When it comes down to baseball team nicknames, we weren’t always the Astros in Houston. Going all the way back to 1867, Houston baseball has been represented on all the various levels of competition by at least thirteen different identities – and these are simply the ones we are able to uncover with a little easy, but broadscale research smf dome “count ’em on my fingers” match. (Thirteen is the figure I got for a total after adding up all, but one of the bold type nicknames that follow in this post.)
The Houston Stonewalls are our first nickname reference. Hot on the heels of the recently concluded Civil War, the 1867 Stonewalls took their name in honor of former Confederate General Stonewall Jackson only two years after the conclusion of the war between the states, ths contributing to the idea that Houston discovered “base ball” through its association with Unionists in Prisoner-of-War camps. Not so. Remember? You’ve heard it from several times over st the old Chron.Com site: The first Houston Base Ball Club was formed at a meeting above J.H. Evans’ store on Market Square in downtown Houston on April 16, 1861. That foundation was poured only weeks after Texas already had seceded from the Union, but it happened so near the advent of conflict that base ball would have to wait until the war was done to get rolling locally. When it did, the Houston Stonewalls went into action on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1867 and defeated the Galveston Roberts E. Lees by the runaway tally of 35-2. Yep. The Galveston nickname also helped cement the wrong understanding about when and how baseball first came to the greater Houston area. I’m not saying that no Houstonians first learned of baseball through their Civil War experiences. I am saying that we have the evidence that proves the formation of base ball activity in Houston prior to the outbreak of Civil War conflict.
Our next notable nickname came about on March 6, 1888, when the newly formed Houston Babies, the first fully professional club representing our city took the field downtown at the Houston Base Ball Park to engage the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the first local representation of our city’s name in this new venture. Team nicknames held as much permanence as a men’s dress shirt back in the 19th century. The “Houstons” simply acquired theirs by being the last club to formally sign up as a member of the brand new Texas League in its inaugural 1888 season. Hence, people in the media hooked the locals with the quickly unpopular nickname of the Houston Babies. The Babies had every reason to cry in that first game as the Cincinnatis walloped them, 22-3, and the Babies added thirteen errors, six alone by pitcher Tim Flood, to their first professional effort.
It didn’t take long for the 1888 Babies roster to rebel against their idenity with infancy. Things were fairly literal back in those days too. So, the Houston players looked down at their solid red stockings and somebody said aloud, with a smile and a finger snap too, little doubt: “Say! Why don’t we call ourselves the Red Stockings?” They played the rest, and the bulk, of their first professional season as the Houston Red Stockings, also, I feel sure, in some unconscious referential tribute to the Ohio team that whacked them at the start.
1889 was another uniform shirt-change year. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats captured the city’s first professional championship by capturing the Texas League crown under the field leadership of Big John McCloskey, the man remembered today as the “Father of the Texas League.” The Mud Cats were declared the league champion after collapsing under financial pressure in August, but only a mere three days prior to the day the whole league folded too. As the old saying goes, you can’t sing your way to the bank without any “do re mi” on hand, and the early professionals of Texas baseball suffered painfully through the dollar version of tonsillitis.
The 1895 Houston Magnolias had a mediocre season, but the 1896 Mags took the pennant of a league that now calling itself the Texas-Southern League. Apparently, Magnolia bloom and die. Without further research and discovery, I can offer no evidence of the Magnolia going foward as a Houston team nickname beyond their championship season.
The Houston Buffalos appear for the first time in 1903, when the city fields a mediocre team in the South Texas League. The nickname resurfaces in 1905-06, when the club is still a member of the South Texas League. For the first time, the city has a nickname that is strongly connected to the city. Buffalo Bayou is the principal waterway among several similar flowing streams that thread their way through Houston. Running through downtown Houston and very near the original venue for games, Buffalo Bayou personalizes the nickname identity of the club with the image of the city. Once the club returns for its long engagement in the Texas League (1907-1958), it remains the Houston Buffalos/Buffaloes/Buffs through the crack of minor league doom in Houston – and that includes the final three years of the Houstons Buffs as members of the American Association (1959-61).
In 1904, the Houston Wanderers of the same South Texas League take the field under manager Claude Reilly. Of interest is the fact the club is so-called in honor of their 1903 manager, Wade Moore, and a brief time then they were informally known as “Wade’s Wanderers” from Houston. We’ll count Wanderers as one nickname of its own, but we shall respect the rights of all who care to spend energy on making a case for two separate nicknames in this instance.
From 1924 through 1958, minor Negro League baseball thrives in Houston through one club and a two-nickname history. Houstonians John and James Liuzza establish and run a black baseball club that starts out as the Houston Monarchs and then transforms into the Houston Black Buffs. Over this entire period, Arthur Lee Williams is the lone manager in the club’s long history. The club collapses from a decline of interest in Negro League ball that bombs attendance after integration changes the face of all organized baseball.
Speaking of the Negro League declining years, the 1949-50 Houston Eagles are the death rattle editions of the proud Negro League major level club that once represnted the City of Newark, New Jersey. They ived here long enough to give us another local nickname for our tt board.
Of course, our city went into the major leagues as the Houston Colt .45s in 1962, but that identity was changed in 1965 when Judge Roy Hofheinz of the Houston Sports Association changed their identity to match up with the new space theme he was building around the new world’s first domed stadium. The Houston Astros would play in the Astrodome from 1965 through 1999. The same ongoing Astros (by nickname, at least) have continued to play forward in the National League from 2000 through the present time, 2009, at the downtown venue now known as Minute Maid Park.
One more name deserves placement on this list. Since 1947, and taking nothing away from the fine national championship program at Rice University, the University of Houston has also represented our proud city name literally. Playing all these years under only four head coaches (Lovette Hill, 1947-1970; Rolan Walton, 1971-1986; Bragg Stockton, 1987-1993; and Raynor Noble, 1994-2009 & counting). The Houston Cougars have also made several trips to the College World Series bearing our beloved identity as “Houston” in blood red letters across their uniform breasts. When they started the UH baseball program in 1947, they also shared Buff Stadium as their home park with the Dixie Series Championship club that was building on that same site with the Houston Buffs. If that combination of qualifiers doesn’t get the Cougars on this list, nothing else should. Also of sidebar note here is that one of the UH Cougars’ first ballplayers back in 1947, pitcher Bill Henry, by name, was the first UH alumnus to then go forward to a successful major league career.
What’s in a baseball team nickname? Now I’m thinking again of a more recent product of Houston Astros in search of an answer. And here it is: Sometimes it’s simply a ball club that can win games in the most exciting of ways. Maybe we should have counted the “Killer Bees” among our favorite Houston formal team nickname sobriquets!