Houston, we have a problem: Astrodome is on life support

By Paul Ferrante

The Astrodome — one of the monumental concepts in sports history, has been in place now for 50 years. And it’s still making news in Houston.

Air view of Houston Astrodome Stadium, August 1965. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

To tell the story of this iconic venue correctly, I’d need to write a book. But since I’m spatially limited, the plan here is to divide the Astrodome’s story into its life as a viable sports arena and its life afterwards, which is interesting in itself. Along the way I’ll try to sprinkle in some strange tidbits about the place that really caught my attention as I conducted my research.

So let’s start with this one: the Astrodome was NOT the first Major League covered stadium. According to Philip J. Lowry in his book Green Cathedrals, the New York Cubans of the Negro National League played on a field under the Queensborough 59th St. Bridge in New York City in the 1930s. There was even an idea for a domed stadium floated in the mid-1950s as a replacement for Ebbets Field when the Dodgers were threatening to leave Brooklyn.

But really, the concept of an indoor domed stadium in Houston can be attributed to Judge Roy Hofheinz, a multimillionaire who had served as mayor of Houston. As the story goes, Hofheinz had visited the Roman Colosseum on a trip to Italy and had learned that back in 80 A.D. the arena had been covered at times with a velarium, a kind of awning that was pulled into place by slaves to keep the sun from beating down on the Colosseum’s patrons. And if there was ever a place to catch some shade, Houston, Texas was it.

The Astros had entered the National League as an expansion team — then nicknamed the now-politically incorrect Colt .45s — in 1962, and were forced to play their games in antiquated Colt Stadium. This ballpark quickly became notorious for two things: the intense heat, where day games caused hundreds of fans to drop from heat exhaustion; and the B-52 sized mosquitoes that regularly carpet bombed the stands despite frequent spraying, causing the Phillies’ Richie Ashburn to comment that women in Houston wore insect repellent in lieu of perfume.

Three months after the Colt .45s joined the Senior Circuit, voters approved a $22 million bond issue to build the “Harris County Domed Stadium” near S. Main Street. Hofheinz envisioned the dome as an all-sports arena that could also serve as a prime venue for concerts, conventions, and just about anything else where you could pack in a humongous crowd. The Astrodome would become all of these things. In fact, during those heady years of the mid-’60s, its novelty would overshadow the teams that played in it.

General view of the Houston Astrodome during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, August 1996. (Photo by: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

When the Harris County Domed Stadium was completed, it stood as high as an 18-story building and cost $35.5 million to build. (Three men died during its construction.) The maximum height was 208 feet, and the outdoor diameter was 710 feet. Its original baseball dimensions were 340’ to left, 406’ to center, and 340’ to right. (These would be shortened as time went on.) It would seat 45,000 for baseball and 52,000 for football. The original surface was — believe it or not — Bermuda grass.

The opening of the stadium was met with tremendous hoopla. The New York Yankees were brought in on April 9, 1965 to face the newly renamed Astros in the first exhibition game. President Lyndon Johnson, his wife, and Texas Governor John Connolly were in attendance, and the Yanks’ Mickey Mantle hit the first home run ever in the Dome.
Now, before I get into the problems “the 8th Wonder of the World” encountered, let me tell you about some of the “features” of the stadium that were trumpeted by the Astros in their promotional literature of the time:

