Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Gene Elston, 1922-2015


Sometimes, the man who makes a team a cultural icon is a player. Sometimes, a manager or head coach. Sometimes -- and this usually is not a good thing -- it's the owner.

For many teams, it is the lead broadcaster. The Houston Astros are one of these teams, and Gene Elston was that man.

Robert Gene Elston was born on March 26, 1922, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He got his start in broadcasting with the NFL's Cleveland Rams, before they moved to Los Angeles in 1946. At the time, the NFL was hardly the big business it is now, and moving on to minor league baseball was seen as a step up.

Gene (who always used his middle name) broadcast in the minors from 1946 to 1953. In 1954, he was hired by the Chicago Cubs, pairing with Bert Wilson (but not Jack Brickhouse). In 1958, the Mutual Broadcasting System (which went out of business in 1999 but included New York's WOR and WHN at various times) hired him to call their Game of the Day with recently retired pitching star Bob Feller.

That got him noticed, and, as Major League Baseball was moving and expanding, it was virtually assured that one of the new or moved teams would hire him. In 1962, he and Loel Passe became the 1st broadcast team of the National League's new Houston Colt .45's. In 1965, the team moved into the Astrodome and were renamed the Houston Astros, and they were joined by another Midwesterner, who'd been broadcasting for the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders: Harry Kalas, later the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Until the age of retractable roofs, most domed stadiums were hitter's parks. The Astrodome, the original, was an exception. So, for their 1st 40 or so years, the Astros were reliant on good pitching, good defense, contact hitting and speed, rather than power hitting. Despite the occasional big hitter such as Jimmy Wynn or Cesar Cedeno, most Astro hitters tended to be contact hitters, such as Jose Cruz Sr.

But they had many good pitchers, and Elston called 11 no-hitters. The 1st was by Sam Jones of the Cubs, against the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 12, 1955, the 1st no-hitter ever pitched by a black man in the major leagues.

Don Nottebart threw the 1st one in Colt/Astro history on May 27, 1963, against the Phillies. A month later, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants pitched on against them. In 1964, Ken Johnson no-hit the Cincinnati Reds for 9 innings, but lost due to walks and errors. Don Wilson pitched one for the Astros in 1967, and another in 1969, just 1 day after Jim Maloney of the Reds had done it to them.

Larry Dierker, later a broadcast partner of Gene's, and still later the club's best-ever manager, tossed a no-hitter against the Montreal Expos on July 9, 1976. On April 7, 1979, Ken Forsch not only became the pitcher with the earliest no-hitter in the calendar year (a record later tied by Jack Morris), but joined his brother Bob of the St. Louis Cardinals as the only brothers ever to both throw no-hitters.

On September 26, 1981, Houston-area native Nolan Ryan pitched his 5th career no-hitter. against the Los Angeles Dodgers -- the team the Astros beat in a 1-game Playoff for their 1st National League Western Division title the year before, and would soon (due to the strike's setup) lose to in the NL Division Series. Gene Elston called it, deviating from his usual not-so-homerish manner as Dusty Baker grounded out to 3rd base for the final out: 

Two balls and no strikes to Baker. And a ground ball to third! Art Howe... he got it! Nolan Ryan, no-hitter number five!

Elston remained with the Astros through the 1986 season, when they won another NL West title, Mike Scott pitching a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants to clinch it, and came tantalizingly close to winning their 1st Pennant, but falling short against the Mets.

But after that season, Astro general manager Dick Wagner fired him -- because, it has been rumored, his reaction to Scott's clinching no-hitter wasn't exited enough. With some poetic justice, he was then hired by a former Astro GM, even more influential in the club's development (if not its outreach to the fans). Talbot Merton "Tal" Smith hired him as a consultant and researcher for his company, Tal Smith Enterprises. (Tal would eventually serve as Astro GM twice more.)

Gene still broadcast games until retiring in 1997, doing so for CBS. In 2006, the Baseball Hall of Fame gave him its Ford Frick Award, tantamount to "being elected to the broadcasters' wing of the Hall of Fame." This award had previously been given to Milo Hamilton, a fellow Iowa native who had also broadcast first for the Cubs, then with the Astros, partnering with Gene in 1985 and 1986. (He'd also broadcast for the Atlanta Braves, including Hank Aaron's 715th home run.)

In 2012, as part of the team's 50th Anniversary celebration, the Astros dedicated a Walk of Fame outside their new ballpark, Minute Maid Park. Elston and Hamilton were honored, as were Wynn, Cruz, Dierker and Bob Aspromonte. (Aspromonte was a member of the last Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1957 and the 1st Houston Colt .45's team in 1962, and as a 1971 Met was the last active player to have been a Brooklyn Dodger.)

Elston had been in ill health for a while, before dying on September 5. He was 93 years old.

When the Colt .45's/Astros debuted in 1962, Houston had a decent history as a minor-league town. But a few men worked hard to make it a true major league place. In baseball, those men included team owner Roy Hofheinz, a federal judge and former Mayor who got the Astrodome built; team president Paul Richards and general manager Tal Smith, who pretty much built the organization from scratch; and broadcaster Gene Elston.

If any of them had failed, it is entirely possible that the Astros might have had to move -- they almost did, to Washington, D.C. after the 1991 season, but the National League blocked the move -- and might never have gotten a new team.

Baseball fans in south Texas and southern Louisiana owe Gene Elston a debt they can never repay.

North Texas and northern Louisiana? That's Texas Rangers territory.

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