The day before we opened the season," said Paul Richards, the general manager of the Houston Colt .45s, "there was a welcoming parade for the team through downtown Houston. As we went down Main Street I started to get a funny feeling. I could sense that the people standing on the sidewalks were actually sending their hearts out to us, but because of the things that they had read or heard they were just too darned embarrassed to raise their hands and wave." Last week, as the Colt .45s completed their third week of competition in the National League, the hands and hopes of the people of Houston were unembarrassedly raised high. The Colts had played 15 games, winning 7 and losing 8, and had lifted themselves, surprisingly enough, into 5th place.
Before this 1962 season began, almost every baseball expert had conceded last place in the National League to these same Colt .45s. Houston fans had been geared for such a possibility by the club's management. Now there is such surprised joy in the fine showing of the team that when the Colts get a rally together their fans shout gleefully, "Break 'em up!" When the .45s score a run the stadium organist thumps out tunes like Ifs a Grand Night for Singing. And aside from the joys being brought to Texas by the Colts themselves, Houston fans have found a second warm joy in belonging to the major leagues. This joy takes the form of merely sitting back, looking out at the center field scoreboard and greeting each new defeat of the New York Mets, the other new team in the NL's expansion, with a hoot and a holler. Local radio stations have taken to poking endless fun at the Mets. "The Mets," an announcer said the other afternoon, "are blazing away again. The score, at the end of six full innings of play, is the amazing Mets four...Philadelphia 11." In Houston the Mets have never been judged quite as "amazing" as their manager Casey Stengel once hoped they would be. In Houston it is the Colt .45s who are truly amazing; the Mets are only amusing.
Baseball people have indeed found something attractive in the Houston picture—pitching. Nice pitching. Clever pitching. Remarkable pitching. Houston had better pitching the first weeks of the season than any of the other 19 teams in the majors. After their first 16 games the Colt pitching staff was gliding along with a 2.00 earned run average, far and away the best around. The team closest to them in ERA was the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates with 2.90. The Houston pitching staff had given up fewer runs (44), fewer earned runs (34), fewer home runs (7) and fewer bases on balls (38) than any other club in either league.
Judge Roy Hofheinz, the chairman of the executive committee of the Colt .45s, was talking about his team's pitching the other evening. "There are three people basically responsible," he said. "Paul Richards, Manager Harry Craft and Pitching Coach Cot Deal. They've put magic into our pitching staff, and it has helped to put magic into the whole ball club." Of course Roy Hofheinz helped to put some magic into the pitching staff and the ball club himself—the magic that only $250,000 can bring. The Colts spent that amount last summer scouting the players who were to be put on the National League's draft lists. Not buying them; scouting them. Before the Colts were actually foaled there were eagle eyes scouring the country examining the ballplayers who would be available. The scouts saw the players in countless games and filed reports on what they saw, sometimes as many as 15 reports on each player. The club also went through several simulated draft meetings, so that when they went to Cincinnati in October to finally pick their players they knew precisely what they were doing. The same cannot be said for the ageless and seemingly useless Mets, who sit in last place forlornly and possibly forever.
"Once we got the club together," said Manager Harry Craft, "our biggest problem was to give the players confidence. Richards and Deal began working right away with the pitchers when we got to spring training. Bobby Shantz was probably the only proven pitcher we had starting out. We thought that Hal Woodeshick [currently with a record of 2-0 and an earned run average of 1.36] needed a couple of more pitches to develop into a good pitcher, and we thought that Dean Stone really lacked confidence." (Stone, supposedly a washed-up major leaguer, has started three games in the first weeks of the season and won two, both shutouts. His ERA was 1.64).
