Now that the Astros have won consecutive games and slipped past the Angels out of last place (however transiently), it is easier to envision a not-to-distant future in which the team's new uniform set might come to symbolize something other than abject futility. With that in mind, I thought I would take a look back through the team's sartorial history to see who was the best player to wear each of their previous designs, answering Us Magazine's timeless question, "who wore it best?" The answer results in a quick tour through the iconic players and uniforms of the first 51 years of major league baseball in Houston and a good reminder that, even during the lean years, the Astros have always had players worth watching.
Colt .45's: 1962-1964
The same can't really be said for the Colts. The Astros began life in 1962 as an expansion team called the Colt .45s, after the iconic firearm of the old west. Their uniform, which was identical in all three seasons, was topped with a navy cap with ".45s" in orange block print. Their home jersey featured a navy Colt pistol pointed to the right with orange "smoke" rising out of the barrel to form the "C" in "Colts," while their road jersey simply read "Houston" in navy block letters outlined in orange with the Texas flag on the left sleeve (those block letters have been revived for the 2013 uniform set, but the Rangers have claimed the flag).
Houston lost 96 games in all three of its three seasons as the Colts, and the best individual performance it received in those three seasons was that of right-hander Dick "Turk" Farrell in their debut season of 1962. Acquired from the Dodgers with the fourth pick in the expansion draft, Farrell started 29 games and relieved in 14 others in 1962 posting a 3.02 ERA (124 ERA+) across 241 2/3 innings while striking out 203 men and making both of that year's All-Star games as the Astros' sole representative. At 6.7 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference), Farrell was the second-best pitcher in the National League that season per bWAR (behind the Reds' Bob Purkey and ahead of Cy Young award winner Don Drysdale), and his 13.7 bWAR in his first three seasons in Houston made him by far the most valuable player to wear a Colts uniform. By way of comparison, the Colts' best hitter was third baseman Bob Aspromonte, who was worth just 2.6 bWAR over those three seasons.
Shooting star: 1965-1970
In 1965, the Houston ballclub moved into the world's first domed sports stadium and renamed itself the Astros -- after the burgeoning space program, which had launched the first manned Gemini flight just weeks before the opening of the Astrodome. To reflect the change, a white H on an orange star replaced the ".45s" on their navy caps, and a shooting-star graphic (navy star, three orange motion lines) over the word Astros (in navy outlined in orange) replaced the smoking gun on their home jerseys. The road jerseys remained the same save for the new Astros logo replacing the Texas state flag on the left sleeve and navy stirrups with an orange star on the calf replacing the Colts' orange stirrups with white and navy stripes on the calf both home and away.
These were, in my opinion, the most elegant uniforms in Astros history, and they adorned the first true stars in Astros history: future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, right fielder Rusty Staub, and five-tool center fielder Jimmy Wynn, a.k.a. "The Toy Cannon." Wynn compiled a team-best 32.3 bWAR in this uniform, twice turning in seven-win seasons (in 1965 and 1969), though the best single-season performance in this uni belonged to 22-year-old righty Larry Dierker, who went 20-13 with a 2.33 ERA (152 ERA+) in 305 1/3 innings in 1969, the first year that the Astros did not suffer a losing record (they went 81-81 in the newly-created National League West). Dierker's performance was worth 8.5 wins above replacement and remains the greatest pitching season in Astros history by that measure.
Orange shooting star: 1971-1974
The Astros flipped their color scheme in 1971, making orange their primary color and navy their highlight, but otherwise kept the same basic look, though they tweaked it several times during this span. In 1972, they switched from flannels to double-knits, adding stripes to their sleeves and collars, ditching their belts for elastic waistbands striped in the same orange-white-navy sequence, and replacing their jersey buttons with zippers. In 1973, they changed the style of the lettering on their road jerseys from radially arched to vertically arched. Still, we can treat these four seasons as a single uniform set, one inextricably linked to tragedy.
