A couple of days ago, I presented y choices for the All Time Buffs team, based upon career performances in the big leagues and their accomplishments with Houston. Four future Hall of Famers filled nine of those spots, but none of these guys are members of my all time favorite Buffs starting lineup. “Houston Buffs Forever” is my Buffs club, the one I grew up watching, the one I’d be willling to go to baseball war with as either a field or fantasy all star club manager. These guys were my heroes – and they all played during the years of my “open-to-role-models” years, 1947 to 1953. Anyone who played for the Buffs before or after that time frame had little to no effect upon me as a character mentor, with a few exceptions, but I did continue to learn about life and baseball from all the guys I watched play at Buff Stadium through their last year of 1961. Bob Boyd, who broke the color line in Houston in 1954, would be the biggest example of a teacher who came to me in thr middle of my adolescent years. I admired the cool-under-fire way in which Boyd handled the pressure of performing very well as the first black man to play for the previously all white Houston Buffs. I also loved watching future left fielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, and pitcher Mo Drabowsky of the 1960 season club, but none of these guys, not even Boyd, made it to my personal starting lineup – the one I call “Houston Buffs Forever.” Here they are – my personal favorites – now and forever. I’d take on the whole baseball world with these guys – and I’d keep on trying, win or lose, with this same lineup, to excel against all odds. These guys are all a generous blend of baseball character and athletic talent.
SOLLY HEMUS, SECOND BASE: Solly was my first baseball hero back in 1947, that is, unless we don’t count my dad. but he was definitely my first role model from the professional ranks. Hemus played three seasons for the Buffs (1947-49) before going on to his very successful career in the majors with the Cardinals and Phillies. He is still going strong today in the oil business at age 86. Solly went into private business after concluding his tenure in baseball as a manager and coach, but he has stayed in touch with the game and a variety of charitable causes supported by various baseball concerns. Solly Hemus is one of the most humble philanthropists that the game has ever known. He supports a number of worthy works, but he avoids any action that will draw serious attention to his giving. If everyone we know had the heart of a Solly Hemus, and the modesty that only comes from the anonymity of the giver, the world would be a much nicer place for all of us. Solly Hemus is also the only member of the All Time Buffs Performance Club to make my personal Buffs preference team.
HAL EPPS, CENTER FIELD: They dubbed him as “The Mayor of Center Field.” His speed and defensive skill spoke to the origins of that nickname, ut he laso patrolled the Buff Stadium middle garden as though there were no term limits on his tenure of service. Long before I ever saw a Buffs game, Hal Epps played in Houston from 1936-1939 and again in 1941-1942. I first saw Hal play during his last three years in Buff Stadium, from 1947-1949. The former Philadelphia A’s and St. Louis Browns outfielder was a pivotal player for the 1947 Houston Buffs’ Texas League and Dixie Series Champions. After he left baseball, Hal Epps lived quetly in the Houston area until his death at age 90 in 2004.
LARRY MIGGINS, LEFT FIELD: Irish Larry Miggins had a four season stay in Houston (1949, 1951, 1953-1954) as a slugging outfielder for the Buffs. His 28 HR during the 1951 season were a big factor in the Buffs capturing the Texas League pennant that year. He also had a great tenor voice and was sometimes asked to sing at games on special holiday occasions. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is the number I remember best. Miggins was noted for his honesty. One time, when he was playing left field for the Columbus Redbirds in a playoff game, a batter hit a ball over Larry’s head that the umpire ruled a ground rule double for landing in an unplayable area short of the stands. When the other team protested that it was really a home run that had then been dropped into the unplayable area on field, the umpire called time to ask Larry which call was correct. Larry’s words supported the opposing team’s view – that it, indeed, had been a home run for the opposition – thus, costing his own team a run. For that honesty, Miggins was almost run out of the stadium on a rail by the home crowd, but it was honesty the umpire wanted. And honesty is Mr. Miggins’s middle name – or should be. Larry Miggins is one of my dearest friends in the world. Today, at hearly age 84, he still lives in Houston with his lovely Irish wife Kathleen – and very near their surviving eleven grown children and numerous grandchildren.
JERRY WITTE, FIRST BASE: My first sacker is one of the greatest sluggers in minor league baseball history. Jerry’s 308 career home runs included the 38 he blasted to lead the 1951 Buffs to a Texas League pennant and, more incredibly for that pre-steroid era, the 50 HR he launched for the 1949 Dallas Eagles. Jerry Witte didn’t simply “”Crawford Box” these homers, he blasted them – high, hard, and faraway into the night or late afternoon skies – and in a manner that reminded of Babe Ruth. They were the baseball trajectory version of the great western Arch Memorial in St. Louis. – As a kid, Jerry Witte was the biggest hero I ever had. As an older adult, he was also my best friend. – A few years ago, I helped Jerry Witte organize and write his memoirs in a fine little book called “A Kid From St. Louis” (2003). (If anyone is interested in a copy, please contact me by e-mail for information about the purchase of a hard-bound first edition. As in all other matters, my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org . Jerry and Mary Witte were both myclose friends – and they spent most of their lives in the same East End section of Houston where I grew up, and attending the same St. Christopher’s Catchlic School that was my place as a kid. We lost Mary to cancer in 2001. We lost Jerry to a broken heart in 2002 at age 86. Jerry and Mary had seven daughters, whom I love today as if they were my own family. Jerry Witte was the most down-to-earth good man I ever met. Wish we could have kept him forever. The world would be a much better place for it.
