Friday, January 27, 2017

From Brooklyn to the Bayou City: Bob Aspromonte

Lafayette High School in Brooklyn carries a strong baseball legacy – fitting, certainly, for a campus less than six miles from the site where Ebbets Field stood. Notable non-baseball alums include Larry King and Maurice Sendak, but before the school was closed in 2010, LHS produced 11 MLB players, and at least one notable baseball executive. Fred Wilpon only got to pitch for one year in college before getting hurt, but went on to become the majority owner of the New York Mets. John Franco ended his career as an ineffective LOOGY with the 2005 NL Champion Houston Astros, but his 21-year resume also includes four All-Star Games, a top-10 Cy Young finish, and still more saves (424) than any other LHP in MLB history. Sandy Koufax had six pretty good seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the LHS Class of 1956 included one 17 year-old kid who would go on to carve his own unique niche in Brooklyn and Houston baseball history: Robert Thomas (Bob) Aspromonte.

One month past his 18th birthday, Bob Aspromonte signed a contract with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers on July 20, 1956. Four days later, he found himself on the grass at Ebbets Field, accompanied by Dodgers scout Al Campanis and owner Walter O’Malley. His words:

“What an incredible feeling that was to get on the field and have [Dodgers manager] Walter Alston say, ‘Bobby, [it’s] great being here, but I want you right now to go ahead and field some ground balls with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges.’ Well, the little skinny body wouldn’t move. So I finally got over there and start fielding some ground balls, and I had an oversized glove. And Jackie says, ‘Bobby, that’s more of an outfielder’s glove; you need an infielder’s, with shorter fingers.’ So he gave me his glove and we start fielding a lot of ground balls, and it all worked out. And then I said, ‘Oh, thank you, Jackie; you really helped me.’ And he said, ‘No, Bobby – you keep that glove.’ And I’ve kept that glove for over 40 years.
…I was so touched by them and how they helped this young kid. Gil Hodges and Jackie [were] very special.”

Aspromonte would not stay in Brooklyn that summer, instead being sent to Macon, GA to join the Class A Macon Dodgers of the South Atlantic League. He made it into 13 games with Macon, but managed only 5 singles in 37 AB for a .135 BA in his first taste of professional competition. Nevertheless, back home in Brooklyn, the Dodgers added him to their September roster in the heat of a pennant race.

A year after finally breaking through to win their first World Series in 1955, the ’56-edition Brooklyn Dodgers started out 19-19 and spend most of the season playing catch-up in a three-team race with the Milwaukee Braves and Cincinnati Redlegs. On September 11, they beat the Braves 4-2 in Brooklyn to pull into a first-place tie. Milwaukee countered with a 8-7 win the next day to knock the Dodgers a game behind, but a 10-inning walk-off win over Cincinnati on September 17 put Brooklyn one game up in sole possession of first. A 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on September 18 dropped Brooklyn back into a first-place tie, which set the stage for Aspromonte’s major league debut on September 19.

Don Newcombe was in the final weeks of his finest season – he would win both the 1956 NL Cy Young and MVP Awards after going 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA and a MLB-best 0.989 WHIP – and he took the mound for Brooklyn opposite Tom Poholsky of the Cardinals. St. Louis struck first when shortstop Al Dark took Newcombe deep for a solo home run as the second batter of the game. Newcombe got Stan Musial to pop up and Wally Moon to strike out, ending the inning, then it was nothing but Dodgers after that.

Brooklyn scored two in the 1st, one in the 2nd (on a Newcombe solo HR), and two in the 3rd (on a 2-run Newcombe HR), so they had already chased Pohlansky and were leading 5-1 before their turn in the 5th inning rolled around. Dodgers LF Sandy Amoros led off that inning with an inside-the-park home run, and the inning wouldn’t end until Brooklyn had sent 15 men to the plate and scored 8 runs off of three Cardinals pitchers.

