Astrodome (Houston, TX)

This article was written by Robert Trumpbour


A packed house at the Astrodome

The Houston Astrodome was the first fully enclosed, air-conditioned major-league ballpark. It was formally unveiled in an exhibition game that pitted the Houston Astros against the American League champion New York Yankees on April 9, 1965. Unlike previous sports venues, the Astrodome was built to be a massive all-purpose, climate-controlled facility that would serve as an entertainment complex for a broad variety of events and activities. Construction costs were $31.6 million.

It was unlike any venue before it, as it reveled in luxury, with padded theater-style seating throughout and an array of posh amenities designed as part of its construction. Luxury skyboxes, themed restaurants, a video scoreboard, a barbershop, a bowling alley, a weather station, and numerous other unique features were woven into the venue. The Astrodome’s amenities were so diverse that comedian Bob Hope joked, “If they had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you would never have to leave.” The structure was so impressive that it prompted visits from celebrities and dignitaries alike.1 It was sufficiently unique that it was commonly referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

As such, the Astrodome inspired similar indoor facilities, including the Louisiana Superdome, which, paradoxically, helped contribute to its eventual obsolescence and demise. Before two newer sports venues replaced the Astrodome it had hosted baseball, football, boxing, basketball, soccer, trade shows, conventions, religious events, livestock shows, rodeos, concerts, political events, and a long list of other activities. Although it remained in place as of 2016, it was unused and in danger of demolition.

The design is an example of late modernist architecture, and the first truly massive domed structure not supported by internal columns. Preservationist Cynthia Neely asserts that the Astrodome “created a whole new style of architecture … [one that] made a lot of other famous buildings possible.”2 Roy Hofheinz, a hard-charging entrepreneur who served as Houston’s mayor and as Harris County judge (the county’s chief administrator), supervised the construction. When it was built, the feasibility of a huge indoor sports facility was not fully certain. However, the engineers and architects were confident in their ability to follow through on a previously untested concept. The project was sufficiently ambitious that it required numerous experts to be built. The firm of Lloyd & Morgan teamed up with Wilson, Morris, Crane & Anderson to serve as architects. Hermon Lloyd, S.I. Morris, Ralph Anderson, and Robert Minchew provided much of the leadership in that area. Walter P. Moore and Associates were the structural engineers, who came under the supervision of Kenneth Zimmerman. H.A. Lott, Inc., a Houston firm, and Minneapolis-based Johnson, Drake, & Piper were general contractors. Praeger-Kavanagh-Waterbury, New York-based architects and engineers, were retained as consultants for the project.3

Hofheinz was inspired to build the Astrodome after he visited Rome’s Colosseum while serving as mayor of Houston. He was told that on exceedingly hot days, a massive cover was pulled over that venue to shade the spectators. Before construction began, Hofheinz admitted to frequently pondering the Colosseum’s history. He stated, “Looking back on those ancient days, I figured that a round facility with a cover was what we needed in the United States, and that Houston would be the perfect spot because of its rainy, humid weather.”4

Hofheinz was not the first to conceive of a domed baseball venue. During the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley explored the possibility of a building a dome, consulting with futurists Norman Bel Geddes and Buckminster Fuller. Those plans were scuttled by a variety of factors, prompting O’Malley to abandon his longtime Brooklyn home for Los Angeles. There he oversaw the construction of Dodger Stadium, which opened three years before the Astrodome’s completion.5

Just as the ancient bread and circuses of the Colosseum served to showcase the majesty of the Roman Empire, Hofheinz was committed to hosting numerous forms of entertainment with grand and unprecedented flourishes as a way to demonstrate the rising stature of Houston. In describing the venue’s luxurious atmosphere he boasted, “Nobody can ever see this and go back to Kalamazoo, Chicago, New York, you name it, and still think this town is bush league.”6

Before committing to stadium construction, Hofheinz initially sought to create an indoor shopping mall that would contain a dome as part of its design. He worked closely with Buckminster Fuller as those plans unfolded. As the two were contemplating mall designs, they were, without knowing it, formulating ideas that would contribute to the Astrodome’s eventual construction. Hofheinz explained that during the fact-finding process Fuller convinced him “that it was possible to cover any size space [with a dome] if you didn’t run out of money.”7 The mall proposal was undermined by the success of a competitor’s project, so Hofheinz shifted his talents to stadium construction at the same time as proposals were being submitted to lure a major-league baseball club to Houston. For Hofheinz, however, hosting a team was part of a much larger vision that included construction of a grand entertainment empire.

Public-relations guru George Kirksey and oil heir Craig Cullinan were instrumental in bringing a major-league team, the Colt .45s, to Houston. In 1962 the expansion team began play in Colt Stadium, a temporary facility also built under Hofheinz’s supervision. The ballpark was located near the Astrodome site, so spectators were provided informal construction updates as they visited the temporary open-air facility.

The Colt .45s played in that venue through the close of the 1964 season as the Astrodome was being built. Houston’s oppressively hot and humid conditions and aggressive mosquito population offered evidence as to why an indoor facility was essential for baseball to succeed in Houston. While playing at Colt Stadium, fans, players, and umpires faced fatigue and heatstroke. The concession areas sold mosquito repellent to fend off insects that were so big Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax remarked, “Some of the bugs there are twin engine jobs.”8 Conditions were so brutal that the National League adjusted its schedule in Houston to allow for more night games.9

Kirksey and Cullinan regarded baseball as essential to the Astrodome’s future, but for Hofheinz, the facility was designed to be a larger-than-life entertainment facility, with baseball as a small part of a much more expansive plan. A year after the Astrodome was unveiled, he asserted that “we had to have a stadium that would be a spectator’s paradise, but also one that could be used for events other than sports.”10

Hofheinz was not involved in the preliminary plans to build a baseball venue. As franchise relocation was under way during the 1950s, Kirksey and Cullinan sought to gain a major-league team. They collaborated with banking executive William Kirkland to prepare the initial case to build a new stadium as a way to lure a team to Houston. With the approval of the Texas Legislature and backing from Houston insiders, the three were able to arrange for a referendum to fund an open-air ballpark that would contain adjoining indoor convention space. The measure passed by a 3 to 1 ratio on July 26, 1958. After Hofheinz’s mall plans fell through, he persuaded Houston’s power brokers to abandon the open-air plan because a large all-purpose indoor stadium would be feasible, radically shifting the direction of the project.

Shortly after committing to stadium construction, Hofheinz worked with master carpenter Stuart Young to build a $35,000 scale model of the project, using this model to persuade baseball executives to grant Houston an expansion franchise. On January 3, 1962, when it was time for the Astrodome’s groundbreaking, instead of using shovels, seven dignitaries fired rounds of wax bullets from Colt .45 pistols into the ground. Lawsuits, site-selection controversies, construction delays, and a need for additional funding slowed the construction process, but once completed, the Astrodome received immense publicity.11

 

Astrodome groundbreaking on January 3, 1962

Instead of using shovels, Judge Roy Hofheinz and other officials fire six-shooters at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Houston Astrodome on January 3, 1962. (COURTESY OF THE HOUSTON ASTROS)

 

The facility was formally named the Harris County Domed Stadium, but few used that name in reference to the edifice. Several politicians were angered when the facility was rebranded, but Hofheinz bluntly argued, “I can’t sell that name. I need something I can sell.” The decision to rename the facility the Astrodome, was surprisingly arbitrary, however. After the Colt Industries, the conglomerate that included the gun maker, pushed to obtain royalties for official Colt .45s team merchandise, Hofheinz decided to change the baseball team’s name. He was never enthusiastic about the name anyway, feeling that it suggested more about the region’s past than its future. As metropolitan Houston was emerging as a hub for the nation’s space program, Hofheinz and his partner, Bob Smith, debated whether to choose the Stars or Astros, with the facility to be branded the Stardome or the Astrodome. Roy Hofheinz’s son, former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz, recounted their discussion of the merits of both options. After considerable debate, Fred Hofheinz indicated that his father “just told Mr. Smith, ‘Pick one,’ and he picked the Astrodome.”12 After the decision was made, Hofheinz promptly announced the team’s new name, and disposed of all Colt .45s merchandise while moving forward on plans to unveil the Astrodome.

The first public event at the Astrodome was an exhibition game between the Astros and the Yankees on April 9, 1965. That exhibition game was arguably the most ballyhooed christening of a ballpark up to that time. Among those on hand were President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, Texas Governor John Connolly, 21 NASA astronauts, NBC news anchor David Brinkley, and numerous other dignitaries. Total attendance was 47,876, at the time a record for an indoor sporting event. Yankees legend Mickey Mantle began the game with a single, and in the sixth inning blasted the first indoor home run ever. In storybook fashion, the Astros won the game 2-1 in the 12th inning when Nellie Fox drove in a run with a pinch-hit single.

The event was featured prominently on sports pages across the nation. Several publications put it on the front page, ahead of other major news. The New York Times, as one example, offered a front-page story that focused heavily on the Astrodome, those in attendance, and reactions to the venue, while providing a panoramic four-column photograph that was taken from behind home plate. New York Times coverage offered a lead story in the sports section, too. The focus of that coverage was the game itself, although the article did offer numerous details about the stadium.

Although a new ballpark was christened in Atlanta on the same day, coverage of that event was significantly less detailed.13 Locally, the Houston Chronicle provided front-page coverage and numerous other stories, in addition to offering a special section on April 11 that was replete with photos of the festivities.14 The Astros indicated that 188,762 spectators entered the turnstiles for five exhibition games prior to the regular-season opener, with reports that many had come “just to see the glittering palace.”15

Among the most prominent features of the new venue was a $2 million scoreboard. It was 474 feet wide and weighed over 300 tons. It made all other scoreboards in use at the time look puny. It could be programmed to celebrate home runs, lead fans in cheers, and run between-inning advertisements. It served as a precursor to the Jumbotron and Diamondvision, and it was met with tremendous enthusiasm as the ballpark opened. It was such an attention-grabber that Sports Illustrated prepared a feature story on the scoreboard alone.16

The first regular-season game in the Astrodome received a good deal of fanfare, too. It was the lead baseball story in several newspapers, eclipsing President Johnson’s throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the Washington Senators on that same day.17 The Phillies beat the Astros, 2-0, with Chris Short tossing a four-hit shutout. To enhance the contest, 24 of NASA’s 28 astronauts were on hand and introduced, with each receiving lifetime passes for baseball games inside the Astrodome. Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick and National League President Warren Giles were also on hand, with a total reported attendance of 48,546. (The paid attendance was 42,652.)18

The inaugural season in the Astrodome was a time for experimentation, and in one of the odder experiments, New York Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson provided live commentary and play-by-play on April 28 while suspended from a gondola high above the action. Nelson and his producer, Joel Nixon, were lifted into the gondola a half-hour before the game, and remained there through the completion of a contest that concluded with a 12-9 Astros victory. It was the first time ever that an announcer provided play-by-play from fair territory. Before the game Mets manager Casey Stengel expressed delight that his team’s announcer would be a “ground rule” if he were to be hit by a ball, while Mets coach Yogi Berra bluntly told Nelson, “I think you’re crazy.” Nixon was equipped with a walkie-talkie and a phone to communicate with the regular broadcast booth. He had a scorecard and pen, but once the game began, he stopped keeping score after realizing, “If I ever dropped the pen, it would be a dangerous missile.” The experiment was not repeated, but it received abundant publicity while inspiring future use of the gondola for overhead cameras.19

 

Astrodome

One of a kind: The Astrodome, dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” stood 18 stories tall and covered 9½ acres. (COURTESY OF THE HOUSTON ASTROS)

 

The Astrodome revolutionized the nature of sports surfaces, ushering in the use of artificial turf. The initial plan was to maintain a natural-grass surface. A special strain of grass blends called Tifway 419 Bermuda was scientifically engineered to allow for successful indoor growth in low-light settings.20 However, the inability of ballplayers to track fly balls under the dome’s clear Lucite panels required painting the roof surfaces white. That allowed fielders to do their jobs, but blocked sunlight and prevented future indoor plant growth. As a result, the 1965 season closed out with dead grass and painted dirt, an unacceptable situation.