KEN BOYER, THIRD BASE: When Ken Boyer joined the 1954 Buffs, he came with “great major league future” stamped all over his travelling trunk. He could run, hit, throw, hit for average, and hit for power. His 1954 Buffs stats included a .319 batting average, 21 home runs, and 116 runs batted in. He was too good for a second season in Houston, but he was the offensive force of that championship club while he was here. He actually performed better in Houston than Ron Santo did, six years later in 1960. Either guy is a great pick at 3rd base, but I’ll take Boyer as my personal choice – and that’s probably influenced by remnant bias in favor of people and things of the Cardinals over the same from the Cubs. I’m pretty much biased in favor of St. Louis, except for those times they stand in the way of our Houston Astros. Under that circumstance of St. Louis versus my beloved hometown, I’m for Houston all the way. Every time.
JIM BASSO, RIGHT FIELD: Jim Basso was a Buff in 1946 and for part of the 1947 season. I really didn’t get to know Jim until later in life, but that made up for a lot of lost time. Basso was one of fieriest guys I ever met. His biggest disappointment in life was his failure to reach the big leagues long enough to get into the record books as a former big leaguer. His greatest thrill was meeting and partying with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba during spring training one year in the late ’40s. – If Jim Basso were alive today, I’d want him in my lineup.
FRANK MANCUSO, CATCHER: I grew up on Japonica Street in Houston’s Pecan Park subdivision in the Est End. Frank Mancuso’s mother lived just down the street on Japonica, at the corner of Japonica and Flowers. My mom knew Frank’s mom. They went grocery shopping together in my mom’s car. Frank Mancuso and his brother Gus were everyday names in my life for as long as I could remember. The former Senator and Brown, who survived a parachute freefall in the Army during World War II – and then got home in time to catch for the only Browns club to ever visit the World Series in 1944 was another great human being. He didn’t reach the Buffs until 1953, but he was already deeply in the heart of Houston as a citizen. After baseball, Frank ran for a place on Houston City Council. He won – and then he stayed there for thirty years as probably the most honest politician to ever serve this community. He represented the East End well and he promoted the improvement of parks and sporting venues for the inner city kids who, otherwise, had little. When Frank left us in August 2007, at age 89, the people of Houston lost a man who really understood what public service was supposed to be about. Frank Mancuso was another good friend that I miss a lot, everyday. No one else could be the catcher of my “Houston Buffs Forever” club.
BILLY COSTA, SHORTSTOP: Little (5’6″) Billy Costa served two stints with the Buffs in 1946-47 and 1951-52. He was another of those Rizzuto-type pepperpot players who kept everyone on their toes, both on and off the field. When Billy came down with polio in 1951, I was crushed by the news. I promptly made all kinds of prayer and pubescent reform deals with God, if He would just cure Billy Costa of his affliction. The efforts of so many kid fans in prayer and bargaining must have done something because Billy Costa was well enough to play for the Buffs again in 1952. After baseball, Billy served a long time in politics as an elected member of the Harris County Commisssioner’s Court. I never met Billy personally, but I always liked him as a player. He died several years ago, long before the normal time span for most people. I’ll take Costa as my “HBF” shortstop, even if he couldn’t hit as well as Phil Rizzuto. Billy never made it to the big leagues.
AL PAPAI, PITCHER: On a day when knuckle balls are totally on my mind (I’m attending tonight’s Knuckle Ball Benefit Dinner downtown), Al Papai stands out as the clear choice to be my starting “HBF” pitcher. Al went 21-10 with a 2.45 ERA for the ’47 championship Buffs; he returned to go 23-9 with a 2.44 ERA for the championship ’51 Buffs. When his knuckle ball was bobbing right, nobody could hit it – and few catchers could catch it – but batters still swung at it, hopelessly, in self defense. Papai also had a wry sense of humor. In 1951, he was called upon to escort beauty queen Kathryn Grandstaff to home plate in a pre-game ceremony at Buff Stadium. When that same queen later married crooner Bing Crosby and became something of lesser light movie star, Al Papai enjoyed reminded others of his earlier service to the lady. “Just remember,” Al said, “I gave her the start that made her who she is today!” When Allen Russell was planning the last Round Up of the Houston Buffs in 1995, sadly, Papai’s invitation arrived in Springfield, Illinois on the day of his funeral. Dead at 78, the world lost another of the grandest old Buffs, but he survives here in this roll call of those who played with great heart on the field to take his rightful place with my eight other picks for the “Houston Baseball Forever” nine. As I said earlier, I’d take on the world with these guys playing for Houston in their prime.