This article was written by Will Flaherty
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
Although the earliest of American baseball clubs were organized as exclusively male social organizations, spectators were soon drawn to their games, and plenty of women were among them. But by the early 1960s, teams began to notice declining attendance of women. Few franchises in baseball’s westward expansion attempted to cater to female fans like the Houston Astros. Established in 1962 as the Colt .45s and led by eccentric owner Judge Roy Hofheinz, Houston’s entry in the National League employed a variety of marketing strategies to attract female fans to ballgames.
Although the earliest of American baseball clubs were organized as exclusively male social organizations, spectators were soon drawn to their games, and plenty of women were among them. But by the early 1960s, teams began to notice declining attendance of women. Few franchises in baseball’s westward expansion attempted to cater to female fans like the Houston Astros. Established in 1962 as the Colt .45s and led by eccentric owner Judge Roy Hofheinz, Houston’s entry in the National League employed a variety of marketing strategies to attract female fans to ballgames. Although the earliest of American baseball clubs in the mid-1800s were organized as exclusively male social organizations, spectators were soon drawn to their games, and plenty of women were among them. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club would often draw female spectators to its grounds at Elysian Fields in New Jersey. The New York Giants sponsored the first recorded Ladies’ Day in 1883 by offering female fans discounts on admission, concessions, and souvenirs, beginning a tradition that would spread league-wide and last for decades. When their husbands and significant others were overseas fighting in World War II, female fans helped keep professional baseball alive by attending games as well as participating in female professional leagues like the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous by the film “A League of Their Own.”[fn]Jean Hastings Ardell, Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), 29, 31.[/fn]
But by the early 1960s, teams began to notice declining attendance of women. Surveys conducted in 1951 by the New York Yankees and New York Giants indicated that their fanbases were only 10 percent female. The Boston Red Sox garnered similar findings in a 1957 survey.[fn]Ibid., 39.[/fn] Although the established eastern teams may have shared this trend, baseball’s westward expansion during the 1950s and 1960s provided opportunities for franchises to take a different approach with fans—both male and female—hungry for Major League-caliber baseball.
Few franchises in this westward expansion attempted to cater to female fans like the Houston Astros. Established in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45s and led by eccentric owner Judge Roy Hofheinz, Houston’s entry in the National League employed a variety of marketing strategies to attract female fans to ballgames. The opening of the Astrodome in 1965 brought both the games and fans indoors for the first time, revolutionizing both how the game was played by players and enjoyed by spectators. This project will take an in-depth look at the ways the Hofheinz-era Astros (1962–76) attempted to draw female fans.[fn]Hofheinz was forced by poor health and crippling debt to sell the Astros to his creditors in 1976.[/fn]
“HOUSTON, WE HAVE A TEAM”
As new population centers in the country’s western half grew, Major League Baseball followed. Boston lost the Braves to Milwaukee in 1952, and 1954 marked the departures of the Athletics from Philadelphia to Kansas City and the Browns from St. Louis to Baltimore, but this westward trend was firmly established in 1958 when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to San Francisco and Los Angeles.[fn]Bill James, The New Baseball Historical Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 240–41.[/fn] Soon the larger question was not if the league would expand westward, but where, and a group of investors in Houston made sure that the Lone Star State’s biggest city was first in line for a new team.
With a recorded history of baseball dating back to an 1861 match between the Houston Stonewalls and the Galveston Robert E. Lees, the Bayou City had a hardball heritage that long predated the arrival of the major leagues.[fn]Robert Reed, A Six-Gun Salute: An Illustrated History of the Colt .45s (Houston: Gulf Publishing Co., 1999), 1.[/fn] The Houston Buffs of the Texas League were the minor league affiliate of the St Louis Cardinals for over 30 years, and Hall of Famers Joe Medwick and Dizzy Dean were among the future Cardinals stars to pass through Houston. Beginning in 1928, the Buffs played at an eponymous stadium situated two miles south of the current site of Minute Maid Park. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis lauded Buff Stadium as one of the best minor league parks in the nation. Its mission-style architecture included modern trappings such as air-conditioned ladies’ restrooms.[fn]Ibid., 9.[/fn]
The Buffs drew well at the box office, but the smothering heat and humidity of Houston summers often made outdoor baseball an unpleasant endeavor for fans. One loyal fan was an influential lawyer who would often escape the office to attend day games, enjoying strawberry snow cones as he braved the heat and the mosquitoes. A visionary who had a long string of successes in business and politics, including stints as mayor of Houston and Harris County Judge, Roy Hofheinz thought long and hard about alleviating the uncomfortable conditions for baseball fans. He would settle on an idea that would consume his wealth and energies for nearly the rest of his life. Hofheinz not only wanted to bring big-league baseball to Houston, he wanted to bring it indoors, into climate-controlled, air-conditioned comfort. The idea for the Astrodome was born.[fn]Dene Hofheinz Mann, You Be The Judge (Houston: Premiere Printing Company, 1965), 79.[/fn]
