While Bob Aspromonte will forever be remembered by most baseball fans as Aspro the Astro, his experiences in the game go well beyond his playing days in Texas.
The Brooklyn native also played with Jackie Robinson as a teenager, was part of baseball’s first Divisional playoff in 1969 and was the last Brooklyn Dodger to suit up in the Major Leagues before retiring in 1971. So, while Aspromonte, 84, played a significant role in the growth of Major League baseball in Houston, his travels and experiences go well beyond his time in Space City. His career reads like a roadmap of baseball history, one that detailed how baseball expanded and grew from coast to coast over a 10-year stretch from the late 1950s through the late 60s.
Aspromonte, who was as well-liked and respected as any player in the game during the 1960s, was schooled by some of the game’s greatest players when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers as an 18-year-old in 1956. The respect and reverence he had for Robinson and Gil Hodges, two of the people who had a tremendous impact on his life and career, remains today, a half century after the death of the Hall-of-Fame pair. Aspromonte has been one of Hodges’ most outspoken advocates, having spent years lobbying for the former first baseman and Mets manager to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame. His efforts are part of the reason that Hodges will finally be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer.
“I wore 14 because of Hodges,” Aspromonte said. “We were close friends and I so proud of him for making the Hall-of-Fame. We’ve been working on this for many years. That was really special to see since we waited so long.”
It was his adoration of those Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 40s and 50s, along with his being able to experience New York City serving as the center of the baseball universe during his formative years, which laid the foundation for what would become Aspromonte’s remarkable journey.
“We were so fortunate as young kids in our area of Brooklyn,” said Aspromonte, whose brother Ken enjoyed a seven-year Major League career with five clubs in addition to serving as the Cleveland Indians manager from 1972-74. “Whether you were a Yankee fan, a Dodger fan or a Giant fan, when you look at all the different series outcomes we had when we were young kids, it was just amazing. I was also fortunate to have two older brothers who played to help me along all the years I was playing.
“When I joined the Dodgers, they had just won in ’55 and won the pennant again in ’56. I was an 18-year-old kid and I got to witness all that.”
THE BOROUGH OF CHURCHES
Aspromonte grew up in Brooklyn during and after World War II just as New York City was putting a stranglehold on the baseball world. A team from New York City was in the World Series 11 times during a 12-year stretch beginning in 1947 with seven of those Fall Classic featuring two teams from one of the boroughs. The Yankees won eight times while the Dodgers and Giants each won once though Brooklyn made six World Series appearances over that stretch. The success at the Major League level, led by the likes of Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider clearly had an impact on the city’s younger baseball fans, including Aspromonte.
“We always had some sort of league or game organized,” Aspromonte said. “We played a tremendous amount of games every year, between 75 and 100, including high school. We were a very active [baseball] community. I went to Lafayette High School and we produced a lot of Major Leaguers, including one superstar, Sandy Koufax.
While Koufax graduated from Lafayette a few years before Aspromonte, the two would become teammates when the latter made his Major League debut in 1956. Getting to that point seemed like a foregone conclusion for Aspromonte. After all, what Brooklyn kid wouldn’t want to sign with the Dodgers?
Aspromonte, however, had options. Several teams were interested in his services and asked him to tryout a decade before the MLB Draft became a reality. And college was also a viable alternative but in the end, the Dodgers showed significant interest in what was essentially a home-grown talent.
“[Dodgers general manager] Buzzie Bavasi was super and [director of scouting Al] Campanis had a lot of interest,” Aspromonte said. “Campanis was their top scout. He worked on me two years prior to graduation. At first, I was just a 17-year-old kid exploring the possibility. But the Dodgers took a special interest in me, especially with the Sandy Koufax, Lafayette background. The most important thing for me, though, was that my father loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and when I saw that opportunity, I couldn’t believe it. I was only 17, 18 years old.”
“You’re talking about young kids here. We weren’t talking about what was going on in the country at the time. We were talking about baseball. Jackie Robinson did that for all of us. He brought players from all over together.”