Trailing 13-1, St. Louis scored their only other run of the game when Stan Musial led off the 6th with a home run off Newcombe. But the Dodgers answered with two more in the 6th, then two more in the 8th, as both teams began replacing their regulars. With a 17-2 lead in hand and two outs in the bottom of the 8th, Dodgers manager Walter Alston told young Bobby Aspromonte to grab a bat and sent him in to pinch hit for Amoros. Aspromonte struck out on four pitches from Cardinals lefty Don Liddle to end the 8th, and Alston sent Gino Cimoli out to take Amoros’ spot in left field for the 9th. But it didn’t matter; Aspromonte was officially a Brooklyn Dodger.

That 17-2 win moved the Dodgers half a game up in first place, but they lost four of their next six to fall a game back of Milwaukee with three left on the schedule. Facing a doubleheader against Pittsburgh on September 29, and the final game against Pittsburgh the next day, Brooklyn won all three. Milwaukee dropped two of three in their final series at St. Louis, making the 93-61 Dodgers National League champions by one game on the season’s final day. Aspromonte never saw any further action on the field that season, including the World Series – Brooklyn lost to the New York Yankees in 7 games – but still he got to be a part of a Major League pennant winner, in his hometown, barely two months past his 18th birthday. “After that [pennant-winning] game was over,” Aspromonte said, “I had a guy named Jackie Robinson hug me so hard I would not let him go… This young kid was just starry-eyed over all of this, and Jackie just made me feel a part of it.” 1956 was the final year of Robinson’s MLB career.

It would be almost four years before Aspromonte was afforded the opportunity to taste big league action again. In 1957, he spent most of the season in Thomasville, GA with the Class D Thomasville Dodgers of the Georgia-Florida League. In 53 games there, splitting time almost exactly between SS (27 games) and 3B (26 games), he hit .266/.344/.333 with one home run in 228 PA. Given his second turn with Macon in the Sally League, he showed much better in a small sample, hitting .311/.340/.422 spanning 48 PA across 12 games.

In 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers permanently left Aspromonte’s hometown and went westward to Los Angeles, but his young career with the franchise continued in the minors. He would spend the entire ’58 season in the Western League with the Class A Des Moines Bruins, playing 130 games, all at shortstop. Against competition that averaged 5 years older, Aspromonte battled to a .263/.333/.299 line over 531 PA.

In 1959, Aspromonte turned 21 and earned a promotion to the AAA Montreal Royals of the International League, where he was reunited with his (brief) Brooklyn teammate Sandy Amoros, and a 31 year-old pitcher Tom Lasorda in the twilight of his playing career. Now 7 years younger than the more advanced league’s average, Aspromonte hit .259/.299/.322 with two home runs over 451 PA and 131 games, again all at shortstop.

1960 marked the dawn of a new decade, and also marked Aspromonte’s return to major league play. He showed enough in Spring Training to earn an early-season stint in Los Angeles, but struggled to a .182/.196/.255 line through 56 PA, splitting time at 3B and SS over 21 games. He did manage his first big league home run – a 7th inning solo shot off of Milwaukee All-Star Lew Burdette on May 5 – but with the defending NL Champion Dodgers scuffling to a 21-26 start, Aspromonte was sent down to AAA St. Paul in early June for the remainder of the season. 1960 turned out to be his breakout year in the minors. With the Saints of the American Association, he moved to third base full time in the field, and he found his stroke at the plate, to the tune of a .329/.390/.432 slash line with two HR over 411 PA (102 games).

Meanwhile in Houston, on October 17, 1960, Judge Roy Hofheinz and the Houston Sports Association were granted the rights to a National League expansion franchise. Three months later, on January 17, 1961, the HSA completed the purchase of the American Association’s Houston Buffaloes, fulfilling MLB’s requirement that the NL expansion franchise had to obtain territorial rights before beginning play in the Houston area.

Aspromonte would never return to the minor leagues following his 1960 breakout in St. Paul, instead getting to spend all of 1961 in the big leagues with Los Angeles. Still young at 23 years old, he served as a utility infielder and a bat off the bench, playing in 47 games at all infield positions except 1B. Over 62 PA, he managed a .241/.290/.293 line. As a whole, the Dodgers finished 89-65 in second place, four games back of Cincinnati.

