On the Astros then and now

1966 Houston Astros

The Sports Illustrated cover of June 6, 1966, with second baseman Joe Morgan leaping and shortstop Sonny Jackson watching. It was reportedly the first time the Astros were on the cover of SI and cost 35 cents. This week’s edition will be a mite more expensive.

The Houston Astros won the World Series last week, 55 years after they began play, 51 years after they were first on the cover of Sports Illustrated, three years after SI called its shot with its 2014 cover proclaiming the team, in the midst of a 92-loss season after three straight of 100 or more, your 2017 World Series champions.

Cleveland Browns fans await the day SI calls their team’s Super Bowl title.

The Astros might not have taken so long if they hadn’t traded the guy on the cover above after the 1971 season. No, not Sonny Jackson, in the background above as his career was to Morgan’s.

Morgan was not quite 23 on the cover of SI; he was 20 years and three days old when his first major-league hit, a single in the ninth, beat the Phillies, 3-2, in 1963 and inspired a Hall of Fame temper tantrum from opposing manager Gene Mauch.

“Have you no shame?” Mauch yelled at his team. “You just got beat by a guy (Joe Morgan) who looks like a Little Leaguer!”

For emphasis, Mauch flipped the buffet table in the visitors’ locker room. “All of a sudden here comes Gene Mauch,” his second baseman Cookie Rojas told ESPN for its Sports Century profile of Mauch, “and kicked that table so hard and there was food all over the place in everbody’s locker. I found a spare rib in my shoe. There was sauce all over — ceiling, floors, bathroom, never seen anything like it in my life.”

Maybe Mauch would have spared the spare ribs if he’d known how Morgan’s career was going to turn out. Joe Morgan beat a lot of teams over the next 21 seasons, including the Dodgers with a three-run home on the final day of Morgan’s 20th season, in 1982, which cost L.A. the NL West title. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda probably handled it better than Mauch, if not, like the margin they finished behind the Braves in ’82, by much.

After a 20-12 start and holding second place for two weeks in May, the 1966 Astros’ descent had already started by the time the magazine was mailed. They lost nine of 12 to finish the month and were 27-24 and in fifth place on the date on the magazine’s cover. From there, they were 45-66 and finished in eighth place 23 games back, though their 72 wins were a franchise best that weren’t topped until 1969.

(While Morgan went to the Hall of Fame, Jackson never had a better season. He hit .292 and stole 49 bases at age 22 — 21 when the cover appeared — but never hit more than .259 or stole more than 22 bases again. He was out of the major leagues before he was 30.)

On the surface, Jack Mann’s story, like the Astros’ season, was nothing special. But there were a few memorable graphs.

  • Morgan  hit .271 and 14 homers as a rookie, and set his goal on hitting .300. “There’s nothing wrong with hitting .271, if you have 20 home runs to go with it,” Morgan told Mann. “But I can’t hit 20, so I’m going to hit .300. … You can be just as valuable hitting. 300. Anyway, I’m going to see if you can.” Morgan didn’t hit .300 in 1966, though his .285 was as close as he came until after he was traded. He didn’t hit 20 homers or anywhere close in ’66, hitting a career-low five, though he walked more than twice as much as he fanned (89-43). Morgan didn’t hit .300 for almost a decade, until 1975 when he won the first of his two MVP awards, two years after he first hit 20 home runs. In 1976 he hit .300 (.320) and hit 20 homers (27) in the same season for the only time in his career. Most amazing in those two MVP years, Morgan walked 246 times and fanned just 93 times. (Not mentioned: Morgan was runner-up in the 1965 Rookie of the Year voting to the Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre, despite hitting 21 points higher (.271 to .250), hitting two more homers (14 to 12), walking 26 more times (97-71), stealing 17 more bases (20-3) and having an OPS 85 points higher (.791-.706). Apparently that didn’t strike anyone in 1966 as the miscarriage it might today.)
  • In a game against the Phillies during the series covered by Mann, Morgan batted with runners on first and second and none out in extra innings. Manager Grady Hatton had him bunt. Morgan: “I’d have liked the chance to hit and bat in the run, but the idea is to win. The bunt was the right play.” No, it’s probably not, but Morgan beat out the bunt for a hit and the Astros won, 4-3. Sabermetrics loves Joe Morgan more than he loves them.
  • And then there was this about catcher John Bateman. From the story: “Bateman has that mystic capacity to insult people virulently without having them take it seriously. His last word in an argument with Pitcher Barry Latman was a threat to fabricate a gas oven especially for Latman, who is Jewish. One evening when Morgan, Jackson and (Jimmy) Wynn had been spraying line drives out of the batting cage with monotonous regularity, Bateman stood behind the cage and wondered aloud whether n—-s really need batting practice. They laughed. ‘He does take some getting used to,’ Morgan says. ‘I’ll tell you, he says some things to these guys (the Negro players) that I couldn’t get away with. But once you get to know him, you know it doesn’t mean anything. On the field I’d say he’s the leader of this team.’ ” Wow. I know what you’re thinking: why did they capitalize Pitcher? You can read those two graphs — in which SI spelled out the n word — over and over and over and still wonder how any of it seemed acceptable in 1966. Bateman’s humor must have seemed toxic, and not some kind of acquired taste. (Latman was a spot starter/reliever best remembered for his father-in-law’s reaction to his being  traded in 1963 for outfielder Leon Wagner. When his father-in-law heard about the trade, he said, according to Sabr.org,  “It’s impossible; is that all they got for Wagner?” Father-in-law was not altogether wrong.)  It’s true that locker room humor doesn’t always play well outside its walls, but it’s hard to believe Bateman, a 25-year-old white catcher from Texas, could say things to Jackson and Wynn that Morgan couldn’t. It seems more likely Morgan wouldn’t say them — not where a reporter could hear them — and certain that Bateman shouldn’t have. Archie Bunker was five years off even if Bateman was crudely imitating him. It’s more likely that Morgan’s teammates, young players still establishing careers, felt they didn’t have the stature to respond, and not that, “it doesn’t mean anything.” With good reason. A year earlier Phillies teammates Frank Thomas and Richie Allen fought, Thomas swinging a bat at Allen. According to a philly.com story, longtime Phillies beat writer Bill Conlin said the fight had its origins on the road a week before when Thomas said to Allen: “Hey, boy, can you carry my bags to the lobby?” Back in the batting cage at home, Allen called Thomas Lurch, and Thomas responded, “You’re running your mouth like Cassius Clay.” (A philly.com story said “others insist he said either ‘Muhammad Clay’ or ‘Malcolm X.’ According to Bill Conlin’s 1970 Jock magazine story on Allen,  Thomas called him a “black Muhammadan Son of a Bitch.”) From the 2015 philly.com story: “The late Daily News columnist Stan Hochman, then the Phillies beat writer, told (filmmaker Mike) Tollin that Thomas enjoyed his reputation. “He said, ‘I was always a big needler and I like to needle the guys who can’t take it,’  Hochman recalled. ‘And I said, ‘Was he (Allen) one of the guys that couldn’t take it?’ And he said yeah.’ ” Apparently Thomas never wondered why. Thomas was waived and Allen was booed, never again feeling welcome in Philadelphia. Who could blame him. A generation after Jackie Robinson integrated the sport, this is what passed for clubhouse tweaking from teammates. The good old days weren’t.
  • (The takeout feature in the back of that 1966 Sports Illustrated was on hitchhiking. Nothing perhaps illustrates the change over the last 50 years in American sports than the magazine, which used to include content that could be described as leisure. Today sports is a multimillion dollar behemoth which must always be sated. When’s the last time Sports Illustrated had a story on bridge? It used to.)