Aspromonte signed with Brooklyn a few weeks after graduating high school and had the good fortune of spending some time with the parent club before he was shipped off to Macon [Ga.] of the Class-A South Atlantic League in early August. He got a chance to work out with Brooklyn and it was during one of these early workouts that he began to realize how special the team was, particularly Robinson and Hodges.
“I was this little, skinny kid and when I took the field; [manager Walt] Alston told me to go field some grounders,” said Aspromonte, who went to his familiar spot at third base. “I’m on the field with Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and I was as nervous as could be. Gil was the first one to talk to me and then an interesting thing happened. Jackie noticed I was using an oversized glove. I was using Hodges’ glove as we were rotating taking ground balls.
“He [Robinson] said I needed one with shorter fingers and gave me his glove. When I was done, I said thank you Jackie and went to give him his glove back and he said Bobby you keep that glove. I had that glove for more than 50 years before I passed it on. It’s worth a lot of money. That feeling of Jackie doing that was really something. That experience was amazing, the way they treated a young kid. It’s something I always mention and think about. It was very special how Hodges took care of me and I have been close to his family for years.”
Aspromonte sat on the Brooklyn bench for a few weeks before heading down to Georgia. His stay in Macon would be uneventful. He appeared in only 13 games, hitting a mere .135 with a pair of RBIs in 37 at-bats. Yet, the Dodgers called him up to Brooklyn, where he made his Major League debut on Sept. 19 against the Cardinals at Ebbets Field.
The Dodgers were in the process of crushing St. Louis, 17-2, and Alston saw little harm in sending the 18-year-old to the plate late in the game against reliever Don Liddle. Aspromonte struck out swinging but it proved to be an experience he would never forget.
“I had one swing and a miss, I hit a foul ball and then he bounced a curve in front and I swung,” Aspromonte said. “It was really something special.”
The Dodgers would go on to lose to the Yankees in the World Series but Aspromonte had clearly made an impression. The club toured Japan after the season and took Aspromonte with them.
“I played in Hawaii and Japan and to experience something like that, gain that knowledge and experience as an 18-year-old kid was amazing,” Aspromonte said.
While he wouldn’t ever play again in Brooklyn, Aspromonte’s course had been set.
Apache Junction, Arizona: Bob Aspromonte of the Houston Colts during spring training. (Getty Images)
THE NEXT STEP
The young infielder would have to wait until the following summer to get back on a baseball field, though. He signed up for the Army reserves and spent six months in the military before resuming his baseball career in 1957. The Dodgers sent him back to Macon, where he hit .311 in 12 games before moving on to Thomasville of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League. He hit .263 in Thomasville with a homer and 21 RBIs in 198 at-bats.
While playing in the south at that time could prove to be an eye-opening experience for some younger players coming from the north, Aspromonte said he never witnessed any of the racism that had been so prevalent at the time.
“I didn’t have that feel,” he said. “After watching and sitting alongside Jackie Robinson and seeing what that man went through and how he handled all players, when I went to other stadiums, I was just reflecting on more positive things. I was more worried about getting hits. When you experience something like I did at 18 and you have the kind of relationship I had with my teammates, I was very comfortable.
“In the minor leagues you are always together and sure everyone had their own group of friends. But it wasn’t something that made anyone feel uncomfortable. You’re talking about young kids here. We weren’t talking about what was going on in the country at the time. We were talking about baseball. Jackie Robinson did that for all of us. He brought players from all over together.”
While the Dodgers headed out west in 1958, Aspromonte headed to the Western League. He played his first full season at Des Moines on the Class-A circuit, hitting .263 and finishing third on the team with 124 hits. Aspromonte also tied for the team lead with 50 walks.
