By the Way, the Colt .45s Were Stars, Too.

by Glynn Ligon

Posted on October 3, 2011

I’m impressed with the 50th anniversary logo.  By the way, Bob Hulsey in his column about the logo is right.  Award the Astros franchise a team error for leaving off a link to the historic contribution of the Colt .45s.  Those iconic Astros stars are great, but really franchise folks, the Colt .45s had stars, too.  Were you afraid that by displaying the Colt .45s smoking gun, Houston ISD kids couldn’t wear t-shirts with the 50th anniversary logo to school?  That would create a classic conundrum for the Astros to intentionally walk right into the “One Strike and You’re Out” District policy banning guns or clothing with pictures of guns on campus, wouldn’t it?

I wonder, does the avoidance of any Colt .45s logo date back to the trademark rundowns between those pistol makers and Judge Roy Hofheinz?  As I understand the history, changing the team name to the Astros was a bit more than coincidence to match the Astrodome’s space theme.  The hot breath of some Colt Firearms Company Colt .45s lawyers on the Judge’s neck was motivation as well.  So why reopen that old legal issue, huh?  Why not just design a 50th anniversary logo without the vintage, ground-breaking, innovative Colt .45s honored on it?  I can name 82 reasons.

My interest is those 82 players who wore the Colt .45s uniform in 484 games from April 10, 1962 through October 4, 1964.  I relearned a bit about these guys while building my website, where I manage my collection of Colt .45s baseball cards and research the history of the players.  I’ve been excited to hear from a few of the families and players about baseball cards.  A common general question has been whether the Astros will have a reunion event and include the Colt .45s players to a game.  They don’t want to be ignored—or forgotten.

By the way, in their three seasons, some surprising and ground-breaking achievements for the Houston franchise—hey, for Houston and the State of Texas—occurred.  In fact, I’m going to stack those three up against any other consecutive three seasons out of the next 47 for individual accomplishments and interesting players.  The folk lore is that the team was a loser, the players were insignificant, and nothing of importance happened until the Astrodome was built.  The facts are to the contrary for the players themselves.  As a teenager entering the gate at the new Colt Stadium for the first Major League game in the South on April 10, 1962, I knew these players were something special.  I didn’t dream that 50 years later a baseball card collection might help push back out into the sunlight for me the accomplishments of my heroes.

Before ESPN, computer tracking of every pitch, and hourly sports announcements of personal records as inane as consecutive at bats without a check-swing at a low-outside slider, there were traditional ways to be outstanding in baseball.  The honored paths included being selected to the all-star team, hurling a no-hitter, posting the league-leading batting average, being voted into the Hall of Fame, setting a Major League record, turning in an outstanding World Series performance, being the first rookie to fill what was traditionally a veteran’s role, hitting a homer for a kid on request, having a career day like no other, or doing something no one else has ever done and can never do again.  Believe me when I say that in the Colt .45s short three-season history, their players’ record sheets included all of these laurels and more.  Go ahead Mets die-hards, line up to be humbled.  When we Colt .45s fans went to the ballpark, we saw some mighty famous ball players—on our team.

There are the obvious stars that some younger fans may not realize were Colt .45s—two Hall of Famers, Nellie Fox and Joe Morgan (by the way, two of the total of only six Hall of Famers for the franchise in 50 years).  The only person to pitch a perfect World Series game became a Colt .45 in 1964, Don Larsen.  The only person to ever pinch hit for Ted Williams became a Colt .45 in 1963, Carroll Hardy. The American League batting champ in 1962, Pete Runnels, became a Colt .45 the next season.  These players came in or past their primes with their reputations in hand to Colt Stadium.  Many more came as rookies and young players primed to impress.

Not just the team, but some very famous Astros players began as Colt .45s.  Let’s go around the horn and build an all-time Astros line-up from Colt .45s.   First base is Rusty Staub* (the first rookie to start a season as the clean-up batter); second base is Joe Morgan*; short stop is Bob Lillis (who later managed the Astros); third base is Bob Aspromonte; catcher is John Bateman; send Larry Dierker*, Dick Farrell*, Hal Woodeshick*, and Claude Raymond* out to the mound; and let Jim Wynn* take care of the outfield from center field.  Each one in his prime could start today for the Astros.  By the way, only Farrell and Woodeshick were selected as all-stars (by vote of the coaches and other players at the time) while Colt .45s.  However, all those with an * made all-star teams later as Astros. 

Fans saw other all-stars in Colt .45s uniforms.  Don McMahon, Al Spangler, Pete Runnels, Norm Larker, Bob Cerv, Billy Goodman, Jim Busby, Nellie Fox, and Johnny Temple were bona fide all-stars before they donned the smoking gun.  Here’s a record I imagine but can’t yet verify.  Total up the all-star score card, and you get an incredible 16 all stars on the Colt .45s roster in only 3 seasons.  Can any other team claim to have had on their roster 16 players in a three-season span who at some time in their career were selected to an all-star game?  The fans got to see some really outstanding players run into and out of the home-team dugout at Colt Stadium.

The Colt .45s pitchers were among the best.  Two pitched no-hitters—Don Nottebart on May 17, 1963, and Ken Johnson, April 23, 1964.  By the way, the New York Mets, launched on the same date as the Colt .45s, have yet to pitch a no-hitter in 50 seasons. 

Bob Bruce became only the 11th pitcher in baseball history, going back to the 1800’s, to pitch an immaculate inning (striking out all three batters on only nine pitches) on April 19, 1964.  Dick Farrell struck out 203 batters in 1962, then struck out an incredible four batters for every one he walked in 1963.  Hal Woodeshick led the National League with 23 saves in 1963.  Jim Golden never hit a batter in his entire major league pitching career (including two seasons with the Colt .45s).  These pitchers were fun to watch in person or to listen to at home on my old transistor radio (actually that was my new transistor radio).

Bob Aspromonte didn’t let the pitchers have all the glory.  Aspromonte set a National League record for third basemen with 57 consecutive errorless games in 1962.  Then in 1964, he set a National League record for fewest errors at third base (11).  Most Astros fans know that Aspromonte hit three, yes three, home runs on request for a boy blinded by lightning.  By the way, the home runs were in different games, two were grand slams, one a walk-off.

Didn’t recognize John Bateman’s name in the Colt .45s lineup?  In 1967, Bateman set a franchise record with 17 home runs by a catcher.  No Astros catcher has tied or broken that record to date.

However, the most outstanding hitting performance was by a player who had his “career day” on the only day he played in the Major Leagues.  The best one-day-long Major League career ever was turned in by a Colt .45, John Paciorek, who in the final game of the season, September 29, 1963, went to the plate five times, hitting three singles and drawing two walks, for a perfect career batting average and on-base percentage of 1.000, scoring four times and driving in three runs.

As for the team, the Colt .45s never finished in last place.  Yes, the Astros took baseball to a new level, but 82 players set the stage with a smoking gun logo on their jerseys and a .45 caliber logo on their caps to match the high caliber of their spirit. 

I guess it’s too late to redesign the 50th anniversary logo.  However, it’s never too late for each of us to remember that those Astros stars on it were launched out of the barrel of a Colt .45.  By the way, the Colt .45s players were stars, too.  The 82 weren’t just marking time until the Astros logo came along.  They were leaving their own marks on Major League Baseball and the record books.  They were leaving their own memories in the minds and hearts of their fans.  Memories this fan can see as 82 stars coming out of a smoking gun on the official 75th anniversary logo.