Six decades ago, Roy Hofheinz believed that the notion that Texas should have two major league baseball teams was about the silliest thing he’d ever heard. One was sufficient, and not coincidentally, he happened to own it: the Houston Astros.
On this matter, he was not to be trifled with. He’d been a state legislator at 22 years old, a Harris County judge at 24, and Houston mayor at 40. He had power and knew how to wield it. He was also a gifted charmer and a politician in the best tradition of Lyndon Johnson. He’d worked MLB owners so doggedly in the late 1950s that they perhaps felt they had no choice but to give Houston an expansion franchise, if only to make the man go away.
Then Judge Hofheinz, as he was known, noting the hellish conditions of outdoor baseball in Houston, embarked on another seemingly far-fetched project: indoor baseball. He helped design the Astrodome and convince taxpayers to fund it; the stadium, dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” opened in 1965 with an assortment of bells and whistles, from a first-of-its-kind “exploding” scoreboard to plush theater seats to the “world’s longest bar” to, harrumph, an apartment for Judge Hofheinz himself.
Even now, 23 years after the Astros moved downtown to Minute Maid Park, the Astrodome provides a spark of inspiration for every other indoor ballpark. When word got out that the good folks in Dallas–Fort Worth were pursuing a second MLB franchise in Texas, Judge Hofheinz let it be known that such a thing would happen over his dead body. Then–Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff became so fed up with Hofheinz’s opposition that he even persuaded LBJ to call the Judge and put in a good word for the North Texas bid.
“I was in the room when he placed the call,” Vandergriff told me in 2001, as the Astros and the Rangers were about to play their first regular-season games against each other. “I could only hear his end of the conversation, but it became apparent he wasn’t making much headway. He finally hung up, and I’ll never forget his words. He said, ‘I don’t think God himself could change Roy’s mind.’ I didn’t say anything, but that’s the only time I ever heard President Johnson even hint that God could do something he couldn’t.”
If you’re thinking Judge Hofheinz, who died in 1982, was persuaded otherwise because Texas did indeed get a second major league team ten years before his death (and now those two franchises are about to face each other in the American League Championship Series), you’d be wrong. North Texas surely would have gotten a franchise at some point, but it happened almost overnight after the 1971 season because Vandergriff, who died in 2010, convinced Robert Short, the owner of MLB’s Washington Senators, that if he relocated his faltering franchise to Texas, he’d have no trouble selling the team.
Thus, the Texas Rangers were born, and after two years in Arlington, Short sold the franchise for a reported $9.6 million to a group led by Fort Worth businessman Brad Corbett. (The buyers also agreed to assume $1 million in debt.)
All these decades later, the Rangers and the Astros might finally deliver a moment that Texas sports fans will never forget. We may never know for sure where the geographical dividing line between Rangers and Astros fans is located—whether it’s somewhere on Interstate 45 or along a blurry line stretching from the Piney Woods to the Davis Mountains.
All we can say for sure is that this is going to be a landmark moment for Texas sports. When we watch the Rangers and the Astros over the coming week, with one team or the other surely headed to the World Series, playing playoff baseball in a pair of beautiful, retractable-roof ballparks, it’ll be easy to forget how lousy the two franchises were for most of their early years.
The Astros didn’t sniff a playoff appearance for their first eighteen seasons. While baseball’s expanded postseason format—twelve of thirty teams now qualify—has made it easier to get in, the Astros didn’t win a playoff series until their forty-third season, 2004. They made it to the World Series the following year, only to be swept by the Chicago White Sox. The team did not make the playoffs again until 2015, and by then, its baseball operation had been torn down and rebuilt under new owner Jim Crane.
His has been a magic touch, producing eight playoff appearances in the last nine seasons, including a record seven consecutive trips to the ALCS. If the Astros get past the Rangers, they’d be back in the World Series for a third straight season and the fifth time in seven years.
Only José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, and Lance McCullers (who hasn’t pitched this season) remain from the 2017 team that won a World Series now stained by a sign-stealing scandal. In spite of the shame the franchise carries due to that season, the Astros have perfected the art of churning their roster, allowing loads of talent to leave via free agency while remaining World Series contenders.
“It’s just the mentality they have,” Houston closer Ryan Pressly said of his teammates and coaches after Tuesday’s 3–2 victory over the Minnesota Twins ended the Astros’ American League Division Series. “I don’t think a lot of people quite understand that until you’re in the clubhouse and you see it. The camaraderie that we have in there, picking each other up day in and day out, is something that we strive for.”
Even in a season when key players spent massive chunks of the year out with injuries—Altuve missed 72 games, Yordan Álvarez missed 48, and Michael Brantley missed 147—and stars like Alex Bregman, Jeremy Peña, and José Abreu fought through nearly season-long slumps, the Astros have ended up right back where they expected to be, and they’re playing their best baseball when it matters most.
“There’s been a culture established here that hasn’t faded away,” said Justin Verlander, a two-time Cy Young Award winner (2019 and 2022) with the Astros who signed with the Mets last offseason and then was reacquired in July. “It’s still very present, and that’s a testament to the guys that were here before and the guys that remain here and the guys that are leaders of this ball club. They don’t allow slacking off, but they do it in a respectful manner. They expect the best of everyone because they’re giving their best every single day. What a great way to lead by example.
“I think our culture is something not tangible. Funny that [for] one of the most analytic-forward teams in baseball, something that makes this team so special is something that’s not measurable.”
As for this Rangers club, the roster was built nearly overnight, with owner Ray Davis hiring former major league pitcher (and Highland Park native) Chris Young to run his baseball operation and then agreeing to spend more than $800 million for an injection of talent that snapped a streak of six straight losing seasons. They, too, are peaking at just the right time, having won all five of their playoff games with the look of a team that, for however long this hot streak lasts, has pretty much no weakness.
Many Texan fans have long wondered what an Astros-Rangers postseason series would look like. Since 1972, the Rangers’ first season in the big leagues, the state has yet to see it. Could a playoff baseball thriller really refocus the state’s attention on a sport other than football? Would it create a true rivalry between sports fans in the Metroplex and Houston?
Statewide television ratings for the ALCS will help assess just how much an all-Texas ALCS can affect football’s vice grip on our sporting culture. As for that rivalry—it’s not happening, not as long as one city has five Super Bowl trophies (Dallas) and the other none (Houston), and not as long as one city’s NFL franchise is the most valuable in the world. Whichever team heads to the World Series this year, the Metroplex will still see Houston as a speck in its rearview mirror.
But this ALCS will be a rivalry, at least for fans, since the teams lack any particularly heated history with each other, besides a relatively tame bench clearing in July. That confrontation didn’t appear to carry over six weeks later, when the Astros swept a three-game series in Arlington. Houston has dominated the series in recent years, winning 9 of 13 games this season and 79 of 118 over the last seven.
Nevertheless, beginning Sunday in Houston, Texans will finally have their two teams side by side on one of the sport’s biggest stages, with a trip to the World Series on the line. If that doesn’t steer the conversation away from Dak and Jerry, no sports story ever will. In the meantime, brace yourself for a national narrative about baseball never being more than a distraction, something to do before the Dallas Cowboys disappoint again or the Longhorns and the Aggies lose their next big football games.
Rangers fans began a “We want Houston!” chant Monday night at Globe Life Field, and the Dallas Morning News quoted a Rangers fan, Jayce Jenkins, saying: “If we’re going to go to the World Series, I want to go through Houston.”
His wish was granted, fifty years in the making.