Following the 1961 season, each of the 8 existing National League teams had to submit a list of players who would be left unprotected for an expansion draft to stock the new Houston and New York franchises. The draft would be split into three phases, based on three classes of players as designated by the existing clubs. In the first phase, the two expansion franchises would alternate selecting 16 players each from a $75,000 player class, meaning that the drafting franchise would pay $75,000 to the existing team from which a player was chosen. In the second phase, the expansion franchises could choose up to three players from a $50,000 player class, then in the final phase, the two franchises would alternate choosing 4 players each from a $125,000 “premium” class.

The AL champion New York Yankees beat Cincinnati 4 games to 1 in the 1961 World Series, clinching the final game by a 13-5 score at Crosley Field on October 9. The next day, the 1961 NL expansion draft took place, with the Houston Colt .45s winning the toss over the New York Mets for the rights to pick first. With the first pick in the draft, Houston selected infielder Eddie Bressoud from the San Francisco Giants. The Mets followed by choosing catcher Hobie Landrith, also from San Francisco, then with Houston’s second pick in the draft (third overall), the Colts plucked Bob Aspromonte from Los Angeles. A few weeks later, on November 26, Houston general manager Paul Richards would trade Bressoud to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Don Buddin, so Aspromonte would end up being the first player selected by the Houston franchise to take the field for the team.

In the late 1940’s, sportswriter and WWII veteran George Kirksey began working to bring Major League Baseball to Houston, leading a group that attempted to purchase the St. Louis Cardinals as early as 1952. As a member of the Houston Sports Association, Kirksey finally saw his dream come to fruition on April 10, 1962, when the Houston Colt .45s first took the field at Colt Stadium against the Chicago Cubs. Left-hander Bobby Shantz would only start three games for the Colts before being traded to the Cardinals in May, but one of those three was Opening Day. He got things started by allowing only a two-out single to Billy Williams in a scoreless 1st.

Wearing number 14 in honor of his friend and mentor Gil Hodges, Aspromonte got the start at 3B in the leadoff spot for the Colts. Facing Cubs starter Don Caldwell, he began bottom of the 1st with a single to LF, for the first hit in the first AB in Houston franchise history. Colts CF Al Spangler immediately followed with a triple to right, earning the franchise’s first ever RBI while Aspromonte scored the first run.

It proved to be a very successful day both for Aspromonte himself and for the Colts as a whole. In the 3rd, he led off and drew a walk from Cardwell. Spangler also walked, then RF Roman Mejias drove the ball deep over the left-center field fence for the first home run in franchise history and a 4-0 Colts lead. With two outs in the 5th, Aspromonte singled off of Chicago reliever Dave Gerard. In the 6th, Barney Schultz got Aspromonte to fly out to CF, ending the inning with Aspromonte’s only out of the day.

Houston led 8-2 when Aspromonte’s next turn at bat came up with 2 outs in the 8th; he stroked an infield single to deep short off of Al Lary, then stole second with Spangler at the plate for the franchise’s first successful SB. Spangler eventually worked another walk, then Mejias followed with his second 3-run HR of the day. That set the final score at 11-2 Colts, and Shantz earned the win for his complete game 5-hitter. The Cubs’ only runs came on an Ernie Banks solo HR in the 7th and a Lou Brock sacrifice fly in the 8th.

Houston would sweep their opening three-game series with the Cubs, but then lost 13 of 18 before they could manage consecutive wins again. In his first season in a full-time major league role, Aspromonte served as Houston’s regular 3B and batted .266/.332/.376 with 11 HR and 59 RBI across 596 PA (149 games). In the field, he set a National League record for third basemen with a string of 57 consecutive errorless games, from July 17 through September 18. The Colts team stumbled to a 64-96 finish, 36.5 GB of San Francisco, but that was still good enough for eighth in the 10-team National League, ahead of the 59-103 Cubs and the historically bad 40-120 Mets.