With the help of businessmen George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan and the financial backing of oilman R.E. “Bob” Smith, Hofheinz championed the construction of a publicly financed, domed stadium as the centerpiece of Houston’s bid for a Major League franchise. Hofheinz consulted geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller about the feasibility of building a domed baseball stadium (feasible so long as sufficient money was available, Fuller said) and commissioned a $35,000 scale model of the stadium to be shown at the October 1960 National League owners meetings in Chicago. On October 17, 1960, the owners accepted the expansion bids of Houston and New York, awarding the Hofheinz-led Houston Sports Association (HSA) a National League franchise to begin play in April 1962.[fn]Edgar W. Ray, The Grand Huckster: Houston’s Judge Roy Hofheinz, Genius of the Astrodome (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1980), 257, 262; Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 41; Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 37.[/fn]
THE COLT .45s AND “COLORFUL” COLT STADIUM
Because construction delays pushed back the opening of the Harris County Domed Stadium well beyond April 1962, the newly named Houston Colt .45s needed a home. Buff Stadium was mentioned as a temporary fix, but Hofheinz instead built a 33,000 seat auxiliary stadium on the northwest corner of the 240-acre domed stadium site.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 272.[/fn] Intimately involved in the details of the new stadium, Hofheinz went to extreme lengths to make the stadium fan friendly, with a particular emphasis on elements he believed would make it appealing to women. Instead of the green common in older stadiums, Colt Stadium’s seats boasted a vibrant spectrum of colors: red or burnt orange for the lower boxes, chartreuse and turquoise alternating in the upper grandstand. In March 1962, Sports Illustrated described Colt Stadium as “the most colorful baseball park in either league.”[fn]Roy Terrell, Sports Illustrated, “Fast Man With A .45,” March 26, 1962, 34.[/fn]
Though the color scheme allowed ushers to efficiently seat incoming fans (each ticket was color- coordinated by section), Hofheinz also hoped that it would “please the ladies,” according to Robert Reed’s history of the Colt .45s, A Six-Gun Salute. “Men don’t care, as long as the overall tone is pleasant and clean. Baseball has to stimulate the wife and family interests,” Hofheinz stated.[fn]Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 74.[/fn]
Seeking to turn games into social events, Hofheinz commissioned a private stadium club to be built under the first-base bleachers, reserved for season ticket holders who purchased a $150 membership. Called the Fast Draw Club and decked out in gaudy 1890s-era Western décor, the club offered the stadium’s only full bar and provided well-heeled fans a refuge from the heat and full meals served by waitresses costumed in period attire. The club proved popular before and after Colts games and such private clubs are now ubiquitous in ballparks and arenas.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 281.[/fn], [fn]Archival photograph of Fast Draw Club, Houston Astros Baseball Club Archives, Houston, TX.[/fn]
Hofheinz also paid extraordinary attention to the attire and appearance of stadium staffers. Hofheinz made the novel decision to hire female “usherettes” and he commissioned Houston fashion designers Evelyn Norton Anderson and Iris Stiff to design costumes for stadium employees. Called “Triggerettes,” the 150 usherettes wore blouses and skirts that featured blue stripes, orange piping, and a special hat bearing the team logo. Parking lot attendants wore white jumpsuits with gaudy orange Stetsons, while ticket takers were dressed in 1880s-era outfits, replete with striped blazers and pillbox hats.[fn]Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 74.[/fn]
TRAINING DAY: JUDGE
As the finishing touches were being put on Colt Stadium in the early months of 1962, fans began to show up by the thousands on weekends to get a peek at the progress. In an attempt to capitalize on the swelling fan interest, HSA Executive Vice President George Kirksey invited fans to tour the nearly complete ballpark on March 17. Over 8,000 fans showed up, such a success that the event was repeated the following three weekends. When the final open house drew an estimated 30,000 fans, a local department store held a fashion show for ladies to show “what the lady baseball fan should wear to Colt Stadium this summer.”[fn]Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 81.[/fn] Colt Stadium merchandise kiosks stocked numerous products specifically aimed at them, including aprons ($2), scarves ($1.50), garters ($1.50), and ladies’ sun hats ($2).[fn]Archival photograph of Colt .45s Merchandise Stand, HABC Archives, Houston, TX, date unknown (1962–65).[/fn]
The franchise also introduced the “Miss Colt .45” beauty pageant. Coordinated by the team’s radio affiliates, each participating station in Texas and surrounding states sent one college-aged representative to compete. Photographs show contestants posed in swimsuits by the pool of the ritzy Shamrock Hilton, and finalists were presented at a game with the winner announced in front of the stadium crowd.[fn]Archival photographs of Miss Colt 45 contest, HABC Archives, 1964.[/fn] A University of Houston freshman named Rocky Renee was the winner of the first contest in 1962, and she and the “Miss Colt .45s” who followed made appearances at games and other events in the Houston area on behalf of the team and sponsors. Male fans were the more ardent supporters of the pageant, and even the Colt .45 players themselves didn’t miss out on chances to get photographs with the winners.[fn]Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 82.[/fn] But pageants and beauty shows drew a female following of their own, and the surfeit of contestants shows that the Miss Colt .45 program helped drum up female fan interest.
The Colt .45s adopted the longstanding league practice of holding a “Ladies Night” at the ballpark by offering discounts to selected games, but Hofheinz went a step further by reserving a special press box for female journalists called “The Hen Coop,” with the goal that the articles written by these women would draw female fans to Colt Stadium. Team employee Virginia Pace was given a crash course in baseball rules and staffed the “Hen Coop,” answering all baseball questions from the lady journalists—even some as elementary as “Why isn’t there a fourth baseman?” When the team hit the road, Pace traveled around town to lecture on the game to a variety of women’s groups, with one talk at a Houston hotel drawing a 1,300-person crowd.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 282.[/fn]
The special treatment of female journalists seemed to pay dividends as journalists like the Houston Chronicle’s influential society columnist Maxine Mesinger glowed about the gameday experience at Colt Stadium. “It’s a wonderful, colorful spot depicting the old-time saloons of the gay ’90s, with bartenders and waitresses in the Fast Draw Club costumed in that period,” Mesinger wrote. “What a thrill to stand on the top tier and look out over what will be the new domed stadium. The whole thing is nothing short of fabulous for our town.”[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 280.[/fn]
But as Mesinger’s column alluded, Colt Stadium was a temporary building. The stadium offered no shade to fans and was often inhospitably hot. Mosquitoes were such a nuisance that players routinely stepped out of the batter’s box to battle swarms. None of these nuisances would plague their new home. The Astrodome would prove to be revolutionary not only for the simple fact that baseball would be played indoors, but also that fans would now enjoy an unprecedented gameday experience.
THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD
“On the blue level, where our most expensive boxes are, we experimented for a week to determine what light looked best on ladies’ makeup and clothes. Listen, every day here will be ladies day.”
—Roy Hofheinz discussing the Astrodome in the April 12, 1965 edition of Sports Illustrated.[fn]Liz Smith, Sports Illustrated, “Giltfinger’s Golden Dome,” April 12, 1965, 56.[/fn]
When the $37 million, taxpayer-financed Astrodome opened in April 1965, it was a palace to the game of baseball with extravagances seen in no previous stadium. The stadium’s primary scoreboard cost $2 million and spanned 474 feet of outfield wall; whenever an Astro player hit a home run, it erupted in an elaborate “40-second spectacular.”[fn]Everett Groselcose, Wall Street Journal, “Baseball’s Big Top: Houston Astros Open Fancy Enclosed Park,” April 9, 1965, 1.[/fn] The stadium’s air conditioning supplied 6,600 tons of cooling and was monitored by a specially engineered central computer nicknamed “The Brain,” designed and built by Honeywell at a cost of $330,000.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 302.[/fn]
In addition to these costly infrastructure frills, Hofheinz spared no expense in perfecting the appearance of the Dome’s interior, again with an eye toward appealing to women and families. He catered to the needs of female fans in large part because market research indicated 42 percent of the team’s radio and TV audiences were female.[fn]Houston Chronicle, “Designers kept the gals in mind,” Texas Magazine, April 8, 1965.[/fn] As with Colt Stadium, Hofheinz commissioned colorful seats for the Astrodome. Lipstick red, coral, burnt orange, terra cotta, black, purple, gold, bronze, and blue seats “provided an explosion of color throughout the stadium.”[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 299.[/fn]
“We did a lot of research before choosing the colors,” Hofheinz told the Houston Chronicle on April 4, 1965. “We made sure that each color complemented the complexion and clothing of women.”[fn]Houston Chronicle, “Designers kept the gals in mind,” Texas Magazine, April 8, 1965.[/fn]
On the same day, the Houston Post printed a full article on the design intricacies. Titled “A Touch of Midas in Décor, Too,” the article previewed the Dome’s opening in “what promise[d] to be the most colorful sports show of the year.” Arguing that “Décor-conscious women, who are decidedly more interested in pop art than they are pop flies, probably will be more enthralled with the offstage drama than they are with the doings on the diamond,” the article described the design specifications in exquisite detail. The private Astrodome Club featured plush carpeting in an Aubosson or Torginol pattern with “ornate golds, deep reds, and blacks,” while the walls featured enormous Toulouse-Lautrec murals hung in “baroque gold frames.”
The Trail Blazer Room on the sixth level boasted specially commissioned paintings featuring trailblazers in history “from the time of the wagon masters through the ages of the automobile and space ships,” while the Skydome club included a large mural of the starscape complete with planetarium lighting effects. But to assuage any fears of readers that felt such trappings were out of place at a baseball stadium, the Post noted that “there are old fashioned concession stands that will dispense peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jacks for old fashioned folks who still remember with nostalgia that old refrain ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame.’”[fn]Houston Post, “A Touch of Midas in Décor, Too,” April 4, 1965.[/fn]
Much of this elaborate décor was installed in the Dome’s series of clubs, restaurants, and private boxes. Drawing upon the success of the Fast Draw Club at Colt Stadium, Hofheinz included no fewer than five restaurants in the Astrodome with a combined seating capacity of 3,280.[fn]Houston Chronicle, “Five Restaurants Under Dome,” April, 4 1965.[/fn] Each catered to a different stadium niche and two of the clubs—the Skydome Club and the Astrodome Club—were open to season ticket holders year-round, even when there was no game. These private clubs were a place to see or be seen in Houston, and for many fans they were an attraction apart from the action on the field.[fn]Smith, Sports Illustrated, “Glitfinger’s Golden Dome,” April 12, 1965, 52, 58.[/fn]
Perhaps the most elaborate of Hofheinz’s design details was incorporated into the stadium’s 53 Skybox suites that ringed the upper level. Hofheinz successfully pushed for the inclusion of these private boxes that were not in the original blueprints because he envisioned, accurately, that he could sell them for a great windfall. The Judge was a world traveler who had seen a similar arrangement of private boxes at the Roman Coliseum during a visit to Italy. For $15,000 a season, well-heeled individuals or corporations could purchase a box complete with its own TV, radio, stock ticker, bar, refrigerator, and restroom.
According to an April 1965 Sports Illustrated feature on the new stadium, “Ladies can freshen up by taking only a step to the private room, and those faint from peering down at the miniature game below can lie down and watch it on TV.”[fn]Smith, Sports Illustrated, “Glitfinger’s Golden Dome,” April 12, 1965, 56.[/fn] But the décor inside these boxes was even more remarkable. Inspired by his numerous trips around the world, Hofheinz gave each box a unique theme—“Old South,” “French Riviera,” “Beauvais,” “Ramayana,”—with each individually designed to meet its appointed theme, again with the main goal of suiting female tastes.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 299.[/fn]
“Believe me, it is quite a job when you have to come up with 53 different color schemes, trying to make each club unique,” Hofheinz said. “It took us two weeks alone to get the right color of blue. Many blues would give ladies a pasty-looking complexion.”[fn]Houston Chronicle, “Designers kept the gals in mind,” Texas Magazine, April 8, 1965.[/fn]
The dome’s roof made inclement or uncomfortable weather inconsequential, and the air conditioning itself was a major draw for a wide fan base that included women. But other enhancements in fan comfort that playing indoors allowed were also a major selling point for female fans. Unlike the usual uncomfortable wooden seats or backless bleachers, each of the Astrodome’s 45,000 seats was upholstered and padded. This selling point appeared in team advertisements which noted, “For the first time in sports history you can watch a baseball game from deep-cushioned, foam-padded, nylon-upholstered chairs.”[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 299.[/fn]
“Women will go to the ball game now because there will be no wind to whip their hairdos, no rain to ruin their dress and no sun to turn them red,” Hofheinz told the Chronicle. “The Astrodome will get a promenade of best-gowned, best-looking and most-influential women ever collected.”[fn]Houston Chronicle, “Designers kept the gals in mind,” April 8, 1965.[/fn]
Sure enough, when the stadium opened its doors on April 9, the details of what women wore to the Astrodome was one of myriad news stories that dominated the headlines of Houston’s two daily newspapers. Chronicle fashion editor Beverly Maurice penned an article headlined “Silks, Linens and Hats at Fashionable Game,” that detailed the “white silk sleeveless jacket suit over a black blouse” worn by the wife of HSA founding shareholder Craig Cullinan and the outfit of Mrs. Dotty Hines (wife of real estate magnate Gerald Hines), “a blue-green tussah dress to complement her tennis tan.”[fn]Beverly Maurice, Houston Chronicle, “Silks, Linens and Hats At Fashionable Game,” April 10, 1965.[/fn]
The Post did not indulge in quite the same level of detail in its related story, but it did note that “most of the women, however, were decked out in spring finery of vibrant colors. Some of them would have looked out of place at an ordinary ballpark, but they harmonized beautifully with Friday night’s mad mood.”[fn]Bob Cargill, Houston Post, “Like…a Foreign Country,” April 10, 1965, A1, A3.[/fn] Attending an Astros game soon became a full-fledged social event, with the well-heeled in skyboxes and average fans in the stands alike wearing their finest to the ballpark.
But fans weren’t the only well-dressed individuals in the ballpark. The Astrodome boasted a full corps of carefully costumed usherettes. Called “Spacettes” (a name that seemingly was closely derived from the “Triggerettes” of the old park), the 300-person usher group wore outfits of “quilted gold lame trimmed in a royal blue velvet and accented in orange” in a feminine nod to an astronaut’s suit.[fn]Teddye Clayton, Houston Post, “Spacettes Will Sparkle Under Dome,” April 4, 1965.[/fn] Hofheinz again relied upon Evelyn Norton Anderson and Iris Stiff to design the ballpark’s uniforms and gave the two designers a blank check to purchase whatever materials they needed. Stiff estimated that the usherette outfits would have retailed for $200, and she told Chronicle Fashion Editor Beverly Maurice that she “was not working on a budget.” The end results of their work were a staggering 53 different outfits for the stadium’s variety of staffers, from groundskeepers to cocktail waitresses. Anderson likened the design job to “costuming a dozen operas—Wagenerian scale!”[fn]Beverly Maurice, Houston Chronicle, “‘At Home’ in the Dome,” April 4, 1965.[/fn]
Once the costumes were complete, the job of administering the Astrodome’s Spacette program fell to 22-year old Sharon Wilhoit. A Triggerette at Colt Stadium, Wilhoit was named Director of Usherettes and was in charge of selecting and training the stadium’s usher corps. Each Spacette completed a 10-hour finishing course from the John Robert Powers School on speech, personality, poise, and grooming, and Wilhoit personally interviewed the majority of applicants to the program. Wilhoit, a Colt Stadium veteran, was ecstatic about the Astros’ new home. “Working conditions in the stadium should be a lot better. We had trouble with our hairdos before in the humidity,” she told the Post. “Our hairdos will stay now, and our appearance in general should be much improved.”[fn]Clayton, Houston Post, “Spacettes Will Sparkle Under Dome,” April 4, 1965.[/fn]
