The sale to Dr. John McMullen helped the Astros in three different ways. It stopped the rumors about the team being moved, which had dogged them ever since Judge Hofheinz' empire began to crumble. Secondly, it's always easier to appeal to the pride of one owner to spend more money to win a pennant than it is to convince a corporation to do so. The third advantage appeared more immediately.
The infusion of new cash to the ballclub allowed them finally to pursue top-notch talent. McMullen signed Nolan Ryan, of nearby Alvin, Texas, to pitch for the Astros. It made headlines throughout baseball. Ryan was the first player signed at one million dollars a year. It wasn't such an outrageous idea. Salaries had inched closer to the million-dollar mark since free agency removed the shackles from player servitude. Ryan, win or lose, was a bonified draw. He had thrown four no-hitters in the American League and struck out 383 in one season. Fans knew when Ryan was on the hill that records could fall on any given night.
The city was jolted again when the Astros inked Joe Morgan to be their second baseman. For Morgan, it was the return of a favor. He said the lowly Colt .45s were the only team to give him a chance when he was a small, scrawny kid. When he drove in the game-winner as a rookie, Philadelphia manager Gene Mauch threw his team's post-game meal on the floor, fuming at his men for getting beat by "a Little Leaguer". Now with two MVP awards and three World Series rings, Joe came back to help Houston win a pennant.
The two veterans added both leadership and respectability to the ballclub. The acquisitions also took the stress off the other players a little. The press wanted Ryan and Morgan. The others could quietly go about their work.
A spring training strike was announced by the players union. Many camps broke up. Morgan rallied teammates to continue workouts in Florida. Joe and J.R. Richard caught Enos Cabell as he was about to fly home. The sight of the 5'-9" Morgan and the 6'-8" Richard dashing through the airport like O.J. Simpson must have startled passengers.
When the season began, anything seemed to be possible. Outfielder Terry Puhl began the season with a home run, and Jose Cruz led off the next inning with a blast of his own. Shortstop Craig Reynolds, homerless in 1979, drove one out in just the year's second game. The next day, Ryan drilled the first big league homer of his career. It was a remarkable power display for a team that had hit only 49 homers in the previous season.
It looked like the best season yet for Richard. He one-hit Los Angeles on April 19th, increasing his personal winning streak against the hated Dodgers to 13. He notched his 100th career win against New York on April 25th. On May 31st, he three-hit the Giants. J.R. equaled that the following week with another three-hit shutout against San Francisco. On June 11th, he tossed a six-hitter against Chicago for his third consecutive shutout, extending his scoreless inning streak to a club-record 31-2/3rds. But all was not well. J.R. complained that his arm felt tired.
After a typical slow start, Ryan was also dominating opponents. He tossed a four-hit shutout against the Phillies on May 18th. He fired a two-hitter at San Diego on May 28th. He combined with Joe Sambito on a one-hitter against St. Louis on June 19th. Ryan registered his 3,000th career strikeout on July 4th.
Hitters had the unenviable task of adjusting to the blazing heat of Ryan one night, the baffling knuckleball of Joe Niekro the next night and the terrifying pitches of Richard the following night. If they were lucky, they faced Ken Forsch - a double-digit winner the previous two seasons.
Six Astros would steal 20 or more bases, led by Cesar Cedeno's 48. Moved back to center field, Cedeno batted .309 to lead the club. Jose Cruz hit at a .302 clip and paced the team with 91 RBIs. Five Astros managed ten or more homers although leadoff hitter Terry Puhl led them with just thirteen.
Richard became the first Astro pitcher to start the All-Star Game. He fanned three American Leaguers in a pair of scoreless innings, including the powerful Reggie Jackson. He was examined by prominent surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe three days later and was told to rest the arm. During a workout at the Dome on July 30th, J. R. collapsed and was taken to the hospital. He had suffered a stroke. A blood clot that had made his arm feel tired had moved to his neck and cut off blood flow to the brain. Surgery was done to save his life. The Astros had lost their ace pitcher after a 10-4 start with a stingy 1.89 ERA. Although he attempted to come back, Richard would never again pitch a big league game.