1962 was also the start of the most well known chapter of Aspromonte’s career. Documented in Brian McTaggart’s book, Nash Entertainment’s “Amazing Sports Stories” television series, and many others, the story begins with 9 year-old Billy Bradley of El Dorado, Arkansas. On April 20, 1962 – 10 days after the Colts’ first official game – Bradley was blinded when lightning struck a tree underneath which he had stopped to drink, after running off his team’s practice field to try and escape the thunderstorm. Bradley’s family brought him to Dr. Louis Girard in Houston for a series of surgeries with the goal of restoring his eyesight. While in Houston, Bradley started listening to Colt .45s games on the radio, and Aspromonte became his favorite player.

Soon Bradley called the team and asked if it was possible to meet Aspromonte in person. In response, Aspromonte and teammate Joe Amalfitano went to visit Bradley at Houston Methodist Hospital on May 7, bringing him several gifts including a glove, a ball, a transistor radio, and a set of Colt .45s pajamas. As their visit was ending, Bradley asked Aspromonte to hit him a home run in the Colts’ game that night against the Dodgers. Never a powerful hitter, he promised Bradley that he would give it his best try.

Through six innings that night, Aspromonte was 2 for 3, but with only a pair of singles, and Houston had blown a 5-0 2nd inning lead to go into the 7th inning stretch trailing Los Angeles 6-5. With one on and two outs in the bottom of the 7th, Houston catcher Hal Smith singled on a fly ball to left field, moving Norm Larker up to second and bringing Aspromonte to the plate for his final at bat. On a 3-1 pitch from Dodgers lefty Pete Richart, Aspromonte hit a line drive three-run home run to win the game for Houston.

After a series of surgeries, Bradley returned home to Arkansas for the winter, but his family returned to Dr. Girard in Houston for more procedures the following year. On June 11, 1963, Aspromonte took the Bradley family out to lunch, and for the second time, Billy asked Aspromonte to hit a home run for him in that night’s game against the Cubs. Batting only .198 at the time, he nevertheless promised again to give it his very best effort.

That night, the game went to the 10th inning tied 2-2; Aspromonte was 1 for 4 with a single and a run scored so far. After Hal Woodeshick retired the Cubs 1-2-3 in the top of the 10th, Woodeshick himself led off the bottom of the 10th with a single to CF off Lindy McDaniel. Bob Lillis pinch ran for Woodeshick, and Colts 2B Ernie Fazio attempted a sacrifice bunt, but a throwing error on the play by Cubs 1B Ernie Banks allowed Lillis to reach third and put Fazio safely on second. With first base open, Brock Davis was intentionally walked, bringing Aspromonte to the plate for one more chance. On a 2-2 pitch from McDaniel, Aspromonte hit a walk-off grand slam to left field. “This wasn’t Bob Aspromonte hitting these home runs,” he said. “He was getting a tremendous amount of help.”

Six weeks later, on July 26, Bradley was in Houston again to see Dr. Girard; once more, he got to meet with Aspromonte before the Colts game, and once more, Bradley asked him to hit him a home run. Aspromonte had not hit a home run since the grand slam on June 11, and he’d been hitting an even worse .175 over his last 20 games, so he responded, “Billy, you’re really pushing your luck. Will you settle for a couple of base hits?”

By this time, Bradley’s sight had been partially restored, so he was watching from the Colt Stadium stands with Aspromonte playing 3B and batting sixth against the New York Mets that night. Colts starter Turk Farrell retired the Mets in order in the top of the 1st, then Al Spangler started the bottom of the 1st by drawing a walk from New York’s Tracy Stallard. 2B Pete Runnels grounded out to second, 1B Rusty Staub singled to center, RF Carl Warwick struck out, then CF Jimmy Wynn walked to load the bases.

That brought up Aspromonte. And once again, he hit a grand slam. Houston broadcaster Gene Elston shouted, “This one’s for you, Billy!” The game was stopped as the ball was retrieved and Aspromonte and Bradley embraced. “As I’m crying and everyone is going crazy, I gave him the ball,” Aspromonte said. “You should have seen his reaction. What a spark of life came over that kid.”

