Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Short Tale of Two Leagues

ASTRO BLOG AL NL

In 1900 the American League declared major league status, same as on the line with the National League, which was founded as the first and only major league since 1876. The NL fought the battle, but gave in and in 1903 the World Series was born. In late 1960 another battle with the American League appeared to loom. Houston and New York were awarded National League expansion franchises on October 17th with play slated to begin with the 1962 season. For a short time, however, it appeared Houston may have had an opportunity to begin play in 1961…in the American League.

In 1960 the American League created a big stir within baseball when it announced the move of the Washington Senators to Minnesota (becoming the Twins), replacement in Washington with an expansion franchise (again called the Senators) and a tenth AL team in Los Angeles, where the NL Brooklyn Dodgers had relocated two years prior in 1958. Some thought a more logical choice than Los Angeles would be a city that was a former member of the infamous Continental League, which was created to force and persuade major league owners to expand to more U.S. cities in the early 1960s. Thoughts circled to Dallas/Ft. Worth, a former member of the CL, as a worthy suitor for an AL franchise. A bump in the road occurred when Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers, forbid any team from playing at the LA Memorial Coliseum where his team was playing until Dodger Stadium was finished being built. O’Malley held the contract for the stadium and he did not want any additional tenants.

In November of 1960, just weeks after Houston was awarded the NL franchise, news emerged from the Minor League meetings in Louisville, Kentucky that the American League made a proposal which had both leagues playing in 1961 with nine teams playing an interleague schedule. It was said Houston would be chosen as the ninth team in the NL because their organization was further along than the expansion franchise given to New York. The plan for Houston would’ve had Major League Baseball playing at Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) where the minor league Buffs played their home games. Territorial rights still had not been settled with the owners of the Buffs by the Houston Sports Association, owners of the Houston expansion franchise.

Speculation quickly rose, however, that Houston was also likely to gain an American League franchise with the Houston Buffs if the Los Angeles stadium situation with Walter O’Malley was not cleared. At the forefront of this news was William Hopkins, the majority stockholder and President of the Houston Buffs. Hopkins was ready to finance and organize the Houston Buffs transfer into the American League for the 1961 season. The owners of the Buffs were ready to pay territorial rights to the American Association, where they had been playing since 1959 after moving from the Texas League. Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) was solely owned by the Hopkins group and had plans to expand the stadium to 30,655 for 1961 and 46,000 by 1962. Houston, it appeared, was almost set to have both AL and NL franchises similar to what was seen in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and planned for Los Angeles.

By this time, however, Houston and Harris County already voted on a bond issued for a domed stadium (The Astrodome) that would seat at least 43,000 for the Houston Sports Association, the ownership group of the NL expansion franchise. William Hopkins’ group once tried to join the HSA in efforts to get MLB to Houston but was denied. It appeared there was some bad blood brewing between the Buffs and the new NL major league franchise.

In late November, 1960 baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced his opposition by stating, “Any effort by the American League to move into the Houston territory at this time would, in the opinion of the commissioner, be a complete abrogation of all agreements and understandings in connections with the expansion program.” Warren Giles, President of the National League, also stated, “The American League has no more right to go into Houston than the National League into Detroit or any other major league city. As far as I’m concerned, Houston and New York are members of the National League even though they won’t operate clubs until 1962.”

This opposition by baseball’s top brass had William Hopkins quickly responding in defiance. “This territory belongs to the Houston Buffs and the American Association,” he stated. Hopkins also reiterated that the Houston Sports Association had not completed a purchase of the Buffs and associated territorial rights for bringing a major league franchise to Houston. Numbers had been exchanged but nothing settled. It is worth noting that while the news of a possible AL shift to Houston was coming out of the minor league meetings in Louisville, the General Manager of the Buffs, H. B. (Spec) Richardson (future General Manager of the Houston Astros) had a more calming tone when commenting on the matter. “We, in Houston, have no intention of standing in the way of our city entering the major leagues. They (the HSA) have rejected all of our bids, offering $362,500 for the franchise which we do not consider adequate.” The Buffs offered a purchase price of $600,000.

The HSA, always knowing they needed the purchase territorial rights from the Buffs, were very dedicated to staying on the timeline of major league owners in making appropriate plans and presentations regarding a stadium. The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz, knew the big key to getting a major league franchise was making sure the domed stadium they proposed was actually built and supported by Houston and Harris County. The HSA felt the rest would fall into place as formalities of bringing the majors to Houston. In early December, 1960 the National League gave the HSA permission to begin to sign players as soon as they cleared any issues with territorial rights.

In the end, the American League did arrive to Los Angeles in 1961. The Angels began playing at Wrigley Field, which had been home to the minor league Angels for decades. The Los Angeles Wrigley Field was designed to look much like the north side Chicago counterpart (minus the ivy walls). To further the carbon copy the ballpark was even named for William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs. The ownership group of the transplanted Washington Senators encountered an early fight with the American Association in Minnesota over costs of territorial rights as they reemerged as the Twins. The new replacement franchise in Washington D.C., also called the Senators, eventually moved to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.

