Fifty-four years later, it remains one of baseball’s saddest stories. A talented athlete who had fought had to get to the big leagues, taken by cancer at age 33. Jim Umbricht was more than just a skilled reliever, though. He was among the most popular members of the young Houston franchise of the 1960s, a man his teammates would never forget. Now, what has to be the most tangible, touching piece of memorabilia associated with his career is being offered at auction.
One of Umbricht’s Houston Colt 45s jerseys, signed by over 40 members of the 1964 club as a gift and show of support in his final days, is in the current Heritage Auctions catalog. It’s expected to sell for $10,000 or more.
Umbricht was a two-sport star at the University of Georgia, who once scored 50 points against future Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Pettit and his LSU Tigers. Baseball was his passion, though, and after paying his way to a minor league tryout in 1953, the 6-4, 215-pound shortstop was converted to a pitcher. Drafted by the military, he spent two years in service but finally worked his way to the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959. Selected by the Colt 45’s in the 1962 expansion draft, he found success, with an 8-3 record and a 2.33 ERA over two seasons.
While playing golf with general manager Paul Richards during spring training, he mentioned a black mole on the back of his leg. A team doctor sent him to a cancer specialist and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. During a six-hour operation, additional tumors were found. Still in good spirits and said to have made a positive impact on fellow patients, Umbricht left the hospital with 100 stitches in his leg. He rejoined the team, though, and despite a stay on the disabled list, made it through the season.
Umbricht reported to spring training in Florida during March of 1964, but his health had deteriorated. He returned to a Houston hospital and his unworn jersey was hung on the locker room in tribute. With just a short time to live, he conversed with teammates on a post-game radio show.
It was the last time he’d be with them.
After that emotional call, Umbricht’s #32 jersey was passed around and signed in laundry marker by his fellow players, coaches and team officials. Houston sportswriter Al Thomy delivered the jersey to Umbricht in his hospital room. He died of melanoma on April 8, 1964.
“He was a great inspiration for our club. We will not forget Jim Umbricht. And we will miss him more than we know,” Richards told the Houston Post that spring.
Umbricht’s number 32 was retired by the Astros in 1965. His ashes were spread on the Astrodome construction site.
The jersey has 41 signatures on the front and looks virtually the same as it did in 1964. It has been consigned to auction by the family and has never before been offered at auction. Among the autographs on the tail are Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, then a young second base prospect, and six-time All-Star Rusty Staub, who recently passed away.
The media attention the story received may have saved the life of another athlete. Los Angeles Rams linebacker Jack Pardee found a mole on his arm after reading about Umbricht and had what was also diagnosed as malignant melanoma removed during surgery. He missed the 1965 season but went on to live a full life, playing several more NFL seasons and later becoming a coach.
Umbricht’s personal traveling suit is also included in the auction, which runs through May 17 at HA.com.