A controversial new look accompanied the changes on the field. As various teams tried to move beyond tradition baseball uniform designs, the new Astro uniforms took a quantum leap beyond those efforts. The uniforms had multishade stripes of orange, red and yellow in front and in back behind a large dark blue star over the midsection. Similar stripes adorned the pant legs. Numbers appeared on the back as well as on the right pant leg. The loud stripes were meant to appear as a fiery trail like a rocket sweeping across the heavens.
Most critics deplored the design but it was soon being copied at the high school and Little League levels - so it was not universally panned. So unique were the threads that the Astros wore the same outfit at home and on the road until 1980. After all, who was going to confuse these guys for anyone else? A toned-down version of the stripes survived until 1994, nearly 20 years after they were first introduced.
Houston traded Lee May to Baltimore for heralded rookie second baseman Rob Andrews and a utility player named Enos Cabell. Andrews showed limited offensive ability and lasted just two years in Houston. Cabell, however, settled into the role of everyday third baseman after long looks at first base and in the outfield. He would become a critical member of the team's later success. With May gone, Bob Watson moved to first base where he led the team in batting average (.324) and RBIs (85).
Watson earned a unique place in baseball annals when he scored the 1,000,000th run in major league history. A baseball fan, with one of those new electronic calculators as a Christmas gift, went about adding up every run ever scored and realized that the one million mark was soon approaching. The Astros were in San Francisco on May 4th for an afternoon twinbill when the scoreboard said that baseball was just one run shy of the milestone. Watson stood on second when Milt May drilled a three-run homer. Although he could have trotted home, Watson ran full speed and crossed the plate mere seconds before Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion scored three time zones away.
Another player who was tried at several positions was Cliff Johnson. Unlike Cabell who was versatile at several spots, Johnson was tried at a number of positions because he wasn't good at any. But it was hard to keep his bat out of the lineup. After banging ten homers in 1974 during limited action, Johnson doubled that to twenty in 1975 to lead the team. He also set a franchise mark by hitting a home run in five consecutive games.
Johnson tied a big league mark on May 31st in Philadelphia when he got two extra-base hits in one inning. What made it unique was that he entered the inning as a pinch-hitter. After belting a double in the club-record twelve-run inning, Cliff smashed a home run in the same frame. The league refused to recognize the homer as a pinch-hit since Johnson had already batted in the game but, if they had, Johnson would have been the first pinch-hitter to accomplish the feat.
Another baseball rarity happened on July 30th. The first time an Astro homered in his first major league at bat, it was a relief pitcher. Jose Sosa swatted a three-run shot off Danny Frisella of the San Diego Padres during an 8-4 victory.
The two biggest moves by Houston did not get much notice at the time and wouldn't be evident until later. For a paltry sum, the Astros bought 30-year-old pitcher Joe Niekro from Atlanta. The righthander had struggled for almost a decade in the major leagues while his older brother, Phil, excelled for the Braves. Phil began teaching Joe his knuckleball and Joe was just learning how to use it. In relief, Niekro won six games and saved four to go with a sharp 3.07 ERA.
The other player bought was outfielder Jose Cruz, who had trouble cracking the lineup in St. Louis. The 27-year-old Cruz got into the mix of left field applicants, hitting .257 with nine homers and six steals.
Larry Dierker earned a 14-16 mark to lead the club in victories. J.R. Richard blossomed to a 12-10 record but led the league with 138 walks. Nobody had more than five saves in relief.
Overall, the season was a disaster. The Astros tumbled to a 64-97 record, worse than any year of the expansion Colt .45s. The mark was the worst in the big leagues. Preston Gomez was fired late in the season and replaced by Bill Virdon, a former outfielder who had skippered the Pirates and the Yankees before coming to Houston. Under Virdon's guidance, the club played .500 ball during their final 34 games.By Astro Daily
- Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Cliff Johnson, Danny Frisella, Dave Concepcion, Enos Cabell, Houston Astros, J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Jose Cruz, Jose Sosa, Larry Dierker, Lee May, Milt May, Phil Niekro, Preston Gomez, Rob Andrews