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This Halloween, Meet the Twitter Ghost of a Former Astros Catcher

John Bateman died in 1996. So how is he tweeting every single day?

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John Bateman, catcher for the Houston Astros, March 28, 1968.
Illustration by Claire Hogan; Photograph via AP

A half century ago, Astros fans knew the name John Bateman. In 1963 and 1964, he was the starting catcher for the Houston Colt .45s, and when the team became the Astros in 1965 as an ode to America’s space race, Bateman recorded his best season with Houston. But after his declining performance led the Astros to drop him before the 1969 season, he never played for Houston again. Almost fifty years later, Bateman, who died in 1996, is an unassuming legend of the Houston sports family to most Astros fans.

But on the Twitter page @JohnnyBateman7, Bateman—and his legacy—are alive and well. Created in 2011, the account offers a day-to-day retelling of the 1966 Astros season from Bateman’s point of view, in painstaking historical detail.

The page is still active, having followed Bateman’s career, as well as baseball and pop culture, exactly since the 1966 season. Six years later, it’s now 1972 in the world of @JohnnyBateman7. Richard Nixon will clobber George McGovern in a week, Led Zeppelin just capped off their tour of Japan in Kyoto, and Bateman now plays for the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s tough for a 77-year-old ghost to tweet. Luckily for Bateman, he’s got the help of his self-described “biggest fan,” Ken Webster. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Webster is the artistic director of Hyde Park Theatre in Austin. He periodically performs in a one-man show he wrote called My Seasons with the Houston Astros and Montreal Expos about Bateman and the Twitter page. And because everyone who knows Webster knows about his lifelong obsession with the Astros and Bateman—his first theatre company in 1981 was called The John Bateman Players—a GoFundMe page raised $2,330 to buy him a seat at Minute Maid Park for game four of the World Series on Saturday.

We thought it was time to talk to Bateman to find out more about his incorporeal Twitter fingers—and to learn what this Webster guy is all about.

Texas Monthly: Hello, Mr. Bateman! Thanks for chatting with us here on Twitter.

John Bateman: My pleasure, Nate.

TM: You’ve got to be excited. The Astros are in the World Series again.

JB: Very excited. We never made it to the World Series when I played for Houston. We were in the pennant race back in 1966, until we lost Morgan and Wynn to injuries, and our bullpen imploded.

TM: You were the catcher in 1966, right?

JB: Yep. I came up as a rookie in 1963 and led the team in home runs and RBIs. I had my best season in 1966, hitting with 17 HRs, 70 RBIs and a .279 average.

TM:
That’s impressive stuff. But you were traded just two years later. What happened?

JB: I had a terrible season in 1967. Bounced back to some extent in 1968 and hit .249 without much power. I was still a pretty damn good catcher and handler of pitches. The Astros traded for John Edwards, and I was selected by the Montreal Expos.

TM: We’re sorry to hear that, John.

JB: No, I had a great time in Montreal from 1969-1972. And got to play there with former Astros teammates Rusty Staub, Ron Brand, Howie Reed, Carroll Sembera, Claude Raymond, and José Herrera. I was traded in June of 1972 to the Phillies for Tim McCarver.

TM: So where do your loyalties lie—with Montreal or Houston? Or Philly, since you ended your career there.

JB: Ha! Well, I guess I’ll always think of myself as an Astro. They signed me at a tryout camp in 1962 for a whopping $74 bonus. I got to play with some great guys. But I had a great time in Montreal. Great city, great fans, and great teammates. Wasn’t too crazy about our manager, Gene Mauch. We had kind of a stormy romance. I also loved playing in Philly and catching Steve Carlton, who said I was the best catcher he ever played with.

TM: That’s high praise from ole Lefty. Do you have an all-time favorite Astros pitcher?

JB: I was very good friends with Dave Giusti. We built cabinets together in the off-season. We didn’t make enough money in those days to not have off-season jobs.

TM: Did you see McCann’s play in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees? Do you know which one I’m talking about?

JB: The tag at home plate on Bregman’s throw? Perfect throw. Perfect tag. A thing of beauty.

TM: Could John Bateman of 1966 have done something similar?

JB: Ha! I was known for being pretty good at blocking the plate. When I played, I only had one kidney. Last exhibition game of 1970, we played the Senators in Arlington. I blocked the plate when Dave Nelson was trying to score. There was a collision, and I received a lacerated kidney. Played the rest of the game, and I wound up being hospitalized for eight days. I did finish reading The Godfather while I recuperated.

TM: Was it worth it?

JB: Heck yeah.

TM: Not many people know the real John Bateman. Or John Bateman at all. How have people responded to your Twitter account?

JB: The response has been really tremendous. I had so much fun after the 1966 season, I continued chronicling the 1967 through 1972 seasons with Houston, Montreal, and Philly. I’m followed by my ex-wife, Freda, both my daughters, several of my grandchildren, lots of Astros, Expos, and Phillies fans, quite a few sports writers, Astros Daily, several former players, Austin’s best actress Katherine Catmull, Soledad O’Brien, and Taye Diggs. As of today, I have 2,316 followers. About 600 of them have been around since that first season.

TM: That’s amazing. Tell me about your number one fan, Ken Webster. Is he really your number one fan?

JB: That guy! I think it is safe to say he’s my number one fan. I was his favorite player when he was a kid growing up in Houston. He’s interviewed a bunch of my old teammates over the years, and invariably they always ask, “Why was Bateman your favorite player?” I’d have to say that he knows more about me than any other fan. He loves baseball, but quickly realized that he had a much better future doing theatre. We both had pretty terrible seasons in 1967—me with the Astros and him with the Athletics in the Meyerland Little League. He always wanted to be a catcher. He played seven positions that year. He only caught one inning, and it was a nightmare in technicolor.

TM: I saw the picture you posted. I think you were his hero at that time.

JB: He seems like a great guy, but between you and me, he might spend a little too much time thinking about me and my career.

TM: I think this is a two-way street. It seems you also know a lot about him, too.

JB: Too true. I never met him, but I feel like I know him very well.

TM: He went to game four of the World Series on Saturday. Did you join him?

JB: I was definitely there in spirit. I hear he was wearing his 1966 John Bateman replica jersey. When I played in Houston, Tickets ranged from $4.50 to 50 cents.

TM: But you never played in a World Series.

JB: True. I never played on a team that finished as high as .500. But throughout my career, my teams always had better records when I was starting at catcher.

TM: I’m impressed by you, John. Do you think this team has a shot at beating the Dodgers in the series?

JB: Hell yeah. Altuve, Springer, Correa, Gonzalez, Verlander, Gurriel, Reddick, Bregman, and Keuchel? They’re probably the best team Houston has ever assembled. Great GM, not like that damn Spec Richardson, who got rid of me, Staub, Cuellar, Morgan, and Giusti.

TM: Richardson messed up, man. He’s no Hinch or Luhnow. Anything else I need to know about you, Bateman?

JB: Well, being a MLB player was a dream come true. Had the good fortune to play for ten seasons in the bigs, with and against a bunch of Hall of Famers, during one of the greatest eras in all of baseball. Raised some great kids, who have raised some great kids. My grandson Carson Teel is a damn fine pitcher for Oklahoma State.

TM: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us, John. I’ve had one hell of a time. Anything you want me to pass on to Webster?

JB: Thanks for talking with me. It has been a pleasure. My thoughts are with him and all the other long-time Houston fans. Let’s beat those Dodgers.

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