To resolve the problem in time for the 1966 season, Hofheinz negotiated with scientists at Chemstrand, a division of Monsanto, to produce and install an artificial grass-like surface that would not require natural light to remain green. Such a product was used sparingly in urban environments, most notably to provide play areas. In a quest for solutions, front-office executive Tal Smith visited the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island, to look at such a product, then branded as ChemGrass. After observing a field that was used for that school’s sporting events, Hofheinz decided to move forward with its installation inside the Astrodome.21 This was the first time the synthetic turf was used in a professional sports venue. The product was rebranded AstroTurf. The new surface gained widespread publicity, prompting use in other sports venues as the 1970s unfolded. 22 As installation was under way Smith asserted, “With the installation of AstroTurf, we will have eliminated the last pitfall in conjunction with the stadium.”23

The nylon product was installed in the infield to start the 1966 season, and later was added to the outfield. The first game on an entirely artificial surface was played on July 19, with the Astros defeating the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-2. Game reports indicated that there was “no apparent effect on the play.”24 In reality, players had to adjust for changes in how the ball reacted to the surface. Numerous baseball purists responded with revulsion to the change, particularly as it was introduced to other stadiums.25

Six no-hitters were pitched in the Dome’s history, all by the Astros. In the first, on June 18, 1967, Don Wilson, a rookie right-hander, allowed just three baserunners, all on walks, pitching the Astros to a 2-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first major-league no-hitter ever pitched indoors.26 In the second no-hit effort, Larry Dierker blanked the Montreal Expos, 6-0, on July 9, 1976. It earned front-page recognition in the New York Times.27 On April 7, 1979, Ken Forsch tossed a 6-0 no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves. He and Bob Forsch became the first brothers to throw no-hitters, with Bob tossing one for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978. On September 26, 1981, 32,115 fans watched Nolan Ryan throw his fifth career no-hitter, blanking the Dodgers, 5-0.

On September 25, 1986, after nailing San Francisco’s leadoff hitter, Dan Gladden, in the back, Mike Scott settled down to toss the Astrodome’s fifth no-hitter. The game clinched the National League West crown for the Astros, as Scott dominated the Giants, 2-0, in an electrifying evening for 32,808 fans. The performance solidified Scott’s case to earn the 1986 Cy Young Award, and it marked the first time in National League history that a no-hitter won a division-clinching game. In the final Astrodome no-hitter, on September 8, 1993, Astros right-hander Darryl Kile struck out nine in a 7-1 victory over the New York Mets. A walk, a wild pitch, and an error provided the Mets’ only run, in a contest viewed by a mere 15,684 fans.

When the Astrodome was built, its roof was generally believed to be high enough to avoid being hit by baseballs, but in the first inning on June 10, 1974, Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt launched a towering center-field blast that slammed into an overhead speaker attached high above a roof truss. What would have been a certain home run fell harmlessly to the field. Instead of celebrating one of the most powerful blasts ever to be hit inside the Astrodome, Schmidt earned no more than a single. After the game the future Hall of Famer admitted to being angry, while Astros center fielder César Cedeño speculated that the ball was slammed so powerfully that “it might have hit the flag above the electronic scoreboard.” Schmidt hammered two more hits that day, including a three-run double, to pace the Phillies to a 12-0 rout over the Astros.28 He received more publicity for the unusual and prodigious hit than if he had blasted a home run. Despite being shortchanged in this game, Schmidt led the majors with 36 home runs that season.

Although rain postponements were never supposed to be an issue inside the Astrodome, one occurred on June 15, 1976, immediately before a scheduled game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The dome remained fully intact and had no structural damage from torrential downpours that in some locations exceeded 12 inches. However, several roadways in Houston were badly flooded, road closures were numerous, isolated power failures occurred and four people in the area died..29 Players were at the Astrodome as the rains came down, but the umpires could not navigate the flooded roadways surrounding the building. An Astrodome spokesman called it a “rain in,” and Astros general manager Tal Smith cited safety for the postponement, indicating that the game could have been played since conditions inside were dry, “but if we had announced it was on, we could have been inviting misfortune,” since some spectators might have become stranded in the deluge. To accommodate the players, tables were moved to the infield, and the two teams enjoyed a sitdown dinner. Twenty or so fans, described as “real diehards,” were treated to a free meal in the Astrodome cafeteria, as well. The umpires retreated to a nearby hotel after their car reportedly stalled out in high water. It was the first weather-related postponement at the Astrodome, though an exhibition game had been canceled in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.30

The Astrodome hosted the first nationally televised college basketball game. The January 20, 1968, contest pitted John Wooden’s undefeated and number-one-ranked UCLA Bruins against the second-ranked University of Houston Cougars. The event was promoted as the “Game of the Century.” Its attendance of 52,693 stood as a single-game record for college basketball until 2003. Dick Enberg and Bob Pettit hosted the broadcast on the TVS Television Network, a pioneer in national sports syndication. Despite not being on a major broadcast network, the game attracted 12 million viewers and resulted in a $125,000 payout for each team, an amount greater than the Cougars’ earnings for the entire previous season.31

The event featured UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, whose Hall of Fame NBA career unfolded as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, against Elvin Hayes, whose prowess on the court in 1968 earned him recognition as The Sporting News College Basketball Player of the Year.32 The Cougars beat UCLA, 71-69, snapping the Bruins’ remarkable 47-game winning streak. The game received front-page coverage in Sports Illustrated and elsewhere.33 Such media recognition revealed the immense commercial potential of college basketball and was a harbinger of multibillion-dollar network rights fees to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament. Leisure historian Howard P. Chudacoff asserts that this game “launched college basketball as an entertainment product on television,” but beyond that, the game marked a seminal moment in college sports.34

With recognition that men’s basketball could be played in massive indoor venues rather than in traditional arenas, the 1971 NCAA Final Four and subsequent championship game were played in the Astrodome, culminating with UCLA defeating Villanova, 68-62, for the national crown in what was described as “the largest crowds in the history of the NCAA championships.” A total of 63,193 entered the Astrodome turnstiles, with 31,765 attending the championship game.35 Future tournaments would gradually shift from sizable arenas to bigger indoor stadiums in the decades that followed. The Final Four has not been played in a traditional basketball arena since 1996.

The Astrodome also hosted the 1989 NBA All-Star Game on February 12. Karl Malone earned MVP honors as the West defeated the East by a 143-134 score. The 44,735 in attendance stood as an NBA All-Star Game record until 2010.

On September 20, 1973, the Astrodome hosted the highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. New York Times sportswriter Neil Amdur called the match “the most talked-about event in the history of tennis.”36 Both competitors were U.S. Open and Wimbledon champions, but Riggs, at age 55, was past his prime. King, then 29, was reluctant to face Riggs, as he had beaten world-class tennis champion Margaret Court in May, but his brash taunts and insults prompted her to take up the challenge. Despite the age differential, Riggs confidently stated that “there is no way she can beat me,” and then asserted that he would “put Billie Jean and all other women’s libbers back where they belong — in the kitchen and the bedroom.”37

King trained hard, while Riggs self-promoted his prowess, convincing oddsmakers to make him the favorite. Before a crowd of 30,492, many paying up to $100 for a seat, a circus-like atmosphere unfolded that was nationally televised on ABC. The event attracted 90 million viewers worldwide, with 50 million in the U.S. alone, the largest audience ever to watch live tennis on network television. The broadcast was hosted by a tuxedo-clad Howard Cosell. Network advertising for the spectacle sold out in a single day.38 The event served as a watershed moment for feminism, with considerable venom aimed at Riggs for his many incendiary taunts. However, Riggs’s bravado ensured that this event would be a national spectacle, with massive amounts of money changing hands. Both Riggs and King were guaranteed $75,000 from souvenir and program sales, while the winner of the match would take home an additional $100,000.39

On the day of the event, King was transported to the court on a Cleopatra-style gold litter, carried by four muscular men in togas, while Riggs was wheeled in on a rickshaw propelled by six scantily clad models. Courtside spectators sipped champagne as makeshift bars were set up on the Astrodome floor. King trounced Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The event received front-page coverage in numerous newspapers.40 King’s success was touted as a victory for the feminist movement at a time when Title IX was in its infancy and not yet vigorously applied to sports. Tennis also benefited commercially, gaining increased popularity as a result of the spectacle.

Not all sports worked, however. Hofheinz brought midget auto racing to the Astrodome in March 1969. The drivers complained about the conditions, and a crash into the wall caused A.J. Foyt to lose a dental filling. Despite the $60,000 purse, the concept never gained momentum.41 Hofheinz also tried to introduce professional soccer to the Astrodome, taking a controlling interest in the Houston Stars in 1967. The United Soccer Association team was able to draw more than 30,000 in its opening game, but after struggling with attendance it folded after the 1968 season. The Astrodome later served as home to the Houston Hurricane, a North American Soccer League team that began play in 1978, but folded three years later.42

However, boxing did have a degree of success within the Astrodome, with several fights featuring Muhammad Ali. The first major bout in the Astrodome involved Houston native Cleveland Williams versus Ali on November 14, 1966. Ali knocked him out in the third round after introducing the “Ali shuffle” to the crowd of 35,460. A fight between WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and Randall “Tex” Cobb on November 26, 1982, was especially memorable. Cobb took the champion the full 15 rounds, yet was brutally beaten and bloodied. After repeatedly expressing revulsion on air, Howard Cosell refused to work any future boxing broadcasts, a circumstance Cobb wryly called “my gift to boxing.”43

The Astrodome hosted numerous trade shows and other events, including circus performances and religious revivals. A boat show, for example, was held in the Astrodome’s first year of operation. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus also performed in the Dome for many seasons, with Hofheinz briefly owning that circus operation during the 1970s.

One of the most heavily publicized special events in the Astrodome’s first year was Billy Graham’s Crusade for Christ, a multi-day event that attracted more than 300,000 worshippers, including President Lyndon Johnson, with 61,000 packing the venue to hear Graham’s final sermon.44 To generate extra revenue, Hofheinz began offering Astrodome tours for $1, a move that brought more than 400,000 visitors into the Dome during its first year alone.

Concerts were a profound part of the Astrodome’s history, too, with numerous top-tier acts coming through. Judy Garland was the first major artist to appear, performing on December 17, 1965, with the Supremes as the opening act. The unprecedented size of the venue was intimidating for some performers. Elvis Presley indicated that he looked forward to a return to Texas for live performances, committing to play at the 1970 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but he bluntly confessed, “That dome has me scared.”45

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was responsible for bringing many other top musicians to the Astrodome . In addition to Presley, the organization signed deals with Alabama, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Barry Manilow, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lionel Ritchie, Roy Rogers, Shania Twain, Luther Vandross, Lee Ann Womack, Hank Williams Jr., and ZZ Top. Many of them provided several performances over a multi-year period. Of the more than 400 nationally recognized performers featured on the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo web site since its inception, the lion’s share of top acts appeared at the Astrodome.46

Apart from the Livestock Show concerts, numerous other major artists performed at the Dome including The Who, Madonna, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones. An October 28, 1981, Rolling Stones concert was marred by a fatal stabbing. The tragedy prompted a $4.7 million settlement with the victim’s family. The bulk of the settlement was to be paid by the tour promoters, Pace Concerts, though the Houston Sports Association and Harry M. Stevens, the venue’s concessionaire, also had to make payments after an investigation revealed that security was less than adequate.47

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was, and remains, a major force in south Texas. Historian Jason Chrystal asserted that even before the Astrodome was built, the executives from this organization were “some of the wealthiest, most powerful, and politically connected in Houston history.”48 Their political muscle was an important factor in getting the Astrodome constructed, and, once it was built, they were major players in bringing large crowds to its events. Their move to the Astrodome propelled the multi-week Livestock Show and Rodeo to surpass one million in attendance. They continued to bring record-breaking crowds until the event was moved to nearby NRG Stadium in 2003, where, in time, its cumulative attendance exceeded 2 million.

The organization’s focus on a broad range of events meshed well with Roy Hofheinz’s vision for the Astrodome as an all-purpose entertainment venue. As the Astrodome neared completion, the organization built a less elaborate structure, dubbed Astrohall, next to the Astrodome. The building housed Livestock Show offices, administrative resources, and space for several agricultural events that might not draw huge crowds. Hofheinz later constructed AstroWorld, an elaborate theme park, near the Astrodome. It attracted large and enthusiastic crowds. Nevertheless, Hofheinz struggled to manage his finances amid the economic uncertainties of the 1970s, so he sold AstroWorld to the Six Flags Corporation. The facility continued to operate under the Six Flags brand from 1975 until it was closed in 2005.

The Astrodome was expected to host professional football when it opened in 1965, but Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams instead steered clear of the Astrodome until he reached a lease agreement before the 1968 season. Adams was a founding member of the American Football League, an upstart rival to the more powerful National Football League. Hofheinz and Adams feuded over the Astrodome’s lease terms, with Hofheinz setting exceedingly high rental prices while unsuccessfully attempting to lure a competing NFL team to play in the Dome.

Still, football was a major part of the venue’s initial years, with the University of Houston, high-school championships, and bowl games shaping the early schedule. The Astrodome’s first football game was played on September 11, 1965, with Tulsa defeating Houston, 14-0, in a nationally televised matchup. The New York Times’s Frank Litsky covered the game, but focused as much on the stadium as he did on the game. He asserted that football “seemed strange indoors,” adding, “It seemed artificial, just a bit too antiseptic.” He explained that the massive scoreboard was adapted to accommodate football, and indicated that the playing surface was dead grass that was painted green, so “players had trouble getting a grip with their cleats.”49

The University of Houston played in the Astrodome through 1997, though by 1993 the Cougars had moved some of their games elsewhere, including nearby Robertson Stadium on its campus; eventually it shifted all its home games to that location. In 1968 Houston trounced Tulsa, 100-6, perhaps providing revenge for the opening loss in 1965, with Larry Gatlin, who would later perform in the Dome as a country music star, scoring a touchdown late in the game. Later, Houston fans were treated to Bill Yeoman’s veer offense in the 1970s and 1980s and to David Klingler’s record-breaking passing attack from 1988 through 1991.

The Astrodome also hosted the Bluebonnet Bowl, beginning with a rebranding of the event as the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in 1968. In the first contest, Southern Methodist beat the Oklahoma Sooners 28-27. In subsequent years traditional football powers including Alabama, Auburn, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, and USC were among those invited. The game was moved to Rice Stadium in 1985 and 1986. Amid financial struggles, a swan song between Texas and Pittsburgh unfolded in the Astrodome in 1987, with the Longhorns winning 32-27. The annual game was canceled in 1988.

Despite winning league championships during the 1960 and 1961 seasons, the Oilers struggled for respectability during their first decade in the Astrodome. Their first game there was played on August 1, 1968, a 9-3 exhibition-game victory over the Washington Redskins. Three heart-transplant survivors were introduced to the crowd, showcasing cutting-edge medicine as it evolved in Houston.

The Oilers never played in a Super Bowl, but after the AFL and NFL merged, the game did come to Houston in 1974. To the disappointment of Roy Hofheinz, whose financial struggles and health issues limited his negotiating abilities, it was not played in the Astrodome. Instead Super Bowl VII was booked at Rice Stadium, the first time a Super Bowl was not played in a venue that served as home to an NFL team. Nevertheless, the Astrodome was chosen to host the NFL’s Super Bowl social event, informally known as the “commissioner’s party,” on the Friday before the game. The facility’s ample space allowed expansion of the invitation list to 2,900, then a record.50

The Oilers improved dramatically in 1978 when they drafted Earl Campbell, a heralded running back from the University of Texas. Before entering college or the professional ranks, Campbell played in the Astrodome in 1973, leading his John Tyler High School team to a Texas state championship. In his rookie season, Campbell was the first running back ever to score four touchdowns on Monday Night Football, thrilling 50,290 fans with a 199-yard performance.51

The Oilers advanced to the AFC Championship game on January 7, 1979, and did so again on January 6, 1980. Both times they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The 1980 loss, by a score of 27-13, included a controversial call on a pass by Dan Pastorini to Mike Renfro that would have tied the score at 17-17 if ruled complete and possibly shifted the momentum of the game.

After that defeat, the Oilers returned to Houston, and were led by police escort into a packed Astrodome that was filled with 60,000 appreciative supporters. (Another 15,000 who couldn’t get in cheered outside. An emotional coach Bum Phillips thanked Houston’s fans and told them, “One year ago we knocked on the door, the following year we beat on the door. Next year we’re going to kick it in.”52 That same day, the Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams were greeted by a mere 3,000 fans after their NFC championship victory.53 Despite the emotional fan support, the Oilers lost in the AFC wild card game the following year, trounced by the Oakland Raiders, 27-7, again on the road.

Those playoff failures cost Phillips his job, and the Oilers did not return to the playoffs until January 3, 1988, when quarterback Warren Moon led the Oilers to a 23-20 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks in front of 50,519 Astrodome fans. However, the team lost the following week in Denver. During that season Oilers owner Bud Adams indicated that he was unhappy with the Astrodome, and he threatened to move to Jacksonville if the stadium situation did not improve. His displeasure prompted a $67 million renovation that expanded seating capacity by 10,000 and provided other amenities that Adams demanded. The original scoreboard was dismantled and removed to make room for some of those seats. The Oilers were a competitive team, with a passionate fan base, so the expectation was that the renovation would keep Adams in the Astrodome for at least 10 years.

The Oilers next hosted a playoff game in a newly expanded Astrodome on December 31, 1989, losing again to their perennial nemesis, the Steelers, 26-23, in overtime. A crowd of 59,406 watched Gary Anderson kick a 50-yard game-winning field goal. Two seasons later, Warren Moon tossed two touchdown passes as Houston defeated the New York Jets, 17-10, in front of 61,485 in the wild card game, again in the Astrodome, but the Oilers were defeated 26-24 by the Broncos in Denver a week later. On January 3, 1993, the Oilers made the playoffs but dropped a 41-38 overtime game to the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York, after leading 35-3 in the third quarter. On January 16, 1994, the team played its last playoff game in the Astrodome, a 28-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Adams began to lobby for a new taxpayer-funded open-air stadium. The team would never make the playoffs again while in Houston.

Despite the $67 million renovations, Adams decided to move his team to Tennessee, making the announcement after a disappointing 1995 season. Adams’s contract with the Astrodome ran through 1997, but after the team played to sparse crowds in 1996, with fans irritated by the Oilers’ lame-duck status, Adams transferred his team to Tennessee a year early. To attract a new football team, the expansion Houston Texans, a larger retractable-roof stadium was built next to the Astrodome and completed in 2002.

Even if the Astrodome did little to satisfy Adams, the venue hosted two major-league All-Star Games, one in 1968, the other in 1986. As the 1968 All-Star Game approached, players were still trying to adjust to the novelty of Astroturf, particularly American League players. St. Louis Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst, who was piloting the NL All-Stars, said, “It takes us a couple of games to get used to it each time,” suggesting that neither league would have an advantage.54 Despite speculation that the fast surface would result in more scoring than the previous year’s 2-1 finish, the 1968 game concluded with a 1-0 National League victory. Willie Mays earned Most Valuable Player honors after scoring the game’s only run. After smashing a single, Mays advanced to second on a failed pickoff attempt, took third after a wild pitch, then scored on a double-play ball hit by Giants teammate Willie McCovey. The prime-time contest featured a crowd of 48,321, a record gross of $383,733, and an estimated 60 million TV viewers.55

 

1968 All-Star Game at the Astrodome

In the 1968 MLB All-Star Game, Willie Mays earned MVP honors after scoring the game’s only run in a 1-0 win for the National League. (COURTESY OF THE HOUSTON ASTROS)

 

The stadium was less of a focus during the 1986 All-Star Game, presumably because the sports world had adapted to indoor facilities and artificial turf. The 3-2 American League victory attracted a turnout of 45,774, the largest baseball audience at the Astrodome in seven seasons. Texas native Roger Clemens pitched to the entire National League batting order without allowing a single baserunner, a feat that earned him Most Valuable Player honors. 56

The 1986 season was a special one for the Astros, who advanced to the National League Championship Series to face the New York Mets, a team that racked up an impressive 108 wins. The two 1962 expansion franchises treated fans to an outstanding series. After the Mets topped the Astros in a 12-inning contest in New York to take a 3-games-to-2 lead, the series moved to the Astrodome. In Game Six, on October 15, the Astros tagged Mets starter Bob Ojeda for three runs in the first inning, but then did no more damage until the 14th. Bob Knepper kept the Mets’ potent offense from scoring for eight innings, but they rallied for three runs in the ninth inning to tie the score. The Mets scored a run in the top of the 14th on a single by Wally Backman, but Houston responded with a solo home run by Billy Hatcher. After a scoreless 15th, the Mets scored three runs in the top of the 16th inning. The Astros rallied for two runs, and with two outs and runners on first and second, Kevin Bass pushed Mets reliever Jesse Orosco to a full count, but then struck out on a low off-speed pitch. With Astros ace Mike Scott in the dugout and ready to pitch Game Seven, Houston’s fans were devastated. The Mets went on to win the World Series. Despite attending every Super Bowl ever played, veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg called this the “greatest game ever played.”57

The October 15 game may have been the most exciting Astrodome moment ever, and for Astros fans perhaps the most disappointing, but the Astros provided numerous other memorable moments. The 1980 team advanced to the playoffs with a starting rotation that included Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and J.R. Richard. Richard’s career was tragically ended by a stroke in July, but the team nonetheless advanced to the NLCS to face the Philadelphia Phillies with Games Three, Four, and Five inside the Dome. Houston won Game Three, 1-0, in an 11-inning pitching duel that included 10 scoreless innings from Niekro, putting Houston within one game of earning a World Series berth. However, the Astros dropped Games Four and Five. The clincher ended after Philadelphia’s Garry Maddox drove in the deciding run with a 10th-inning double, sending most of the 44,802 fans away disappointed.

As plans to move out of the Astrodome were in the works, the Astros earned a spot in the National League Division Series in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Those teams featured Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, both perennial All-Stars and, later, Hall of Fame candidates. Biggio was inducted into Cooperstown in 2015. Despite some outstanding regular seasons, the Astros again did not fare well in the postseason. They were swept, 3-0, by the Atlanta Braves in 1997, with the final defeat unfolding in the Astrodome. They avoided a sweep in 1998, but fell to the Padres 3 games to 1 after splitting Games One and Two in the Astrodome.

