One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.
Topps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.
Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.
In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.
But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?
Not so fast.
In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time trying to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”
The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.
When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe become a productive citizen?
The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.
In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.
Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.
18 thoughts on “Whither the Astros?”
Fascinating, Mark! Sent me scurrying to the long book about Roy Hofheinz … but alas, no mention of any real dispute between the Astros and Monsanto. One avenue of study, though: referenced 1977 book, “Faith, Hope and $5,000, the Story of Monsanto.” Which includes the following passage: “In 1966 no one appreciated that the AstroTurf trademark would become the most widely used of all Monsanto trademarks… The only big advantage that was slow in coming to Monsanto was profitability for the inventor. It took seven years for the product to get into the black…”
I can imagine some bad blood between Monsanto and Hofheinz/Astros, especially if Hofheinz got a sweetheart deal while Monsanto kept losing money.
Maybe Tal Smith would recall something?
Thanks, Rob. I will have to check, but I believe that someone asked Tal Smith on my behalf a couple of years ago and he did not recall. I should have researched this 10 years ago when more people (like Sy Berger) were still around. Obviously I do not understand trademark law well enough!
Response, 5 years later! (Just saw this.)
I’m the person who contacted Tal Smith for Mark Armour about this issue, (he could easily have forgotten it was me since I didn’t initially remember it myself) and I have copies of all the correspondence, including an email from Tal, which I’m willing to share with you privately. But long story short, Tal was unable to shed much light on this particular issue, although he did have interesting things to say about the origins of Astroturf. He had no memory of Monsanto raising any objections to the use of the word Astros, legal or otherwise, on baseball cards or any other merchandise. The Topps decision to avoid using the team nickname during those years likely will remain a permanent mystery. The most popular speculation is that Topps got wind of some sort of dispute around the Astros wanting a cut in royalties for the name Astroturf, and Topps didn’t want to get into the middle of any legal fallout on that issue and so avoided the team’s nickname out of an abundance (overabundance) of caution. But the Astros trademarked the word Astros, not the word Astroturf, and never the twain shall meet. I could see Hofheinz pitching the idea to Monsanto of getting a cut, but not with any legal standing, so if he did intimate legal redress, it was a bluff, and if he didn’t, Monsanto nevertheless may have been vigilantly watchful about the possibility and perhaps their vigilance turned into a leak of some sort that landed on a desk at Topps.
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Since this article was published, we found contemporary evidence that it was the Astros acting on their own.
There are a few Astroturf registered trademarks (e.g., 0864757), but they are limited in scope to grass replacement uses. They don’t have much use outside of that area of commerce. Further, the Astros own several earlier trademarks (e.g., 0805802) that are specific to baseball (plus they probably had additional rights under state-level trademark protections). Thus, the Astros probably had the legal right to let Topps use the name. It is possible that Monsanto brought up a meritless trademark claim and, out of an abundance of caution, Topps chose not to use the name. All in all, I doubt the trademark explanation is correct, but it is possible!
Thanks for doing the legwork on this Mike.
Well, not exactly evidence per se, since the question that’s obviously begged is: did the Astros request some sort of financial compensation from the baseball card companies for the privilege of reproducing images of their players, emblems, and logos? It would seem to be the only plausible explanation, but a definitive answer to it doesn’t appear in this collector newsletter item. It’s assumed, but not acknowledged by Bill Giles or by Topps. But at least the replies seem to eliminate any likelihood of Monsanto’s involvement.
Correction: yes, evidence the Astros acted on their own. That’s clear from Giles’ reply.
I often wondered about the absence of the Astros logo in 68-69. How about no team cards until 1970? They skipped them from 64-68.
Amazing. I was just watching the Astros in the World Series and thought back to my baseball card days in the 60s, so I googled this exact question. I always wondered why they had their city name and all the other franchises had their team names. So now I know! Thank you.
I’d love to see an analysis of the Houston Topps cards from 62 to 64 and their radically inconsistent abbreviation of Houston and Colt .45’s.
It seems that the more likely culprit for the disappearance of Astros iconography is the MLBPA’s boycott of Topps in 1967/1968, which is why there are so many reused photos in 1968 and 1969, as players refused to work with Topps’ photographers until Topps was willing to sign a deal with the new union. Blacked-out caps are likely .45s caps from the Topps archives (and policy was to never show an outdated team cap), and the hatless photos likely also .45s era.