Aspromonte moved up to the Montreal Royals of the Triple-A International League in 1959. He hit .259 and followed that up with a big spring training in 1960. It was enough to earn him a place on the Dodgers Opening-Day roster. He had his moments, going 1-for-4 in his first game on April 22 at St. Louis and then went 4-for-5, including his first Major League homer, on May 5 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He also drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th on a single to center.
Original member of the Houston Colt 45's, Bob Aspromonte, throws out the ceremonial first pitch gold baseball before the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on April 10, 2012 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
“The Coliseum to me was the number-one stadium,” Aspromonte said. “Dodger Stadium was incredible, too, but my first full games of playing were at the Coliseum. They had that short left-field fence and the high screen. Wally Moon would hit them over that. I had a 4-for-5 game there and hit a homer off Lew Burdette and got the game-winning hit. I remember that so vividly.”
The good times didn’t last, though. Aspromonte mostly struggled in limited playing time and was hitting .182 [10-for-55] when he was sent to St. Paul of the Triple-A American Association during the second week of June. He moved permanently to third base and responded to the demotion by hitting .329 [sixth best in the league] with 45 RBIs in 102 games. It would be the last time he would play in the minors.
“St. Paul made a big difference for me,” Aspromonte said.
Aspromonte spent all of 1961 with Los Angeles but was used mostly as a pinch-hitter. He had only 58 at-bats in 47 games. When the season ended, he said good-bye to Hollywood.
DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
The American League had expanded in 1961 and the National League took its turn the following year with the addition of Houston and New York, which had only one team since the end of the 1957 season. Aspromonte was hoping that the Mets would select him – a Brooklyn kid coming home – but it wasn’t meant to be.
The Colt 45s selected infielder Eddie Bressoud from San Francisco with the first pick, setting up the Mets to take Aspromonte. New York, however, grabbed catcher Hobie Landrith from the Giants before Houston took Aspromonte with the third pick. Legendary former Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who was in the twilight of his career, was named as New York’s manager as much for his box-office appeal as his managerial skills. When asked why the club chose Landrith, he responded “You gotta have a catcher or you’re gonna have a lot of passed balls”.
Naturally, Aspromonte was disappointed.
“I thought the Mets would take me and I was going to go back home,” he said. “Naturally, we were all waiting for it. That was the biggest surprise. [Houston GM] Paul Richards took the young kid. That’s how it started. It was a blessing because it opened a new tale and new city.”
Aspromonte was immediately penciled in as Houston’s third baseman and would go on to take his place in the annals of franchise history. The Colt 45s ended up trading Bressoud to Boston so Aspromonte became the first expansion draft pick in franchise history to play for the club. He would go on to be the franchise’s first batter, collect its first hit in the team’s first at-bat on Opening Day in 1962, a single off Don Cardwell at Colts Stadium. He scored Houston’s first run, drew its first walk and stole its first base.
“The recognition I get on a regular basis [because of the firsts] is there even today,” Aspromonte said. “They have this little video they show of Bob Aspromonte getting the first hit, saying that he did all these things. Every time they bring my name up it brings up all the old stories. I started seven seasons here at third base and it worked out very well.
Joe Pignatano, Bobby Aspromonte, Sid Gordon, Bobby Giallombardo, Whitey Ford and Gil Hodges prepare to try their skill at bowling. (Getty Images)
“You have to remember one thing. I was a 21-year-old kid now getting to play every day. That first year I played over 150 games. That was a hell of a first year and it offsets everything else. So that experience alone offset it [not going to the Mets]. After one start, that’s all gone and it’s been a blessing for me.”
The Colt 45s swept the series in Chicago but little else went right after that. Still, they finished eighth out of 10 teams in the NL, going 64-96. Only the Cubs [59-103] and the Mets [40-120], who set a record for futility that still stands, had worse seasons. Aspromonte hit .266 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs. Landrith, meanwhile, appeared in only 23 games for the Mets before getting traded to Baltimore for “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry. He was out of baseball the following season.
The Colt 45s played their games in Colts Stadium, a minor league park that would be their home for three seasons while the Astrodome was being built. It was not a popular venue, either with the home team or the visitors.
