Babe Ruth hit for Sox in Houston. So did Ted Williams and Yaz. Here’s the story

Both Ted Williams and Babe Ruth played exhibitions in Houston, long before the city had a big-league team. (Photo by Boston Red Sox)

Houston did not have a big-league team until the Houston Colt 45’s entered the National League in 1962, in tandem with the New York Mets. But Houston’s history with the Red Sox goes back for more than a century, criss-crossing the lives of such stars as Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and, of course, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and J.D. Martinez.

One of Boston’s greatest stars in the team’s formative years, Tris Speaker, was signed by the Red Sox after winning the Class C Texas League batting title in 1907 while playing for the Houston Buffaloes. The Red Sox weren’t exactly bedazzled by Speaker’s performance. While they purchased his contract after the season, they did not send him a contract for the 1908 season; he paid his own way to the team’s spring training camp in Little Rock, Ark. Even then, they weren’t impressed. They awarded his contract to the Little Rock minor-league team as payment for use of the training field. Fortunately, they added one caveat: They had the right to repurchase Speaker for $500.

Speaker led the Southern Association in hitting, was sold back to the Sox, and helped the team win World Series titles in 1912 and 1915. You can find his plaque in Cooperstown.

The Sox, after training in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1918, traveled to Houston, where they played the Brooklyn Robins (later to become the Dodgers) in West End park in the first of 13 exhibitions they would play in the city over the next century. Babe Ruth pinch hit in the game and singled. Ruth was upstaged that day by outfielder George Whiteman, who grew up in Houston, played for the minor-league Buffaloes, was presented a bouquet of flowers upon his return and made a great catch. Whiteman was an unexpected hitting and fielding star when Boston won the 1918 World Series, one in which Ruth was the winning pitcher in two games against the Chicago Cubs.

Ruth had already been sold to the Yankees by 1920, when the Sox lost, 1–0, to the New York Giants, but the Sox had another legend in tow when they returned to Houston in 1947. Ted Williams tripled in Boston’s 4–2 win over the minor-league Houston Buffaloes in Buffalo Stadium. Cecil “Tex” Hughson, who grew up in San Marcos, Tx., pitched a complete game, striking out 10, in outdueling his first cousin, former Cardinals pitcher Jack Creel. Also noted in that game was Dom DiMaggio “flinging” his bat into the stands after striking out, hitting a spectator.

The Sox returned on April 2, 1952 to pummel the Buffaloes, 13–2, but Williams was not with the team. He was in Florida that day, passing a physical with the U.S. Marines, who pulled him back into active service during the Korean War. “I still can’t see how they have to take a guy in who already had done his job,’’ teammate Billy Goodman said to reporters. “There’s not been enough written about this…You guys better get on the ball.’’

Nine years later, on April 7, 1961, the Red Sox returned with Williams’ replacement, a rookie left-fielder named Carl Yastrzemski, who threw a runner out at the plate in Boston’s 4–1 win over the Chicago Cubs.

The Red Sox would get their first look at the Astrodome — and Houston’s big-league club, the Astros — during a four-game exhibition series in 1969. The Sox, playing indoors for the first time, lost four straight to the Astros, one game ending on as weird a triple play as you can draw up. It began when Bill Conigliaro grounded to short, forcing Reggie Smith at second. The relay throw to first was wild, inspiring Gerry Moses, who had advanced to third, to try to score. The ball, however, hit a dugout railing and bounced directly back to first baseman Curt Blefary, who cut down Moses at the plate. Billy C., meanwhile, tried to take second on the play, but was gunned down, ending the game.

After that fiasco, perhaps it’s understandable why the Sox did not return to Houston until 2001, the first of two successive seasons in which they played the Astros in exhibitions just before the regular season. There would be two more visits for interleague play in 2008 and 2011, before the Astros came over to the American League in 2013.

But we can’t leave Houston without mentioning some of the cross-pollination between the teams. One of the Astros’ greatest stars, Jeff Bagwell, was a minor-league third baseman when the Sox traded him in 1990 for reliever Larry Andersen, which became one of history’s most lopsided deals. Nine years later, the Sox acquired center-fielder Carl Everett from the Astros, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Everett put up big numbers in 2000 (.300, 34 HRs, 108 RBIs, .959 OPS) but it all unraveled the following season, and by 2002, he was gone. A Houston native, Carl Crawford, would have a troubling tenure with the Sox less than a decade later. Josh Beckett, who grew up in the Houston suburb of Spring, Tex., was Gibson-esque in Boston’s postseason run in 2007 that culminated with a World Series title, while the pride of Katy, Tex., Roger Clemens, pitched 13 seasons for the Red Sox, tying the club record for wins with 192 and winning the first three of his seven Cy Young Awards, before returning home for three post-40 seasons with the Astros.

And finally, maybe the Red Sox are on the receiving end of some karmic payback for Bagwell: J.D. Martinez, a linchpin in a record-setting lineup in 2018, was released by the Astros in 2014. He made stops in Detroit and Arizona before landing in Boston, and while he harbors no ill will toward the ‘Stros, he has the perfect opportunity to show them the error of their ways starting Saturday in the ALCS. Houston native Nathan Eovaldi also has a chance to do some damage against his hometown team.

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Gordon Edes was an award-winning sportswriter for 35 years and spent nearly five years as the historian for the Boston Red Sox

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Gordon Edes

Gordon Edes

Gordon Edes was an award-winning sportswriter for 35 years and spent nearly five years as the historian for the Boston Red Sox

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