On the whole, 1963 was a less successful year for Aspromonte than the year before. In 514 PA (136 games), he took a step backwards at the plate, hitting .214/.276/.306 with 8 HR and 49 RBI; the first two marks would be his lowest of his career in any season of full-time action. As a team, the 1963 Colt .45s finished 66-96 in ninth place, 33 games back of the Dodgers (99-63), but still 15 games ahead of the last place Mets (51-111). Notable rookies including Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Joe Morgan made their MLB debuts. Also following the 1963 season, the National League agreed to hold asecond “restocking” draft to aid the Mets and Colts; each of the other eight teams in the league provided a list of four players from which the two young clubs could choose, for $30,000 each.

Aspromonte bounced back strong in 1964. In 608 PA over 157 games, he hit .280/.329/.392 with 12 HR (including two more grand slams) and 69 RBI – both career highs. He also set two more National League fielding records: fewest errors (11) and highest fielding percentage (.973) for any 3B over at least 150 games. For the second season in a row, Houston collectively finished 66-96 and in ninth place – this time 27 games back of first place St. Louis (93-69) and 13 games ahead of the Mets (53-109). 17 year-old Larry Dierker made his big league debut in late September.

Judge Roy Hofheinz had first conceived of an indoor baseball stadium during a Houston Buffs rainout back in 1952, and the promise of such a stadium was key in the National League’s 1960 decision to grant Houston an expansion franchise. Construction on the Astrodome began in January 1962, three months before the Colt .45s franchise began National League play; in November 1964, six months ahead of schedule, construction was completed. With the move to the new stadium also came a new nickname (Astros), a new majority owner (Hofheinz, who bought out Bob Smith’s share), and a new full-time manager (Lum Harris, who had taken over when Harry Craft was fired in late September ’64).

The Astrodome opened with an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees on April 9, 1965, but the first official game took place three days later against the Philadelphia Phillies. Before the game, Aspromonte caught the ceremonial first pitch from astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Unfortunately for the Astros, their first indoor game was disappointing for the local fans. Aspromonte managed an infield single in the 4th to go 1 for 4, but his was one of only four Astros hits on the day, and none of them result in any runs off of Phillies starter Chris Short, who earned the complete game win. Philadelphia 2B Tony Taylor had the first official hit in the Astrodome, with a leadoff double against Bob Bruce to start the game; catcher John Bateman had the first hit for the Astros when he singled in the 3rd. Dick Allen’s 2-run HR in the 3rd provided the only scoring for either team, so the Astros fell 2-0.

In a quirk of the schedule, the Astros and Phillies only played the one game before Houston took off on an 8-game road trip through New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. It was April 23 before the 3-6 Astros returned home, meeting the Pirates at the Astrodome for a four-game set. This time things went significantly better for Houston, and they won the first game of the series 4-3 on a 12th inning walk-off RBI single by Rusty Staub; Aspromonte went 1 for 6 with a 10th inning double.

The next day, on April 24, Turk Farrell of the Astros matched up against Vern Law of the Pirates. Houston got on the board when Law walked Staub with the bases loaded in the 1st. Aspromonte lined out to right field ahead of Staub that inning, then grounded out to third in the 4th. In the 6th, Jimmy Wynn also grounded to third starting things off, but he reached second base safely due to an error by Pirates 3B Bob Bailey. Astros 1B Walt Bond singled Wynn home for a 2-0 lead, then Aspromonte followed with a 2-run home run to make it 4-0. That was the first home run by an Astros player in Astrodome history; Jim Wynn got the second on his solo shot in the 7th. Ultimately Houston won the game 5-0, then went on to sweep the Pirates and win a then-franchise-record 10 in a row before reality brought the Astros back down to earth.

After sprinting to a 12-6 start and a first-place tie, the Astros only won 6 of their next 24 to freefall back down to eighth place. Having lost 96 games in each of their first three season, Houston lost 97 in 1965, finishing 65-97 and again in ninth place, 32 games behind Los Angeles (97-65) and 15 ahead of the hapless Mets (50-112). Aspromonte set a career high with 628 PA in 152 games, hitting .263/.310/.322 with 52 RBI but only 5 home runs, now that the team called the pitcher-friendly Astrodome their home.