“It was a minor league park, nothing special,” Aspromonte said. “They kept it in great condition but at the same time, the experienced ballplayers saw a dramatic difference [in relation to other Major League parks]. But the experience of bringing in a new team that won its first three games, that stimulated so much interest. Then you watch this domed stadium that was being built [a few hundred yards away] and that was something special.”
Aspromonte hit .214 and .280 over the next two seasons, collecting a career-high 155 hits in 1964. He’d be part of another first in 1965 when the team moved in the Astrodome, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. Incidentally, Colts Stadium would stay vacant for several years before it was sold and moved to Mexico piece by piece and then rebuilt to serve as the home for a Mexican League team.
The story of Aspromonte’s relationship with 9-year-old Billy Bradley proved to be one of the more remarkable tales surrounding the early years of the Houston franchise. The youngster, who lived in Arkansas and was a Colt 45s fan, was hit by lightning while drinking from a water fountain following a little league practice on April 30, 1962. While Bradley survived, he did lose his sight as a result of the accident.
Bradley was taken to Houston where he would be under the care of Dr. Louis Girard, a noted ophthalmologist in the region. Bradley listened to the Colt 45 games in the hospital and Aspromonte was his favorite player. Ultimately, Aspromonte went to the hospital to visit Bradley and spent some time with the youngster. Bradley asked Aspromonte for an unusual favor as the visit concluded.
“This kid is nine years old and he loses his sight,” Aspromonte said. “So, they asked Bobby would you come over and sign some autographs for Billy. I was his favorite player and I visited him. I walked into the room with the doctor and Billy was all bandaged up. The doctor said ‘Billy, there’s somebody here for you’, and he said ‘Bobby’. The kid went crazy. I gave him a little glove, a hat and a ball and we talked for about 15 minutes.
“I finally said I [had] to go and as I was walking out, he said, ‘Bobby would you hit a home run for me tonight’. I told him I’m not a home run hitter but I would do my best. In the last of the eighth inning, I come up and I hit a home run. That started everything. Everyone went crazy when they realized what happened.”
Bob Aspromonte, an original member of the Colt .45s throws out the ceremonial first pitch on April 10, 2012 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The game in question occurred on July 25 against the Giants. Bradley attended the first six innings of the game, according to Associated Press reports of the game, but had to be back at the hospital by 10 p.m. for surgery the next day. San Francisco was winning 3-1 when Aspromonte led off the eighth inning by sending Stu Miller’s 3-1 pitch over the left field wall at Colts Stadium. Though the 45s would lose the game, 3-2, Aspromonte kept his promise.
The feel-good story didn’t end there, though. When Bradley returned to Houston in 1963 for a second surgery, he and Aspromonte got together again. Bradley, who still couldn’t see, once again asked Aspromonte for a homer and once again, he obliged. This time Bradley was in the ballpark listening to the game on a transistor radio. Aspromonte connected for a game-winning grand slam in the 10th inning against the Chicago Cubs on June 11, 1963. He hit Lindy McDaniel’s 2-2 offering deep to left for the game winner.
“The whole stadium started to yell because they all knew how the story went,” Aspromonte said.
By this point, the Aspromonte-Bradley connection had become national news. Folks in Houston were joking about signing Bradley to a contract if his influence could produce these results. Aspromonte joked about getting him season tickets.
Bradley remained in Houston for a few weeks after the surgery, which was successful. His sight had returned and he once again got together with Aspromonte. And once again, he asked for another favor. He would be attending the July 26 game against the Mets.
“He asked me, ‘Bobby, can you hit a home run I can see?’,” Aspromonte said. “I said Bobby, I’m going to hit you one. It was divine intervention.”
Tracy Stallard was starting for the Mets that evening and struggled in the first inning, loading the bases on a pair of walks and a single. Stallard, who is best remembered for surrendering Roger Maris’ 61st homer in 1961, didn’t have to wait long to be on the wrong side of history yet again. Aspromonte sent his first offering over the left field wall for another grand slam, one that Bradley could see.