AT HOME IN THE DOME: PROMOTIONS AND SPECIAL EVENTS
Based on its novelty and growing recognition alone, the Astrodome drew sellout crowds in 1965, despite the home team’s dismal 65–97 record. The Astrodome drew 2,151,470 fans in 1965, easily besting the team’s best attendance mark in Colt Stadium by over 1 million.[fn]Houston Astros, 2008 Houston Astros Media Guide (Tempe, AZ: Ben Franklin Press, 2008), 331.[/fn] In a press release highlighting the promotions surrounding Fan Appreciation Day on the final home date of 1965, the Astros noted that the expected season attendance total of 2,150,00 fans would be “the third highest total in National League history.” Even if that boast was inaccurate—the Dodgers had drawn more than 2.15 million fans in five of their first eight seasons in Los Angeles—there was little doubt that the new stadium was an unabashed success with fans.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com, “Los Angeles Dodgers Attendance, Stadiums and Park Factors,” http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/LAD/attend.shtml, accessed August 3, 2008; Astros Press Release 65–262, Houston Astros Baseball Club Archives, September 30, 1965.[/fn]
Something else of note in that same press release was that, in addition to fan giveaways and prize contests, the first 5,000 ladies in attendance received a free carnation. Female-specific giveaways and promotions were not random but the norm at the Astrodome, and an in-depth look at the team’s voluminous press release archives reveals fascinating details about some of the promotions and other events the Astros used in efforts to market to female fans.[fn]Astros Press Release 65–262, Houston Astros Baseball Club Archives, September 30, 1965.[/fn]
Continuing a tradition begun at Colt Stadium, the Astros proclaimed each Wednesday home game in the Astrodome “Ladies Night,” with all ladies receiving a $1.00 discount on any seat in the stadium. The press release announcing the first Ladies Night, an April 28 tilt against the New York Mets, pulled out all the stops as it shilled the ticket promotion:
This ladies night, the first of 11 such events planned for the Astrodome this year, features a $1 reduction on tickets for ladies. It’s an obvious attempt to appeal to a woman’s intuition to never pass up a bargain.
Many thousand women already this spring have found the Astrodome a new kind of entertainment gathering spot. They’ve found it clean, comfortable and a place where they can dress up or dress casually and feel “at home’ while enjoying a baseball game.
The gentler sex not only has added to the color, but to the enormity and enthusiasm of Astrodome crowds, which thus far this year have averaged more than 30,000 per game.
The Mets are a fitting team for the season’s introduction of baseball to the ladies. This year, in addition to gentleman Casey Stengel, there are many other Metropolitans of charm, not the least of whom are veterans Warren Spahn, and, of course, Lawrence Peter Berra, known even to the ladies as Yogi.[fn]Astros Press Release 65–97, HABC Archives, September 30, 1965.[/fn]
Ladies nights at the Astrodome would become a mainstay of the team’s first decade indoors. A press release as early as 1967 described the $1 discount for ladies on Wednesdays as “customary,” and the practice would remain in place for the duration of Judge Hofheinz’s ownership of the team.[fn]Astros Press Release 67–117, HABC Archives, May 4, 1967.[/fn]
As the newness and novelty of the Astrodome slowly began to wear off in 1966 and attendance softened to 1,872,108, Hofheinz decided to expand on his program of Ladies Day with a little help from his own family. On April 19, Dene Hofheinz Mann, the Judge’s daughter, was named “Social Director of the Astro-dome,” with primary job responsibilities of “handling women’s activities at the Astrodome such as special promotions for ladies, fashion shows, publicity and social life in and about the stadium.”
Her new supervisor, VP of Public Relations Bill Giles, said in a press release, “The Astros have managed to create a large following among the women due to the Astrodome’s comfort, colorful surroundings and exciting atmosphere, and Dene will concentrate on creating more interest and enthusiasm from the feminine set.” At age 23, Dene Hofheinz Mann was already a published author after having written a biography of her father, You Be The Judge, and she was well versed in Houston’s elite social circles, as one might expect due to her father’s prominence in the city.[fn]Astros Press Release 66–109, HABC Archives, April 19, 1966.[/fn]
Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact role that Mrs. Hofheinz Mann had on promotions for women, press releases from the 1966 season show a significant spike in events for women at Astros games, typically piggy-backed onto Wednesday Ladies Night. Before the June 8 game against San Francisco, a “Wednesday Warm-Ups” program was held in the Astrodome’s Domeskeller restaurant, with two Astros players making an appearance at the restaurant to sign autographs and answer questions. On July 6, a special fashion show preceded another Ladies Night game against Atlanta.
Also added to the promotional slate in 1966 were family-oriented promotional nights. Saturday, July 23 was “Meet The Astros Family Night,” with all Astros players, wives, and children introduced on the field prior to the game. Three days later was “Family Night” against the Mets, with all children accompanied by a parent receiving a $1.50 ticket discount. Additionally, the largest immediate family in the ballpark would receive a color TV set.[fn]Astros Press Release 66–139, HABC Archives, June 2, 1966; Astros Press Release 66–162, HABC Archives, June 24, 1966; Astros Press Release 66–177, HABC Archives, July 20, 1966.[/fn]
Dene Hofheinz Mann would soon leave Houston to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career as a singer and songwriter, but the Astros still relied on targeted promotions to draw female fans after her departure. With attendance dropping to 1,348,303 in 1967 came the emergence of promotions like “Runs for the Astros.” On the heels of a 3–11 start to the season and a 10-game losing streak that saw Houston outscored 54–23 by its opponents, the Astros offered a $1 ticket reduction for their April 27 game against St. Louis to any “lady fan” who brought a “stocking” with a “run” in it. The countless pairs of ruined pantyhose must have done the trick to snap the team out of its hex, as the Astros defeated Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals by a 6–4 final score. Another regular promotion for women during this period was the distribution of flowers, with women receiving Orchid corsages on Mothers Day in 1966 and on Easter Sunday in 1968.[fn]Lisa Gray, Houston Chronicle, “What Dene Remembers,” http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/gray/4934096.html, July 1, 2007; Baseball-Reference.com, “1967 Houston Astros Schedule, Box Scores and Splits,” http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/HOU/1967_sched.shtml, accessed August 3, 2008; Astros Press Release 67–110, HABC Archives, April 26, 1967; Astros Press Release 66–112, HABC Archives, April 25, 1966; Astros Press Release 68–92, HABC Archives, March 27, 1968.[/fn]
Player meet-and-greets for women would appear intermittently from 1966 until 1970, when the Astros held them before eight of nine Ladies Night games. Typically featuring Astros players, the events in the Domeskeller were advertised as “baseball clinics” for female fans. At least 13 different Astros were advertised on press releases to appear at these clinics, including pitcher Larry Dierker, outfielder Jimmy Wynn, and second baseman Joe Morgan. The events often included some sort of special programming in addition to autographing and question-and-answer sessions, like the playing of the 1969 MLB season highlights film before a May 20 home game against the Reds or the hosting of a special coffee held on August 12 for ladies with the Astros players’ wives. At the final such meeting on September 30, there was even the awarding of “Favorite Player of the Year” honors, per the vote of female attendees at the event.[fn]Astros Press Release 70–58, HABC Archives, May 1966; Astros Press Release 70–82, HABC Archives, August 5, 1970; Astros Press Release 70–102, HABC Archives, September 21, 1970.[/fn]
The 1971 season saw the unveiling of the Astros’ new “Orange Crush” jerseys, with orange caps and orange jersey lettering, but the players in the Astrodome weren’t the only team employees to get a uniform update. In keeping with style shifts for women at the turn of the decade, new uniforms for the Astrodome Spacettes were unveiled for a May 14 game against the Cardinals. Debuting the “Age of Aquarius look in fashion for Astros baseball fans,” the outfits included “the popular new feminine fashion, ‘Hot Pants,’ with a radiant sun orange side slit wrap skirt, bordered in cosmic yellow,” along with a yellow leotard with a “stand up Astronaut collar” and calf length boots made of “brilliant yellow crinkled vinyl.”
The press release announcing the new uniforms noted that the “‘Spacette look,’ and the ‘Orange Crush’ create a galaxy of color meant to blast-off the ‘old’ from the Astrodome, and take the Astros straight up to reach the stars.” But some older female styles still prevailed at the Astrodome for at least one night—as part of “Old Fashioned Night” on April 23 against Montreal, the first 5,000 ladies attending would receive black Astros garters. The promotion went along with beer served at the “old fashioned” price of five cents, and a Dixieland band was on hand for a pre-game performance.[fn]Astros Press Release 71–80, “Astrodome Spacettes Take a Giant Step For Fashion,” HABC Archives, May 11, 1971; Astros Press Release 71–69, HABC Archives, April 16, 1971.[/fn]
But the 1970s also saw the continued growth of feminist movements in America, and before long the long-standing tradition of Ladies Night would come under fire. In 1972, a man filed suit against the New York Yankees charging the team with discrimination because he had to pay full price for a ticket to a “Ladies Night” game while women received a discount. The New York City Commission on Human Rights agreed with the plaintiff, ruling that “the stereotyped characterizations of a woman’s role in society that prevailed at the inception of ‘Ladies Day’ in 1867 have ceased to be relevant in a modern technological society where women and men are to be on equal footing as a matter of public policy.” The Commission issued a non-binding decision mandating the end of Ladies Night discounts, to which the Yankees complied.[fn]Vered Yakovee, Entertainment and Sports Lawyer, “Spotlight on ‘Ladies Night’ Promotions,” Volume 24, Number 4, Winter 2007.[/fn]
Although the New York court decision did not apply to the Astros, nor did the team discontinue its tradition of Ladies Night on Wednesdays, the influence of changing attitudes concerning Women’s rights and equality could be seen in a humorous 1974 press release advertising a special pregame softball game between Astros players and their wives:
Has Womens’ Lib finally invaded the previously sacrosanct National League for-men-only Astro-dome territory? Heaven forbid. ’Tis sadly true!
Now, at last, the true story of the Houston Astros can be told. They have, indeed, underestimated the power of a woman and have yielded to a command challenge. This woman, in particular, is vivacious young Tamy Metzger, bride of the Astros 1973 MVP Roger Metzger.
Tamy, it seems, was a little tired of Roger grabbing all the Metzger sports page headlines, and she figured out that the other members of the Pinchitters Club (Astros wives) might very well feel the same.
So, they have challenged their own husbands to a duel-to-the-die finish on the softball field at the Astrodome…calling themselves the Astros Better Halves, and gaily clad in orange jerseys (bearing their own names and borrowing their husbands’ official team numbers), navy blue knit shorts, white sneakers and Astro orange caps and sox, the wives take the field in a baseball tug-o-war guaranteed to outclass the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match in derring-do for the final and ultimate authoritative decision on which sex shall prevail!![fn]Astros Press Release 74–93, HABC Archives, July 1, 1974.[/fn]
The Astros maintained specific promotions for women into the 1970s even as such marketing tactics were coming under fire elsewhere. In 1973, the team held a “Cash Scramble” for women after a Ladies Night matchup with Atlanta. According to the press release for the event, 100 women were selected from the audience to come down on the field after the game. Once the contestants were assembled, 850 one-dollar bills and three 50-dollar bills would be dropped from the Astrodome’s catwalks and “the fun will be on as the ladies scramble for whatever they can get. No limit!” The event seemed to be somewhat rooted in the common practice at area rodeos of a calf scramble, where dozens of contestants attempt to catch a calf released into the rodeo arena for a prize. An Astrodome scoreboard advertisement for the Cash Scramble proclaimed that “If you thought the rodeo calf scrambles were exciting, you haven’t seen anything until you witness the cash scramble…1,000 dollars of bills to be dropped from the top of the Astrodome with 100 anxious ladies waiting below—Wednesday, May 16!!!”[fn]Astros Press Release 73–106, HABC Archives, May 3, 1973.[/fn]
Throughout the team’s first decade in the Astro-dome, one of the steadiest promotions geared towards women was the “Miss Astro” contest. A natural progression from the “Miss Colt .45” pageant, the contest was an annual promotion held with much fanfare, typically near the end of the season. Contestants were nominated from across the Astros TV and Radio network, which spanned portions of five states, and flown into Houston for the final competition.
The contest was quite elaborate, as the itinerary for the 1970 contest shows. Arriving in Houston on Thursday, contestants (who usually numbered in the 30s) had a jam-packed weekend. First came a Friday pregame presentation at home plate, followed by interviews with judges in the Astrodome Skyboxes. At 9:00 the next morning, the women competed in the Swim Suit Competition at the adjacent Astroworld Hotel pool. That night was dinner with judges at the hotel. Finally, the winner was crowned in an on-field ceremony before Sunday’s game. “Miss Congeniality” and a pair of runner-up honors were awarded before the new Miss Astro was named.[fn]Astros Press Release 70–91, HABC Archives, August 26, 1970.[/fn]
Judged on “charm, intelligence and personality, as well as beauty,” Miss Astro honorees would make public and social appearances on behalf of the team throughout the year. In addition, the Astros offered a full four-year college scholarship to the winner. Judge Hofheinz noted in a press release announcing the 1970 contest that “the Miss Astro contest extends the benefits of baseball, our national pastime, to eligible young ladies who desire opportunities in higher education. We believe it to be an unparalleled experience for all and take pride in the academic achievement of our former contestants.”
In some years there were additional prizes. Take for example Miss Astro 1973, Camille Dowden of El Campo, Texas. In addition to her college scholarship, she received “a $1,000 diamond ring, an expense-paid trip to Mexico, a $500 wardrobe, a modeling course, a real estate course, and a radio.”[fn]Astros Press Release 70–91, HABC Archives, August 26, 1970; Astros Press Release 72–128, HABC Archives, August 13, 1972.[/fn]
The team would often mention the achievements of past contestants and winners in press releases. The announcement for the 1970 contest noted that of previous winners, four had already completed their college degrees, and two later finished as runners-up in the Miss Texas Pageant. The same release also mentioned the movie contract secured by a former contestant from Corpus Christi—Ms. Farrah Fawcett.[fn]Astros Press Release 70–91, HABC Archives, August 26, 1970.[/fn]
HOFHEINZ’S HOUSE OF CARDS COLLAPSES
As much of a visionary as he was, Roy Hofheinz was also a divisive figure who alienated many around him. HSA President Craig Cullinan, who had worked on bringing baseball to Houston years before Hofheinz became involved, decided to sell his stake in the team in late 1962 due to the “autocratic control” that Hofheinz began to assume over the team’s operations. Cullinan remembered an early conversation with the Judge where Hofheinz offhandedly remarked that the Astros would eventually be only a small portion of a much larger entertainment business portfolio that he hoped to build.
The idea that a championship team was not the Judge’s primary motive deeply concerned Cullinan to the point that he and six other part-owners sold their stakes in the team to R.E. “Bob” Smith. Cullinan’s fears of Hofheinz’s inflated ambitions would prove to be prescient, because in his desire to build an empire, the Judge would lose almost everything.[fn]Reed, A Six-Gun Salute, 203–4.[/fn]
Not long after Cullinan sold his stake in the team, a split between the previously unassailable partnership of Hofheinz and Smith would give Hofheinz total control of the Astros, but would end up saddling him in what would become a crushing debt. Although Smith’s buyout of the other shareholders gave him a 63 percent ownership stake in the team, he had long delegated day-to-day decision making responsibilities to Hofheinz. But Smith, too, would soon be turned off by Hofheinz’s controlling style.