– 41,000 cushioned, upholstered theater-style seats
– Sections of stands that could be moved on rails with the push of a button
– Equidistance of spectators’ seats to the center of the playing field
– 4,596 skylights (7’2” x 3’4”) made of Lucite that comprised the dome
– 1,906 floodlights
– Over 6,000 tons of air conditioning to circulate 2.5 million cubic feet of air each minute while filtering any smoke or hot air and drawing it through the top of the roof
– A $2 million scoreboard that would provide an electric show of over 40 seconds when the Astros hit a home run
– Parking for 30,000 cars
– A choice of dining venues including the Skydome Club (80 seats) for patrons of the 53 Skydome Boxes, where the food was prepared at the patron’s table (and each Skybox owner would have his own specially engraved golden spatula with which to be served); the Astrodome Club (600 seats), a private membership club for season ticket owners which featured a separate men-only bar and served five course meals; the Trailblazer (300 seats); the Countdown Cafeteria (300 seats); and the Domeskeller (2,000 capacity) for group functions
– 15 separate “Galaxie Gifts/Satellite Shops” souvenir stands where you could purchase team-related items from ashtrays ($1.50) to jackets ($10)
– “Rocket trains” carrying 64 persons each that picked up fans in the parking lot and transported them to the stadium entrance
– A heliport for helicopters to land in a corner of the parking lot
– More drinking fountains (40) than all the other MLB parks combined
– The first stadium guided tours ($1 in 1965)
– 53 Skybox suites completely decorated with wall-to-wall carpeting, telephone, radio, television, toilet, ice maker and bar. Every Skybox had its own theme and was decorated accordingly. Here are some of the more intriguing names: Parthenon, Aztec, Pagoda Den, French Riviera, Red Dragon, Tahitian Holiday, Spanish Armada, Golliwogs, Petroleum Room and Laverne. One can only guess what the last three looked like on the inside.

As we can see, there had never been anything like the Astrodome in American sports. Can you imagine the thoughts running through old Casey Stengel’s head as he brought his New York Mets in there? Old-timers must’ve thought they were on another planet — further compounded when the Astrodome grounds crew came out in full astronaut uniforms, including space helmets!

Groundskeepers are forced to wear ‘futuristic’ spacesuit uniforms as they prepare the diamond for the first game in the Astrodome, Houston, Texas, April 12, 1965. The dome, as seen here, had a translucent roof to allow the grass to grow but glare caused the panes to be painted over, which in turn caused the grass to die. Eventually Monsanto invented AstroTurf, the first and most famous artificial grass replacement. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

Anyway, the official opening of the stadium (I just can’t call it a ballpark — sorry) took place on April 12, 1965, with Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, National League President Warren Giles, and 22 genuine astronauts (it was Houston, after all, headquarters of NASA and the “space race” to the moon) on hand for the pregame festivities. In front of a paid crowd of around 46,000, the Astros lost to the Phillies, 2-0, and were off and flying.

But then some problems began to surface. First, and least important, was the necessity for some unprecedented ground rules. For example, any ball that hit the speakers or roof in foul territory would be considered dead, but balls striking the roof in fair territory were in play.

Then there was the roof fiasco. Outfielders chasing fly balls during day games were subjected to a glare from the aforementioned Lucite panels so intense that they were temporarily blinded and couldn’t locate the ball. A number of remedies were tried, from having the players wear orange sunglasses and batting helmets while on the field, to experimenting with different colored baseballs, all to no avail. In the end, the obvious solution was to paint over the panels.

But this led to yet another problem: all the Bermuda grass died from lack of natural sunlight. The team actually ended up painting the remaining dead grass and dirt green until a solution could be had.

Enter Astroturf. In March 1966 the bright green carpet-like fake grass developed by the Monsanto Chemical Company was literally rolled out. In the 1966 Astrodome promo booklet we are told, “The unique surface, which may someday become the regulation surface for all of baseball, was thoroughly tested before installation on the playing field of the Astrodome.” Initially, we are also told, the players raved about it, with third baseman Bob Aspromonte rating only San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (of all places) as a better playing surface. Shortstop Bob Lillis lauded the turf’s true bounces, and manager Grady Hatton went so far as to say, “The Astrodome now becomes a real Utopia for baseball. No wind, no sun, no rain, no cold, and no bad bounces.” [Author’s note: Remember that there was no mandatory drug testing in those days.]

Of course, time and experience have proven the opposite to be the truth (even back then, the irascible Leo Durocher called it “the world’s biggest pool table”), so that today the idea of playing baseball on a carpet is almost universally shunned by both players and fans. But in the mid-1960s, who knew? The Astros club, which featured some very good players like Jimmy Wynn, Joe Morgan, Lee Maye and Rusty Staub, would just have to deal with the stadium’s quirks.