“I come off the field and everyone is going crazy,” Aspromonte said. “We retrieved the ball and I gave him the ball. People were telling him Billy why don’t you move here? The Astros want to sign you to a long-term contract.
“We kept communicating all along and two years later the kid is playing baseball again and pitches a seven-inning no-hitter. It’s an amazing story. God had a lot to do with this one.”
The story would have one more twist to it, though. Aspromonte suffered a devastating eye injury of his own two years after he retired while helping a friend change a car battery. The battery cap exploded and hit Aspromonte in his right eye, causing him to lose his sight.
This time it was Bradley who encouraged and helped Aspromonte through his ordeal. Aspromonte also went to Dr. Girard and after a series of surgeries he had regained his sight. The whole ordeal was eventually made into a TV special called “Blind Faith: Bob Aspromonte” that received heavy airplay in Houston.
“He asked me, ‘Bobby, can you hit a home run I can see?’,” Aspromonte said. “I said Bobby, I’m going to hit you one. It was divine intervention.”
THE DOME IS HOME AND HEADING TO ATLANTA
The franchise changed its name to the Astros prior to the 1965 season and moved into the Astrodome. Fittingly, Aspromonte added another first to his legacy, connecting for the first Houston homer in the dome on April 24, 1965, off Pittsburgh’s Vern Law.
“When you looked at the dome and that incredible roof, it was a very big stadium,” Aspromonte said. “You didn’t realize how big it was because there were no outside elements and that took a lot away from the natural environment. After the first year they started replacing the grass and they had to paint the dome. That’s how we got the Astroturf.
“I got the first home run there and everyone went crazy over that. After that, it was too tough for me. For me, the building was too deep. I hit a lot of nice fly balls there that didn’t go out. Jimmy Wynn made the building look small, though. He was a little guy that generated a lot of power. I didn’t have that kind of power. A lot of people complained about it. I wouldn’t trade it, though, it was a great experience.”
Aspromonte hit .263 with five homers and 52 RBIs the first year in the dome. He was a steadying factor in the infield over the next three seasons and had gained a reputation as one of the better fielding third basemen in the league. Still, as 1968 drew to a close, Doug Rader was breathing down his neck, looking to replace him at third base.
The Astros had traded some excellent players during the mid-to-late 60s, including Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub so it wasn’t much of a surprise when Aspromonte was dealt to Atlanta following the ’68 season. While Houston was looking to head in a different direction, politics also seemed to play a role in Aspromonte’s departure.
Senator Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5 and died the next day. President Lyndon Johnson declared that June 9 would be a day of national mourning. Major League Baseball Commissioner granted permission to any player wishing to sit out game’s that day and observe the period of mourning.
The Pirates were in town for a series at the dome and while MLB had granted permission for players to sit if they chose to do so, the clubs were pressuring players to play. Aspromonte, Rusty Staub, and Pittsburgh’s Maury Wills all sat out the game as a show of respect.
“We took a position when a member of the Kennedy family was killed,” Aspromonte said. “I didn’t play, Rusty didn’t play, Maury Wills didn’t play. It was something we felt very strongly about it but the club reacted to it.
“[Eventually] I was traded. Rusty was traded. Joe Morgan was traded [several years earlier]. We had a hell of a ballclub and see how they moved all these guys off the team in a four-year stretch. Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub and later Jimmy Wynn. How do you take these guys off the club? It was really bad and took away a lot of fans.”
Bob Aspromonte with the New York Mets.
Aspromonte was traded to the Braves that winter, ending an era in franchise history. He was the last player from the original 1962 Colt 45s lineup to suit up for Houston. The Astros got Marty Martinez in return and Aspromonte was rewarded with a trip to the playoffs in 1969 as both leagues were broken down into divisions following expansion.
