Houston’s Role in the Initiation of Sunday Night Baseball
This article was published in the 2014 The National Pastime.
It is something of a minor irony that Houston, the city that brought totally covered stadiums and air conditioning to baseball and football, also became the place that pushed the envelope on the approval of baseball on Sunday nights. Like air conditioning, the concept was introduced for the safety and comfort of Houston fans, and its adoption came about as a quirk of fate. Sometimes, issues are simply born in the timing of things.
When Houston was approved for one of the two National League expansion club franchises in 1960, the city won the bid on three major points: (1) Houston’s robust population growth; (2) the city’s decades of historical support for high level minor league baseball; and (3) Harris County's promise that it would, in fair return, construct the first all-enclosed, air-conditioned stadium in the world as the new venue for play.
Here’s that timing factor: The new domed stadium would take years to construct. The new Houston team would have to play their MLB home games in a temporary venue until their new earlier-than-Star-Wars facility was ready to house games.
In fact, the whole space-age “Astros” theme did not even exist in 1962, the year of the club’s debut. If it did, it was on the back-burner in the mind of the late Judge Roy Hofheinz, the P.T. Barnum-like visionary leader of the ownership group, the Houston Sports Association (HSA).
In 1962, Judge Hofheinz was emerging from the difficult and expensive negotiation of the AAA minor league territorial rights from the Houston Buffs of the American Association. The deal included usage rights to the 11,000-seat Busch Stadium in Houston if the new National League team decided to remain there and handle the expense of any enlargements.1 Busch Stadium had a covered main grandstand. Adding bleachers down the lines and behind the outfield walls could have expanded capacity to 20,000-plus, but the Judge didn’t want that option.2
He wanted Houston NL fans to be on site to witness the new domed stadium grow from a cavernous hole-in-the-ground into what would be dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” So he built a temporary venue, Colt Stadium, reflecting the name he had chosen from fan suggestions for the new club, the Houston Colt .45s. Colt Stadium was located on the northwest corner of the paved concrete parking lot that would live on in service to the covered colossus, once it was built. At the time, Houston fans thought that the “Houston Colt .45s” would be the city's permanent MLB identity, and that the domed stadium would be known as Harris County Domed Stadium.
Colt Stadium had a capacity of 33,000, but it offered no protection from the sun or rain.3 Fans attending day games had to go against the JFK zeitgeist of avoiding headwear or have their blood and other bodily juices boiled to the temperature of tea.
Some referred to Colt Stadium as “The Sizzler” because of the guaranteed double roast that fans got from the direct sun and reflected heat from the seats, sidewalks, and parking lot pavement. Some wore ball caps despite any admiration for President Kennedy. It made sense under the dire circumstances.
What didn’t make sense is what began to happen as June of 1962 moved into one of the hottest Houston summers on record. Fans at Colt Stadium were not simply placed in positions of inconvenience and mild discomfort; they literally were placing their lives at risk during day games.
Timing again. I have memories of profuse sweat running down my face, soaking my clothes, rendering me unable to drink enough lemonade and water to quench my boundless thirst; why am I here? Looking to the southeast from the highest row on the first base side of the stands was exhilarating. There sat the mammoth hole in the ground that would become the grand, air-conditioned palace that one day soon would be our salvation. What a dreamy thought that was on very hot days.
Timing. Its appearance and meaning suddenly became lucidly obvious: I believe this juxtaposition of hellish torment and the promise of heavenly climate-control was intentional. But the record-breaking heat of that summer was beyond Judge Hofheinz's influence. What could fans do in the meanwhile for relief?
Major League Baseball still had a policy against baseball on Sunday nights in 1962. It may have been grounded in the old blue laws in some cities that had formerly banned any baseball on Sundays, but it seems to also have had ties with that day’s status as a fairly universal MLB “getaway day.” The schedule makers apparently feared that a Sunday night game could jeopardize a visiting team’s ability to reach their next destination in time to start a new series on Monday. Of course, one has to wonder: “Would the schedule makers have been equally upset by the idea of a Wednesday night game, if the visitors were set to start a new series elsewhere on Thursday?”
