Saturday, November 30, 2019

Astros Retired Numbers: Jim Umbricht

The Houston Astros have retired a lot of jersey numbers, for a team that has only been in existence since 1962. Regard: Number of retired numbers, by team, with year they were established in parentheses (not counting Jackie Robinson, whose number was retired across MLB. Now do the same for Roberto Clemente, Manfred you sack of crap).

New York Yankees: 21 (1903)
St. Louis Cardinals: 14 (1882)*
San Francisco Giants: 14 (1883)*
Cincinnati Reds: 13 (1882)
Chicago White Sox: 11 (1901)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 (1884)
Boston Red Sox: 10 (1901)
Atlanta Braves: 10 (1966)*
Detroit Tigers: 10 (1901)*
Pittsburgh Pirates: 9 (1882)
Cleveland Indians: 9 (1901)*
Houston Astros: 9 (1962)
Minnesota Twins: 8 (1961)
Philadelphia Phillies: 7 (1883)
San Diego Padres: 7 (1969)*
Baltimore Orioles: 6 (1901)
Oakland Athletics: 6 (1901)*
Chicago Cubs: 6 (1903)
New York Mets: 6 (1962)*
Milwaukee Brewers: 6 (1969)*
Los Angeles Angels: 5 (1961)
Washington Nationals: 5 (1969)*
Texas Rangers: 5 (1972)
Kansas City Royals: 3 (1969)
Toronto Blue Jays: 2 (1977)
Seattle Mariners: 2 (1977)
Tampa Bay Rays: 2 (1998)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 2 (1998)
Colorado Rockies: 1 (1993)
Miami Marlins: 0 (1993)

*St. Louis retired the "numbers" of Jack Buck and former owner August Busch.
*The Giants have four "numbers" retired of people who didn't have a number: Christy Mathewson and manager John McGraw, and two broadcasters: Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges.
*The only number retired by Atlanta for a player who never played in Atlanta was Warren Spahn's 21, who pitched 12 seasons for the Milwaukee Braves. Milwaukee was the Braves' home from 1953-1965. They moved to Atlanta prior to the 1966 season.
*Detroit retired longtime broadcaster Ernie Harwell's "EH."
*Cleveland enjoyed 455 straight sell-outs and officially retired the number 455 in honor of the fans. So no MLBer will ever wear 455 for Cleveland. A shame.
*San Diego retired owner Ray Kroc and broadcaster's Jerry Coleman's "numbers."
*Oakland retired "WH" for former owner Walter Haas.
*The Mets have retired Ralph Kiner's "number" as an announcer, as well as former owner William Shea's "number."
*Milwaukee retired Bob Uecker and Bud Selig's "numbers."
*Of course the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005. No National has had their number retired by the organization.

So how is it that the Astros have retired more numbers than the Phillies, who have been around for 79 more seasons, or the same number as the Pirates, who have been around since 1882? Well, everything new doesn't want to seem new. You want a history, even if you don't have one. See: George Washington and the cherry tree. This series is to understand why each of these nine Astros had their jersey numbers retired. First up: Jim Umbricht.

I don't have a firm grasp on this, but I'm guessing Jim Umbricht played in the fewest major league games (88) before getting his number retired. It's a pretty tragic story. 

Umbricht was born on September 17, 1930 in Chicago and went on to the University of Georgia. In parts of five seasons from 1959-1963 (the last two of which, with the Astros, were full seasons) Umbricht went 9-5 with a 3.06 ERA / 1.17 WHIP (116 ERA+). 

Umbricht's family moved to Decatur, Georgia for his father's work and was All-State in basketball and baseball in 1948, his senior year. He lettered in both sports at the University of Georgia three times each. Umbricht paid his way to a tryout in 1953 for Class D Waycross of the Georgia-Florida League and played shortstop, but couldn't hit. Luckily for him, at 6'4" 215lbs, he took the mound at posted a team 2nd-lowest 2.87 ERA. That's where he would stay, at least when he got back from military service, missing the 1954 and 1955 seasons. After the 1956 season with the Baton Rouge Rebels of the unaffiliated Class C Evangeline League, Umbricht - with another successful season on the mound, including a team-high 235IP - he was sold to the Milwaukee Braves.