In the team’s final year in the Astrodome, the Astros again dropped the NLDS to the Braves. After winning Game One in Atlanta, the Astros lost the next three, despite outstanding play by third baseman Ken Caminiti. The final game, a 7-5 Astros loss, was the last major-league baseball game played inside the facility. Some fans spoke of a history of losing close games, while another fan simply said, “I hope Enron Field brings us better luck.”58 (After Enron became enmeshed in a financial scandal and declared bankruptcy, the new ballpark’s naming rights were sold to Minute Maid, a beverage company.)

With both the Oilers and Astros gone, the Astrodome was still booked for entertainment. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo brought with it world-class exhibitions in 2001 and 2002. On April 1, 2001, the Astrodome featured WrestleMania, drawing 67,925 fans. The event was broadcast coast-to-coast and in 50 countries.59 The 2002 Livestock Show was the last one for which the Astrodome would serve as its primary venue. On March 3 a concert by George Strait attracted 68,266, an all-time Astrodome record. When NRG Stadium (then known as Reliant Stadium) was completed in 2002, the Astrodome became expendable as a large-scale entertainment venue.

Still, the Astrodome was put into use from time to time. In 2004 a film crew moved in to produce Friday Night Lights, the last time a Hollywood production crew would work on a major film project inside the Astrodome. It had previously served as the location for other Hollywood projects, including Brewster McCloud and a Bad News Bears sequel. In 2005 the Astrodome became a makeshift shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina after structural damage to the Louisiana Superdome made that facility unusable for that purpose. It was the last time that the Astrodome received widespread recognition as a publicly used facility.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo moved into NRG Stadium in 2003, but still used the Astrodome for ancillary events. One was a tradition called “The Hideout,” an after-hours social event that featured live music and refreshments. The Hideout continued in the Astrodome through 2008, closing with a performance on March 22 by local country artist Johnny Bush. Few realized that that would be the last public performance in the venue. Later that year, code violations were uncovered that prevented anyone from obtaining a certificate of occupancy.

From that point onward, the Astrodome was off-limits for public events, though numerous proposals to repurpose the structure emerged. Some proposals included converting it into a casino, a film studio, a hotel, a retail center, or an indoor recreation facility. Although support to repurpose the venue emerged, no ideas gained substantial private sector financing, forcing officials into a challenging conundrum. On November 5, 2013, Houston voters were presented with a proposal to invest $217 million of public funds into revitalizing the Astrodome, but the measure failed by 53 to 47 percent.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Astrodome on its list of the 11 most endangered historic structures in 2013, and by January 2014 the Astrodome was approved for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Cynthia Neely, a historic preservationist, nominated the Astrodome for such recognition, asserting, “It is reprehensible to allow such a valuable asset to just fall apart.” Nevertheless, the classification left the Astrodome’s future in an odd state of limbo. The formal designation, authorized by the National Park Service, added political complexities to attempts to bring the structure down, but was no guarantee against its demolition. The designation provided a mechanism to allow federal and state tax credits for private investments aimed at preservation, yet the size and scope of such a renovation was an ongoing deterrent to achieve such funding.60

As a more economical option, Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, suggested leaving the Astrodome’s steel skeleton and roof structure in place, creating a sort of open-air park area that would retain remnants of the old structure.61 Later, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officials, less enamored with preservation, proposed demolishing the structure and replacing it with parkland that would include a miniature version of the Astrodome in its center.62 As Houston prepared to host the Super Bowl in 2017 at nearby NRG Stadium, the Astrodome’s exterior was power-washed, but without a substantial investment, code violations ensured that the historic venue would remain unused.

As of 2016 the Astrodome’s future was uncertain, but its legacy as a revolutionary architectural achievement remained secure. The unique structure envisioned by Roy Hofheinz changed the nature of sports spectatorship, introducing fans to previously unmatched levels of opulence and comfort. For better or worse, the Astrodome served to usher in an ideology of consumerism that influenced sports-related construction in cities throughout the world.

 

This article appears in “Dome Sweet Dome: History and Highlights from 35 Years of the Houston Astrodome” (SABR, 2017), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.

 

Notes

1 Reid Laymance, “Astros Top 50 Moments.” Houston Chronicle, September 30, 2012: section 2, p. 4

2 Allan Turner, “Despite National Listing, Dome Still Could be Razed,” Houston Chronicle, February 1, 2014: A1.

3 Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack, The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Lloyd & Morgan was renamed Lloyd, Morgan, & Jones while the Astrodome construction was under way, but the initial documentation listed Lloyd & Morgan as architects of record during the planning stages.

4 Edgar Ray, The Grand Huckster: Houston’s Judge Roy Hofheinz, the Genius of the Astrodome (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1980), 231.

5 James Gast, The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle (Boston: Aspinwall Press, 2014), 15-21.

6 Robert Lipsyte, “Astrodome Opulent, Even for Texas,” New York Times, April 8, 1965: 50.

7 Ray, 257.

8 Roger Kahn, A Season in the Sun (New York: Diversion Books, 2012), 53.

9 Bill McCurdy, “Houston’s Role in the Initiation of Sunday Night Baseball,” The National Pastime, July 2014: 5-9.

10 “The Man and the Idea,” in The Astrodome: Eighth Wonder of the World (Houston: Houston Sports Association, 1966), 5.

11 Trumpbour and Womack.

12 John P. Lopez, “Here Domes the Judge,” Houston Chronicle, March 26, 1995: B26.

13 Robert Lipsyte, “Johnson Attends Opening of Houston’s Astrodome,” New York Times, April 10, 1965: 1; Joseph Durso, “Astros Down Yanks, 2-1, in First Game Played Under Roof, New York Times, April 10, 1965: 23; “60,000 in Atlanta Welcome Braves,” New York Times, April 10, 1965: 23.