We have found no definitive answer to the complete truth in this matter of the old Sunday night game ban.4 We may only observe that baseball is often reluctant to change longstanding policies. Early in the 1950s, St. Louis Cardinals' owner Fred Saigh had requested permission to play a make-up game on Sunday night, but was flatly refused. Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler may have done it as much for personal enmity as any belief in the Sunday night ban.5
Commissioner Ford C. Frick could not so easily ignore the need for Sunday night baseball in Houston. Many fans at day games in Houston were suffering such severe effects from heat that they had to be transported by ambulance to the Texas Medical Center nearby.
Timing. The dome was still almost three years away, and no one knew for sure when the world’s first large air-conditioned domed stadium would actually be ready for use.
And though the summer of 1962 was one of the hottest on record, the reality is that summer sizzles in Texas. Night baseball had saved the minor league game in Houston from 1930 forward. Daylight baseball could have turned into the iceberg of heat for the city’s titanic major league future, if people started dying during their wait for domed stadium relief. The weekend that turned the corner, moving it from concern to action on the Sunday night baseball problem, was the weekend of June 9–10. The Colt .45s faced the Dodgers. The teams were scheduled to play a day game on Saturday and a daylight double header on Sunday.
I chose to attend the Saturday 1:00pm game despite the heat-induced delirium I’d experienced two weeks earlier. By noon the temperature at Colt Stadium had risen to 88 degrees with the humidity checking in at 88 percent. These figures undoubtedly rose throughout the game, if the number of heat stroke cocktails served up to the soaking-wet, mostly hatless crowd was any indication. Over the course of the Colt .45s 13–1 slaughter of the Dodgers, the stadium medical staff saw numerous people with heat stress issues and at least six of them were taken from the ballpark to the Texas Medical Center with clear symptoms of full-blown heatstroke.
When the score hit 11–1 after five innings, Dodgers manager Walt Alston pretty much threw in the towel in an effort to save the health of some of his valuable starters. He removed Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam, and John Roseboro as a group.6
None of the players on either side were injured that day, but all dragged their bodies around the field as though they could drop at any moment from the sheer weight of added water in their baseball uniforms.
Saturday was bad, but the worst would come Sunday.
The dawn of Sunday, June 10, 1962, broke like any other summer day in Houston. A red ball of fire rose from the eastern horizon and began to climb into the sky. Houstonians would only feel the morning dew as it transformed into humidity. Anyone moving about outdoors would break their first sweat prior to 8:00am. Predictably, the doubleheader turned into an all-around disaster for Houston. The Colts lost both games by scores of 9–3 and 9–7, the fans got sick from the heat in record numbers, and none of the players or umpires came through the fire without casualty. Here’s how the Associated Press reported the events at the “Skillet”:
While Dodgers Show Class, Heat Shows Dome Vital
Houston (AP) – The Houston Colts demonstrated, unintentionally, the benefits of their proposed domed stadium while losing both ends of their first home doubleheader to the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday.
The Harris County emergency corps treated 78 people for heat prostration as 33,145–30,027 of them paid—fans jammed into the multi-colored temporary Colt Stadium to see the league-leading Dodgers win, 9–3 and 9–7.
Jocko Conlon, the second base umpire, had to leave after the fourth inning of the first game because of the heat.
Don Drysdale, a 216-pounder, gave up 12 pounds of weight to the 90 degree temperature, but his six-hit performance was backed by a 17-hit Dodger assault on six Houston pitchers in the first game.
Joe Moeller jumped to a 9-1 lead in the second game, but the Dodger righthander ran into a bases loaded home run by Don Buddin, Colt Shortstop, and he had to call in Ron Perranoski to preserve the victory.
Harris County is building an air-conditioned stadium with a permanent plastic dome as the home of the Colts. Excavation work is nearing completion. Fans sitting on the top row yesterday could see, across the parking area, the huge hole—725 feet wide and 26 feet deep.
Financial problems have delayed the opening of the multipurpose structure, however, until 1964, at the earliest. Original estimates called for a $15 million (dollar) expenditure, but county officials learned last month the structure will cost more. They now are trying to determine just how much more and where the additional funds can be found.