The Astros best pitcher during these seasons was Don Wilson, who compiled 16.9 bWAR over those four years and led all Astros hurlers in this uniform set with a 5.7 bWAR in 1971 (16-10, 2.45 ERA, 138 ERA+ over 268 innings). However on January 5, 1975, Wilson was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage at the age of 29, an incident which also claimed the life of his son and was ultimately ruled an accident. The best hitter to wear these duds was center fielder Cesar Cedeño, who compiled 7.9 wins above replacement in 1972, 7.2 in '73, leading the team to their first two winning seasons in the process, and a team-best 22.2 bWAR in these four seasons from age 20 to 23. Unfortunately, Cedeño never lived up to the promise of his '72 and '73 seasons, a fact some blame on an incident in December 1973 in which his mistress was killed with his gun, a death also later ruled an accident.
Tequila Sunrise: 1975-1986
The 1975 season brought the first truly radical uniform change in Astros history and, arguably, the most radical uniform redesign in major league history. The orange caps with a white H on a navy star remained (though an early prototype replaced them as well), but everything else changed, most notably the jersey. Now a pull-over, the new Astros jersey, which was worn both at home and on the road, featured a solid block of red, orange, and yellow stripes from the chest down which has since come to be known as the "tequila sunrise" design after the similarly gradated cocktail. Amid those stripes, on the left abdomen, was a large navy star, and above the stripes was a newly-stylized navy "Astros." This jersey also went under various tweaks over the years (primarily to the specific stripe pattern, number stylization on the back, and outline color for the big navy star), and became a home-only jersey in 1980 (the same year that the navy number on the upper right thigh of the pants was eliminated). However, it remained a part of the Astros' standard uniform set for a dozen seasons and has remained the most popular of the team's throwback jerseys.
Those throwback jerseys most commonly have J.R. Richard's number 50 on the back, but while he was the team's most valuable pitcher during the five seasons that they wore the tequila sunrise jersey both at home and on the road, with 16.9 bWAR, it was corner outfielder Jose Cruz who contributed the most to the Astros both during those five seasons (20.7 bWAR) and over the full tequila-sunrise period (47.6 bWAR from 1975 to 1986, all from a player who was simply purchased from the Cardinals after the 1974 season). The Astros' best pitcher over those dozen seasons was not Richard, nor Nolan Ryan, who joined the team in 1980 and contributed 16.3 bWAR in the home-only tequila-sunrise years, but knuckleballer Joe Neikro, who was worth 20.6 wins above replacement from 1976 to 1985 after being purchased in the same offseason as Cruz, for a mere $35,000 from his brother Phil's team in Atlanta.
Niekro's 1982 season (17-12, 2.47 ERA, 135 ERA+, 270 innings, 6.5 bWAR) was the most valuable single season by a hitter or pitcher over the first eight seasons of the tequila-sunrise era. In 1983, the Astros ditched their orange caps to bring back the navy caps with orange stars at home. That year, 25-year-old shortstop Dickie Thon hit .286/.341/.457 (in the Astrodome, remember) with 20 home runs, nine triples, 34 stolen bases, and elite play in the field to compile 7.2 wins above replacement only to have his career derailed by a pitch that hit him in the left eye the following April.
Three years later, during the final season of the tequila-sunrise jerseys and the Astros' first season with gray underbills, 31-year-old Mike Scott had one of the greatest seasons in Astros history thanks to his split-finger fastball and, allegedly, something sharp in second baseman Bill Doran's glove. Scott went 18-10 that season with a 2.22 ERA (161 ERA+) and 306 strikeouts in 275 1/3 innings. In his penultimate start of that season, Scott clinched the Astros' second division title (the first came in 1980, and they lost the Division Series to the Dodgers in strike-split 1981) with a no-hitter. Scott then allowed just one run while striking out 19 in a pair of complete games against the Mets in the National League Championship series only to watch his team lose the series in six games with Scott scheduled to pitch Game 7. Though his regular season bWAR ranks second, that postseason performance pushes Scott past Dierker in the minds of many for the best pitching season ever by an Astro.
