100 Things Astros Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
by Brian McTaggart
Chicago: Triumph Books, 2016.
254 pp. $17.95 paper.
This is an enjoyable and entertaining selection of facts and trivia, characters and accomplishments from the fifty-five year history of Houston’s Major League Baseball franchise. They will remind Houston baseball fans of the celebrations, disappointments, victories and near hilarious failures from the losing seasons of the early 1960s through the ups and downs to 2015.
Brian McTaggart is a Houston Astros fan, and he has reported on his favorite team for twenty-five years, nearly half of the franchise’s life. He worked the Astrodome scoreboard before going into journalism. McTaggart wrote for the Houston Post until its closing and then for the Houston Chronicle. More recently he has reported for MLB.com. His love for his hometown team is obvious in this anecdotal collection.
McTaggart ranks his 100 Things “in order of importance,” likely hoping to generate some argument. Most Houston baseball fans, certainly this reviewer, would argue about what he includes and excludes as well as his “order of importance” in this list of 100 people, places and events. The format of things to know and to do is quite unbalanced. Only eight of the listings are things to do and four of those in the final ten slots. He covers some of his exclusions in sixteen side bars highlighting other memorable characters and events.
Number one on McTaggart’s list is The Judge, Roy Hofheinz. Few would dispute this choice. Hofheinz was the essential member of the group that formed the Houston Sports Association and brought Major League Baseball to the city. He is clearly the most important owner/management figure in Astros history and arguably the most significant person, owner, player, or announcer. McTaggart’s number two is also nearly indisputable. Catcher, second baseman and whatever else the team asked of him, Craig Biggio spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Houston Astros. His significant records are only a part of his contribution to Houston baseball. Craig Biggio is certainly the most important Astros player.
Beyond these top spots, “Things” get a bit murky. A notable problem is drawing comparisons between individuals, groups of individuals, individual games, seasonal accomplishments, on and off field events, places (The Astrodome, Eighth Wonder of the World, is ranked number three) and more. To say that a newspaper article (number nine) is more important than a first League Championship Series (number fifteen) or an MVP Season (number twenty-three) takes some stretching. Including a few “things you should do before you die” calls for some contortion.
Even with this difficulty, McTaggart’s collection is a good nostalgia filled read. He reaches back beyond his own memory, which he marks as beginning with his first Astrodome visit in the late 1970s, about twelve years after it opened. The original Colt .45 teams of 1962 and 1963 rank as his number five entry, and early stars Cesar Cedeno, Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Canon and Rusty Staub rate their own individual rankings: thirty, forty, and sixty-seven. Radio and television announcers are given their own ranking, fifty-four This seems fitting since the majority of fans knew the .45s and the Astros through the radio voice of Gene Elston announcing the games from the beginning through 1986.
The eight “to do” items on McTaggart’s list of 100 include things most fans have on our lists: Visit the Hall of Fame, Go to Spring Training, and Attend a Minor League Game (He suggests Double A). McTaggart’s number ninety-nine is Walk Around the Astrodome. He describes his first trip in the late 1970s, “I was in awe of the place.” Most fans of the early Astros remember the humbling experience of the Eighth Wonder of the World on their first visit. Most of us would find number ninety-one (Tour Minute Maid Park) somewhat pale in comparison.
A few of these items, mostly involving pitchers, have sad, even tragic elements. Lima Time (number forty-eight) tells of Jose Lima who “put up a pair of improbable seasons,” winning a total of thirty-seven games in 1998 and ’99 and entertaining Houston fans with his flamboyant style. After ten more years with other teams Lima died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of thirty-seven. J.R. Richard (number fifty-three) was a frighteningly hard throwing 6’8” 220 pound right hander. He signed with Houston in 1969 and dominated National League hitters through much of the 1970s. He suffered a stroke that ended his season and career in 1980. Darryl Kile had an almost unhittable curve ball and started for Houston from 1991 to1997. In 2002, he was in the St. Louis Cardinal rotation when he died of coronary disease in his hotel room before a game in Chicago. He was thirty-three.
Jim Umbricht, a promising Colt .45 pitcher and Don Wilson—one of the last .45 signees and an early Astro Ace—are linked by McTaggart at number ninety-seven. Umbricht came to the .45s from Pittsburgh in the Expansion Draft of 1961. He was a mainstay as a Colt .45 reliever in both the 1962 and 1963 seasons, but died of lymphoma five days before Houston’s Astrodome opener in 1964. Wilson won over 100 games for the Astros from 1967, when he threw the first no hitter in an indoor stadium, through 1974. He died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in January 1975.
Overall, through triumph and tragedy, memorable events and characters, Brian McTaggart’s selection of these 100 things will be especially enjoyable in those long months from November to March when football and basketball fail to fill the void for baseball fans.
Milton Jordan is a Past President of the East Texas Historical Association. He retired as Pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Houston Heights in 2005, the year the Astros won the National League Pennant. He has been a Houston baseball fan since 1950.