In the Beginning Were the Colt .45s

AFTER SPENDING 27 years in Los Angeles, I was rooting, along with my son and daughter, for the Dodgers in the World Series, but seeing the Astros win brought back memories of when they started, in 1962, as the expansion Houston Colt. 45s. I had a middle school baseball coach, Tom Adams, who had come to Dallas from the east coast carrying a lifelong allegiance to the NY/SF Giants. When the Giants visited Houston, he drove a carload of us down there to see the games, the first MLB games in Texas. The team was known as the Colt .45s for three seasons, 62-64, and played in a makeshift ballpark next to the site where the Astrodome was being constructed. They were overmatched in the NL but had some future stars in Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn.

Judge Roy Hofheinz, the owner, had promised MLB that he would build the nation’s first indoor, air-conditioned stadium because it was too hot to play baseball in Houston in the summer (though somehow the Houston Buffs, not to mention the Dallas Eagles, had done so for years in the Texas League). Hence, the Astrodome, which opened for the 1965 season, but during those first summers outdoors at Colt Park, MLB, in deference to the inhospitable climate, allowed the first Sunday night baseball games ever to be played. I was there for the very first one, June 9, 1963, and still have a certificate to prove it.

Dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” and bearing the new team name acknowledging Houston’s space city identity, the Astrodome opened in the spring of 1965, and coach Adams took us down to see it. In addition to the oversized gaudy scoreboard that became a template for stadiums to come, I remember the field had real grass that first year. But not enough of it. When it became apparent grass would not grow indoors, despite the skylights in the roof, artificial turf (Astroturf) was invented.

IT TOOK DECADES for the Astros to get good and by the time they won their first pennant, in 2005, they had abandoned the Astrodome for the new Minute Maid Park (originally Enron Field — oops). With a retractable roof, the players in Houston once again had real grass underfoot even as they were forced to wear the worst uniforms in baseball.

So now after 55 years, the Astros, are world champions, the first Texas team to get there after the Rangers lost the World Series twice in 2010 and 2011 — to Tom Adams’ Giants and the Cardinals. A tip of the cap to them and their savvy management (compared to, say, the Rangers), but it’s still hard to accept that they came into the Series as the team from the American League. What? The Colt .45s and Astros were in the National League for more than half a century and got moved in 2013 by former commissioner and Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig ostensibly on a whim, to even the number of teams to 15 in each league. But that put them in the same league and division as the other Texas team, the Rangers, violating MLB’s sensible tradition of keeping nearby teams in separate leagues (New York, Chicago, Bay Area, DC/Baltimore…) Why didn’t Bud move his Brewers back to the NL from whence they came? Not sure he’s ever answered that one and he’s now commissioner emeritus, sharing his wisdom about life and the game at Elks Clubs and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.

It may take another decade or so for the Astros to seem like they belong in the American League, and, looking at their young lineup of stars, by then they might have won a few more titles. God knows, the Rangers wish they could at least get them out of their division by the time they move into their own retractable roof stadium in a few years. It turns out it is also too hot to play baseball in Dallas in the summer, even at night (who knew?), but when the Rangers built their new ballpark in Arlington in 1993 that detail was somehow overlooked by ownership. Forget who that was.

FOOTNOTE: While the Astros seems a fitting name for a team from Houston, so was Colt .45s when you consider that east coaster Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver in the 1840s went unwanted and unnoticed until the Texas Rangers discovered its usefulness against the expertly mounted and deadly Comanches. (Or so I learned from reading S.C. Gwynne’s epic history of the tribe, “Empire of the Summer Moon.”) If the Stros had remained the Colt .45s, then when the new North Texas team, the Rangers, came along in 1972, it would have linked them symbolically based on history – with one team in each league.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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