HOUSTON -- Nolan Ryan getting lifted onto the shoulders of teammates after throwing his fifth career no-hitter in 1981 in the Astrodome. Glenn Davis stepping on first base, jubilantly raising his hands in the air to finish off Mike Scott’s division-clinching no-hitter in 1986. And Billy Hatcher running backwards to first base while watching his game-tying homer in the 14th inning of the 1986 National League Championship Series.
Some of the greatest moments in franchise history remain etched in the minds of longtime Astros fans, and each of them has one very colorful thing in common: rainbow jerseys.
If you were an Astros fan growing up in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably loved the team’s unique and eye-catching “tequila sunrise” jerseys that made the club stand out with their blend of orange, yellow and red horizontal stripes wrapping around the players’ torsos. The Astros wore them from 1975-86, but the rainbow scheme remains a part of the team’s fabric today.
“My first experience with them was when I came up from Triple-A to Houston and I came walking in, and at that time, we wore them at home and on the road,” said Terry Puhl, who played outfield for the Astros from 1977-90. “That was the only uniform that we had. I loved them, I really did. I still have one of them at home. It was the first Major League uniform I ever wore. To me, it was fabulous.”
In the 1970s, baseball uniforms were changing. The traditional gray road flannel button-up jerseys were giving way to the psychedelic ‘70s, when bright color patterns and pullover jersey tops were the thing. Astros owner Judge Hofheinz always had an eye for something splashy and asked advertising firm McCann Erickson to come up with something to replace the shooting star logo the team had worn on its home uniforms since it moved into the Astrodome in 1965.
"We were in severe financial trouble and very close to being bankrupt. Also, we had a pretty bad ballclub,” Gary Rollins, former vice president of the Astros TV and radio network, told ESPN.com, in 2017. “Judge Hofheinz wanted to put a new face on everything. He wanted something that would look uniquely special. So I went to McCann Erickson, which was one of our ad agencies, and had them take a completely fresh look at developing a new on-field look for the team.”
The rainbow pullover jerseys, which were worn at home and on the road from 1975-79 and only at home from 1980-86, certainly made the Astros unique, even though they were sometimes lambasted by announcers in the game.
“It was criticized by some, but it was really loved here in Houston,” longtime Astros executive Tal Smith said. “It helped set the club apart, helped establish its identity. That’s all positive.”
The early versions of the rainbow jerseys featured the players’ jersey numbers in a white circular patch on the back. The Astros also had the uniform numbers on the front of the right pants leg at the time.
“I didn’t like those,” former Astros slugger Bob Watson said in 2015. “When they first started wearing them, the number on your back was in a white circle like a bull’s-eye. And then they had the number on your leg, on your pants. That was unusual. The rainbow colors kind of grew on you. When they first did it, I went ‘You’ve got be kidding me!’ We were a Sherwin-Williams color wheel or something. The thing was that was the era of all the weird uniforms from the Cleveland Indians wearing all red, the Pirates wore all black, and I think the one that I really wouldn’t have liked -- the Chicago White Sox wore shorts -- and all that kind of stuff. I know they were trying to do something non-traditional, and the rainbows were definitely non-traditional.”
The Astros changed uniforms in 1987 and had the rainbows only on their sleeves. In 1994 they changed uniforms again and ditched the rainbow pattern before reaching back into their heritage and bringing them back on the side of their batting practice alternate jersey beginning in 2013.
Still, the rainbow jersey remains a popular throwback. It didn’t hurt that when George Springer appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2014, he was wearing an Astros rainbow jersey. They were cool once again. And if you go to any Astros game these days -- home or road -- you’re certain to spot at least one rainbow jersey in the stands.