On Tuesday, Houston voters rejected a plan to renovate the Astrodome, the former home of the Houston Astros and the NFL’s Houston Oilers. The historical venue now faces demolition.
The renovation would have cost taxpayers $217 million, and would have turned it into a convention and events center.
The Astrodome opened in 1965. It was the first domed, air-conditioned stadium in sports history, and paved the way for a new era in sports venues. Dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” it set the example for multi-purpose stadiums, and was the inspiration for many domed and retractable-domed venues we have today.
Former Houston mayor Ray Hofheinz wanted to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Houston. He was granted his wish on the condition that he would build a domed stadium for them to play in. Thus, the Houston Colt .45s were born. When they debuted in 1962, they played their home games in the suffocating heat of Colt Stadium until 1964, while The Dome was under construction. In 1965, they moved into the Astrodome, replete with the new “Astros” moniker.
The stadium was not without its growing pains. Originally, the plan was to have a natural grass surface lit up by panes of semitransparent lucite. The glare coming through the roof proved a distraction for the ballplayers as they searched for fly balls against the backdrop of the roof. As a result, many of the panes were painted white. The problem with that solution, of course, was that the grass didn’t get enough sunlight to grow, and ended up dying. For the rest of the 1965 season, games were played on dead grass that was painted green. The grass tended to hold, then release moisture, often resulting in rain within the structure, causing games to be delayed while the grounds crews cleaned up the playing surface.
This, in turn, led to the invention of an artificial playing surface known as AstroTurf. The plastic grass ultimately found its way into multi-purpose facilities across the country, domed or not, and changed the way baseball was played in the 70s and 80s. The high bounces and fast ground balls produced by the hard surface led to teams (like the ’85 Cardinals) emphasizing speed over power. It also led to the one-bounce throw to first, innovated by Cincinnati Reds’ shortstop Dave Concepcion. Conception used the throw after fielding ground balls deep in the hole between short and third.
Unfortunately, the turf also led to knee injuries, and shortened the careers of players like Andre Dawson.
Baseball ultimately found its way back to traditional stadiums and natural grass. Only three ballparks remain with artificial turf, and it’s a “new and improved” version that more accurately simulates playing on the real stuff.
The Astrodome was also known for its gigantic, lighted scoreboard. After every Astros home run, the scoreboard featured a minute-long animated celebration of pistols, bulls, and fireworks.
While the Astros never won a World Series there, great players like Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Roger Clemens played there. And epic playoff games like Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS still echo throughout the abandoned stadium.
In 2000, the Astros moved into a new retractable-dome stadium, a feat of architecture that, indirectly, would not have been possible without the innovation of the Astrodome.
The Dome was left largely ill-maintained for too long, and price tag to bring it up-to-date was too steep. Thus, an era will end in Houston, and in the baseball world, when the Astrodome is ultimately demolished.