Fair Play

"Houston is a big-league-ball city," says Gene Elston, baseball historian and author of A Stitch in Time: A Baseball Chronology. "But it's not a St. Louis…The best franchises in the game today are Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles."

Elston knows whereof he speaks. He's a former broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs, the Mutual Game of the Week and CBS Radio's Game of the Week. He even designed the cap logo for the Houston Colt .45s. But he's best known as the original voice of the Houston Astros, serving the team from its inception in 1962 through the 1986 playoff run.

"Houston will draw only when it's winning," he says. "It's an average major-league city." And as true fans know, "winning" and "Astros" are two words that have not always gone together.

"The Judge" -- Roy Hofheinz, original owner of the Astros and the mind behind the Astrodome -- "wanted to win," says Elston, "but he didn't think he could win with the talent he had." Thus, the Astros spent many of their early years being purged of their greats and near-greats. Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub and Jim Wynn are just a few who began their careers in Houston before finding success elsewhere. "The Judge was a great entrepreneur," according to Elston, but over his head as a major-league owner.

While Houston may be an average baseball city, it has had a profound effect on the game. "The Astrodome was neither good or bad," says Elston, "but it started a bad trend: symmetrical, round stadiums designed for both football and baseball." Elston laments the lack of character in multi-use stadiums, but the trend may have started to turn with the ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland and Arlington. While the new Houston ballpark follows these footsteps in the right direction, he says, it's "too little."

One of Houston's problems, Elston says, is that the city has built too many ballparks: Colt Stadium, the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park in just over 40 years. "Ballparks have been overbuilt," he says. "They're going to end up being white elephants."

As a broadcaster, Elston didn't get too close to the players. "If I stayed away, I could be fairer and more critical," he explains. But of the Astros players that he covered, Terry Puhl was a favorite. "He was one of the greatest outfielders I ever saw, because he could anticipate so well. He had great senses."

Elston treated all players, all teams, equally. "If somebody made a great play, I said it," he remembers. "Same for both teams. If he made a bad play, I said it." He was a big fan of Pete Rose because he never quit and always hustled, and he calls Willie Mays "the most exciting player I ever saw."

"Baseball's a game that's never going to die," he laughs. "It may commit suicide, but it'll never die."

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John W. Royal