Sunday, March 31, 2013

March 31- Houston Colt .45s

Tonight the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are kicking off the 2013 Major League Baseball season as the Astros make their debut in the American League. The last two years have been an interesting prelude, to say the least, when the decision to move the Astros into the AL was made roughly two days after I completed my MLB tattoo outline. Since that day I’ve received numerous questions asking how I was going to cope with that decision or whether or not I was going to skin graft the Astros tattoo to the other side. First off, skin graft!? Are you stupid? The cost of that alone would be ridiculous. But even more important, I also had the Milwaukee Brewers tattoo added to the AL side for the main reasons that their greatest success came with the AL in 1982 and I never quite accepted the relocation in the first place. I’ve always been a bit of purist when it comes to teams, especially when it comes to keeping original team names as they were intended when they first entered the league. Unfortunately over time, my thoughts have always been superseded by the owners and governing bodies of MLB. For example: the Washington Senators moving twice and becoming the Minnesota Twins and Rangers before I was born, the Montreal Expos becoming the Washington Nationals and the Seattle Pilots becoming the Brewers. Finally, there’s the team/hat, the Houston Colt .45s.

This season the Astros are trying to avoid becoming the second team to lose at least 106 games in at least three consecutive seasons, a mark established by the expansion 1962-1965 New York Mets. What’s most interesting about this stat is that the Colt .45s became an expansion team in the National League the same year as the Mets. Also, the Colt .45s name only lasted from 1962-1964, the same time frame as the first three 106+ loss seasons of the streak. This hat was one of the first few that I picked up when I started actively collecting New Era caps. I have always thought that this is one of the coolest hats released; it’s simple, much like most of the classic hats that have survived for more than 40 years in the league. What has become most important to me with this team, let alone the hat, is that it baseball fans don’t lose sight off this as a mark in history of MLB. When I was in the MLB Fan Cave last year I only asked for one thing during my time, a Colt .45s jersey. I was told that wouldn’t be a problem, just as long as I never wore it inside the Fan Cave because of the gun blazing across the chest. I complied, but I never got the jersey. The one thing I always found incredibly funny amount the conditions behind getting the jersey was that I had the gun from the jersey tattooed on my body…

Like I said, I’m a purist. I captured every era of Colt .45s/Astros baseball within one tattoo because the things matter to me.

When I marked up this cap there were only two names that made the most sense, and no, they’re not Joe Morgan or Nellie Fox. Morgan was originally draft by Houston and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Fox ended his Hall of Fame career with Houston, but neither of them made a great impact on the team. These two guys were essential to the team.

#32- Jim Umbricht made his MLB debut on September 26, 1959 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1959 and 1961 Umbricht only pitched in one game per season; however, in 1960 he started three games and came out of the bullpen for 14 others. Umbricht unfortunately didn’t make the playoff roster during the 1960 season; however, he played in enough games to help the Pirates win the NL pennant and earn a World Series ring. His numbers with the Pirates weren’t much to sniff at: 1-2 with 5.12 ERA and 30 strikeouts, and he found himself of the expansion draft list for the upcoming 1962 season. With the 35th pick the Colt .45s took Umbricht.

Umbricht made 34 appearances out of the bullpen in 1962 and finished the season as one of the most dominant players on the team. He went 4-0 with a 2.01 ERA and 55 strikeouts. Not too bad for a guy who never got much playing time for the first few years of his career. At the beginning of spring training for the 1963 season, Umbricht noticed a small black mole in his right leg, near the thigh while on a golf outing with Richards. Umbricht ignored the mole at first, but it grew at a rapid pace. Richards and team trainer Jim Ewell told Umbricht to have it checked out by a doctor back in Houston. A three-inch section of the mole was removed for testing and a doctor confirmed it was a "black mole" tumor that had spread to his groin area. A lifelong clean-cut bachelor, Umbricht had developed a reputation as a cheerful person who only cared about others' well-being. Ewell, the team trainer said, Umbricht "had the most wonderful attitude of anyone you'll ever meet". As a result, Umbricht's cancer diagnosis shocked baseball and made national headlines. On March 7, Umbricht underwent a six-hour operation using perfusion to remove the tumor from his right leg. The perfusion technique was radical at the time, and began to be used as a surgical procedure not long before Umbricht's surgery. After a month-long hospital stay, Umbricht and his doctors told the media that he beat the cancer, crediting "early detection and good physical condition," further stating that he "should have five or six good years left" in his baseball career. Umbricht, however, learned that the doctors were unsure if the cancer surgery was a success, or even if it had been completely removed from his body. Even if it was, his chance of survival was slim at best. Upon hearing the news, Umbricht decided to keep it a secret outside his immediate family. That season Umbricht made 35 appearances and started three of those games. He went 4-3 with a 2.61 ERA and 48 strikeouts and a .961 WHIP. For a guy who had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, find out that the operation wasn’t a 100 percent success and then go back to playing baseball is beyond an incredible accomplishment. But sadly, September 29, 1963 would turn out to be Umbricht’s final game.