Tequila shoulders: 1980-1993
The longest running uniform design in Astros history started out as a road alternative to the full-blown tequila sunrise look in 1980, their first full season under owner John McMullen, relegating the latter jersey to home games. This new look brought back the navy cap with an orange star, which would replace the orange cap at home as well in 1983, and limited the tequila-sunrise pattern to five stripes running down the sleeves of an otherwise white uniform and outlined in navy. The only color elsewhere on the uniform was navy in the form of a single navy stripe down the sides and legs, navy stripes on the waistband, navy stirrups (which had returned, sans-star, in 1975), a larger version of the "Astros" wordmark, and a smaller navy star on the left abdomen, both in navy. By 1987, this uniform had replaced the tequila sunrise look at home, as well, and was thereafter both the home and road look for the Astros through 1993. The only variation during its 14 years of service was the return to belt and buttons in 1989 and the occasional sleeve patch.
Even without extra credit for his contributions to Scott's 1986 campaign, Doran compiled the most bWAR in this uniform, totaling 28.6 wins above replacement, just slipping past Cruz's 27.8. However, the players most associated with this uniform are the two best pitchers to wear it: Nolan Ryan, 23.9 bWAR, and Mike Scott, 22.9. We've already seen the best individual seasons in this set, those being Scott's 1986 and Thon's 1983. As for the most valuable players during the years that the Astros wore this uniform both at home and on the road, well, there's Scott again, leading pitchers with 13.7 bWAR and a single-season high of 5.6 bWAR in 1987, but the hitters point to the next era of Astros baseball, with catcher and second baseman Craig Biggio leading hitters with 17.8 bWAR and center fielder Steve Finley posting the best single season with 5.5 bWAR in 1992.
Gold and Navy: 1994-1999
In the wake of Drayton McLane's 1993 purchase of the team, the Astros underwent their first complete uniform redesign since the introduction of the tequila-sunrise look in 1975. The result was perhaps the least-loved of all Astros uniforms. Replacing the team's traditional orange with a metallic gold, the cap remained navy but the white H on orange star was replaced by a gold star outlined in white that I believe was supposed to be an update on the shooting star concept but always just looked like a star that was missing a lower left side. The uniform itself was nearly featureless, with only a single line of blue piping down the side of the pants and the jersey text. That text was tightly-bunched, mildly futuristic, italicized, drop-caps lettering with a version of the updated shooting star in the penultimate "O" in "Astros" (on the home whites and blue alternate) and "Houston" (road grays). In 1997, the road jersey was altered so that the open star surrounded the end of the word "Houston" rather than being contained within it.
This was the heart of the Bagwell-Biggio era, with the former totaling a staggering 40.7 bWAR in these six seasons and Biggio, who spend all six seasons at second base, coming in at 36.4. Those two also turned in the two greatest hitting seasons in Astros history in this uniform. In 1997, Biggio hit .309/.415/.501 with 22 home runs, 47 stolen bases (at an 82 percent success rate), eight triples, scored 146 runs, was hit by 34 pitches, and deservingly won the Gold Glove at second base, a performance worth a team-record 9.3 bWAR. In the strike year of 1994, Bagwell hit .368/.451/.750 with 39 home runs, 116 RBIs, 104 runs scored, 300 total bases, and 15 steals (at a 79 percent clip) in just 110 games while playing his home games at the Astrodome! That performance was worth 7.9 bWAR, which pro-rated over a full 162 games (as opposed to the 115 the Astros actually played) put him on pace for 11.1 bWAR had the strike not happened. Led by that 1994 campaign, Bagwell compiled four of the top six single-season bWARs by an Astros hitter while wearing this uniform, and Biggio's 1997 makes it five of those six seasons in this uniform.
