When Texas Opened the 8th Wonder of the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the journey from Space Age to aged space is all too brief.
By Sean Braswell
Few debuts have been as spectacular as the Astrodome’s 1965 opening, and few “wonders of the world” so decrepit as the massive hunk of concrete that still sits today, seven miles from downtown Houston. But half a century ago, the eyes of the world, even those not particularly fond of baseball, turned to the Lone Star State for an exhibition game between the hometown Houston Astros and the vaunted New York Yankees on April 9, 1965, the day baseball officially moved indoors. President Lyndon Johnson and a giddy crowd of 47,879 looked on as Hall of Fame Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle belted the park’s first home run, the scoreboard exploding in electronic fireworks, and another Hall of Famer, Nellie Fox, thrilled Astros fans after driving home the winning run in the 12th inning.
The Daily News hailed it “the Taj Mahal of sport.” Some, like Judge Roy Hofheinz — the Astros president, a former Houston mayor and the man who conceived it — boldly declared the Astrodome “the eighth wonder of the world.” It reminded Mantle of what his first ride “would be like in a flying saucer.” “Fantastic,” his Yankees teammate Jim Bouton remarked. “No, indescribable. No, science fiction.” Bob Hope joked, “If they had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you’d never have to leave.”
The massive domed structure meant no more rain checks, no more sweltering Texas heat and no more mosquitoes.
Originally the expansion Colt .45s, the Houston ball club changed its name to the Astros when it relocated to the 260-acre Astrodome complex. The massive domed structure meant no more rain checks, no more sweltering Texas heat and no more mosquitoes. Just air-conditioning, cushioned multicolored seats, a space-suited grounds crew and an 18-story, 642-foot roof, designed by Buckminster Fuller and inspired by the gigantic retractable awning that Emperor Vespasian had used to shield spectators at Rome’s Colosseum.
Thanks to Hofheinz, a former county judge who lived in an opulent apartment built into the wall 75 feet above right field, the Harris County Domed Stadium (the park’s official name) was more than a Texas-size spectacle — it was a space-age theme park and moneymaker. To add to the number of coveted seats above the dugouts, the judge had them made a record 120 feet long. The four-story “Astrolite” scoreboard’s “ecstasy” display, triggered every time the home team hit a home run, was a 45-second electronic extravaganza in which stars danced, cowboys fired guns and bulls snorted to a rousing soundtrack. And even without home runs, in order to keep spectators in their seats until the end of the game, the scoreboard would be set off after every Astros victory.
It was from Hofheinz’s private box that President and Lady Bird Johnson snacked on fried chicken and chocolate ice cream and watched Texas governor John Connally — gravely wounded 17 months earlier while riding with John F. Kennedy in Dallas — throw out the game’s first pitch. Given the historic occasion, Yankees manager Johnny Keane inserted his 33-year-old star, Mickey Mantle, by 1965 a hobbled veteran with bad knees, at lead-off. Mantle answered, flashbulbs popping, with a single up the middle on the game’s second pitch, followed by a home run over the 406-foot sign in center field in the sixth inning — the Yankees’ only run in what would be a 2-1 Astros victory.
Despite the Astrodome’s dazzling debut, it soon became clear that even if there weren’t any mosquitoes in this indoor wonder of the world, there were still several bugs that needed to be worked out. Leaks in the roof led to showers in certain sections of the park, forcing female ushers, called Spacettes, to hand out plastic covers. But the main problem was the glare from the Texas sun piercing the transparent roof — designed so to allow Bermuda grass to grow within the building — causing fielders to lose countless fly balls. The Astros tried sunglasses and even orange baseballs, but eventually the Lucite skylights had to be painted over, killing the grass and leading, in 1966, to another wondrous innovation: artificial turf, or AstroTurf, as it would thereafter be known.
The domed stadium would host other memorable events over the years, including the “Battle of the Sexes” between tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but by 2000, when the Astros moved to Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), it was clear that the once futuristic structure had become a monument to yesteryear. It still stands — empty, crumbling and deemed unsafe for public use — a historically protected landmark looking for a 21st-century purpose.
With the 2017 Super Bowl coming next door to NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans NFL franchise, many Houstonians, including the Texans themselves, are calling for the Astrodome to be torn down. More likely, according to the latest proposal before Harris County officials, it will be converted into an indoor adventure park and civic event space. Looks like the Astrodome is set for another grand (re)opening — though it will be tough to match the Texas-size awe that welcomed the future that spring day in 1965.