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1965: When The Houston Astrodome Was The Eighth Wonder of the World

Culture | April 9, 2021

The Astrodome, or 'Harris Country Indoor Stadium,' as seen on an early postcard. Source: Flickr

The Houston Astrodome, dubbed “the 8th Wonder of the World,” celebrated many firsts in sports arena history when construction ended in 1965. The space-age home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros (formerly the Colt .45s), as well as the Houston Oilers and University of Houston football teams, revolutionized the stadium experience. For its grand opening on April 9, 1965, the Houston Astros hosted the New York Yankees and President Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed fried chicken and ice cream in the presidential suite.

The Astros won the game 2-1 in 12 innings.

The historic Astrodome in all her glory. (ballparksofbaseball)

 The Astrodome became the first fully enclosed sports stadium and the first air-conditioned event venue of Texan proportions. A half-mile around, the Dome also introduced Lucite skylights to keep the grass alive, five restaurants, and a bowling alley.

Construction Of The Houston Astrodome

Houston became the home of the Dome. (sportscasting)

Roy Hofheinz, owner of the franchise and a former mayor of Houston, commissioned the stadium after he and his daughter endured rain-outs or sweltering heat while attending games at Colt Stadium. Hofheinz and his ownership group had been granted an expansion team by Major League Baseball under the condition they built a covered stadium. For its first three seasons, the expansion team was known as the Colt .45s and played in Colt Stadium, which was known around the league as the most unpleasant place to play due to the scorching Texas heat. 

For the ceremonial groundbreaking of the new facility, which would be called the Harris County Domed Stadium, the franchise fired off .45s with blanks as opposed to breaking ground with traditional shovels. As they say, only in Texas.

In more firsts, the Astrodome also became the first stadium with an animated scoreboard and likely the first construction project to ever finish ahead of schedule. The 474-foot long scoreboard became the envy of the leagues (both MLB and the NFL), changed the way spectators absorb the game and set the ball rolling toward the giant HD screens at many arenas today. 

Colt 45s No More

The once glistening Astrodome. (USAtoday)

As the Harris County Domed Stadium was being built, the team continued to play as the Colt .45s, but the gun manufacturer was showing signs of being a little too excited about the venue upgrade. Colt had licensed the name and pistol imagery to the team, and Hofheinz sensed the company would ask for a larger cut of the revenue when the team moved into its state-of-the-art digs.

In December 1964, the team announced it would be shedding the slightly politically incorrect Colt .45s nickname in favor of the Astros. The logic behind the name Colt .45s was that the pistol was "the gun that won the west," and Houston's ball club hoped to win the National League -- but it was a backward-looking concept for a city that had futuristic ambitions. The Astros fit with NASA and the Johnson Space Station nearby. Hofheinz said,

We felt the space idea was more logical because the ball club is in Houston- Space City U.S.A., and our spring training headquarters is in Cocoa Beach, Fla. at Cape Kennedy- Launching Pad, U.S.A. The name and insignia will help dispel the image Texas as a land of cowboys and Indians, and it behooves every citizen in this area to call attention to the 20th century aspects of Texas and Houston.

More than a few “Houston, we have a problem” lines were used. Quickly the stadium became a massive tourist attraction. For years it became the third most-visited man made structure in the country, behind the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore.

Houston Goes All-In On The Space Thing

Earthmen working on the field circa 1965. Source: twitter.com/astrosdaily

With the country in the thick of the Space Race, the Astros and the Astrodome had a story that practically wrote itself. Everything that could be Astro-fied was, in ways great or small. The grounds crew that smoothed the base paths during the 7th-inning stretch did so wearing astronaut suits -- and rather than "grounds crew" they were called the Earthmen. Ushers called Spacettes dressed in futuristic stewardess outfits.

The Colt .45s logo was history, and the Astros adopted one that celebrated the stadium, with baseballs whirling around it like electrons around a molecule. The orbiting baseballs also recall the imagery of NASA at the time, which often depicted a satellite orbiting a planet.

The Astrodome Becomes The Astrodomain

A brochure for Astroworld. Source: astrodomememories.org

The Astrodome was the nucleus of what would come to be known as the Astrodomain. It included Astroworld, an amusement park that opened in 1968, numerous hotels, the Astrohall (as the Livestock Exposition Building, opened 1966, was nicknamed) and the Astroarena (opened 1974).

The Invention of Astroturf

The Astrodome next to its replacement NRG park. (houstonchronicle)

At first the team played on grass, utilizing the translucent panels to keep the field green. Unfortunately, the engineers involved failed to take into account the vision of outfielders. During afternoon games the translucent panels would blind players, adding more than a degree of difficulty in catching fly balls.

At first, they attempted to paint some of the panels to dim the blinding light but that only succeeded in killing the grass. That led to the invention of Astroturf, named after the team, which became a widely used artificial turf used across the country. To test the aerodynamics of the indoor stadium, the Astros invited legendary pitcher Satchel Paige to test some breaking balls. He called the stadium a "pitcher's paradise" due to the lack of wind. 

Astrodome History

A rendering of what the Astrodome might eventually become, a park. (houstonpublicmedia)

Many musical acts came to play the “8th Wonder of the World,” including Elvis. One of the largest crowds in the Dome's history, 66,746 fans, came out to see Selena, which also happened to be her last show ever. College basketball’s "Game of the Century," between UCLA and Houston happened there, as well as Billie Jean King taking down Bobby Riggs. Not to be left out, Evel Knievel jumped 13 cars in front of the frenzied crowd. Other major acts to play in the Dome included Billy Graham Crusades, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.

When a retractable roof stadium, NRG, came to Houston to house the Houston Texans, it spelled doom for the Astrodome. The “Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo” also moved to NRG leaving the Dome without any major tenants. The last concert ever was George Strait & the Ace in the Hole Band in 2002. Fittingly, in its last major showcase, the Astrodome set an attendance record of 68,266.

Today, the Dome remains standing but its only occupants are rats and stray cats. Until recently, the people of Houston had three options: spend hundreds of millions to renovate the stadium, spend an estimated $35 million to demolish it, or continue to let it stand as a reminder of human ingenuity. However, recently an architect has submitted plans to turn the historic stadium into an open air park. 

Tags: Architecture | Baseball | Football | Houston Astrodome | Houston Oilers | Major League Baseball | NFL | The Space Race

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!