The Best Owner in Astros History Is...

The Houston Chronicle started an online poll earlier this week on the best owner in Astros history. The choices are Roy Hofheinz, John McMullen, Drayton McLane and Jim Crane — seems Ford Car Credit/GE Credit Corporation got the short shrift. Cases can be made for each of these, especially Ford Car Credit/GE Credit Corporation, which kept the Astros afloat in the late-1970s. But I’m here to make the case for the man coming up in last place: John McMullen.

Most Astros fans probably didn’t come into being until the glory years of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and all of the team’s playoffs trips between 1997-2001 and 2004-2005. The owner during that glory period was Drayton McLane. McLane spent the money to bring the likes of Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent and Andy Pettitte for those teams. He paid lots and lots of money to keep Bagwell and Biggio in town. And of course, let’s not forget that pleasure palace located downtown that the team’s called home since the 2000 season.

And if most fans remember McMullen, it’s for the epic screw-ups, of which he made plenty. He let Nolan Ryan go to the Rangers. He fired Tal Smith. He dumped Gene Elston and foisted Milo Hamilton upon Houstonians. He junked the beloved rainbow jerseys. He once threatened to move the team if renovations weren’t made to the Dome. He didn’t court the press, and he was a Yankee (who’d actually once been a minority owner of the Yankees) who never made much of an attempt to fit in with Texas or with Houston.

But then again, McLane also let Nolan Ryan leave for the Rangers. He threatened to sell the team to a guy who’d move the team to northern Virginia if he didn’t get a new ballpark. He kept foisting Milo Hamilton upon the listening public. He junked the team’s blue-and-orange color scheme first, for a blue-gold thing that didn’t even have an “H” on the cap, then for some brown/black/red pajama-looking monstrosity thing. He hemorrhaged the team’s future by letting the farm system fall to waste, and wasted valuable resources signing players like Carlos Lee to ridiculous contracts.

It’s easy to forget the condition of the Astros in the late 1970s. The team was in bankruptcy and being run by its creditors (Ford/GE). Tal Smith was the GM and he started building up a farm system full of prime talent with lots of pitching and speed. But the Dome wasn’t in good shape, and the creditors weren’t going to allow Smith to fork out the huge amounts of cash needed to lure big-money free agents to the Astros or to keep talent who were running out their contracts. Most important, nobody in Houston, or in Texas, was stepping up to buy the franchise.

So John McMullen purchased the team in 1979. He bought a team on the verge of making the playoffs, and he ignored Tal Smith and signed Nolan Ryan to what was then the biggest contract in sports. He also signed Joe Morgan, and brought him back to the Astros. The Astros made the playoffs in 1980, and again in 1981. But McMullen earned the public’s wrath by firing Smith after the 1980 season. And when he refused to play nice with the media, he soon began to rival Oilers owner Bud Adams as the most hated man in Houston.

Still, the Astros played competitive baseball, returning to the playoffs in 1986 and competing for the most of the seasons in 1987 and 1988. But what good will McMullen still possessed he lost after firing Gene Elston from the radio booth, and then letting Nolan Ryan sign with the Texas Rangers because McMullen thought he was washed up. Yet while this went on, McMullen continued improving the club.

The Astros started a Venezuelan academy that would produce players like Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo and Johan Santana. The farm system was growing players like Biggio, Ken Caminiti, Daryl Kile, Shane Reynolds, Luis Gonzalez and Kenny Lofton. McMullen had Bill Wood as his GM, the guy who fleeced the Red Sox for Bagwell and who got Steve Finley, Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis. And then McMullen hired Art Howe to manage the players and help them make that leap to quality Major League status.

This was the team that McMullen sold to McLane. McLane fired Wood and Howe after his first season as owner. He dismantled the Venezuelan academy, had problems signing draft choices, and went free agent crazy — losing draft picks in the process. And Caminiti, Finley, Lofton, Schilling, and Harnisch would depart before the team became a playoff fixture. But it was the core of the team drafted and assembled by Wood, first managed by Howe, that would guide the Astros to the playoffs, and eventually, to the World Series.

But the team that McLane sold to Jim Crane was in awful shape, unlike what McLane bought from McMullen — one of the worst farm systems in baseball, aging and listless talent. A last-place team lacking in hope. So while it still feels good to dump on McMullen for his mistakes, remember that he bought a good team, made it better, invested lots of money in its infrastructure and when he sold it, sold a team that was better than the one he bought. 
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal