In this past week’s elections, the citizens of Harris County in the Houston area rejected a bond proposal to raise $217 million to renovate the currently vacant Astrodome into a multi-purpose event center. Thus, unless some privately-backed venture steps up with some hefty investment, the first-ever domed stadium for professional sports, often heralded as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” for its architectural ingenuity at the time of its construction, is likely destined for demolition. Home to the Houston Astros baseball team from 1965 to 1999, the Astrodome was a history-making venue which became the first model for multi-purpose enclosed stadiums all over the world. And personally, it was also where I had the opportunity to create some long-standing memories.
The Astrodome ushered in several new innovations in stadiums and professional sports. When live Bermuda grass on the baseball playing field didn’t work out as originally conceived, Monsanto devised a new artificial turf, appropriately named “Astroturf,” which became the standard for enclosed stadiums, as well as being utilized in some of the newly built outdoor stadiums. Furthermore, the stadium introduced a cutting-edge air conditioning system, a four-story high scoreboard that had programmable animation, and luxury boxes, all of which would become standard features of modern stadiums. The state of Texas is often noted for doing everything in the biggest way possible, and certainly the Astrodome was indicative of that swagger and spirit.
The Houston club’s nickname was changed to “Astros” in conjunction with the opening of the new stadium for the 1965 baseball season. In the previous three seasons of the franchise’s history, they had been called the “Colt .45s” and played its home games in Colt Stadium which seated 32,000 fans. I’ve read accounts where the fans in attendance at that stadium had to deal with severe conditions involving mosquitos, heat, and humidity. So the new enclosed, air-conditioned Astrodome provided much-welcomed relief.
I recall as an early teenager growing up in Mississippi that one of my cousins got a chance to go see an Astros game in the new stadium in its inaugural year. Back then, it was a big deal for us to go see any major league game, much less one at this new historic stadium. Boy, was I was really envious! Yet it took me another 20 years before I actually attended a game in the Astrodome.
In 1985, my buddies from work and I started making annual trips to Houston to watch a weekend baseball series. We did that for several years and enjoyed seeing some good games and good players during that time. Specifically, I vividly remember watching Nolan Ryan warm up in the bullpen before one of the games and hearing the catcher’s mitt pop like a cannon. It prompted a spirited debate among my cohorts and me as to whether we thought we could even put the bat on one of Ryan’s fastballs. Even though we were in our forties at the time, it became a personal challenge to our long-gone baseball abilities. After that game, we managed to find a nearby public batting cage, where we each of us tried our hands at 80-85-mile-per-hour pitches (about 10 to 15 miles slower than Ryan’s pitches) from the pitching machine. Well, I think only one of the five of us even made contact. So much for that fantasy!
On another trip, I fractured the tip of a forefinger trying to snare a foul ball off of the bat of Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals. No, I didn’t manage to get the ball! Sometimes, I still feel the pain in my finger from that injury, or is it just the memory of not catching that foul ball?
In 1999, the last baseball season of the Astrodome, I got a chance to attend the second-to-last regular season game of the Astros in early October. I remember chatting with a number of long-time Astros fans who had mixed feelings about baseball no longer being played there. Their fond memories of the games in the Astrodome were somewhat conflicted by the advent of the replacement stadium, Enron Field (whose name was later changed to Minute Maid Park), one of the new-style baseball stadiums that was also an enclosed but with a retractable roof.
Some of the memorable games in the Astrodome included:
April 9, 1965 – The first-ever indoor major league baseball game was played between the Astros and New York Yankees in an exhibition contest. Mickey Mantle hit the first home run in the new stadium.
July 9, 1968 – The Major League All-Star Game was played indoors and on artificial turf, both firsts. The National League team won, 1-0, with Willie Mays scoring the only run.
October 10, 1980 – The Astros played their first playoff game in the Astrodome in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The Astros won in eleven innings, with starter Joe Niekro hurling ten shutout innings.
September 26, 1981 – Nolan Ryan pitched his fifth career no-hitter, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers. , 5-0. Ryan’s gem included eleven strikeouts.
October 8, 1986 – Astros pitcher Mike Scott struck out 14 batters in a 1-0 shutout of the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series.
October 9, 1999 – The last baseball game in the Astrodome was Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Astros and Atlanta Braves. Houston lost, 7-5.
Because the Astrodome is such an historical landmark for being the first of its kind in sports, there still appear to be groups in Houston who don’t want to see it razed like other similarly outdated, huge sports arenas across the country. However, the recent vote in Houston has put a nail in the coffin, so to speak. I suspect that the Astrodome hosted a few of those automobile demolition derbies in its heyday. However, the next demolition event there may involve the Astrodome itself.