It was around this time that Aspromonte received a letter in the mail from his young friend Billy Bradley. Following his surgeries, Bradley’s eyesight recovered until he regained 20/20 vision when wearing contacts, and he returned to the Arkansas Little League field. The letter contained a newspaper article, detailing a no-hitter that Bradley had thrown; he mailed the article to his hero Aspromonte with a note that said, “This one’s for you, Bob. I didn’t hit you a home run, but I pitched you a no-hitter.”

Following the 1965 season, Hofheinz fired both manager Lum Harris and general manager Paul Richards, replacing them with Grady Hatton and Tal Smith, respectively. The Astros saw some small improvement in 1966 under Hatton, going 72-90 and moving up to 8th place, ahead of both the 66-95 Mets and the 59-103 Cubs, but still a distant 23 games behind the Dodgers (95-67) in first. Aspromonte led all NL third basemen in fielding percentage again, with a .962 mark. But he took a small step back at the plate with a .252/.297/.334 line, repeating 52 RBI with 8 home runs this time – albeit including two more grand slams. That brought his career grand slam count to 6, which would remain a franchise record only tied by Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, until Carlos Lee finally broke their record with his 7th grand slam as an Astro on July 25, 2011.

At 29 years old in 1967, Aspromonte turned in his finest overall season at the plate. Over 137 games with 540 PA, his .294/.354/.401 slash line represented career highs in all three columns. Along with 6 home runs and 58 RBI, he also set a career high with 24 doubles, and matched a career high with 5 triples (previously done in 1963). Nonetheless, his Astros still struggled; Tal Smith was replaced as general manager by H.B. “Spec” Richardson on July 27, and the team slid back to ninth in the NL at 69-93. The Mets (61-101) lost over 100 games for the fifth time in six seasons, but Houston still finished 32.5 back of the 101-win Cardinals.

Of course there was far more going on in 1960’s America than just baseball. The “Space Race” was full speed ahead, with Houston selected as the site for NASA’s “manned spaceflight laboratory” on September 19, 1961. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. NASA’s new Mission Control Center in Houston was tested during the Gemini 2 and Gemini 3 missions in early 1965, then officially went live with Gemini 4 in June. But also in 1965, on February 21, civil rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Then just two months later, on June 6, US Senator and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

RFK’s funeral took place on June 8 in New York City. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared June 9 a national day of mourning. MLB Commissioner William Eckert ordered that no games on June 8 would start until after the burial, and while games would continue on June 9, Eckert said that any player could “pay respects” if desired by sitting out to observe the day of mourning. The Astros were scheduled to play the Pirates at the Astrodome on June 9, but Houston’s Aspromonte and Rusty Staub and Pittsburgh’s Maury Wills all declined to play, as sanctioned by the commissioner. Kennedy’s press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, sent telegrams to all three players: “Please accept my personal admiration for your actions.” But the Houston and Pittsburgh front offices were less impressed; all three players were fined by their clubs.

By 1968, Aspromonte was only remaining member of the original 1962 Colt .45s still with the franchise. Whether due to age or circumstance or both, his numbers slipped to .225/.285/.264 with only one HR and 46 RBI in 124 games (457 PA). The Astros too slipped, winning three games more than the previous season (72-90), but finishing last in the National League for the first time in franchise history; manager Grady Hatton was fired on June 17 and replaced by Harry Walker. With bad blood over the June events seemingly lingering, both Aspromonte and Staub were traded over the off-season – Staub to new expansion team Montreal for 1B Donn Clendenon and OF Jesus Alou, and Aspromonte to the Atlanta Braves for IF Marty Martinez. With Aspromonte’s trade on December 4, 1968, the Colts’ first ever batter and last of the original roster was gone.

In Atlanta, Aspromonte was reunited with manager Lum Harris and general manager Paul Richards, along with former Colts teammates including Sonny Jackson, Ken Johnson, and Claude Raymond. 1969 was the Braves’ fourth season in Georgia since moving south from Milwaukee, and the first season in Major League Baseball’s divisional era; with the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres beginning play, the new 12-team National League split into two 6-team divisions. For the first time since his days with the Dodgers, Aspromonte took on a part-time role, splitting 82 games between LF, 3B, 2B and SS. In 215 PA, he hit .253/.304/.348 with 3 HR and 24 RBI. While his former team in Houston was having their first ever non-losing season (81-81), he found himself surrounded by a better group in Atlanta, as the Braves finished 93-69 to win the first ever NL West division title – 12 games ahead of Houston in fifth.

