Houston Astros – Decade Record: 793-817, 0 Division Titles
As their decade record suggests, Houston spent the vast majority of the ‘70s hovering right around .500. The low water mark was in 1975 where the ‘Stros lost 97 games and finished dead last, 43 ½ games behind the Big Red Machine. The high was a very good 1979 with 89 wins, 1 ½ games behind those same Reds. Taken a step further, Houston had one 5th place finish in 1978 and one other 2nd place year, in 1972. In the six other seasons you could find the Astros neatly placed in 3rd or 4th place, with a range of 79-82 wins.
Despite the overall mediocrity, the ’70 Astros were an entertaining bunch cursed to be in the same division as the Reds and Dodgers, who took the National League West a combined 9 times in 10 years. Few players were more talented than Dominican-born centerfielder Cesar Cedeno. When Leo Durocher took over the helm with Houston late in 1972 he compared Cedeno to a young Willie Mays. In the six years from 1972-77 Cesar could make a case for being baseball’s best all-around player, winning 5 Gold Gloves and stealing over 50 bases each year; he led the league in doubles twice, hit .320 in back to back seasons, and averaged .295 with 33 doubles and 20 home runs. For the decade Cedeno led Houston with 1,422 hits, 427 steals, 292 doubles, 777 runs, and 148 homers.
While no Astro reached 30 home runs, 200 hits, or 100 runs in a season during the 70s, the club included solid position players such as first baseman Bob Watson (136 HRs, 2 100+ RBI seasons, and a team leading .299 average and 769 RBI) and leftfielder Jose Cruz (.296, and a team high .377 on base %). Shortstop Roger Metzger was a triples specialist – he led the league in ’71 and ’72 and had a total of 62 triples with just 5 home runs, and won a Gold Glove in 1973. Third baseman Doug Rader won 5 straight Gold Gloves from 1970-74, and hit 109 home runs in his 6 ‘70s seasons in Houston.
The intimidating 6’8” JR Richard was the club’s ace with a fastball and slider each approaching nearly 100 miles an hour. After suffering with some wildness early in his career, he won 20 games in 1976 and 18 in each of the next three seasons, leading the club overall with 97 wins and 1,374 strikeouts. JR topped 200 strikeouts 4 times and fanned a league-leading 303 batters in 1978, and 313 in ’79. Richard also led the NL with a 2.71 ERA in 1979. The pitching rich Astros staff also included flamethrower Don Wilson, who won 64 games from 1970-75 and tragically died in 1975 at age 29. Other notables included Larry Dierker, who went 82-67 and threw a no-hitter for Houston’s 1,000th win at the Astrodome, swingman Ken Forsch who won 66 games while making 121 starts (including a 1979 no-hitter) and notching a team leading 50 saves, and knuckleballer Joe Niekro who led the league with 21 wins and 5 shutouts in 1979. Tragedy struck the Astros again in 1980, as Richard suffered a career-ending stroke originating from a blood clot in his pitching arm.
Moving forward, after years of being an up and down franchise with no apparent direction, Houston’s strong 1979 core, even minus Richard, moved the franchise in the right direction, and the Astros made the playoffs in 1980, ‘81, and ‘86.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: