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.
On January 17, 1961, three months after Houston was awarded a Major League franchise, the Houston Sports Association purchased the minor league Houston Buffs to operate in the American Association. The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz and R.E. “Bob” Smith, paid nearly $400,000 to the owners of the Buffs who also gave territorial rights. The original asking price had been around $100,000 just a few years earlier. Times were different. MLB was coming to Houston in just over a year and the HSA needed those rights in order to move on as a franchise. Once the deal was done it didn’t take very long for the stockholders of the HSA to determine the Buffs name would not be carried into the majors for the 1962 season. Out with the old and in with the new. The HSA ownership group made plans for a name-the-team contest. There has been some speculation that not carrying the Buffs name tied to animosity during the Buffs negotiations.
Over the next six weeks there were more than 12,000 entries sent to the offices of the Houston Sports Association. Mail was received from 39 states as well as Canada, England, France, Spain and Turkey. Two students from the University of Houston spent an estimated 150 hours sorting through entry names and eventually narrowing them to around 75 choices. By the time the list was whittled down to 30 names, the clear fan choice was “Rebels”.
In early March, 1961 the list of entry names had been shortened to Colts, Generals, Hawks, Longhorns, Ravens, Spurs and Stars. That list was quickly narrowed to Colts, Spurs and Ravens. William Neder, a Houston salesman, chose “Colts” on his entry. What he wrote on his entry instantly caught the eyes of the Houston front office. Neder wrote, “The Colt .45 won the west and will win the National League.” On March 8th the Houston Sports Association announced the name of the first Major League team in Texas would be “Colts”. The name was a personal favorite of team Vice-President George Kirksey, who oversaw the contest. Neder was quoted, “I thought Colt was a good name but then I saw the Colt .45 and I thought well, you know, Colt .45s would be even better than playing Colts because there probably be about four or five hundred people entering that name. So I entered the name Colt .45 as the gun rather than as the horse and as the tie-breaker I put ‘the Colt .45 was the gun that won the west and would win the National League.’ It’s the only contest I ever entered in my life. The first one and the last one.” William Neder won all-expenses paid round trip to the 1961 World Series for his winning entry.
The Colts name did have some early confusion and the HSA explained the moniker symbolized the old cowboy pistol and not a horse. In November, 1961 the name was permanently modified to “Colt .45’s”. George Kirksey gave a clear set of qualifications in choosing a name for the new Houston team. It had to be easy to say and remember. The name would also have to be different and distinctive from other baseball team names. A former sportswriter himself, Kirksey also wanted the name to be easily adaptable to news headlines. Overall, the name had to have a certain “romance” or sentiment to its meaning. Kirksey stated, “The name Colts, in tribute to the gun which played such a tremendous part in civilizing the West, met all four requirements perfectly.” Media speculation had team nicknames for the Colt .45’s as “Forty-Fives”, “.45s”, “Six-Shooters” and “Sharpshooters”.
On April 10, 1962 the Houston Colt .45’s opened their first season with an 11-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at their new (albeit temporary) home, Colt Stadium. The massive skeletal frame of a domed stadium slowly rose during the next three seasons over the first base side of the stadium, which was the true future of baseball in Houston. The Colt .45’s name would not extend to the Astrodome. The firearm company of the same name wanted to share revenues with the team for using the name. Team President Roy Hofheinz wanted no part of revenue sharing so he hired an unnamed artist to begin concepts of a new name and identity for the 1965 season when the Domed Stadium was scheduled to open. This artist attended twenty-five games at Colt Stadium in 1964 and came up with just as many sketches for a new look. Hofheinz publicly announced on October 1, 1964 the end of the Colt .45’s name with the last game of the season. All focus was on the opening of the new and revolutionary domed stadium and Hofheinz did not want to deter any attention from this new sports palace. On October 9th he announced the new stadium would open with an exhibition series against the 1964 American League champion New York Yankees.
On December 1, 1964, Roy Hofheinz announced that the Harris County Domed Stadium would be called the “Astrodome” and the Colt .45’s would become the “Astros” in 1965. Hofheinz stated, “We felt the space idea was more logical because the ball club is in Houston- Space City U.S.A., and our spring training headquarters is in Cocoa Beach, Fla. at Cape Kennedy- Launching Pad, U.S.A. The name and insignia will help dispel the image Texas as a land of cowboys and Indians, and it behooves every citizen in this area to call attention to the 20th century aspects of Texas and Houston.” A little over a week later the Astros unveiled their new logo that displayed baseballs in orbit around a depiction of the Astrodome. The colors used by Houston since 1962, navy and orange, were carried into the new identity of the Astros. It was the first time a team depicted its stadium in their primary logo.
The Astros name was not without its doubters. In January, 1965 an organization called CETA (Call ‘Em Tros association) was formed and distributed bumper stickers that had the “AS” part of the Astros name marked out. Handouts were passed out featuring the phrase, “Refuse to recognize the name.” Another small group named the Astro-Suppression Society, intended on passing out stickers saying, “Let’s Call Them the Houston Astronauts.” The name controversy was short-lived.
Since 1965 the name “Astros” has become a staple for generations of baseball fans in Houston. Many of us can recall going to games in the Astrodome as kids, listening to Gene Elston’s call of the action on Astros radio or wearing our favorite rainbow jersey to the game. Some of us fall under the “all of the above category”. The 2012 season celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston with the Astros wearing several uniforms of the past; including the original Colt .45’s uniform. Dozens of former players who made so many baseball memories in Houston were honored on the field at Minute Maid Park. In the fall of 2012 the Astros returned to their roots of navy and orange, which were worn from 1962-1993.
When the Colt .45’s appeared in the sixties everyone thought of the gun of the wild-west. When the Astrodome opened in 1965 everyone changed their direction to the association of NASA and the Astronauts based in Houston. Today we look back on the Astros name and think, “Wynn”, “Dierker”, “Aspromonte”, “Cedeno”, “Richard”, “Ryan”, “Biggio” or “Bagwell”. The list can go on and on. That is what a Houston Astro is. The Astros are the people who carry on and mold a tradition of baseball in Houston. They are a public trust and a staple of the community. Cheers to the next fifty years of Major League Baseball in the great city of Houston.