Having missed out on the ’56 World Series with Brooklyn as an 18 year-old kid, this also represented Aspromonte’s first ever taste of postseason play, at age 31. After losing at least 89 games and finishing either ninth or tenth in the league in every one of their first seven seasons, the “Amazin’ Mets” caught fire under manager Gil Hodges and won the NL East at 100-62. Thus, the Mets and Braves clashed in the first ever NLCS.

Aspromonte saw only limited action, with three pinch-hit appearances and no time in the field. In Game 1 in Atlanta, he grounded out for Phil Niekro in the 8th inning, and Tom Seaver led the Mets to a 9-5 win. In Game 2 in Atlanta, he popped out for Cecil Upshaw in the 8th, and Ron Taylor earned the win in an 11-6 Mets final. Game 3 move to Shea Stadium in Queens, but the results were much the same; Aspromonte flew out to center leading off the 9th against a 22 year-old Nolan Ryan, then Ryan retired the final two Braves batters to finish a 7-4 Mets win and a sweep of the best-of-5 series.

Aspromonte’s role was further reduced with the Braves in 1970. In 62 games as a reserve player, most of his time in the field was spent at 3B, with a handful of games at SS, LF or 1B. In 142 appearances at the plate, he hit a meager .213/.282/.236 with no home runs and 7 RBI. Atlanta could not repeat their ’69 success, slumping to a 76-86 record and a fifth place NL West finish, 3 games back of the Astros and 26 behind the 102-60 Cincinnati Reds in first.

As a player at the tail end of his career, Gil Hodges had actually been selected by the Mets later in the same 1961 expansion draft that brought Aspromonte to Houston. Knee trouble limited Hodges to just 54 games with New York in ’62, then after 11 games with them in 1963, he was unconventionally traded to the Washington Senators to become their manager. That ended his playing career, but he would manage in Washington through 1967, then he returned to the Mets as manager in ’68. Hodges’ 1969 “Miracle Mets” won the World Series after using six different men at third base during the season, none playing more than 72 games. New York traded for super utility man Joe Foy from Kansas City and played him exclusively at 3B for 97 games in 1970, but his batting average dropped nearly 30 points (.262 to .236) and his power production dropped by nearly half (11 HR to 6), so the Mets were in the third base market again before 1971.

Aspromonte was no longer the starry-eyed skinny kid of 18 who first shared a major league field with Hodges in Brooklyn 15 years before. Even as their careers diverged, Aspromonte and fellow Brooklyn native Hodges remained in contact over the years and became very good friends. Aspromonte later told the story, “Gil always took care of me… Then as my last years start to come along, he always said, ‘Bobby, I’m going to come and trade for you and get you here.’”

The Mets lost Joe Foy to the Washington Senators in the Rule 5 draft on November 30, 1970. The next day, on December 1, New York acquired Aspromonte from Atlanta in exchange for RP Ron Herbel. Ebbets Field was gone, but as near as was possible, Aspromonte returned to his hometown 15 years after his career began, and was reunited with Hodges there. Aspromonte’s story continued, “When I got to Spring Training, the first thing, I was teasing him. I said, ‘Gil, you always sit on the bench. You’re never out there. Let me wear 14!’ He looked at me and said, ‘Bobby – you’re number 2.’”

With his #14 days left behind him in Houston and Atlanta, #2 Aspromonte was given the chance to be a full-time player once again in New York. Over 377 PA in 104 games, he managed a .225/.285/.301 line, with 5 HR and 33 RBI. A year after their improbable Series win, the Mets had fallen to third in the NL East in 1970; they did no better in ’71, exactly matching their 83-79 mark from the year before. That was only worth a tie for third with the Cubs, 14 games back of the Pirates in first.

