz always made sure the fans were entertained with various promotions and stunts. The quality of play began to pick up in the early 1970s, with the Astros finishing with their best record yet, of 84–65, in 1972. Emerging stars Joe Morgan and Cesar Cedeno were two of the best players in the National League. Morgan was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, however, and the success did not last.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Mike Scott
Mike Scott. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

The mid-1970s saw a sharp decline in the Astros record and in fan attendance. In fact, 1975 was the first time since 1964 that the club drew less than a million fans. As the decade moved on, the Astros inched toward respectability, finishing with a .500 record in 1978, but the fans were still not coming out. Judge Hofheinz relinquished control of the Houston Sports Association before the 1979 season, and Ford Credit Corporation acquired a majority interest in the Houston Sports Association and the Astros. The team still drew less than a million fans in 1979, but excitingly, they finished just 1½ games out of first place in the National League West. In 1980 the Astros signed free agent and Texas native Nolan Ryan to the first million-dollar contract in baseball, and they also reacquired Joe Morgan. The team finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place and won a one-game playoff for their first-ever division title. They lost an exciting league championship series to the Philadelphia Phillies. The 1981 strike-shortened season also went well, ending in a playoff loss to the Dodgers. The Astros hovered around a .500 winning percentage until 1986. Seemingly out of nowhere they then finished with a 96–66 record, the best in franchise history by far, once again winning the National League West. Pitcher Mike Scott was named Most Valuable Player of the National League. The team lost a dramatic league championship series to the heavily-favored Mets, however.

Drayton McLane
Drayton McLane. Courtesy of Pat Sullivan and the Associated Press. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field)
Drayton McLane with a Scale Model of Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field). Courtesy of John Everett and the Houston Chronicle. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

As of the mid-1990s the Astros had not reached those heights again. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s they never threatened for another division title. Drayton McLane became owner of the Astros in 1993, and the team started to become competitive once again. The club was finally competing for a division title in 1994 under new manager Terry Collins, the team's eleventh manager in thirty-three years, but the season was never finished because of the baseball players' strike. In 1995 and 1996 the team finished second in the National League's Central Division. Collins was nevertheless replaced by former Astro pitcher Larry Dierker as manager before the 1997 season. Dierker guided the team to first-place finishes in 1997, 1998, and 1999, but the Astros lost in the National League Divisional Series all three years. The Astros played their last game at the Astrodome on October 9, 1999. They moved to Enron Field (renamed Minute Maid Park), a newly- constructed baseball-only facility, for the 2000 season. In 2000 the team, racked by injuries to star players Craig Biggio and Billy Wagner and the departure of pitcher Mike Hampton as a free agent, fell to fourth place in the division.

In 2001 the team finished first in their division and led the National League with a record of 93–69. This notable improvement over the 2000 season was due in part to a greatly improved pitching staff, aided by the acquisition of rookie pitcher Roy Oswalt, who posted a National League-leading win-loss percentage of .824. The 2001 season also marked the beginning of the club’s emphasis on hitting power. Traditionally, due to the characteristics of the Astrodome, the team manufactured runs by base stealing, infield hits, bunting, and sacrifices to move runners. No longer hampered by the dimensions of the Astrodome, the newly-built field enabled every starting position player to achieve double-digit home runs for the first time in club history. However, despite their impressive regular season performance, the Astros failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs and fell to the Atlanta Braves 3–0 in the National League Division Series.

From 2002 to 2005 the team was consistently competitive, with four straight second place finishes in the National League Central Division. The steady success rate was due, in part, to a stable combined earned run average (ERA) from the pitching staff. The addition of star second basemen Jeff Kent from the San Francisco Giants in 2003 also complemented the continued offensive production of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Lance Berkman, who still warranted the collective nickname, “The Killer B’s.” The acquisition of all-star pitchers Andy Petite and Roger Clemens in 2004, along with the continually-rising star Roy Oswalt, gave the team three “ace” pitchers. Their combined win-loss record of 44–18 (and Clemens’s seventh Cy Young Award) helped the Astros earn a wild card spot in the playoffs. After defeating their longtime nemeses Atlanta Braves in the division series, however, the Astros ultimately fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in a memorable seven-game National League Championship Series.