The Astros pitchers of this era were decidedly less impressive, led by Shane Reynolds' 14.2 bWAR and Mike Hampton's 13.5. The best single pitching season in this uniform was Hampton's 1999, when he compiled 6.4 bWAR by going 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA (155 ERA+), hit .311/.373/.432, and was the runner-up in the Cy Young voting.
This was also the only uniform in their history in which the Astros did not have a losing season, and was what they wore in their only 100-win campaign when they went 102-60 in 1998. The Astros won the new NL Central in each of their final three seasons in these duds, but managed to win just two postseason games in those three years. It wasn't until they switched both uniforms and ballparks that they would win their first postseason series.
Railroad brick and black: 2000-2012
In 2000, the Astros moved out of the Astrodome and into their current stadium, initially named Enron Field, prompting another complete uniform overhaul. The new ballpark, built on the site of Union Station, called attention to Houston's history as a railroad hub in the mid-to-late 1800s (the city seal, which can be seen on the city flag, features a steam engine prominently below the lone star of Texas). The new uniforms thus replaced the navy and gold with a railroad-inspired brick-red and black scheme, though no railroad iconography actually appeared on the uniform.
The primary logo remained the open-sided "shooting" star, but it lost its italicized tilt and elongated left side (or right side from the perspective of the wearer) and now appeared in brick outlined in black and white on a black cap. The new home uniforms featured black pinstripes with "Astros" in an underlined script in black outlined in white and brick with a small uniform number in brick on the lower left abdomen. The road uniforms were grey with black piping down the pant legs and "Houston" in underlined script in brick outlined in white and black and the uniform number in black. Various alternate caps and jerseys would appear over the years with the brick color gaining more and more prominence, but the base home and away uniforms, color pallet, and overall design scheme would remain unaltered throughout these 13 seasons.
This was the uniform the Astros wore in their first, and still only, World Series appearance in 2005, and the two biggest reasons for the teams' success during this period were outfielder/first baseman Lance Berkman (45.5 bWAR) and starting pitcher Roy Oswalt (43.6), though I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, who combined with Oswalt in 2005 to form one of the best starting pitching trios in major league history. Clemens' 7.6 bWAR that season was the best single-season Astros performance of this era, and Pettitte's 6.5 bWAR that year ranks fourth. In between those two are the top seasons of Oswalt (6.7 bWAR in 2002) and Berkman (6.6 in 2008). Clemens' 2005, which saw him post a 1.87 ERA (226 ERA+) in 211 1/3 innings at the age of 42, was also his last full season in the major leagues and one sadly tainted by subsequent allegations of performance enhancing drug use. Nonetheless, that season, he, Oswalt, and Pettitte combined to post a 2.43 ERA (roughly a 175 ERA+) in 675 1/3 combined innings.
Throwbacks: 2013 and beyond
The new Astros uniforms counter the team's move to the American League by anchoring its appearance in the past, bringing back navy and orange as the teams' primary colors and the H-on-star design as the team's primary insignia. Both the navy and orange H-on-star caps are back, albeit with some updates in shading and a new orange-brimmed, navy-crowned alternate. The home and away jerseys both use the original block-font ("Astros" home, "Houston" away) from the Colt .45s' road jerseys in navy outlined in orange, just as the Colts had it, adding only numbers on the lower left abdomen and piping on the sleeves, pants, and yolk (orange on the home whites, blue on the road grays and orange alternates which outline the blue text in white). The new batting practice caps and jerseys, meanwhile, subtly sneak in the tequila sunrise stripes. I applaud the decision to echo the Blue Jays in incorporating the franchise's sartorial past, but the end result has a disappointing lack of character, one that I hope and assume will be resolved in subsequent tweaks. As for who the best player to wear this uniform set might be, that's anyone's guess, but given the history above, it will be worth watching to find out.