In that Texas soap opera there may be mystery about who shot J.R. but there is no secret at all about who shot down T.S. The man with the smoking gun is John McMullen, viewed in Houston as a beady-eyed Easterner, not our kind of folk, who happens to be the principal owner of the Astros. He admits everything.
T.S. is Tal Smith, the admired general manager of the Astros and guiding genius behind their emergence in 1980 as a National League power. Scarcely 20 days after the Astros produced ecstasy in Houston by winning something for the first time, the National League West Division, principal owner McMullen invited Smith into his office for a chat, and fired him.
All Houston is outraged, seething -- the city's fans, the press, the radio stations and the several limited partners of absentee owner McMullen. Boiling in oil was considered, and rejected as too kind a fate for McMullen. Also, the application of massive thumbscrews or other Tormequadan effects. The rack and the wheel are gaining votes. Never before had the city such a common enemy. There is a crusade to get rid of McMullen somehow.
He fired Tal Smith, McMullen said, "because of a difference in philosophies." McMullen wanted to win not only the NL West but the pennant and the World Series -- the whole schmeer. Poor Smith could negotiate only the first big step, but he thought the Astros did pretty well for a team that finished fifth two years before, and now had given long-suffering Houston fans its best won-lost record in history. The NL West title was Heavenly.
It may be time to ask what manner of man is John McMullen, the Montclair, N.J., investor who bought into the Astros last year. In Houston they think he is pretty much of a scoundrel, with his 33 percent ownership that gives him, by contract, legal operating authority over the club.
They're making something of the fact that McMullen, like the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, also is allied with the shipbuilding business, which seems to spawn heavy-handed baseball clubowners. McMullen also was at one time a limited partner of Steinbrenner in the Yankees. By profession he is a naval architect. But Houston baseball men say that as an authoritarian, McMullen out-Steinbrenners Steinbrenner.
Don Sanders, prominent Houston citizen who is a limited partner in the Astros, appears livid at McMullen's summary firing of Smith without consulting or notifying the other 25 partners.
"There's nothing more limited than being a limited partner of Georege Steinbrenner's or John McMullen's," Sanders said, quoting a man who had been both. "But at least Steinbrenner will admit a mistake."
David LeFevre, a New York attorney who brought McMullen into the Astro deal last year and is a 10 percent owner, now is leading the fight against him. He has hired impressive legal counsel to stop McMullen in the courts.
LeFevre says he has a "larger goal" than restoring Smith to the GM job at Houston. "Our broader target is to get rid of McMullen. It is not a new idea but has been forming for many weeks after other actions by McMullen destructible to the Houston community." He did not detail them, but said, "The days of putting up with John McMullen's idiosyncracies are over."
Another thing they didn't like was McMullen's hiring, on the spot, of former Yankee front office man, Al Rosen, to replace Smith. "He sprang that one on us, too," said Sanders, who called Rosen "an innocent bystander" in this business. But, LeFevre was more outspoken. "If McMullen thinks Al Rosen is the best executive in baseball it shows a severe lack of judgement and intellignece on his part."
McMullen's knowledge of baseball has been questioned before, including one story that it was far into the season when he asked Smith, "What is an RBI?" Another story reports that he never heard of The Sporting News until he bought the team.
McMullen is a graduate of the Naval Academy with intense Annapolis loyalties. When he passed up attending the Astro's last crucial showdown series with the Dodgers for the NL West title, he explained, "There will be other baseball games, but there will never be another 40th reunion of my Annapolis class."
He is no man to pussyfoot. He says he made it clear to his partners from the beginning that they would have few rights. He is reminding them now that they have no legal grounds to overrule him, and he also doesn't like them discussing through the media.
Smith has related the circumstances under which McMullen fired him. "I was invited into his office and we discussed baseball for a while. Then he handed me a brief, written note that said I was being replaced." Simple as that.
McMullen later agreed to hold a press conference, but on his own terms, which were not only confounding to the Houston press but bordered on the hilarious. He would admit each interviewer separately to his "conference" and each would have 15 minutes in his presence.
Harry Shattuck of The Houston Chronicle has described what he called his own bizarre experience at a McMullen-type press conference. "Outside his office, my car was stopped on the street by an armed guard, and I was told to pull over and wait. After a bit I was invited in with my photographer, the first press men so honored. After what apparently was exactly 15 minutes with Mr. McMullen, there was a knocking on the door from the outside. Somebody was telling us to leave."
The Chronicle man said McMullen made his baseball priorities clear to him. He was not satisfied merely with having a division winner. "You mean you aren't happy because you didn't have the absolute best," Shattuck said. "Exactly," said McMullen.
McMullen also said he thought Smith, with the attendance bonus clauses in his contract about to bounce his salary far up, would be overpaid, "too expensive to keep." But the main reason for it all, he emphasized, were those "different philosophies." Smith didn't agree that finishing first in the West was unpleasant.
The firing of Tal Smith by John McMullen for philosophic disagreement may be the closest approximation in 88 years of the dismissal of the Washington Senator's manager in the old 12-club National League in 1892 as recalled by a certain historian.
When club owner Earl Wagner announced to the press that he had fired Manager Bill Barnie he said it was "for insubordination." When asked for details, Wagner explained, "I asked Barnie to resign and he refused. I call that insubordination."