Overblown and Underrated

So you know Houston's goats, heroes and high points? Think again.

Houston is a place where reputations are made and lost each day.

Come to think about it, so is just about every other place in the country. Nevertheless, our city produces events, people and trends that make their mark in history, one way or the other.

But do these things necessarily deserve the place in history that they hold? Surely some have too good a reputation, while others are wrongly neglected.

Despite awesome clutch hitting, Bill Spiers often gets overlooked.
Despite awesome clutch hitting, Bill Spiers often gets overlooked.

Taking an idea from American Heritage magazine (it's an homage, not a rip-off, dammit), we decided to see which things or people in Houston's history are overrated and which are underrated.

We chose some categories, picked someone as an expert in each, and didn't really argue with their calls.

Some categories had to be ditched when no one could be found who was willing to stand up and declare something or someone "overrated." Architects and criminal defense lawyers, it seems, are more worried about future paychecks than they are the glorious search for truth. (There's a certain very well known name who regularly came up as most overrated criminal defense lawyer, but apparently no one wanted to cross him.)

These picks aren't intended to be the last word on the subject, of course. Feel free to disagree -- unless you're a lawyer or an architect, in which case you've forfeited your right to complain. And now, the envelopes, please:

Space Mission

Houston has always been fiercely proud of its space heritage, even as the rest of the country thinks about shuttle missions only on very, very slow news days. We've heard so often about "Houston" being the first word spoken on the moon that we kind of wish Neil Armstrong had said "Wasssup!" instead.

The rockets may take off from Florida, but the training, the planning, the supervision and the life-and-death decisions are made right here. Or in Clear Lake, if you want to get technical.

Our expert is Cooky Oberg, who has been writing about the space program for years. She's authored three books and hundreds of articles about space, science, technology and medicine. Her selections:

Most Overrated: John Glenn's return to space

The space shuttle program had long been relegated to the back pages of the nation's newspapers when -- perhaps in response to that situation -- NASA announced that Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, was going back to space in 1998.

The weeks preceding the liftoff were filled with glowing coverage of the 77-year-old Glenn and his trip, and the nine-day mission was a public relations coup for NASA.

The only trouble is, Oberg says, nothing much of importance occurred.

Glenn purportedly was on board to explore the effects of weightlessness on older people. But, says Oberg, "there was no science involved -- they hadn't even done any basic animal experiments to lay the groundwork for such an investigation."

She says Glenn flew only because he had used his Senate post to block investigations of President Clinton. "The flight was a useless, tax-wasting exercise in public relations, and underneath it all, a cynical payback for Glenn's services to Clinton," she says.

Most Underrated: Apollo 8's trip to the moon

The early Apollo flights have been overshadowed by the missions that resulted in moonwalks, but they included much daring and audacity as NASA tried to learn on-the-go how best to put a man on the moon.

The 1968 Apollo 8 flight -- crewed by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell (later of Apollo 13 fame) and William Anders -- was perhaps the riskiest. Never before had man gone beyond the gravitational pull of the earth; Apollo 8 left the planet behind and headed out 230,000 miles to the moon, trusting that the navigational schemes involved would work -- including an engine burn on the dark side of the moon that sent the capsule home.

The crew members were the first humans to see an "earthrise" as they circled the moon ten times at a height of 60 miles. The mission is likely best remembered for the Christmas Eve broadcast when the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, but the science accomplished on the trip was integral to the success of Apollo 11 seven months later.

"Apollo 8 is sort of forgotten … but it was a mighty feat," Oberg says. "They had to test all that navigation, all the equipment on the flight. It was the first manned flight of the Saturn V rocket, too, and a great accomplishment."


Except for the WNBA Comets and two championships by the NBA Rockets, major-league sports in Houston tends to provide as much heartbreak as thrills. Still, some pretty big names have played for the city's teams, Hall of Famers such as Earl Campbell, Hakeem Olajuwon and Nolan Ryan.

Lance Zierlein, our expert, has seen a bunch of them. And as co-host of the morning show on all-sports KILT-AM, he has never hesitated to offer an opinion.

Most Overrated: Carl Mauck of the Oilers

The Houston Oilers of the late '70s and early '80s enthralled Houston as perhaps no other sports team has. A colorful cast of characters and a blue-collar mentality endeared them to fans. The epochal Luv Ya Blue moment was when the team returned after yet another playoff defeat to the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers; before a packed late-night Astrodome crowd, coach Bum Phillips famously said the team had knocked on the door the first year, hit it a little harder this year, and "next year we're gonna kick the sumbitch in." (The sumbitch, of course, remained standing.)

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