The 2005 season began poorly, as the team struggled with a record of just 19–32 in April and May. The Houston Chronicle infamously declared the Astros season dead with a tombstone emblazoned with the club’s 2005 season. However, Houston finished the season strong, again earning second place in their division and a wild card berth. The Astros again faced their playoff rival Atlanta Braves in the division series. In four games, they easily dispatched the aging Braves, with the deciding eighteen-inning Game 4 at Minute Maid Park going down as one of the longest playoff games (and one of the best) in Major League playoff history. This was followed by a rematch with their division rival St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, who the Astros defeated in six games. This earned the team’s first trip to the World Series, where they battled the Chicago White Sox. The Astros unfortunately fell to the “South Siders” in a 4–0 sweep.

The optimism of two straight impressive playoff appearances quickly faded as the Astros finished with disappointing results from 2006 to 2014. The loss of star pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Petite after the 2006 season certainly hurt, as well as the loss of pitcher Roy Oswalt in 2010. Astros fans also witnessed the end of the power hitting “Killer B’s”—Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell retired following the 2005 World Series; Lance Berkman was traded to the Yankees; and Craig Biggio retired in 2007. As a result, the Astros never finished better than second place in the division between 2006 and 2010 and posted just two winning seasons. The bright spots during this time were the acquisitions of outfielders Carlos Lee and Preston Wilson, closing pitcher José Valverde, shortstop Miguel Tejada, and the promise of young stars Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence.

From 2011 to 2013 the Astros endured three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the most being 111 losses in 2013, when the team was moved to the American League West Division, the same division as their intra-state rival Texas Rangers. The poor performance during this time was due, in part, to an intentional restructuring by the team’s new owner, Jim Crane, who purchased the team from Drayton McLane in 2010 and hired general manager Jeff Luhnow, who specialized in rebuilding teams with young talent through its farm system. The move toward developing young talent while retaining a handful of veterans, a strategy dubbed “Astroball” by the press, required patience from the fan base as the club sacrificed short-term success for long-term excellence. The losses continued to pile up until 2015, when the Astros posted their first winning season since 2008, earning them second place in the division and another wild card berth with the help of Cy Young Award winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel, American League Rookie of the Year shortstop Carlos Correa, and second baseman José Altuve, who led the league in both hits and stolen bases. The team also racked up an impressive 230 home runs, including eleven hitters with double-digit home runs, and a combined pitching staff ERA of 3.57. After defeating the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game, however, the team fell in five games against the Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series.

Although failing to make the playoffs in 2016, the team rebounded in 2017, a season marred by the devastation and loss of life in the flooding of Hurricane Harvey in late August. They won 101 games, the most since 1998, and finished first in the American League West Division. Along the way, the Astros added star pitchers Randy Johnson and Justin Verlander to an already stout pitching staff. Also, the team again featured eleven players with double-digit home run seasons, and, perhaps most importantly, the long-term “Astroball” approach led to an intangible sense of team spirit, as many of the players had played their entire careers together. In addition, second baseman José Altuve’s impressive performance earned him a number of awards and recognitions, including the American League Most Valuable Player, the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, the Baseball America Major League Player of the Year, the Hank Aaron Award, the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, and the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award, among others.

The Houston Astros began the 2017 playoffs by easily dispatching the Boston Red Sox in four games. This was followed by the defeat of the New York Yankees in seven games during the American League Championship Series. After a hard-fought seven-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Astros earned their first World Series Championship in club history. While José Altuve and pitcher Justin Verlander shared the Babe Ruth Award for the best MLB postseason performance, the World Series MVP Award went to outfielder George Springer, who batted an impressive .379, with five home runs, seven runs batted in, and eleven base hits. As of October 2018 the Astros appear well-positioned to continue their recent success, with yet another first place finish in the American League West Division and the winningest regular season in team history (103–59).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Baseball Almanac (http://www.baseball-almanac.com/recbooks/rb_hr7.shtml), accessed September 29, 2018. Peter C. Bjarkman, ed., Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories: National League (Westport: Meckler, 1991). Joe Holley, Hurricane Season: The Unforgettable Story of the 2017 Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City (New York: Hachette Books, 2018). Houston Astros Team History and Encyclopedia (https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/HOU/), accessed September 30, 2018. Greg Lucas, Houston to Cooperstown: The Houston Astros’ Biggio and Bagwell Years (Indianapolis: Blue River Press, 2017).

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Handbook of Texas Online, Eric M. Pfeifle, rev. by Christopher Bean, "HOUSTON ASTROS," accessed November 17, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xoh01.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 4, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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