By Brian McTaggart
December 7, 2005
When the city of Houston was awarded a major league expansion franchise and began play as the Colt .45s in 1962, Tal Smith was there.
When the club changed its name to the Astros and moved into the state-of-the-art Astrodome in 1965, Tal Smith was there.
When the Astros reached the playoffs for the first time in 1980 and lost to the Phillies in a memorable National League Championship Series, Tal Smith was there.
He was there when the Astros began their run of six playoff appearances in nine years in 1997, he was there when they moved from the Astrodome to Minute Maid Park in 2000, and he was there in October when they finally reached the World Series.
There is no one person who has seen more throughout the Astros’ history than Smith, who has been with the club on and off for a total of 29 years, serving in one capacity or another since Houston was awarded a franchise in 1960.
For the previous 11 years, Smith, 72, has been serving as the Astros’ president of baseball operations.
“He’s the most highly respected senior executive in baseball,” says Astros owner Drayton McLane, who brought Smith back to the organization after a 13-year absence in November 1994.
For all his contributions to the game and particularly to baseball in Houston, Baseball America has recognized Tal Smith with a Lifetime Achievement Award, a fitting honor for a man who has spent most of his life building the game.
Smith’s love affair with baseball began at an early age. While he recognized early he didn’t have what it took to make it in the game as a player, he knew he wanted to be around baseball.
A native of Framingham, Mass., Smith tinkered with radio broadcasting while he was a student at Duke and even spent a summer as an editorial assistant for The Sporting News in St. Louis.
Following graduation, he served as an officer in the Air Force for two years and briefly worked as a newspaper reporter for the Cape Cod Standard-Times. Smith had written, among others, Cincinnati Reds general manager Gabe Paul about a position with the club, which led to Smith’s first baseball gig. In 1957 Paul hired him as an administrative assistant in the Reds’ player-development department.
“In Cincinnati, I sort of worked my way up in scouting and player development and started at what can best be described as a secretarial position,” Smith says.
When Paul came to Houston to help start the city’s expansion franchise in 1960, Smith tagged along and was named assistant to the general manager. But Paul took a job with the Indians less than a year later. Smith had planned to follow him before Astrodome visionary Judge Roy Hofheinz asked him to stay and oversee the construction of what was known as the eighth wonder of the world.
“I called Gabe and he said that sounds like an interesting opportunity and said, ‘Why don’t you give it a try, and if it doesn’t work out you’ve always got a home here.’ So I stayed,” Smith says.
Smith was named vice president and director of player personnel of the Astros in 1965, and in 1972 switched hats to oversee the Astrodome-Astrohall stadium corporation. Paul, meanwhile, went to the Yankees in 1973 and persuaded Smith to join him as the executive vice president.
But his stay in the Bronx was short-lived. The Astros went through a reorganization soon after Smith left, and he was asked to return as the club’s GM in 1975.
“Obviously, that was a unique opportunity because Houston had been our home and I was familiar with the club, so I came back,” Smith says.
Smith’s crowning achievement as GM came in 1980, when the young Astros made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Phillies in the fifth and decisive game of the National League Championship Series.
Smith had a falling out with Astros owner John McMullen and was fired following that memorable 1980 season, beginning a stretch of 13 years away from the Astros.
During this time, Smith started Tal Smith Enterprises, which provided consultation to major league clubs on matters such as salary arbitration, the financial appraisal of franchises and expert testimony in sports-related litigation. The firm blossomed, and Smith eventually provided consulting services to 26 of 30 major league clubs.
“I wanted to stay in Houston and I thought there was a niche for the way the game had grown,” Smith says. “We could really be a benefit to clubs in contract negotiations and salary arbitration and things like that. There were a lot of specialized areas that could be handled by somebody on a short-term basis instead of trying to staff for them on a permanent basis.”
Smith was hired by McLane to do consulting work when McLane was considering buying the Astros in 1993. Impressed with his knowledge of the franchise, of Houston and baseball in general, McLane talked Smith into another return to the organization in 1994, this time as club president.
“I told him I didn’t want to give up the consulting practice because I enjoyed it. I had staff there and I didn’t want to displace them,” Smith says. “After talking about it off and on over a period of time, he and (former Astros president of business operations) Bob McClaren came to me and designed a program where I could continue to do the consultation practice in areas that wouldn’t compete and conflict with the Astros, and yet give the Astros whatever time and attention they needed.”
The Astros won four division titles in five years from 1997-2000, but couldn’t escape the first round of the playoffs. Finally in 2004, with newcomers Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Carlos Beltran, the team rallied to win the NL wild card with a 36-10 finish and knocked off the Braves in an NL Division Series. It was the franchise’s first playoff series win, and the stinging loss to the Cardinals in seven games in the NLCS left the Astros anxious to go further in 2005.
The team got off to a terrible 15-30 start and was left for dead, but posted the best record in baseball the final four months of the season to reach the playoffs again. The Astros again beat the Braves in the Division Series and outlasted the Cardinals in the NLCS to reach the World Series for the first time.
Even though the Astros were swept in four games by the White Sox, reaching the World Series was a proud moment for Smith and helped ease the pain that had lingered since the playoff loss to the Phillies 25 years earlier.
“These last two years have been just extraordinary,” Smith says. “From the standpoint of the great finishing kick we had in 2004, that was a great thrill. This year, after the tough hole we dug at the beginning of the season, to come back and not only win the Division Series but the LCS and get to (the World Series) stage, it was very, very satisfying. Very thrilling.”
Smith marvels at how Houston has changed as a baseball city since 1962, when it had a struggling expansion franchise playing in a makeshift stadium in the parking lot of what would become the Astrodome.
The Astros have been one of baseball’s most successful franchises on and off the field in the past 10 years, and there is perhaps no one prouder of those accomplishments than Smith.
“I’ve seen Houston grow, prosper and change and we just love it from a baseball standpoint,” he says. “Obviously, there was a lot of excitement about an expansion franchise here, but it was completely new.
“Over the years, we’ve really built a following now, and that’s one thing that separates expansion clubs from the existing clubs. With the legacy of fan interest being passed down from generation to generation, now we’re starting to see that and to build on it.”