Several hundred fans had to be turned away yesterday as Houston had its first capacity crowd. The 30,027-paid shoved official attendance for the first 31 home dates to 502,308, a 16,203 average that is well above the 11,000 pre-season forecast of Colt owners.
Drysdale has reason to remember June 10. He won his tenth victory against three defeats. In six previous seasons with the Dodgers, the earliest Drysdale won his tenth game was on July 11, in 1959.
While Drysdale lost 12 pounds, Houston sustained an injury that could hurt.
Roman Mejias, the right fielder who has hit 16 home runs, injured his right arm while leaping for John Roseboro’s double in the eighth inning of the first game. The 30-year old Cuban got a single in the first game to hit safely in 16 consecutive games but was held hitless by Moeller and Perranoski (in Game Two).
“I couldn’t even use the arm in the second game today,” he said. The arm was to be examined today.7
Houston General Manager Paul Richards put forth an immediate appeal to the Commissioner’s Office and to the other National League clubs for permission to lift the ban on Sunday Night Baseball in Houston for as long as the team continued to play outdoors for the health and safety of fans, players, and staff.8
The answer came at a meeting of National League clubs in Chicago on July 31, 1962.9 Every NL club and the Commissioner approved a time-limited removal of the ban in Houston for one season, starting in 1963, on Sunday games played after June 1. For the balance of 1962, from August 1 forward, Houston also was given permission to start their Sunday games at 4:00pm.
Why the Sunday night game ban wasn’t removed immediately or completely was not explained to the public. We are left to assume either more research is needed to find this answer or that in baseball even unanimous agreement on the need for it still results in a glacial pace of change. In that same meeting, NL President Warren Giles and the other clubs severely chastised Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley for his refusal to install lights at Wrigley Field in the interest of boosting attendance.10
In subsequent public statements, Commissioner Frick made it clear that while he was in full sympathy with Houston’s plight, he still looked with disfavor upon any baseball that was played on Sundays due to competition with religious services, but he was consoled that the ban had been lifted in Houston for only one year and that by 1964 the move into the dome would preclude further need for Sunday night baseball.11
“The commissioner was looking at the clock a little differently from me in the summer of 1962,” Tal Smith now says. “As the club’s supervisor of the Dome’s construction activities, there were plenty of times that I had to hope we could be in there by 1965. Nothing was certain, but Ford Frick simply put the matter to rest in his own mind and held onto the belief that we would be playing indoors by 1964."
“The potential for a big misunderstanding on construction completion was always there,” Smith adds, “but fortunately for all concerned, it never happened.”12
Frick also made it clear that the Houston exception came with a proviso that before a Sunday night game could be scheduled, the visiting teams and all players would be asked each time to approve it.13
The Effect of Sunday Night Baseball on Attendance
A brief tabular look at how Sunday baseball attendance at Colt Stadium in Houston fared over the course of the 1962 and 1963 seasons does not appear to show a significant increase in attendance on Sunday nights from June 9, 1962, forward. Here is how the attendance and game results played out for Houston over this two-year period of changing rules on night baseball, starting after June 1, 1963:14
Table 1: 1962 Houston Attendance for Sunday Day Game Baseball Only
The Mets and Colts had agreed to start no inning beyond 7:00pm due to getaway day travel arrangements. When time expired, the two clubs were tied after eight. Since it was the Mets’ last scheduled trip to Houston, National League Secretary Fred Flag said the game would be resumed in New York on September 20. The game was not completed due to a rain that cancelled a regularly scheduled contest on September 19 in New York between the same clubs. The rained-out game was moved to September 20 and Houston won two by 7–2 and 5–4. The teams never got around to completing the 4–4 tie that also had been re-scheduled from September 13 in Houston for completion after eight.
Of interest to superstitious fans: Note above the results and attendance for Sunday, July 1, 1962. The Colt .45s lost their sixth home Sunday game of the season to the Reds by a score of 6–1 before a crowd of exactly 6,666. Anyone have any non-scientific ideas as to who may have been working this Sunday heat job?
