The first number to be retired in Astro franchise history was Jim Umbricht's number 32. On the eve of game number 32 let's explore why a pitcher who only pitched 134 innings for the Colt .45s was the first to have his number retired and why Walt Bond has a case to make for his own number being retired.
Umbricht pitched two seasons for the Colt .45s, 1962 and 1963. In those two seasons, in 143 innings, he posted an 8-3 record as a reliever with a 148 ERA+. Not only would those be the final two seasons of his Major League career, but also 1963 was his final full year alive. On April 8, 1964, at the age of 33 Jim Umbricht passed away due to melanoma cancer.
He was a well liked player, that was dealt a bad hand, and thus was given the honor of being the first player in the new Houston franchises history to have his number retired. Not only that but the Colts also changed their team's Most Valuable Player Award to the Jim Umbricht Award.
Umbricht was diagnosed with cancer before the 1963 season, yet still pitched the most innings of his career, 73 inning, with a 122 ERA+. This made him an inspiring, tragic story about how disease can affect even the most gifted of our society, and it certainly robbed baseball of a fine pitcher and person.
In my research, however, I noticed that not everyone was a fan of Umbricht's number being retired. According to Wikipedia* journalists often point to Umbricht's retired number as a criticism of the retired number process, but also Jimmy Wynn in his autobiography mentioned a player with a similar case that didn't have his number retired, despite appearing in more games than Umbricht. That player Walt Bond.
*Before all you English teachers freak out about using Wikipedia, I know it's not a good reference, however, it does have its uses and can be a great starting point if you follow the references for research.
So I bought Jimmy Wynn's autobiography and here's the exact passage:
"If the Houston club believed that it was fitting and proper to retire Jim Umbricht's uniform number 32 in his honor, which they did, why couldn't they have done the same for Walt Bond and retired his number too? Bond even played more games as a Colt .45."
There are some variables that make Umbricht and Bond's cases different. Bond's never finished his career with the Astros, in 1966 he was traded to the Minnesota Twins for Ken Retzer who never appeared in the Major Leagues for the Astros. He was released by the Twins on May 15, 1967, and would eventually sign on with the New York Mets AAA affiliate in Jacksonville, but only played a few games before returning to Houston.
Walt Bond passed away September 15, 1967, at Methodist Hospital in Houston at the age of 29.
In two seasons with the Astros Bond's posted a .258/.322/.397 line, the thing you have to remember about that line is that it's from the 60's. A time period that wasn't known for offense. Throw in Colt Stadium and the Astrodome and you can see why that line pales in comparison to today's numbers. Luckily OPS+ adjust for era and park factors, meaning the 108 OPS+ Bond's posted made him an above average player for Houston, and the Astros first power hitter for that matter.
In 1964 Bond's walloped 20 homeruns and drove in 85 runs, both marks that are now outside the franchise's top 50 leaderboard. Moving into Astrodome the next year sapped Bond's of his power as he only hit seven homeruns that year, however, while his slugging was down he managed to improve both his average and on base percentage. His 106 OPS+ meant he was still an above average player, however, was the lack of homeruns the Astrosdome or was it the leukemia he had been diagnosed with several years earlier, that was supposed to be inactive.
Bond's was first diagnosed with Leukemia in the Army and he carried that burden with him during his time with Cleveland and his two year stint with the Astros, who were aware of his medical condition.
I don't know exactly why Umbricht's number is retired and the likes of Bond's, or even J.R. Richards for that matter, are not. By all accounts Umbricht seemed like a likable guy and a fan favorite, and by that same token I've found quotes regarding Bond's in that same fashion.
The underlying racial tones of that era may have played a factor, but I don't want to make this a black and white issue, and I'm not calling for Bond's number to be retired or Umbricht's number to be unretired. But I do think that at the very least when we talk about Jim Umbricht and his courage or look at his retired number we remember Walt Bond's courage.
That retired number, no. 32, doesn't have to stand for just one man. Instead, it could stand for every player taken from the game of baseball too soon. I think even critics of retiring numbers could get on board with that. Bond's jersey number with the Astros, by the way 23. The same two numbers just in a different order. If that's what the number comes to represent, it will be one of the best things the Astros franchise has ever done.
"Both Umbricht and Bond were fine human beings who cared about others and died way to soon for any of us to understand God's plan for each." -Jimmy Wynn Toy Cannon: The Autobiography of Baseball's Jimmy Wynn
If you want to read more about Walter Bond check out James Anderson's piece at the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame's website. It's a wonderful read and where I got a good bit of my research.
Walt Bond Obituary Baseball Almanac
"A Ballplayer Who was Big In Stature and Big Of heart"" by James Anderson - Texas Baseball Hall of Fame
Walt Bond Player Profile Astros Daily
Jim Umbricht Player Profile Astros Daily