10/19/05 10:31 PM ET
Astros take giant step for franchise
Oilman's dream comes to fruition a half-century later
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
It was 50 years ago that a movie called "Giant" was being produced in Texas, on the 595,000-acre ranch owned by oil baron Bick Benedict. And it was James Dean's "Jett Rink" character who said that to Rock Hudson's "Bick."
It also was approximately the time that a Texas oilman named Craig F. Cullinan Jr. led a group that began a long, seemingly impossible but persistent effort to persuade Major League Baseball to expand into the Lone Star State.
The group finally succeeded in October 1960 when MLB owners approved two expansion clubs: The Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets.
The first Major League game in Texas was played on April 10, 1962, when the team with the menacing Colt .45 pistol on the front of its jerseys beat the Chicago Cubs, 11-2, at Colt Stadium. Many of the 25,271 in attendance that day never saw the first pitch, because it was bumper-to-bumper traffic in downtown Houston to see the new game in town. Then the Colts beat the Cubs the next day, 2-0. And then they beat the Cubs, 2-0, the day after that. They were 3-0 after sweeping their first series behind legends like outfielder Roman Mejias, and anything was possible.
The Colt .45s became the Astros in 1965 when the "eighth wonder of the world," an air-conditioned pantheon called the Astrodome, opened for business.
The folks in Houston even gained a Texas dance partner when the Washington Senators moved to Arlington and became the Rangers in 1971.
But in all this time, through all those years of Dallas Cowboys football glory, the "Love Ya Blue" Houston Oilers and even an expansion NFL club named the Houston Texans, the great state of Texas had never seen a World Series. They had produced one great Major Leaguer after another, from Nolan Ryan to Roger Clemens, but the ultimate event in the game that Cullinan and Judge Roy Hofheinz fought so hard to land remained as distant as the Texas horizon.
Now, a half-century after James Dean filmed his last movie role, after a major motion picture brought home the scope of Texas opportunity, it can finally be said again:
Ain't nobody king in this country.
Any collection of players can get to the World Series if they want it badly enough.
The Houston Astros have ended their 43-year drought and will open the 101st World Series Saturday night against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. The Rangers are still working on their first; the Astros have taken the giant step.
Jordon Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson): "You're a Texan now."
Leslie Lynnton Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor): "Is that a state of mind?"
Yes it is. A big state of mind.
And the minds of Texans everywhere now are on a group of players who are trying to do something even bigger, a first World Series championship by a Major League club there. These Astros -- personified by the kind of undaunted spirit that resulted in two years of impossible in-season comebacks and an historic 18-inning playoff victory over the Atlanta Braves -- must be precisely the dream that Cullinan had so long ago.
In 1959, Alaska was granted statehood and Texas no longer could lay claim to the biggest state in America. But a year later, it was "big league."
On Aug. 22, 1960, as Americans were deciding whether to vote for another Republican president in Richard Nixon or a young candidate from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, and right after a new group called "The Beatles" had just played somewhere called Hamburg, a key meeting was held in Los Angeles that would help make a 2005 pennant celebration in St. Louis possible.
Cullinan, chairman of the Houston Sports Association executive committee, and George Kirksey, executive secretary of the Association, arrived in L.A. that day to meet with Walter O'Malley. The longtime owner of the Dodgers had moved his club way out West just two summers before. Horace Stoneham's Giants also had made the move West from New York, to San Francisco. The Houston group wanted to join in the now-momentous expansion era of Major League Baseball, lobbying for a National League franchise.
"We also had a very informative meeting with Mr. O'Malley," Kirksey is quoted as saying in the book, "A Six-Gun Salute: An Illustrated History of the Colt .45s."
"We discussed expansion problems and he was kind enough to show us the plans for his Chavez Ravine ballpark."
Said O'Malley: "Our Houston friends are anxious to know the final solution of baseball expansion and so are we. Our committee is now working on its report which will be presented to the league meeting sometime after the season ends."
The Houston group had an ace in the hole. Plans were made for the Colt .45s to play in the fledgling Continental League. Expanding to a place like Houston would spread out the game to give a club like the Dodgers closer competition, and it also would help dispatch the Continental League as a threat.
On Oct. 17, 1960, Major League Baseball owners met in Chicago, and this is what appeared the next morning in the New York Times:
National League Admits New York and Houston Starting with 1962 SeasonThe "Cullinan Group" and the fans of Houston -- and Texas -- could not possibly have imagined how hard they would have to work. As hard as it was to imagine Major League Baseball in the state of Texas back then, it would have been even harder to imagine that it would take 43 years to make it to the Fall Classic.
Circuit Expands to Ten Members
New York Club Expected to Play in 55,000-seat Park at Flushing Meadow
"... Giles in identifying the franchise winners, retired to New York as the "Payson Group" and Houston as the "Cullinan Group." Mr. Charles Shipman Payson of New York and Manhasset, L.I. heads the New York Club. Craig F. Cullinan, Jr. is the leader of the Texas Club.
... The "Cullinan Group" is made up of Cullinan, Judge Roy Hofheinz, R.E. Smith, K.S. (Bud) Adams and George Kirksey. Adams was a founder of the American Football League, which began operations this season. Cullinan, Hofheinz and Kirksey were on hand, and Cullinan, an oilman and sportsman, said all were elated.
"This climaxes four years of hard work", he said. "Now we must really hope we're big league. We will work harder than ever before."
Construction of a $14.5 M Stadium in Harris County in Houston will begin on February 1. It will have 43,197 seats.
In October 1962, those same "Beatles" -- with Ringo Starr replacing Pete Best on the drums -- played their first sessions under a new label and recorded a song called "Love Me Do" that would become their first hit in the U.S. And off the Southeast coast of America, a stockpile of medium-range ballistic missiles would force President Kennedy into a tense nuclear standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was also the month Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an apparent suicide.
Against that backdrop, the New York Yankees of the East beat the San Francisco Giants of the West in a seven-game World Series. The Houston Colt .45s were through with their first season, finishing 64-96. One day, they knew, the state of Texas would be part of a World Series like that, because it was only the beginning.
In 1969, their fellow expansion brethren, the Mets, won it all. And then they did it again in 1986, eliminating the Astros in one of the most memorable NL Championship Series of all-time. Opportunity after opportunity came along, but it always ended too soon in Texas and then it was just time for some football again.
Now, at last, in 2005 there is a World Series. This one is for Craig F. Cullinan Jr. This one is for Judge Roy Hofheinz and his dream of an Astrodome. This one is for Roman Mejias, for those two home runs he slugged in that first game against the Cubs and those 24 longballs he hit in 1962.
This one is for Lone Stars like Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jim Wynn and Larry Dierker. This one is for all those fans who put up with giant mosquitos and oppressive heat at old Colt Stadium, a "barn-like thing" in the view of one 1962 preseason annual and one of the worst ballparks the Majors ever saw -- subsequently dismantled and exported to Gomez Palacio in Mexico to provide a home for various clubs.
This one is for the Astrodome and its mesmerizing scoreboard, for James Rodney Richard and his gifted power on the mound, for the Ryan Express and his friends in their rainbow jerseys. This one is for Houston, and for Texas.
And this one is for Jett, for Bick, for the "Giant" spirit of Texas that was brought to big screens everywhere a half-century ago.
Ain't nobody king in this country.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.