Harry Shattuck / Special to MLB.com
Astros in the 70s: 56K
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
As a team and as an organization, the Astros spent the 1970s on a tumultuous roller coaster ride, an emotional experience perhaps best summed by two-time National League All-Star pitcher Joaquin Andujar who -- on more than one occasion -- philosophized, "Everything about this game can be explained by one word. And that one word is 'you never know.' "
We do know this: At the decade's conclusion, Astros players and their fans were clinging to new hope that a long-anticipated division title was on the horizon.
That championship would have to wait another year. But the framework for success was established; a remarkable accomplishment considering the Houston franchise at the decade's midpoint seemed almost on the brink of collapse -- with 97 losses and an average home attendance of only 10,593 per game in 1975 and an ownership takeover by credit companies when Astrodome mastermind Roy Hofheinz endured financial difficulties.
Against all odds, and largely due to the tireless efforts and patience of General Manager Tal Smith and Manager Bill Virdon, the Astros recovered -- on the field and with the fans. And when new owner John McMullen announced the signing of free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan on November 15, 1979, the darkest period in club history was clearly over.
For old time's sake, though, let's climb back on that roller coaster.
Along with the spills, there were ample thrills:
This was a decade when the Astros first genuine superstar, centerfielder Cesar Cedeno, won five consecutive Gold Gloves, stole 50 or more bases in six seasons, hit 20 or more home runs three times and twice batted .320.
The 70's also brought us the "foamer." The "arm farm." And the first "rain in" in Major League history on June 15, 1976, when a 10-inch downpour flooded much of the city, making it impossible for umpires, fans and stadium officials to reach the Astrodome and resulting in postponement of the Astros-Pirates game.
The decade also was tinged with sadness.
Don Wilson, one of Houston's most successful pitchers ever and the only Astro to pitch two no-hitters, died tragically at his home prior to the 1975 season, shy of his 30th birthday.
Hofheinz, who inspired the Astrodome's creation and served as the club's chairman of the board until 1976, was confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling stroke.
As Hofheinz was losing control of the franchise ownership to creditors, Tal Smith -- an integral part of the organization's leadership from its inception through 1073 -- was lured back from the New York Yankees, whom he had joined as executive vice president.
In retrospect, it could be argued that the creditors -- and Astrodomain executives that included Sidney Shlenker, T.H. Neyland and Warren Genee -- saved the franchise during the latter half of the decade by shrewdly allowing Smith (who assumed the dual role of general manager/president in 1976) the flexibility, if not always the money, to make critical decisions.
Step one was the hiring of Virdon, a former Pirates and Yankees manager, on August 19, 1975, 12 days after Smith's appointment.
Step two was the decision to place new emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.
Step three was the conscious effort to tap every available resource in the organization's farm system and to evaluate each potential transaction for its long-term potential, not as a band-aid quick fix.
Smith's trades, often questioned at the time because of the unknown nature of the acquisitions, reaped major dividends. Overall, there were 30 transactions in four years. Among the most significant: Andujar came from St. Louis and third baseman Art Howe from Pittsburgh following the '75 season; utility man Denny Walling from Oakland in '77; catcher Alan Ashby from Toronto, shortstop Craig Reynolds from Seattle and infielder Rafael Landestoy and outfielder Jeff Leonard from Los Angeles, all in '78; and reliever Frank LaCorte from Atlanta in '79. Smith signed pitcher Vern Ruhle as a free agent after Detroit gave up on him during the 1978 season.
The minor league system produced outfielder Terry Puhl, catchers Bruce Bochy and Luis Pujols and the "arm farm" as one after another, the Astros summoned unsung fuzzy-cheeked pitchers from the minor leagues. Some enjoyed only brief moments in the spotlight; others, notably relievers Joe Sambito, developed into All-Stars. But this parade of enthusiastic young talent -- combined with an influx of scrappy veterans -- captured the fancy of the fans.
There were veteran surprises, too. Joe Niekro, for one, had floundered between major and minor leagues for years as a reliever and worked primarily out of the bullpen as an Astro from 1975-77. Given a chance as a full-time starter by Virdon in '78, Niekro went on to become the club's all-time winningest pitcher.
The Astrodome was a fun place to be, too, especially of "foamer night." If a designated Houston player hit a home run -- or in later variations, a prominent opposing player struck out on cue - it meant free beer for all spectators.
In 1979, the decade's final season, the Astros compiled their best record yet at 89-73 and attracted 1.9 million fans to the Astrodome -- the highest home attendance since 1965 when the stadium opened as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
A spectacular turnabout was almost complete. The roller coaster came to a halt. And the stage was set for a championship celebration.