In Texas, the Houston Sports Association did purchase the Buffs and all territorial rights by mid-January, 1961 and operated the team in the American Association for the final year of minor league baseball in Houston. The final price was $393,750 which was well below the original asking price by William Hopkins. The HSA quickly decided not to continue the name into the National League. The American League in Houston for 1961 was never really more than a short tale of tug of war during an era where the majors were expanding and the minors had to protect their interests. The Houston Colt .45’s emerged in 1962 in the National League playing at Colt Stadium, next to the domed stadium construction site. The Buffs, under ownership of the Colt .45’s, moved to Oklahoma City as Houston’s minor league club and became the 89ers. In three years the .45’s changed their name to the Astros with their home base in the Houston Astrodome, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” The rest is history. After fifty years in the National League, the Astros have now become members of the American League and balancing the NL and AL by 15 teams each. It has ironically brought this short, but interesting tale full circle.

Early Voices

BOOTH 1999
I’m a native Houstonian. I grew up watching Astros games in the Astrodome. There was something about driving across town, seeing the Dome from Loop 610 and watching it get closer as we entered the massive parking lot. There were a few times we’d arrive the “back way” and drive up through the Medical Center on Fannin, entering through the Holly Hall gate, which meant we’d walk through the centerfield doors and under the larger-than-life Astrodome scoreboard. Coming down Murworth Drive meant we were entering behind home plate. As a kid the anticipation excited me. We’d walk up to the gate and felt that rush of air conditioning as soon as the glass door was pulled open. I remember hearing the whisk of air through the air system above. My dad took me to numerous games and we sat everywhere. We had seats in the orange Mezzanine level most of the time. It was like entering a whole new world every time the doors to the Astrodome opened. It was a true Houston experience.

In 1999, the final baseball season in the Astrodome, it was a dream come true for me working as an intern in the Astros Broadcast Department. I remember my first day walking into the radio booth and seeing Milo Hamilton’s books, lineup cards and game notes he would be using for the broadcast. I also made a personal observance that he was sitting in the same spot Gene Elston sat in from 1965-1986 when he was the “Voice of the Astros”. Milo was a great influence on me. He showed me his system for keeping track of the game and being able to give stats and recaps without overpowering the listener with numbers. He became a good friend who was very willing to share what worked for him. In addition I was able to meet Bill Brown, the television voice of the Astros. As with Milo, his knowledge of baseball was an inspiration and was always willing to help this young intern. As the 1999 season progressed I was able to meet visiting broadcasters such as Harry Kalas, Jack Buck and Vin Scully. I was keeping stats in the Astros radio booth as well as updates of out of town scores from around the league. This is where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a radio voice for the Astros.

October 3, 1999 was one of the most personally historic days of my career. The final regular season game at the Astrodome was taking place and I wanted to take in as much of the day as possible. I was going to take lots of photos and decided to arrive at the Dome earlier than usual. I arrived around 9am and got my things settled in the radio booth. I decided to have a quick breakfast before things began to pick up around the stadium. As I walked to the media dining room along the press level concourse I noticed it didn’t appear anyone else had arrived to the press box yet. I walked into the dining room where a fresh breakfast buffet was spread out and grabbed a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. The room had just opened and there were a few dining employees around. I sat down at one of the many empty tables and caught ESPN on a nearby monitor. A few minutes after sitting down I noticed in my periphery another person walk in. It was Vin Scully. He strode in wearing a light blue sports coat with white shirt and tie. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town for this final weekend series against the Astros. I had met Mr. Scully earlier in the season on a previous series against the Dodgers. He walked into the room, grabbed a plate of breakfast and walked over to the table where I was sitting and asked, “Well good morning. Do you mind if I sit with you?” I was amazed. Here, a legend of broadcasting, in the Astrodome on the morning of the final regular season game in its history, wanted to sit with me (an intern). The next twenty minutes were some of the greatest I have ever known. There we sat, Vin Scully and me, talking about old baseball stories and his memories of coming to the Astrodome for the first time in the 1960s when it was brand new. He spoke of Judge Roy Hofheinz (creator of the Astrodome), the first time he saw Astroturf on the field and even a few early notes about his work with Red Barber. There were plenty of other empty tables, but he chose to sit at mine.

What I took most from this experience was the human element of Vin Scully. It transcended baseball. He was very forthcoming and friendly. There was no sense of pretense. We seemed to speak the same language with baseball. It set a standard for me at an early part of my career and I’ve never forgotten it as I continue my career with the Astros today. Shortly after the ’99 season I began broadcasting high school and college baseball and football. I was also fortunate enough to become a backup public address announcer for Astros games. It continues to build today.

I keep a picture in my office at Minute Maid Park today taken by my dad of the Astros radio booth on the final game ever played at the Astrodome. It shows our announcers (Milo, Alan Ashby and Bill Brown) on the front row and radio producer Mike Cannon and myself on the second row as we all got ready for another broadcast. It may have been the final year in the Astrodome, but it was the first of my career with the Astros. We all have our eyes set on goals in life. The good standards that are set for us also help us continue them for others. This photo reminds me everyday.