Houston had battled the Dodgers for first place most of the summer. The stunning loss of Richard sent the club into a five-game tailspin. The Astros had trouble focusing while their teammate lay in a hospital. Cedeno broke the hex with a tenth-inning homer on August 3rd to beat the Mets. By August 13th, the club had slipped to third behind Los Angeles and Cincinnati.
The team was having trouble scoring runs. This was demonstrated best during a 20-inning game in San Diego on August 15th. A pair of Padre errors bailed them out as they won, 3-1. Rookie Dave Smith, a resident of San Diego, got the win for Houston. It was a frustrating game but the win helped to change momentum. The Astros reeled off ten straight wins, capped by a two-hitter from Ryan against Chicago to pull three games in front. A homer and an RBI single by Cruz provided the margin of victory. Cedeno swatted a grand slam two nights later to stun the Cardinals.
The scrappy Astros were doing anything they could to win. On August 29th, Cabell's head-first slide into first base let Rafael Landestoy score the winning run for a 6-5 victory in Chicago. On September 6th, they swept a doubleheader against St. Louis with Cruz blasting a grand slam and Howe stringing together eight consecutive hits.
Los Angeles held a two-game lead heading into a set at the Astrodome on September 9th.It was the experienced Dodgers who looked like they had a case of the jitters, committing six errors in a 5-4 Houston win. The next day, the Astros fought off a two-run 11th-inning surge to rally back for a 6-5 triumph. Cruz homered off Rick Sutcliffe for the decisive blow. The two teams were now tied.
Vern Ruhle, another of Houston's reclamation projects, took Richard's spot in the rotation and was brilliant down the stretch. He tossed a three-hitter in San Francisco on September 21st and followed this with a four-hitter against the Reds. Ruhle would go 7-2 during Richard's absence to keep the club in contention.
The Astros held a three game lead with three games left in the season but all of them would be in Los Angeles. Ex-teammate Joe Ferguson drilled a homer on the first night for a 3-2 Dodger win. They nipped Ryan and the Astros the next day, 2-1, thanks to the pitching of ex-Astro Jerry Reuss. The Dodgers edged Houston on the last day of the season too, 4-3, to force a tie. The two teams would square off in a one-game playoff at Dodger Stadium the next afternoon for the Western Division title.
Having exhausted their best pitchers in the three-game series, the Dodgers handed the ball to free agent signee Dave Goltz to win the division. The Astros sent out their best hurler, Joe Niekro. After working so hard to get there, a four-game collapse would have gone down in baseball history as one of the game's all-time chokes. It might have been a disaster that haunted the team for years.
Houston caught a break in the first inning when Terry Puhl scored on a fielder's choice. Ferguson could not hold onto the throw to the plate. The Astros grabbed an early 2-0 advantage. It was left to Art Howe to strike the critical blow. Howe smoked a Goltz fastball into the left field stands in the third to give Houston a 4-0 cushion. Howe followed up with a two-run single in the fourth to drive a final stake in the Dodgers' hearts.
Not content with their lead, catcher Alan Ashby tried to score from first first on a double by Reynolds. This time, Ferguson held onto the ball and emphasized his anger with a knee to Ashby's midsection. Ashby suffered a broken rib in the collision. A minor skirmish ensued. Disturbed Dodger "fans" pelted the Houston outfielders with food, forcing a suspension of play until order was restored.
Niekro scattered six hits and watched from the mound as Dave Bergman made the final out, giving Houston a 7-1 victory and the first championship in club history!
It was Niekro's 20th win of the season, becoming the first Astro pitcher to twice reach that milestone. Houston completed the regular season with a 93-70 mark, the best of their history. The celebration in Los Angeles was tempered by the knowledge that they would have to fly cross-country and start the National League Championship Series the next night in Philadelphia. It was a scene they had waited 19 seasons to experience.By Astro Daily
- Alan Ashby, Art Howe, Astrodome, Cesar Cedeno, Craig Reynolds, Dave Bergman, Dave Goltz, Dave Smith, Enos Cabell, Gene Mauch, Houston Astros, J.R. Richard, Jerry Reuss, Joe Ferguson, Joe Morgan, Joe Niekro, Joe Sambito, John McMullen, Jose Cruz, Ken Forsch, Nolan Ryan, Rafael Landestoy, Reggie Jackson, Rick Sutcliffe, Roy Hofheinz, Terry Puhl, Vern Ruhle