Pittsburgh would beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series on October 17. 11 days into the offseason, on October 28, the Mets released Bob Aspromonte. Still unsatisfied at 3B, they (thought) they finally found their man on December 10, when they acquired ex-All-Star JimFregosi from the California Angels in exchange for catcher Frank Estrada, RF Leroy Stanton, and pitchers Don Rose and Nolan Ryan.

Aspromonte gave it one more go before the 1972 season, brought to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee with the Cincinnati Reds. The event was immortalized in the 1972 Topps baseball card set, but Aspromonte failed to make the team and was let go before Opening Day. Thus his playing career ended with a cumulative .252/.308/.336 line, 1103 hits and 60 HR – 6 of them grand slams – over 4799 PA. He finished either first or second in fielding percentage among NL third basemen five times (1962, 1964-1967). With his retirement from baseball, the last remaining player who had worn the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform was gone.

Aspromonte had moved to Houston in 1962 after joining the Colt .45s organization, and he stayed in Houston after his baseball career was over. Three years after his retirement, he was blinded in one eye after a car battery exploded in his face. Bill Bradley, now an adult, got word of the accident and called Aspromonte to offer his support. Then Dr. Louis Girard – the same surgeon who had helped Bradley – performed a series of surgeries that allowed Aspromonte to recover 40 percent of his vision in the eye.

Bob’s older brother Ken had played in MLB from 1957-1963, then managed the Cleveland Indians from 1972-1974, until Cleveland chose not to renew his contract and replaced him with player-manager Frank Robinson for 1975. Bob’s oldest brother Charles had also played minor league baseball, but with all three men now retired from the game, he convinced his brothers to move to Houston with him. There they partnered together to obtain a Coors beer distributorship in 1975, which they named Aspromonte-Coors Distributing Company.

Bob himself managed the distributorship, which flourished and was already valued at $15 million by 1981 – big money in those days when Nolan Ryan had recently become baseball’s first $1 million man. A side effect of success, however, was that hardly any of the company’s head salesmen ever left. This was good for the business, but bad for their sales assistants, who were effectively blocked from career advancement. Consequently, the turnover rate among assistants was high, but Aspromonte found a solution in his baseball background.

During Aspromonte’s playing career, MLB allowed any player with four years minimum service time to begin collecting pension at age 45. This was a radical idea in any other industry, but that’s exactly what Aspromonte did at the distributorship. He set up a benefit plan with shares based on each employee’s salary and funded by the company’s profits, so that all employees had a direct financial stake in the business. Allowing employees to begin collecting at age 45 also encouraged them to retire sooner, which provided newer employees with advancement opportunities. Within a year of the plan going into effect, sales rose by 33%, and the turnover rate for sales assistants dropped from 60% to 10%.

Bob would remain at the helm of Aspromonte-Coors until the year 2000. By that point, the distribution industry was moving towards consolidation, and he had been in the business for 25 years. Thus he sold his majority stake in the company to two Houston-area Miller distributors – 79% to Houston Distributing Company for Harris and Fort Bend County rights, and 21% to Faust Distributing Company for Brazoria County.

Though retired from professional life, Aspromonte has never retired from the public eye. He has long been notably active in Houston-area charity work, being a major supporter of the local YMCA. Inspired by his history with Bill Bradley, he’s also a chairperson for the Lions Eye Bank Foundation in Houston, and does frequent fundraising work for Houston Eye Associates. The Houston Eye Associates Foundation is focused on providing care and financial assistance for low-income individuals in need of eye care.

Honors have continued to come in over the years for Aspromonte, too. In 2005, he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2011, both Bob and his brother Ken were elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Colt .45s inaugural season, so to commemorate the year, the Astros introduced a franchise Walk of Fame down Texas Avenue outside of Minute Maid Park; "Aspro the Astro" was their first Walk of Fame honoree. Then on April 10, 2012 – 50 years to the day from the franchise’s first game – he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Astros’ game versus the Braves.

Last of the Brooklyn Dodgers, first and last of the Houston Colt .45s: “In all my years in baseball,” Larry Dierker said, “I have never known a player with more class than Bob Aspromonte.”