Without question, the Jim Crane era is the most significant sports story since Bob McNair was awarded the Texans franchise. Since many of you, like Shaun, were not born until the 80s or you are transplanted Houstonians, your favorite Houston Radio Legend will fill you in on the history of the Astros franchise.
Houston had been making efforts to bring a Major League franchise to the city before the expansion in 1962. There were four men chiefly responsible for bringing Major League Baseball to Houston – George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan, R.E. “Bob” Smith, a prominent oilman and real estate magnate in Houston who was brought in for his financial resources, and Judge Roy Hofheinz, a former Houston mayor and Harris County judge who was recruited for his salesmanship and political style. They formed the Houston Sports Association as their vehicle for attaining a big league franchise for the City of Houston.
The brilliant Hofheinz, the youngest judge ever elected in the Lone Star State, made the single most important decision that has resonated for decades: ending segregation. He made it clear to baseball that there will be no discrimination of any kind or else he would abandon his futuristic plans that would revolutionize stadiums. Hofheinz had convinced the National League owners that the sweltering Houston summers would not be a problem as he would build an indoor baseball stadium based loosely on the Coliseum in Rome. Bonds were passed and construction began. But until it was ready, the team played on some reclaimed marshland south of town. Colt Stadium was built on the same land that would eventually hold its famous successor. It was built cheaply with little to protect fans from the weather or other hazards. True baseball fans hardly cared. Houston had become a “Major League” city. With Hofheinz now the sole owner of the franchise and his vision of an indoor venue complete, the Colt .45s moved into their new domed stadium in 1965. The judge called the new domed stadium the Astrodome in honor of Houston’s importance to the country’s space program. To match with the meaning of the name, the Colt .45s were renamed the Astros. The new park, coined as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, introduced an artificial playing surface known worldwide as Astroturf.
1975–1979: The Rainbow era
Hofheinz had plans to develop a theme park, an auto racing track along and a horseracing park. In addition he envisioned building a sound studio and motion picture lot, making Houston Hollywood South. But a sudden stroke to Hofheinz caused the insurance companies and other lenders to foreclose on his prized asset.
With the $38 million deficit of the Astrodome, control was passed from Hofheinz to GE Credit and Ford Motor Credit. This included the Astros. The creditors were just interested in preserving asset value of the team so any money spent management had to find or save somewhere else.
Colorful promoter Sidney Shlenker served in the interim capacity as president of the HSA until a new ownership group was interested. Shlenker brought Tal Smith back to the Astros from the New York Yankees to a team that needed a lot of work and did not have a lot of money.
In 1979 a minority partner of the Yankees, Dr. John McMullen, a New Jersey shipbuilder, had agreed to buy the Astros. The 12 million deal included the Stros, the lease on the Dome as well as the AstroWorld Hotel. Now with an investor instead of the financier Ford Motor Credit in charge, the Astros would be able to compete in the free agent market.[24With Dr. John McMullen as sole owner of the Astros the team would now benefit in ways a corporation could not give them. The rumors of the Astros moving out of Houston, which started when Judge Roy Hofheinz Astrodomain started to crumble, had been stopped and the Astros were now able to compete in the free agent market. Something GE Credit and Ford Motor Credit were not able or willing to do.
McMullen showed the city of Houston that he too wanted a winning team by signing nearby Alvin, Texas native Nolan Ryan to the first million dollar a year deal. Ryan had four no-hitters and struck out 383 in one season. Win or lose Ryan would fill the seats.
The low point of his ownership was in 1988 when he offered Ryan a twenty percent pay cut, rather than resigning the legend. Ryan’s career flourished as a Ranger as attendance dwindled at the Dome.
In 1991 off-season Astros management announced its intention to sell the team and move the franchise to the Washington, D.C. area. However, the move was not approved by other National League owners, thus compelling the Astros to remain in Houston. Shortly thereafter, McMullen (who also owned the NHL‘s New Jersey Devils) sold the team to Texas businessman Drayton McLane in 1993, who committed to keeping the team in Houston.
A honeymoon started for the fan friendly native Texan who treated fans as customers not cockroaches. Over the next three years he concentrated solely on moving to a new downtown stadium.
In 1996 he made the single most important hire, bring Smith protégé Gerry Hunsicker, back from the Mets. This was a time of unprecedented success winning division titles and going to the playoffs. But McLane’s meddlesome and stubborn refusal to let Hun sicker do his job led to the firing of the best GM Houston has ever had in any sport.
The following year the team Hunsicker built went to the World Series, but McLane tried getting more involved in baseball decisions and screwed up the resigning of Andy Petitte. The Roger Clemens left for the Yanks. Drayton refused to utter the term “rebuilding”, letting their farm system fall apart do to lack of money for scouts.
The city tired of his “carnival barker” bull; reducing payroll for the eventual sale and allowing the once proud franchise become a bad joke. Attendance dwindled as did his credibility. He announced two years ago a pending sale to a group headed by Jim Crane, but changed the terms of the deal and backed out.
When the deal closes we will finally have an owner who is a true baseball man, not a disingenuous salesman who would lie rather than tell the truth.
Now self-made millionaire Jim Crane era
Exciting times –as was each chapter in rich history and tradition of Houston as major league city.
Here on Odd Couple two generations of two guys who love the rich tradition and passion of what once what was once the premier sport in America