(By the way, the highest regular ticket in the place in 1965 cost $3.50, and a hot dog was $.30. Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Baseball-wise, some incidents of note included various teams complaining that the Astros varied the wind currents generated by the air-conditioners to keep their opponents’ fly balls within the confines of the field. Mike Schmidt of the Phillies actually hit a ball once that was estimated to have traveled 500 feet had it not struck a speaker 117 feet up and 329 feet from home plate. It ended up as a single when it dropped down into centerfield.

Legendary New York Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson actually broadcast a game from a gondola directly above second base. None of the Mets hit him with a ball, though.
And then, in 1976 the unthinkable happened: a rainout. Well, more like a rain-in. What happened was, Houston got so flooded by a rain storm that the fans couldn’t get to the game, so it was canceled.

Unfortunately, the Astrodome led the way to the onslaught of nondescript, cookie-cutter turfed doughnuts of the ’70s, followed by other domed abominations like the Kingdome in Seattle, the Metrodome in Minnesota, and “the Trop” in Tampa Bay, but that’s a story for another time.

A copy of the Astrodome magazine. (Image courtesy Paul Ferrante)

As far as baseball history is concerned, the Astrodome did play host to two NLCS, in 1980 when the Astros were bested by the eventual world champion Phillies, and in 1986, when the Mets beat them in a thrilling series before defeating the Red Sox in the Fall Classic.

Two MLB All-Star games were played there as well. During their time in the Astrodome, the Astros weren’t always a great team, but they sure were colorful. Yes, they had players like Bob Watson, José Cruz, J.R. Richard, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but it was their uniforms, particularly the 1970s “rainbow” model, that have gone down in baseball lore.

Of course, baseball was not the only major sport played in the Astrodome. For years it served as the home of the Houston Oilers (1968-1996) and was the scene of some memorable games, especially during the tenure of coach A.O. “Bum” Phillips, though the Oilers never made it to the Super Bowl. The “love ya Blue” squad of Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell is still remembered fondly by Houston fans. The short-lived Houston Gamblers of the USFL, led by future Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly, also called the Astrodome home, and college football’s Houston Cougars and the NCAA Bluebonnet Bowl were based there.

Basketball history was also made in the Astrodome in 1968 when the “Game of the Century” between the University of Houston, led by Elvin Hayes, defeated the then-Lew Alcindor led UCLA Bruins before a record crowd of 52,963 — the first NCAA regular-season game ever broadcast in primetime. The Astrodome also hosted the 1989 NBA All-Star game.

Other sports and diversions flourished in the Astrodome as well, from Evel Knievel jumping over 13 cars to Muhammad Ali defeating Cleveland Williams in a heavyweight bout, the tennis match “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, motocross races, rodeos, bullfighting, the circus, polo, and even Wrestlemania.

Showbiz-wise, you had everyone from Elvis, Judy Garland and George Strait to Metallica and Guns n’ Roses perform there. The singer Selena gave her last concert there before her tragic murder. The stadium also was used as a movie set in the dreadful 1977 Bad News Bears sequel.

On a more serious note, after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the Astrodome also sheltered at least 25,000 evacuees from New Orleans — most of whom had been moved from the Superdome — until they could return home.

The future

But the clock was running out on the Astrodome by the 1990s. In 1995, a scheduled preseason football game between the Oilers and San Diego Chargers had to be canceled due to the poor condition of the playing field. Oilers owner Bud Adams demanded a new stadium, and when he didn’t get it, he moved the team to Tennessee after the ’96 season. Around that time the Astros had also become weary of the edifice once looked upon proudly as “Houston’s Eiffel Tower.” They, too, threatened to leave the city unless a new, retractable-dome ballpark was built. That would happen when Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) opened for the 2000 season in downtown Houston.

In 2008, the facility was cited for numerous building code violations. Since then, only maintenance workers and security guards have been allowed to enter the stadium while it’s brought up to code. (Houston put in a bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, which included a renovation of the Astrodome for use as the main stadium, but that fell through when they were not chosen by the IOC.) Other ideas that didn’t come to fruition were turning the Astrodome into a luxury hotel and a movie production studio.