In the last month of the season Umbricht's cancer had started to spread throughout his body and he needed to be sedated at times because of the pain. In November, Umbricht learned that the cancer spread to his chest area and was incurable. He was released from his contract on December 16 due to his deteriorating health. The National League allowed the Colts to sign Umbricht to a scout contract given the circumstances, with the proviso that it would become a player contract if he rejoined the active roster. By the time 1964 came around Umbricht’s health was progressively getting worse. He didn’t make the trip to Cocoa Beach to meet with the team for Spring Training as he was in-and-out of the hospital. On March 16th Umbricht checked into the hospital for the last time with the hopes that a third operation would be the last needed. During his final hospital stay, the Colts' management, his family and the hospital staff agreed not to release any further details about his illness, though word had leaked that he was dying. He remained optimistic that he would beat the illness until his final days, stating that "everything will be ok" in an interview with United Press International sports Editor Milton Richman. Umbricht succumbed to the disease on April 8, 1964 in the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Umbricht's death came on the eve of the Colts' 1964 season.

The team wore black patched on their sleeves for the 1964 season and the newly renamed Astros retired his number in 1965. He was 33-years-old when he passed.

#49- Lawrence Edward Dierker was signed as a free agent by the Colt .45s in 1964 and made his MLB debut on September 22 of that same year. He pitched in three games going 0-1 with a 2.00 ERA and five strikeouts in the final year in the history of Colt .45s name. From 1965-1976 Dierker played for the Astros making two All-Star Game appearances in 1969 and 1971 and finished 23rd in the NL MVP vote going 20-13 with a 2.33 ERA, 232 strikeouts and 305.1 innings pitched; all career bests, yet for some reason he wasn’t even considered for the NL Cy Young award. The rest of Dierker’s playing career was welcomed with modest success. His final year came in 1977 with the St. Louis Cardinals, but his Colt .45s/Astros run ended with a record of 139-123, an ERA of 3.28 and 1493 strikeouts.

From 1979 to 1996 Dierker switched up to a broadcasting position as the color commentator for the Astros’ radio and television broadcasts until he took over as the Astros manager in 1997. From 1997-2001 Dierker managed the team to a NL Central division title in every season except 2000 when they finished in fourth place. Dierker won the NL Manager of the Year award in 1998 and he finished his career with a record of 435-348. In 1999, Dierker had a close brush with death during a game against the San Diego Padres. The Houston manager had been plagued by severe headaches for several days. During the game, Dierker had a seizure that rendered him unconscious. He required emergency brain surgery for a cavernous angioma and after four weeks of recovery, returned to the helm of the Astros and guided the team through the duration of the season. The Astros won 97 games and a third consecutive National League Central Division title.

Dierker returned to the broadcast booth from 2004-2005 and up until March 23 of this year he worked with the Astros front office serving as the community outreach executive. Dierker’s number was retired by the Astros on May 19, 2002. This season will be only the third year since his rookie year in 1964 that Dierker won’t be a part of the team.

If you need an idea of how bad things may potentially be in Houston this season, just think about that last stat. It’s a damn shame. In my opinion, he’s more iconic of a figure in the history of the Astros than Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Jose Cruz and Mike Scott.

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