Forty years ago the Houston Astros as we know them were born. Yes, the team had been in existence since 1962 (when they were initially known as the Colt .45s), but in all that time they’d never been particularly good—until the 1980 team hit the field, that is.
With Nolan Ryan leading the roster (he’d signed with Houston in the first $1 million contract in baseball history the previous November), the Astros had a solid season. As the summer drew to a close, it seemed like they even had a decent shot at making the playoffs, to every Houstonian’s bemusement.
When they actually did battle their way into the postseason, the stage was set for a series against the Philadelphia Phillies that is still known as one of the best in baseball history. Over one nail-biting week, between Oct. 6 and Oct. 12, 1980, the city rallied around a scrappy bunch of roughnecks as they battled for a trip to the World Series. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t meant to be.) It was the first true glimmer of baseball greatness, of real potential, that Houston saw in its hometown team. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this first great Astros squad, we chatted with a couple of players who were on the Astroturf during those legendary games.
The talent was off the charts.
Before the 1980 season, general manager Tal Smith snagged two-time National League MVP Joe Morgan and the aforementioned Ryan, the future all-time strikeout king who’d grown up in nearby Alvin. The presumptive Hall of Famers brought swagger and experience to a young team needing the lift. “It was a statement that, 'Hey, listen, it’s a team that’s for real here,” says Terry Puhl, a right fielder who’d been with the team since 1977.
They joined a crew that included past all-stars Craig Reynolds, Joe Niekro, Joaquín Andújar, Joe Sambito, César Cedeño, and pitcher J.R. Richard, who started 1980 with some of the best numbers in baseball. The guy threw with incredible speed, and he helped make the team one of the best in their division through most of the season. “In the minors I saw him throwing the ball, and back then they didn’t have the best batting cages in the world,” says infielder Enos Cabell, who’d been on the roster since 1975. “He was throwing the ball through the batting cage. I’m sitting there like, Jesus Christ.”
Tragically, Richard suffered a stroke in late July, effectively ending his MLB career. However, the Astros still had Ryan, and having Ryan counted for a lot.
It almost never happened.
After tangling with the L.A. Dodgers all season, the ’Stros needed just one win in their final three games, all played at Dodger Stadium, to top the National League West. They lost all three.
That set up a one-game tiebreaker to determine who would go to the playoffs, also held in Los Angeles. The Dodger Stadium fans rattled the Houston team. “The score was 7-1,” Puhl tells Houstonia. “But they would get one runner on base, and the crowd would just start humming.”
The ’Stros still won 7-3, advancing to their first National League Championship Series (these were the days before wild cards and divisional Series). They had finally broken through.
The series games were ridiculous.
After knocking the Dodgers out of the running, the Astros needed to defeat the Phillies—loaded with legends like Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and Pete Rose—in a best-of-five NLCS to get to the World Series.
The first engagement, at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, was business as usual. Carlton kept the Astros largely in check, and the Phillies won in nine innings. But the rest of the games were fierce battles. All four went into extra innings. In Game 2, a rally in the top of the 10th, jump-started by Puhl’s leadoff single, won it for the ’Stros. “We were all functioning on short hours of sleep because the series was so pronounced and exciting,” Puhl recalls. “And Houston was so behind the Astros. I remember they let the students out of school so they could watch the games.”
In Game 3—they’d play the final three at the Astrodome—a scoreless stalemate was broken in the 11th, with Houston getting the winning run on a sacrifice fly after Morgan opened the bottom half of the inning with a triple. “It was so loud, the hairs on my arms would stand straight up,” says Cabell. “We were walking on eggshells all the time. You’re playing under the microscope, and everything that you do, positive or negative, is gonna be blown out of proportion.”
Game 4 was chaos. A Houston triple play in the top of the fourth was overturned after a 15-minute discussion, a flubbed outfield throw let the Astros score in the bottom half, and then another Houston run was wiped out in the sixth after the umpires ruled that Astro Gary Woods had left third base before the ball was caught on a potential sacrifice fly.
“That should’ve never happened,” says Puhl. “We should’ve scored that run, and that game would’ve never went to extra innings.”
But it did, and the Phillies won with Rose barreling catcher Bruce Bochy to the ground for the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th, making the series either team’s to win in the final game. Rose would later note that this was the most exciting series he ever played in—and he played in one of the most celebrated World Series of all time just a few years earlier in 1975.
Game 5 was incredible.
Sure, the Astros have been in some knife-edge, agonizing bouts in recent years, but Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS is hard to top.
With local hero Ryan on the hill and Puhl hitting everything in sight, the Astros staked out an early lead. Up 5-2 going into the eighth, they seemed to have the series in hand. “I still remember being in the dugout thinking, ‘We’ve got a three-run lead, and we’ve got Nolan Ryan on the mound,’” says Puhl. “I thought, ‘Yeah, that looks good.’”
But the Phillies scored five in the top of the eighth and, even though Houston answered with two in the bottom half to even things up, added the deciding run in the top of the 10th. With two down in the home half, Cabell, the Astros’ last chance, made solid contact, but the Phillies’ Garry Maddox caught the ball for the final out. Houston’s bid for the pennant ended there, in the Astrodome’s capacious center field.
By that final game, though, TV sets nationwide were tuned in. “I drove home to California after that game,” says Cabell. “I’d stop for gas along the way, and people would see my credit card and go, ‘Oh, I saw you on TV! That was a great series!’”