In 2013 the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Astrodome on its list of most endangered places, and 2014 saw it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But a referendum for the structure to undergo a $200 million renovation that would prolong its life as a multipurpose event/convention facility was defeated.
So, what to do with the “8th Wonder of the World”? Even those in favor of its demolition shudder at the projected cost — anywhere from $5 million-$80 million, depending upon whom you ask. There is always the hope that a private investor will come to the rescue and save the building, but for now it’s been relegated to being a nostalgic rusting eyesore, sitting side-by-side with Reliant Stadium, which hosted Super Bowl LI.

But that doesn’t mean collectors haven’t been able to get at its fixtures. When people say the Astrodome is just a shell of its former self, they aren’t kidding. Virtually everything inside has been sold.

In November 2013, more than 4,000 people lined up for a sale and auction at the nearby Reliant Center, searching for items from 12” x 12” pieces of Astroturf ($20) to seats ($200 per pair, unmounted). Larger items, such as turnstiles, autographed lockers and dugout benches, were auctioned off. A locker signed by Earl Campbell sold for $2,200, and another autographed by Astros great José Cruz garnered $1,500.
The sale was such a success that a second one (online) was held on April 20, 2015 and went until May. There was a two-pair stadium seat limit per person, and the pickup dates were June 11-13 at an NRG Arena. Tickets had to be purchased to enter the arena. By this time the orange seats had been sold out, but silver, red, and bleacher seats could still be had, as a total of 6,100 pairs were made available in all. Of course, the most desirable ones were the aisle seats that sported the state of Texas logo. You could also find such oddball stuff as huge head and shoulder artwork portraits of Astros greats that must have adorned the walkways and lounges of the stadium, and the actual astronaut helmets worn by the grounds crew as they raked the infield and vacuumed the Astroturf.

Seeking a dealer’s perspective on the desirability of Astrodome relics, I checked in with old friend Richie Aurigemma of www.CollectibleStadiumSeats.com, who actually attended a game there in the 1980s. He found the place rather sterile and not well-lit, though the multicolored seats and the scoreboard did give it a little life. He said it was marginally better than Olympic Stadium in Montréal, which I have previously profiled in Sports Collectors Digest.

As far as Astrodome fixtures, Aurigemma does not consider them especially sought after by the general public, due partly to the sales the team already has conducted, which seem to have satisfied the demand of Astros/Oilers fans who are mostly concentrated in the Southwest. Prices on the secondary market for seats aren’t far off from the auction prices of the 2013/2015 sales.

He did, however, relate an interesting piece of information: that there were actually wooden seats in the stadium, and thus the most rare. These are glossy black in color, with three wooden back slats and a padded gray bottom. Of course, being that all the seats in the Astrodome were protected from the elements, most look pretty good for being 50+ years old, with at most a couple coats of paint on them.

Now, if you’re looking for more offbeat stuff, a perusal of eBay is in order. There you will find just about every type of souvenir item with the Astrodome likeness on it that was probably sold in the Galaxie Gifts shops in the stadium. On one visit I saw ashtrays, mini skillets, naugahyde coin purses, stadium replicas and snow globes, as well as numerous photo prints.

Personally, I don’t have much Astrodome memorabilia in my collection, other than a stadium promo magazine circa 1966, a 1965 scorebook, an Astros cardboard placard that I picked up at one of the gifts shops in Cooperstown in the 1980s, and a signed framed artist print of the Astrodome that I found at — of all places — a yard sale in Long Island, New York in the 1990s. The artist appears to be H. Goodman. If you recognize the piece from the photo in this article, please let me know, because it’s a mystery to me.

So there you have it, folks. An iconic symbol of the 1960s that was in its time referred to as “the 8th Wonder of the World” now stands gutted and empty, its future shaky at best. And although a baseball purist might consider this place the ultimate “anti-ballpark” ever constructed, there’s something about that lonely dome baking in the Texas sun that’s kind of sad — don’t you think?

Until next time, please stay seated.

Paul Ferrante is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted by email at pnferrante21@optimum.net or his website paulferranteauthor.com.

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply