Friday, May 07, 2010

Robin Roberts & the "Judge"

The old fastballer Robin Roberts died yesterday. Roberts won 286 games
in his career and ended up in the Hall of Fame. He played for only one
pennant winner, the Phillies of 1950, but that was a famous team ,known
forever as the "Whiz Kids". Roberts lost his only World Series game 2-1
to the New York Yankees that year on a Joe DiMaggio home run off of him
in the 10th inning, which, as far as losses go, is about as memorable as
you can get.

My brush with Roberts came many years later. In 1965 Roberts was
released by the Baltimore Orioles and picked up by Houston. I was in the
Panhandle that part of the summer and unaware that Houston had acquired
Roberts. In those days I used to listen to baseball games on my
grandfather's big radio before I went to bed. On this particular night,
Gene Elston announced that Robin Roberts would be pitching for Houston
against his old nemesis, manager Gene Mauch of the Phillies. I was
shocked and excited. Despite a Hall of Fame Career, Mauch had had
Roberts released after the 1960 season. That night, August 19, 1965, old
Robin Roberts shut out the Phils on 4 hits while my mother, brother and
I cheered on the Astros him on from the pull out bed in my Grandfather's
living room. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Of course, days
in Shamrock, Texas in the summers of the 1960s did not vary too much.

At any rate, Roberts became a personal hero of mine and was signed by
the Astros for the 1966 season. My memory was that Roberts pitched
opening day for Houston that year and, indeed I found out upon checking
today that my memory was right. Roberts lost that game, but gave up
only on earned run over 7 innings, a fine showing.

No summer lasts forever and the Astros cut Roberts later that year. He
played out the rest of the season, his last, with the Cubs. What stands
out in my mind about Roberts happened off the playing field. The Astros
in those days were owned by a fat shyster named Roy Hofheinz, or, the
"Judge" as he was called. Roy had been County Judge in Harris County. He
had also been Houston's mayor and had come close to getting impeached
from that job. Indeed he was impeached, at least in part for having four
City Councilmen arrested. He refused to recognize the impeachment and
eventually the City Council backed down. Roy then introduced a change in
the city charter to recall all of the councilmen that year. That passed,
but Roy has defeated himself by the Old Grey fox, Oscar Holcombe, a man
the Houston establishment always called on when they needed things to be
calmed down.

Now even a shyster (or a huckster as one biography called him) can have
good ideas, they often do. They usually just don't have the money to
make them happen. They usually get private investor money and/or public
money to fund their ideas. The Judge did both in bringing a baseball
team to Houston. The private money came courtesy of R.E. "Bob" Smith's
millions and the public money came from Harris County's bonding
authority which built the Judge's grand scheme, the first indoor
baseball park in history. The fabulous Astrodome. Xanadu on South Main.
The eighth wonder of the world. He then raised money in secret and set
up a showdown with Bob Smith which ended with Roy owning the team and
the lease to the Astrodome which was paid off at the rate of $1.00
American, each and every year. Time constraints and not wanting to try
your patience prevent me from detailing the rest of the Judge's career
which, like that of most Hucksters careers, ended in tears.

Back to Roberts. In 1966 the Judge was riding high and you can ride
pretty high when you pay $1 to rent a building which generates tens of
millions of dollars annually. People were pouring into the Astrodome
even when there was nothing to see. This particularly galled my father
who was the ultimate huckster hater. He used to wonder out loud how
anyone would have the nerve to charge 50 cents to look at an empty
stadium on nonevent days, which old Roy did.

One Friday evening the Astros held "Bat Night". They were to give a bat
to every kid who came to the game that night. Not some cheap souvenir
bat but a real Louisville Slugger. My brother and I went down and paid
our half dollar for the cheap outfield seats. We went to collect our
bats and were refused same. It was explained to us that you could only
get a bat if you were accompanied by an adult who had purchased a full
price ticket. Our protests were ignored. On the way home our complaints
became so loud that my father suggested that we call the Judge. My dad
was always saying stuff like that. He once advised me to call K.S. "Bud"
Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers when I was upset about something.
That call had not gotten anywhere, probably because the fact that I
represented "the people of Robindell" did not mean much to Bud's
secretary.

As you might expect, I did not get very far into my quest to talk to
Judge Hofheniz. Having failed in that I asked to be transferred to the
Astros clubhouse and was so transferred. Upon being connected I asked to
speak to Robin Roberts and they put him on the phone.

Wait a minute ? Really ? These were different times my friends. We used
to telephone the Shamrock Hilton to talk to visiting baseball players
all the time. Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers was a particularly nice guy.
Casey Weber of my neighborhood had the distinction of being hung up on
by Willie McCovey while trying to get through to Willie Mays. So I was
not totally shocked when Roberts picked up the phone.

I then proceeded to make my case and explained that Hofheinz had not
taken my call. Roberts put the phone down and went (he said) to get a
pen and paper, then he took down all the pertinent information and our
names and addresses and said that he would look into it.

This story would have a really happy ending if Roberts had sent us the
bats, which he never did. I never blamed Roberts, I always figured that
he'd tried ,but that the skinflint Hofheinz had put a stop to it." Send
them bats on your own nickel" I imagined Hofheinz thundering at Roberts.
After that though, I always had warm feelings for Roberts. Here's to his
memory.