“Everyone was kind of shocked when I got traded because I had such a great 1967 [.294 BA, six homers, 58 RBIs],” Aspromonte said. “I had a great start in ’68 but they put Rader in and I realized what they were doing. I was about 30 years old and change was taking place. But they did it too often [with the trades] and they made some amazing mistakes.”
Aspromonte was relegated to the role of bench player – Clete Boyer was Atlanta’s starting third baseman – but he still said he enjoyed the season, hitting .253 with three homers and 24 RBIs in 198 at-bats. He also got a chance to be part of a very good club that included the likes of Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty and Felipe Alou.
“Playing with Hank Aaron was super,” Aspromonte said. “He was a super guy on and off the field. How he handled himself was so special. It was a great experience and I was very fortunate to play with a lot of superstars.”
The Braves won the newly formed National League West Division but were swept by the upstart Mets in the National League Championship Series. Aspromonte went 0-for-3 in the three-game series.
“Everyone thought we were going to dominate because we had a hell of a club,” he said. “But we had problems with pitching the last month. Everyone felt beating the Mets would be no problem but we couldn’t get off the ground and score runs. The Mets had that great pitching with [Tom] Seaver, [Jerry] Koosman and [Gary] Gentry.
“We were a big, strong club with Aaron and Cepeda and all the players we had. It was a hell of a club and we anticipated going a lot further. The pitching was always questionable and we had to score a lot of runs to offset that.”
Aspromonte saw his playing time diminish further in 1970 [127 at-bats] and he was traded to the Mets that December for Ron Herbal. He was, at last, coming home.
“That was the greatest feeling,” Aspromonte said. “[Mets manager] Hodges had tried to get me two years prior. When they had a problem with third baseman Wayne Garrett being in the service they needed someone and it was a great surprise. Gil kept mentioning it and for it actually happen, I’ll never forget it.
“I arrived in Spring Training and Gil and I were in his office and I gave him a big hug. The only thing I wanted to do was wear No. 14 and Gil said no Bobby, you get No. 2.”
Aspromonte got off to a solid start and was hitting .270 on June 1 before a calf injury later that month June set him back. When he returned to the lineup, he wasn’t the same and finished the season hitting .225 in 104 games.
“I had about five homers and was driving in runs and one game the pitcher threw a changeup and I hesitated,” Aspromonte said. “I stuck my leg out but I didn’t swing. I stopped because I was off center and I tore my left calf muscle. From there, it was very difficult.
“I had a fantastic first two months and I wished I stayed out longer instead of trying to come back too quickly. That was a big mistake. I came back too fast. When I came back I was conscious that I couldn’t move like I used to. It was uncomfortable and that was sad because I had been doing so well.”
Aspromonte’s last week as a Major Leaguer proved to be his most productive of the season. He had four RBIs, including one on his final Major League hit, a single in the bottom of the 15th inning of a 2-1 victory over the Cubs on Sept. 23. His final game was Sept. 28 against St. Louis. He picked up an RBI on a sacrifice fly off Steve Carlton before ending his career with a groundout to second in the eighth inning off the future Hall-of-Famer. Aspromonte was released following the season.
The Reds invited him to spring training in 1972 and for a while it appeared as if he were going to earn a spot on what would be a powerhouse roster. It was not to be.
“I gave it a try,” he said. “Sparky Anderson called me and asked me. I was hitting the ball nice but I wasn’t able to move. I didn’t have that ability to move around like I always did. I was a pretty damn good third baseman but I didn’t have the flexibility and comfort on the field. At-bat I did.
“They cut me the last week of spring training. Can you imagine? The last week of spring training to be removed from Cincinnati. If they could have kept me just one more week.”
Aspromonte was the last active Brooklyn Dodger to appear in a Major League game when he retired that spring.
He went on to own a highly profitable beer distributorship in Houston and remains a cherished icon in the city, not only for his play but for his work off the field with the club and in the community. Aspromonte is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and was the first inductee into the Astros Walk of Fame.