Forty-one years after Joe Morgan appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time, the Astros signed Jose Altuve, another undersized second baseman. This one they didn’t trade.

The Astros lost 100 games Altuve’s first three major-league seasons and 92 in his fourth, when SI made its prediction. There’s a perception the Astros won by losing, like the Cubs last year and like the NBA Sixers might be preparing to, and the high draft picks didn’t hurt.

But of the 25 Astros on their World Series roster (24 played, and then there was third catcher Juan Centeno), only two — Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman — were top-10 picks, and only five were Astros’ first-round picks.

Series MVP George Springer was the 11th pick of the 2011 draft; Derek Fisher, who scored the winning run of Game 5 as a pinch-runner and never batted in the Series, was a competitive balance pick in 2014; Lance McCullers, who saved Game 7 of the ALCS and started Game 7 of the Series, was the 41st pick of the 2012 draft as compensation for free agent infielder Clint Barmes, signed by Pittsburgh. That’s a pretty good exchange for the Astros.

The Astros’ No. 1 pick in that 2012 draft was Carlos Correa, who accepted a bonus $2.4 million less than the slotted value. They used about half the saved money to sign McCullers, paying him twice the slotted value to forgo his commitment to the University of Florida.

That was GM Jeff Luhnow’s first draft, and just one example of the many shrewd moves to put the team together. On the day he took over, the Astros traded a minor-league pitcher for Marwin Gonzalez to the Red Sox, who had drafted him in the Rule 5 draft from the Cubs. The minor-leaguer, Marco Duarte, pitched this season in Mexico; Gonzalez hit the homer off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen that tied Game 2.

The Astros traded J.A. Happ to the Blue Jays in a nine-player 2012 deal, six of whom didn’t play in the majors this year. Joe Musgrove, who came to the Astros in the deal, won Game 5 in extra innings. The Astros claimed reliever Will Harris on waivers; he gave the team two scoreless innings in the Series. The Astros traded Jed Lowrie to Oakland for Brad Peacock; he saved Game 3 with a 3.1-inning performance Rollie Fingers, once the master of it, could appreciate.

The Astros traded for Justin Verlander at the last minute and Brian McCann in the offseason, and drafted Chris Devenski in the 25th round and Dallas Keuchel in the seventh.

They signed free agents Yuri Guriel from Cuba, and Altuve from a tryout camp in Venezeula, under Ed Wade’s tenure, and Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran last offseason.

And perhaps nothing illustrates the Astros’ foresight more than their signing of free agent Charlie Morton, who pitched 17.1 innings in 2016 because of injury. The Astros paid Morton $7 million and he won a career-high 14 games, then two postseason Game 7s. He pitched 10.1 innings in this World Series, almost as much as he did in all of 2016.

You can understand why, after 10 seasons, four teams and probably as many surgeries, he had more trouble holding his emotions in check during the post-game interview than he did the Dodgers’ offense.

It doesn’t take an Astro fan to realize how unlikely his being on the mound to end a World Series won by Houston was.





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