14 Dick Peebles, “LBJ: ‘Everybody Will Visit Dome,’ ” Houston Chronicle, April 10, 1965: 1. “Chronicle Cameras at the Dome: Celebrities Help Open Sparkling New Stadium,” Houston Chronicle, April 11, 1965, special section.

15 “Phils Top Astros, 2-0, on Short’s 4-Hitter Before 48,546,” New York Times, April 13, 1965: 43.

16 Joe Jares, “The Big Screen Is Watching,” Sports Illustrated, May 31, 1965: 30.

17 “Baseball Season Opens Today with 270,000 Expected to Attend Nine Games: Astros and Phils in Indoor Contest,” New York Times, April 12, 1965: 46.

18 “Phils Top Astros,” New York Times, April 13, 1965: 43.

19 Barney Kremenko, “Aircaster Perches in Gondola for Bird’s-Eye View of Mets,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1965: 20.

20 “World’s Most Pampered Grass,” in Inside the Astrodome: Eighth Wonder of the World, (Houston: Houston Sports Association, 1965), 76-77.

21 Trumpbour and Womack.

22 Barbara Moran, “Artificial Turf and How It Grew,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology, 20.4, Spring 2005: 8-16.

23 Jason Bruce Chrystal. “The Taj Mahal of Sport: The Creation of the Houston Astrodome.” Ph.D. diss., Iowa State University, 2004, 319-20.

24 “Astros Triumph Over Phillies, 8-2,” New York Times, July 20, 1966: 64.

25 Trumpbour and Womack.

26 “Wilson, Astros Rookie, Pitches a No-Hitter in 2-0 Triumph Over Braves,” New York Times, June 19, 1967: 48.

27 “No-Hitter for Dierker,” New York Times, July 10, 1976: 1.

28 Ken Rappoport, “As Phils Blast Astros, Astrodome Roof Speaker Is Hit for the First Time,” Corpus Christi Times, June 11, 1974: 13A.

29 “Rains Up to 12 Inches Soak Houston; 4 Dead,” Corpus Christi Times, June 16, 1976: 14A.

30 B.F. Kellum, “Bucs Now History-Makers in Houston,” Franklin (Pennsylvania) News Herald, June 16, 1976: 16. Frank Brown, “Rainout Unique for Rooters,” Franklin News Herald, June 16, 1976: 16.

31 Howard P. Chudacoff, Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 45-46.

32 Oscar Kahan, “Alcindor, Hayes Top All-America,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1968: 35.

33 “Big EEE over Big Lew: Houston Upsets UCLA,” Sports Illustrated, January 29, 1968: 1.

34 Chudacoff, 46.

35 Jerry Wizig, “UCLA Stalls Way to 5th Cage Crown,” The Sporting News, April 10, 1971: 60.

36 Neil Amdur, “Discussed and Dissected, Billie Jean, Bobby Ready,” New York Times, September 20, 1973: 57.

37 Richard O. Davies, Sports in American Life: A History (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2012), 320.

38 “Billie Jean vs. Bobby Match Is Expected to Be the Richest,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 1973: 7.

39 Barry Tarshis, “A Lot Preceded the Ms.-Match,” New York Times, September 23, 1973: 215.

40 Neil Amdur, “Mrs. King Defeats Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Amid a Circus Atmosphere,” New York Times, September 21, 1973: 1.

41 Bob Ottum, “Poor Li’l Midgets, Texas Style,” Sports Illustrated, March 17, 1969: 24.

42 “A Soccer History of Houston,” U.S. National Soccer Players website. ussoccerplayers.com/a-soccer-history-of-houst.

43 Mickey Herskowitz, “Super Bowl XXXVIII – Greetings From Flat City,” Houston Chronicle, January 25, 2004: Outlook, 1.

44 “Finale by Graham Attended by 61,000,” Galveston Daily News, November 29, 1965: 3B.

45 “Elvis Performs Live,” Austin Daily Texan, March 1, 1970: 11.

46 “Past Rodeo Houston Performers,” Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo website. rodeohouston.com/Concerts/PastRODEOHOUSTONPerformers.aspx.

47 “Settlement Reached in Concert Slaying,” Galveston Daily News, August 24, 1986: 4A.

48 Chrystal, 37.

49 Frank Litsky, “Tulsa Downs Houston in Astrodome, 14-0,” New York Times, September 12, 1965: S1.

50 Michael MacCambridge, America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation (New York: Random House, 2009), 314.

51 “Campbell Leads Oilers to Win,” Galveston Daily News, November 21, 1978: 1B.

52 “Oiler Rally Draws 75,000,” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, January 7, 1980: 3B.

53 “3,000 Fans Greet Rams,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 7, 1980: 3B.

54 “Visitors Study Grass and Roof,” New York Times, July 9, 1968: 43.

55 Leonard Koppett, “National League Wins All-Star Game 1-0 on Mays’s Unearned Run in First,” New York Times, July 10, 1968: 28.

56 Michael Martinez, “All-Star Game a Special Occasion,” New York Times, July 17, 1986: B10.

57 Jerry Izenberg, The Greatest Game Ever Played (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988).

58 Todd Ackerman, “Astros Last Game in Dome Not So Fan-tastic,” Houston Chronicle, October 10, 1999: A37.

59 Dale Lezon and Danny Perez, “Wild About Wrestlemania/Event Draws Rigs Around All Other Entertainment, Fans Insist,” Houston Chronicle, April 2, 2001: A15.

60 Turner, A1.

61 Kiah Collier, “Pivotal Dates Loom on Fate of Astrodome,” Houston Chronicle, June 8, 2013: A1.

62 Kiah Collier, “Plan: Raze Dome, Build Park: County to Study $66 Million Idea Suggested by Rodeo, Texans,” Houston Chronicle, July 11, 2014: A1.

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