On May 12, Smith made a stunning announcement—he wanted out. Smith gave Hofheinz a month to exercise an option that would sell all but 10 percent of his stake in the HSA to the Judge for $7.5 million. Hofheinz would buy out Smith to become the majority owner of the HSA, but the move was highly leveraged, with the Judge financing $5.5 million of the purchase price by obtaining loans and mortgages against his various real estate and business holdings.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 318–21.[/fn]
From that point on Hofheinz fought an uphill battle against creditors. But in an attempt to build his dream entertainment empire, Hofheinz only increased his debt load. He purchased a controlling stake in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1967 in a $10 million deal before plowing into one of his biggest ventures yet—Astroworld. At a cost of approximately $25 million, Hofheinz built a 56-acre theme park across the freeway from the Astrodome, with the goal of turning the “Astrodomain” into a Disney World-like tourist hub. Along with the park, Hofheinz subsequently began construction on an $18 million motor-hotel complex for the Astrodome and Astro-world. Both the park and the hotels opened in the summer of 1968.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 366–67, 370, 372–73.[/fn]
Although little was known publicly about the situation, high interest rates combined with a recession began to create significant debt service problems for Hofheinz by 1970. According to HSA Vice-President Jack O’Connell, Hofheinz would “never pay anything down on the principal, but [he’d] pay interest or borrowed the interest and extended his note. With interest rates going up, it became pretty tough. We were carrying a lot of raw land on our books.”
In May 1970, Hofheinz suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and kept him in a wheelchair for much of the remainder of his life. Hofheinz survived and regained some of his health, but his credit problems only worsened. Contingent on accepting a long-term financing package of $38 million dollars from a group of creditors led by Ford Motor Credit Company and General Electric Credit Company, Hofheinz stepped down as the day-to-day president of the Astrodomain Corporation in 1972, but still influenced operations as the chairman of the board. But continued high interest rates on his debt payments meant that Hofheinz had nowhere near the cash flow necessary to service his debt, and by 1976 it was all over.
On September 23, 1976, a press release announced that GE Credit and Ford Credit had purchased the Astros from Hofheinz. The release stated, “Judge Roy Hofheinz’ imagination and drive created this complex for Houston and without him it would never have happened.” Although the House that Roy Built still stood as the Home of the Astros, things would never be quite the same without Judge Roy Hofheinz at the helm of the team.[fn]Ray, The Grand Huckster, 407, 452, 457–8, 462, 567; Astros Press Release 76–88, HABC Archives, September 23, 1976.[/fn]
CONCLUSION: A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME
Through his nearly 15 years at the helm of the Houston Astros, Roy Hofheinz burnished a reputation as a marketer and businessman not quite seen before in the game. In its preview article of the brand-new Astrodome, the Houston Post argued that “as a promoter, Hofheinz makes Bill Veeck look like a peanut butcher suffering from the financial shorts.”[fn]Mickey Herskowitz, Houston Post, April 8, 1965.[/fn]
Hofheinz’s marketing panache was clear and evident in the ways he catered to female fans. From early on, he realized the significance of drawing female fans out to the ballpark, and the measures he took at Colt Stadium to draw a wide fanbase aided that goal substantially. The opening of the Astrodome was revolutionary and groundbreaking in its own right, so much so that Sports Illustrated highlighted Hofheinz and the Astrodome in its 40th anniversary issue as one of the four major catalysts of changes in sports since the magazine’s founding in 1954. The Astrodome, in the words of Roy’s son and former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz, opened up Astros baseball specifically, but sports in general to a much wider audience than ever before, including women:
Enormous new markets opened up, and the Dome was part of that: If you were to go to a Houston Buffs minor league game, you would have seen the die-hard fans, the people who kept scorecards and read the box scores every morning. That guy was in the minority at the Dome. At the Dome the wives came. The Children came. Suddenly it was a whole new milieu of fans. The Dome greatly broadened sports’ appeal for these people. In Houston it became a social event to go to the Astrodome. Women went to the Astrodome in heels![fn]Steve Rushin, Sports Illustrated, “At Home in the Dome,” August 16, 1994, 47.[/fn]
The Astrodome’s groundbreaking fan frills combined with Hofheinz’s unique gift for promotion and marketing created a marketing dynamo that changed the way baseball was presented to female fans. That legacy remains strong today, as Commissioner Bud Selig’s 2000 Initiative on Women and Baseball concluded that “women are the key to reaching families” and that “marketing to women will grow the game’s fan base,” tenets that were core to Hofheinz’s marketing strategy back in 1962.[fn]MLB Properties, Inc., “Commissioner’s Initiative on Women and Baseball” (Washington, D.C., July, 2000), 5.[/fn]
Though the Astros have since moved from the Astrodome to newer, swankier digs downtown with more of the luxury boxes and other revenue-generating amenities that Hofheinz pioneered 40 years earlier, the Astrodome still stands intact as an aging monument to the successful efforts of Hofheinz and others to bring baseball to Houston and make the game attractive to a universal fan base, including women.
WILL FLAHERTY is a native Houstonian and life-long Houston Astros supporter. Will is a 2010 graduate in History and Political Science from Duke University. A SABR member since 2013, Will currently resides in New York City and works for SeatGeek, a search engine for live event tickets.