1969, the Summer of the Astros

Think Major League Baseball in 1969, and everybody rightfully remembers the Amazin’ Mets who went all the way and won the World Series. For me, however, 1969 was the glorious summer of the Houston Astros. The apogee of their great ride for the year took place exactly 45 years ago today, July 30, 1969 — more on that in a moment.

The Mets and the Astros grew up together as expansion teams in the National League. The Astros began in 1962 as the Colt .45s, then changed their name when they moved into the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. I remember going to the Dome in 1966 and being stunned at the enormous structure with the colorful seats, air conditioning and soaring rounded roof. Coming from Mission, Texas, pop. 11,000 at the time, this first-hand exposure to the Big Leagues made me a confirmed Astros fan.

I had an Astros poster in my bedroom, and I read the Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook cover to cover. For my 12th birthday in 1969 my mother delighted me with the massive first edition of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which I scoured the way Baptist preachers turn to the Bible for inspiration. Look, there’s Babe Ruth! Old Hoss Radbourne! Baseball replaced cars as my adolescent obsession, although girls soon replaced both. And baseball was more than a reading interest; I played for four years as a bench-warming near-sighted right fielder in Farm League and Bronco League. In 1969 I played for the Lions Club team, doing what I could with my beloved Rawlings “Brooks Robinson” glove. Like Calvin with his Hobbes, I will always have my battered, frayed, faded but undaunted glove.

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Transistor radios gave me access to the Astros games, beaming through the humid Texas atmosphere almost 400 miles from Houston to Mission. The tinny sound took me to the big cities and the famous stadiums where the Astros played—Wrigley, Candlestick, Busch and Shea, the home of the Mets. I especially remember listening to Astros games when my family returned home on a Sunday afternoon from vacation in San Antonio. My mother would tune in the game on the 250-mile drive in our 1968 Chevy Impala (with the white vinyl roof) and we’d listen to the game as we passed through the flat brush and farm country interrupted by the towns of Pleasanton, Campbellton, Three Rivers, George West, Alice, Falfurrias (home then and now of the Border Patrol checkpoint) and tiny Rachal that separated the rest of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley across from Mexico.

The great thing about baseball was that the games just kept on coming. As much as I loved the Dallas Cowboys (Mission was the home town of coach Tom Landry), they only played 14 games in the regular season. The Astros, however, played 162 games, with the scratchy sound flowing for hours most nights from the little radios around Mission. Like a true kid fan, I couldn’t wait for the games to come on, and to check the box scores and standings the next day in the McAllen Monitor or Corpus Christi Caller. I can still hear the announcers’ voices in my head.

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Looking at the 1969 team roster, all the memories flooded back with names that I learned by heart 45 years ago. I couldn’t name a single player in the current Astros roster, but I can reel off plenty of players from the ’69 Astros: Larry Dierker, Jack Billingham, Wade Blasingame, Don Wilson, Jim Ray, Fred Gladding, Jim Wynn, Dennis Menke, Johnny Edwards, Doug Rader, Joe Morgan.

The Astros and the Mets crossed paths in memorable games that season. One bump on the Mets’ improbable road to glory came when the Astros swept two three-game series. I remember the apex, the very apotheosis, of my Astros summer came on July 30, when the Astros took a doubleheader at Shea Stadium, 16-3 in the first game (Jim Ray got the win, Fred Gladding the save, Jerry Koosman the loss) and 11-5 in the second game, Larry Dierker with the win and iron-man reliever Gladding picking up his 21st save, Gary Gentry took the loss..

The first game especially stands out in my mind because Gladding batted twice and got a hit. Now, a pitcher getting a hit in a major-league game is always notable. For Gladding, that hit against the Mets marked the only hit in his major league career with the Tigers and the Astros, giving him a lifetime batting average of .016, 1-for-63, the lowest non-zero batting average in MLB history. And I can say . . . I was there listening when he got that one hit. The Astros announcers were suitably giddy and stunned when Gladding unleashed the heavy lumber for his shining moment as a batter.

Gladding led the majors in saves that year, with 27. The Astros finished at .500, 81-81, for their first non-losing season. The legendary Mets—they beat the Orioles in the World Series. In the decades to come I would attend games at Shea Stadium, and during return trips to Texas I’ve seen an Astros game or two at Minute Maid Park, which replaced the outmoded Astrodome. The Mets won the World Series again in 1986, and the Astros won the National League championship in 2005 but lost the World Series in a sweep to the Chicago White Sox. Recent Astros seasons have been horrendous, although I read in Sports Illustrated that the team has embarked on a statistics-driven rebuilding campaign; I wish them well.

My interest in following any pro team with boyhood zeal faded long ago, when I moved from Texas to the Northeast. I politely cheer on the Mets and the Texas Rangers in their pennant runs and I cringed when the Rangers lost the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Games are too loud, too long and too late for my preference. No sports event should last longer than parts one and two of “The Godfather.” I like watching the plays of the day on ESPN when I go to the gym, but that’s it for the regular season.

Still, nothing will erase the memory of the Astros summer of 1969, when a boy, a transistor radio and a team combined for sports magic.

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A Shared Cultural Moment

On Monday night I attended a program of storytelling at the Westport Library called “Naughty or Nice: In Literature and Life,” presented by the groups Write Yourself Free and the Storytelling Circle. I enjoyed the stories, and one in particular struck me not just for the story but the audience’s response to part of it.

Steve White, a photographer from Norwalk, Conn., talked about attending a private boarding school in the 1960s. He linked his miserable experiences to the movie Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman had a problem with authority. The boys at the school similarly rebelled. Once, at the dreary daily chapel session, they were instructed to sing “God Bless America.” White revved up the singing to a boisterous yet sincere level — not the low-wattage rendition the school administration wanted and demanded.

The audience of 75 at the library responded — when White sang part of the song — by singing along, and, when he forgot a line, providing the next words. One woman upfront even kept singing when he wanted to continue the story.

The moment struck me, as I looked over the audience, mostly middle-aged and older. We all knew the song. Forget about our politics, our TV habits, our economic situation. Everybody in the room shared a common connection around a patriotic song. Had the song been the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, I’d like to think the reaction would have been the same. We would have instantly sang the words, arising from childhood memories of devotion to ideals and instruction of teachers who cared about passing on a common national identity through song.

Is this still the case in the United States? Do schoolchildren learn these songs and still sing them with an open heart and conviction? Simple devotion does not last, I’m not going to kid myself about that. I know how kids are, grumbling and parodying such music, and as a parent I did my own rewrite of “God Bless America” as “God Bless Jigglypuff”, to amuse my adolescent son with what I called the “Pokemon National Anthem.”  However, I would hope some primal American feeling would remain even if the attitudes grew tired and weary of the daily jolts in this country. The seed of national knowingness, to coin a phrase, could remain there for the right moment.

Still, can anything now serve as a shared national cultural experience in the United States, or are we so completed fractured by groups, media and political intensity that no single cultural factor can serve to unite us? On September, 11, 2001, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang, yes, God Bless America. At that moment of national danger and uncertainty, the power of collective song brought us together. Could that happen today? I don’t know.

But I did see the power of a shared identity on Monday night in a New England library.