You’ll see them running along the field before the game. One might find them dancing on top of a dugout in between innings and tossing t-shirts into the crowd. They’ll also be found along the concourse posing with kids and adults alike. You also might find one performing a prank on the visiting team. I’m talking about baseball mascots. From Cincinnati’s “running man” to New York’s “Mr. Met” to Philadelphia’s “Phanatic”, baseball has seen its share of fluffy, fun characters parading throughout ballparks across the country.
The first Astros mascot actually wasn’t a cartoon or “thing”. He didn’t wear a fluffy costume with a jelly-belly but his background was built in space…sort of. In January, 1965 Astros president Roy Hofheinz introduced comedian Bill Dana as the new team mascot. Dana had been known on television with various appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and would appear as the “honorary eighth astronaut, Jose Jimenez”. He appeared at the Astrodome performing comedic skits before games and dressed in a full Astros uniform. Dana rubbed elbows with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Alan Shepard on Opening Day, 1965 when twenty-two U.S. astronauts tossed the ceremonial first pitch at the Astrodome.
Upon seeing the Dome for the first time, Dana quipped, “If they would build a cemetery behind home plate, you’d never have to leave this place. You really need a new word to describe it, and I guess the best word would be ‘astro-nomical’. This is the ninth wonder of the world- one for each inning. I can just hear the vendors in the stands now- ‘get your peanuts, popcorn, and caviar.’ With all these windows, they ought to put up a sign saying, ‘No Ball Playing Allowed.’ I guess they will have to revise ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ to ‘Take Me Into The Ball Game’.
Bill Dana’s stint in Houston was short-lived, but secondary mascots emerged with Astrodome “Earthmen” who dressed in orange flight suits and space helmets serving on the grounds crew and vacuuming the Astroturf field before every Astros game. There were many times that the crowd cheered on their Earthmen in action. During games, “Chester Charge” appeared on the large Astrodome scoreboard leading the charge with a bugle for Astros fans. The brainchild of Astrodome cartoonist Ed Henderson, Chester Charge appeared as a mascot in costume on the field during the 1970’s.
The 1980’s saw the emergence of two Astros mascots. Astrojack (a rabbit) and Astrodillo (an armadillo) appeared before and during Astros games dressed in the rainbow splash of orange, red and yellow team colors. They would race around the field on three-wheelers and perform skits with the Dome’s Dixieland band, The Astronuts. They were the first Houston mascots to circle around the seating levels of the Astrodome and interact directly with fans.
The Astros were without a mascot for a few years until January, 1990. A new, jovial space alien simply name “Orbit” was introduced at Heflin Elementary School in Houston. It was said Orbit was born on the “Sixth Moon on Fifth Planet in the 19th Galaxy in the solar system.” Orbit clearly had baseball experience having played “third nebulux in the fourth dimension for the Orion Craters”, who won the Solar Series after he led the team with 2,040,850 space runs. Orbit claimed pitchers with 23 arms tended to throw a nasty curveball. Pop-ups from Orbit’s former world were said to have “taken up to four days to re-enter the atmosphere.”
Orbit became an instant hit with Astros fans, blasting around the Astrodome in his shoulder-rainbow jersey and later switching to the midnight blue and gold of the late nineties. Orbit enjoyed a ten season run at the Astrodome, with his time in Houston ending after the 1999 season when the Astros were set to move into a new, modern, retractable-roofed ballpark in the heart of downtown Houston. Orbit spent a year at with the Rookie League Martinsville Astros during the 2000 season before seemingly returning to his former home in deep space.
“General Admission” debuted in the outfield pavilion seats in the midst of Orbit’s first tenure in Houston. The General, in a blue and gold uniform, stood at his watch during every Astros at-bat and would fire his home run cannon from center field with the crack of each Astros homer. This character, too, was gone after the final season played in the Astrodome. Local actor Michael Kenny, who played General Admission, reappeared as the engineer of the Enron Field train along the outfield tracks in 2000. Kenny passed along train duties to Enron Field tour guide and local writer, Bobby Vasquez, who has remained atop the tracks since 2001. Michael Kenny moved on to become the Enron Field Tour Manager and today oversees the Astros Guest Services Department.
With the move to Enron Field in 2000 the Astros introduced Junction Jack, a rabbit dressed in a train conductor’s outfit. The design captured the historical quality of the original ballpark site as a train station. Junction Jack was created by local Houston artist, Logan Goodson, who also created the Astrodillo and Astrojack mascots. The idea of using a rabbit stemmed from then-Astros president Bob McLaren, whose young daughter loved bunnies. Junction Jack eventually shed his conductor uniform for a full pinstripe Astros uniform of the 2000s and saw the great playoff runs of the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
In 2012, the Astros began the process of rebranding the team with new colors and uniforms that coincided with Jim Crane’s new ownership group. The Astros embraced their origins and history with the team emerging in navy and orange, the original team colors used from 1962-1993, on November 2nd. With a modernized nod to the past, the Astros called upon an old friend and Orbit made his comeback to Houston with a motorcade straight from NASA. His return has brought back memories from his days at the Astrodome and is certainly set to create more as he dons the new navy, orange, red and yellow Astros jersey of today.
From Bill Dana, Chester Charge, Astrodillo, Junction Jack and Orbit, all of these characters have added entertainment during Astros games over five decades of major league baseball in Houston. They create entertainment and humor in addition to providing a lighter side of sports. The Colt .45s never had a mascot roaming the stands at Colt Stadium. Perhaps the 90-degree heat summer heat of Houston would’ve proven an early demise of a gun-slinging character of the Old West. It seems Roy Hofheinz had the right mind to wait until they moved into the 72-degree domed stadium. Sounds like a wise choice to me.