Gene Elstons Luck is Cooperstowns
Certain announcers evoke a place. Lindsey Nelson denoted the Polo Grounds. Georgian Ernie Harwell defined Detroit. From 1962-86, an Iowan etched Texas-size disgust with limits of any kind. "We couldn’t get over the hump," said Astros nee Colt .45s Voice Gene Elston. "If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all."
The Astros’ luck is little changed (e.g. 2005 World Series). Elston’s, by contrast, has. Recently the Hall of Fame broadcast committee voted him the 2006 Ford C. Frick Award. In July, Gene will join 29 others from Mel Allen via Harry Caray to Houston successor Milo Hamilton.
For Elston, Cooperstown doubles back to hometown Fort Dodge (high school hoops), World War II (Navy), 1946-48 Waterloo and 1949-53 Des Moines (Three I- and Western League), then N.L. Chicago. Said owner Phil Wrigley: "We have a defeatist attitude" — understandably. The 1954-57 Cubs finished 258-357.
Roberto Clemente once plucked a bottle from the outfield wall. "He thought it a baseball," mused Elston. "It got caught in Wrigley’s vines." In 1958, dumped for tyro Lou Boudreau, Gene plucked defeat from the jaws of victory.
Gene found refuge in Mutual Radio’s 1958-60 "Game of the Day." The state with its most outlets blared crepe myrtle and berry fields and streams, falling away in endless line. "Texas heard me," he said. "’Game’ led me there." Elston found that selling the 1962 Colt .45s was even harder than the Cubs.
Present at the Creation
Nelson liked the New York Mets’ 1961 expansion draft. "Great on paper, but paper doesn’t play." By comparison, Houston G.M. Paul Richards offered to trade rosters with then-cellar Philadelphia. The Colts trained at Apache Junction, Arizona, near Superstition Mountain, where Indian spirits and a Dutchman’s ghost were said to guard lost gold. "Geronimo’s warriors roamed here," mused Elston. "The way we played, maybe he warred on us."
We forget how the ’62ers outdrew New York: "characters," Gene explained, though none as iconic as Marv Throneberry. Houston’s Jim Pendleton neared third base, stopped, and restarted. "His cup fell out when he rounded third, rolled down a pant leg, and was around his knee by the time he hit home." First baseman Rusty Staub, charging the plate, said, "Whatever you do, throw home."
Pitcher Hal Woodeshick nodded, then almost hit him in the ear.
**** (Turk) Farrell shamed Peck’s Bad Boy. "He’d put snakes in lockers, give the hot-foot," said Gene. A drive smacked his head, caroming to outfielder Jimmy Wynn for an out. Owner H. Roy Hofheinz made the team wear "western outfits with black cowboy boots in orange, black cowboy hats, and belt buckle embossed with a pistol with ‘Colt 45′s,’ ban orange tie, white shirts with red and blue baseball stitching." Mercifully he deepsixed them.
"Explains a lot," said 1962-64 manager Harry Craft. Inexplicable: Houston’s reverse Midas luck. In the first inning of its first exhibition game Al Heist stepped in a hole, breaking an ankle. Jim Umbricht died of cancer; Walt Bond, leukemia; Don Wilson, accidental asphyxiation. Left: Bobby Shantz, Robin Roberts, Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Don Larsen, and Joe Pepitone.
"How come our whole didn’t match the parts?" Guess Geronimo was not a fan.
A Brave, New World
In 1965, the Space City hatched a space-age home: baseball’s first aid-conditioned, domed all-purpose stadium. It had sky boxes, five tiers, and 5,000 roof plastic windows and steel grate guides a foot and half apart. "When a fly hit that jigsaw background," said Gene, "the light and dark made it impossible to judge." Hofheinz put blue translucent acrylic on the roof, greasing vision. Sunshine was cut, though, killing turf. By 1982, 11 of 26 bigs parks brooked artificial a.k.a. Astroturf. Suddenly watching grass grow had a new appeal.
The Astrodome opened April 9, 1965, with a Yankees exhibition. "Look at all the players out of the dugout up on the rim," gawked Elston. "Just a magnificent sight." The scoreboard flashed, canon boomed, and cartoon cowboys rode upon a homer. In 1968, one in town for a film turned three sheets to the wind. Houston won, 1-0, in the 24th inning. "Longest complete night game and John Wayne didn’t see it," said Gene, working near the Astrodome Club bar. "In the 23rd, they carry him out."
Thirty-five radio and 15 TV outlets, respectively, carried Elston from the Panhandle and Gulf to Biloxi and Baton Rouge. Partner Loel Passe coined "Hot ziggety dog and good ol’ sassafras tea," "He breezed him one more time," and "Now you’re chunkin’." His briefcase was even tangier. "It had the kitchen sink," said Gene. "In April someone put a hot dog there." Passe found it that fall.
"Loel was the entertainment, but Gene the key," said Houston Post writer Mickey Herskowitz. Gene did NBC’s 1967 Series (radio) and 1968 All-Star Game (video). "Solid, trustworthy," giving skeletal plot and core, born in a place where hyperbole was thought curse, not core.
The Unfinal Step
"Coming from Iowa, I didn’t know if my style would work," said Elston. TV’s Andy Taylor stabilized Barney Fife and Gomer and Goober Pyle. "That was Gene," said Passe. "An island of sanity in a nutty place."
In 1977, pitcher J.R. Richard said that he saw a bird: "He was evidently sent down by God and he told me to straighten up and win this game and that’s why I turned things around."
Later Gene interviewed J.R. on TV. "If you had to throw a pitch in a tight situation, what would you throw?"
"Well, I’d throw him a slider," he said, putting a hand on his groin. "I’d put it right in there, c___ high."
Houston got high much of 1980: record 2,278,217, N.L. West
playoff victory, and 2-1 best-of-five game L.C.S. edge. Bad luck: The ‘Stros took a 2-0 next-day lead — before Gary Woods left third early on a fly. It cost a flag: Phils, in 10. Houston led, trailed, tied, and lost Game Five in overtime.
"We’ll climb the final step," chirped manager Bill Virdon. A quarter-century the Astros are still climbing.
Elston broadcast 11 no-nos. Nolan Ryan broke Sandy Koufax’ record September 26, 1981. "Two balls and no strikes to Baker. And a ground ball to third!" said Elston. "Art Howe! He got it! Nolan Ryan! No-hitter Number 5!" Less abiding: sidekicks, blown to and fro.
In 1985, Hamilton arrived from Chicago. Next year team head **** Wagner axed the ‘Stros original. "If they want somebody to phony up excitement, I can’t change my personality," said Gene, scamping to CBS Radio’s 1987-95 "Game of the Week." Analyst Larry Dierker fumed: "Some guys promote themselves. Gene promoted the team: low-key, with plenty of room to get excited and take it up an octave."
Having called Eddie Matthews’ 500th homer, Ryan’s Walter Johnson-topping K, and Houston’s first 1,600 games (Houston-Rice football cost No. 1,601), Texas’ four-time Sportscaster of the Year wrote "Gene Elston’s Stati-Score Baseball." His last play-by-play hymned 1997.
Having braved a stroke, the unlikely expatriate left broadcasting’s cattle drive, still waiting for luck to change. This year it does, in a most charming and deserving way.