He was a workhorse for the Topeka Hawks (1957) and transitioned to relief for the Atlanta Crackers in 1958. Umbricht was traded to Pittsburgh for Emil Panko. Umbricht spent 1959 with Triple-A Salt Lake City where, at 2.78, he posted the 7th-lowest ERA in the PCL, and only walked 43 batters. Pittsburgh rewarded him with a call-up. Nine days after his 29th birthday, Umbricht made his MLB debut against Cincinnati on September 26, 1959. The Reds came out swinging: leadoff hitter Johnny Temple took Umbricht deep. With two outs, Frank Thomas and Buddy Gilpert hit back-to-back jacks off Umbricht. After another walk, Umbricht finally got out of the inning, having allowed three home runs to his first five career MLB batters.

In his Age 29 & Age 30 seasons, Umbricht threw 44IP for Pittsburgh with a 4.91 ERA / 1.68 WHIP, a number marred again by Cincinnati when he allowed 8H/6ER, 1K:4BB in his 1960 season debut. After two rough starts in 1960 Umbricht pitched in 15 games for the Pirates, throwing 33IP, 29H/14ER, 23K:18BB (3.82 ERA / 1.42 WHIP). The 1960 Pirates won the World Series over the New York Yankees. Umbricht did not pitch. 

Umbricht made one appearance for the 1961 Pirates, spending most of the season in Triple-A Columbus. One-time Baltimore GM Paul Richards, who grew up in Waxahachie (and was known as "The Wizard of Waxahachie") left the Orioles to become the first general manager for Houston, known for developing young talent. SIDE NOTE: Richards, a baseball lifer, was maybe the first manager to swap a reliever for an outfielder for another reliever, coined as "The Waxahachie Swap"

With an expansion draft coming for the up-and-coming Houston Colt .45s and New York Mets, Pittsburgh chose not to protect him, and the Colt .45s purchased Umbricht for $50,000. It worked out nicely for Umbricht, as he and his parents already lived in Houston. 

His first six appearances with Houston (April 14-May 7)? 6.1IP, 4H/1R (0ER), 3K:3BB. He got sent down and brought back up on a regular basis, and the Colt .45s were 8-24 in the 32 games in which Umbricht pitched, but he ended the year with a 2.01 ERA / 1.01 WHIP in Houston.

During Spring Training in 1963 Umbricht was golfing with Colt .45s GM Paul Richards aka "The Wizard of Waxahachiewhen he happened, in passing, to mention a mole growing on his right leg. Richards referred Umbricht to the team physician Jim Ewell, who referred him to M.D. Anderson, where it was discovered that the cancer was malignant and had already spread. 

A six-hour operation on March 7 removed cancerous cells from his leg, groin, and thigh. While in the hospital, Umbricht visited other patients. Ewell:
Only a man with a stout heart could go through what Umbricht did and come out all right. During his convalescence, Jim walked all around the hospital, visited other patients and spread good cheer. He served as an inspiration to others in the hospital and believe me, he cheered up many of the patients. Umbricht is a walking testimonial that cancer can be cured if it is caught in time.

Umbricht was in uniform on April 9, 1963 - Opening Day. Umbricht threw BP on April 22 and appeared in relief on May 9 (where he got lit up by the Reds, again). 

No one has to feel sorry for me...It's all a little embarrassing. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, though. I'm glad people are so interested in one respect, because it helps publicize cancer. Early detection of cancer is a big thing, and maybe if people read about how I was cured it might help them.

On July 7, 1963 Umbricht matched Milwaukee's Warren Spahn almost inning-for-inning. Spahn threw a CGSHO but Umbricht threw 7IP, 4H/1ER, 8K:1BB before Turk Farrell blew the game in the 8th. It was the best MLB start of Umbricht's career. From that start to the end of the 1963 season Umbricht threw 44IP, 31H/8ER, 28K:13BB, a 1.64 ERA / 1.00 WHIP. 

In November 1963 Umbricht was apparently told that the cancer was incurable. He was the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association's "Most Courageous Athlete" of 1963. On April 8, 1964 - just over a year from complaining about a mole while playing golf - Jim Umbricht passed away of melanoma. Jim's brother, Ed, flew a plane over the construction site of The Astrodome and scattered his ashes

Five days later, Umbricht's roommate Ken Johnson threw 8.2IP, 5H/3ER, 3K:1BB at Cincinnati in a 6-3 Colt .45s victory. Johnson:
I had an extra special reason for wanting to win this one. My ex-roommate.

The Colt .45s wore black armbands for the 1964 season in Umbricht's honor.

On April 12, 1965 - Opening Day at The Astrodome - the newly-named Astros retired Umbricht's number 32, the first retired number in franchise history.