Woodeshick, a quiet, handsome lefthander of 29, was quick to explain his transformation from a lifetime loser (16-20): "Richards and Cot Deal came up to me in spring training and asked me to throw a curve. I thought they were crazy. I said, 'I've tried it before and I can't throw one.' Deal said, 'Didn't you ever throw a curve ball before?' I said, 'Let's forget about it.' But they wouldn't let me forget about it. I knew I had a pretty good fast ball and I used my slider off it. But I was always behind on hitters. The two of them stayed with me. I began to appreciate their interest in me and I worked harder than I ever had before in my life. They taught me to throw a slip pitch first. [The slip pitch is a Paul Richards development in which the ball is jammed as far back between the thumb and index finger as possible and thrown with the same effort as a fast ball.] After I had learned the slip pitch, and saw how effective it was, I was eager for them to teach me the curve. They worked and worked, and finally I began to break off some good ones. I started throwing a few in exhibition games and got some confidence in it. One night I went home to my wife and said, 'Marianne, I'm 29 years old and I've been pitching since I was 17. I've been released by three different teams, but now I've got four pitches instead of two and maybe everything is going to change for us.' The other night when I pitched against the Cardinals [April 24] I got in trouble in the seventh inning and I thought that somebody was going to come out to the mound and get me. But Mr. Craft just hollered out, 'It's all up to you, Hal,' and I pitched better in the last two innings than I had in the first seven. You know something? I been in a lot of major league games before , and I never threw a curve ball in a one of them."
Curt Flood, the Cardinals' leading hitter, said of Woodeshick, "I had been reading where he was trying to throw a curve, but I guess I only took it semi-seriously. Well, I've been up there against him and, man, he's got one."
"With me," says Dean Stone, "Richards and Craft and Deal gave me real confidence. Going into this season I didn't figure to be a starter. One of the things that I was worried about was that I needed only 34 more days in the majors to be eligible for my pension. But after Shantz and Woodeshick, both lefthanders, beat the Cubs in our first two games they gave me a start. They gave me the go-ahead and I've never felt more confident in my life."
The Colt .45s are also getting excellent pitching from Dick Farrell, who has added both a slow and a fast curve to his good fast ball, and from Ken Johnson, who has a deceiving record of 0-3, but who has given up only 19 hits, 10 of them infield rollers.
The grass grows tall
It is true that some opposing players, particularly infielders, believe that a lot of the magic which Roy Hofheinz talks about came as a direct result of the high grass in the Houston infield at the start of the season. The Chicago Cubs felt that the grass, which was then estimated to be an inch and a half high, caused their first three defeats. Ron Santo, the Cub third baseman, suggested that the people of Houston could hold an Easter egg hunt in the Houston infield. "Well," says Harry Craft, "the grass was high, but pitching beat the Cubs. They thought they would come into Houston and knock off three quick wins, and instead they got licked three in a row. The grass hurt them only as much as it hurt us. I used to be in the Cub organization and I know how they can beef. In Wrigley Field they used to let the grass grow so high in front of Ernie Banks at short-stop that you'd have trouble seeing him from the dugout. They also used to hose down the area around first base so that when the Dodgers came into town their fast runners would start to steal and just spin their wheels in the mud. The grass hasn't beaten anyone yet. This ball club has."
Since the Cubs left Houston the grass has been cut, and Ken Boyer, the Cardinals' third baseman, found it as good as most major league infields while playing 35 innings on it. The Milwaukee Braves found it fine.
The Colt .45s do have a few unmistakable advantages in their home park. One is the long distances to the fences, 360 down the lines and 420 to dead center. It takes a good shot to clear those fences, and against good Colt pitching not many homers will be hit against them in their own park. The outfield lighting is another matter. "It's bad," said Curt Flood. Stan Musial says, "It's real tough to see a ball coming off the bat. An outfielder can't get a jump at all." The Colts have only 550 bulbs in their ball park as against a major league average of 850.
Although Houston's pitching has been superb, it is not yet time for dreams of the first division or any dreams of second division for the Colt .45s. They will probably end up in the National League's new third division, which is composed of themselves, the Cubs, the Phillies and the Mets. No team can consistently pitch so well for a long period of time. Cot Deal himself says, "Actually you wouldn't figure any pitching could be this good. In all fairness it can't be that good."
And the Colts are going to be in serious hitting trouble before the season ends. Their only power hitter is Roman Mejias, the 29-year-old Latin outfielder. In their first 16 games the team scored only 52 runs, and that will never do.
One thing genuinely in favor of the Colt .45s, however, is that they have a growing organization with sound baseball men running it. They have Paul Richards, Harry Craft, Cot Deal and Bobby Bragan, all men of pride. In a few years they will certainly reach the clearing in the National League jungle. In the meantime the Colt .45s will make it tough for plenty of their opponents, and before the season is over their organist may get quite a few more chances to pump out It's a Grand Night for Singing.