Sunday night baseball began on June 9, 1963 with these results:
Table 2: 1963 Houston Attendance for Sunday Day and Night Games
The Colts pulled their best Sunday crowd of the season on June 9, the first time the doors opened for a Sunday night game. The peak is followed by a general decline into a low attendance pattern befitting the bottom-feeder production of an uncompetitive, second-season expansion club. Nevertheless, the temporal shift reduced the threat of heatstroke to nearly nil. Now all the fans had to do was to survive attacks by the night-feeding mosquitoes.
By the end of the 1963 season, it became obvious that ongoing dome construction would require the Colt .45s to play another season at their temporary venue. By late November, the 1964 schedule was announced: Houston would be playing 77 of 81 home games at night. The National League club owners had extended their permission for the entire 1964 season.15, 16
As baseball club owners awoke to the fact that there was no significant opposition from religious groups to Sunday night baseball, everybody but the daylight-bound Cubs jumped onto the bandwagon.
“Baseball had to change,” Tal Smith says. “The whole world was changing all around us. Once we got into the Astrodome, we had no health need for Sunday night baseball, obviously, but we sometimes played at night, if television wanted us for a late game. Back in our first season , baseball was already waking up to the fact that it had major competition from other leisure time activities—and that home television, without question, was the biggest competitor we faced— along with the growing fan interest in pro football and pro basketball.
“We had to get television all the way on our side, and that meant being available in prime time when television wanted us there.
“As more and more teams got into the business of playing some Sunday night baseball, it made sense that one of the big sports networks (sic) would come along, as ESPN did, and build a weekly game telecast by that brand name.”
“The Houston Colt .45s helped knock down a wall against Sunday night baseball,” Tal Smith concluded, “but they also knocked down a wall that was going to fall anyway, in time. “That wall had to fall. Baseball’s survival of the changing landscape depended upon it.”17
By April 15, 1990, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, featuring Jon Miller and Joe Morgan as the play-by-play/analyst combo, had sprouted wings that still fly to this day.18
BILL McCURDY holds degrees from Houston, Tulane, and Texas, but his baseball talent only made him a parochial school all-star. A member of SABR since 1992, Bill has served as Board Chair of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. He is co-author of "A Kid From St. Louis" with Jerry Witte, co-author of "Toy Cannon" with Jimmy Wynn, and initiator and co-author of "Houston Baseball: The Early Years, 1861–1961" with others from the Larry Dierker Houston Chapter of SABR, where he is historian.
- 1. Personal interview with Tal Smith February 4, 2014. Smith was Special Advisor to the Sugar Land Skeeters and long-time former president and general manager of the Houston Astros.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Wikipedia entry on Colt Stadium: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colt_Stadium.
- 4. Personal interview with Tal Smith, February 4, 2014. Tal Smith believes that the ban on Sunday night baseball had its unwritten roots in baseball’s historical attempt to avoid conflict with Sunday church services, whenever possible.
- 5. John P. Rossi, A Whole New Game: Off the Field Changes in Baseball (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1999) 80.
- 6. George Lederer, Long Beach (CA) Independence Telegram, June 10, 1962.
- 7. Associated Press, Corpus Christi Times, Monday, June 11, 1962, 17.
- 8. Interview with Tal Smith, February 4, 2014.
- 9. Official Baseball Guide for 1963, (St. Louis: The Sporting News), 147
- 10. Ibid, Official Baseball Guide for 1963, 146–7.
- 11. Associated Press, Joplin Globe, August 1, 1962, 8.
- 12. Tal Smith Interview, February 4, 2014.
- 13. Ibid, Joplin Globe.
- 14. Baseball Almanac; all data and explanatory sub-footnote information in these two charts is derived from the same Internet Database identified here.
- 15. Associated Press, “Colts Schedule 77 Night Games,” Lubbock Avalanche Journal, November 19, 1963, 16.
- 16. “Houston Colt .45s will play 30 of first 41 Games on Home Field,” Mainland Times, Galveston, TX, 15.
- 17. Tal Smith Interview, February 4, 2014.
- 18. “Sunday Night Baseball,” Wikipedia, Google, Internet Search Engine.