The sports world lost its most influential figure Tuesday night. It wasn’t a player or a commissioner or shoe-company mogul.
It was a decaying building on the south side of Houston. Voters rejected a bond referendum that would have turned the Astrodome into a convention center. It’s essentially a death sentence for the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Looking at it now, the biggest wonder is how the steel-and-concrete crypt was called that.
But if you genuflect at the mention of Fenway Park or Lambeau Field, you should bow at least twice a day to the Astrodome.
It was America’s Colosseum, if the Romans had thought to throw in a roof, a beauty parlor and Astroturf. Judge Roy Hofheinz did.
“What we have here is a new concept in professional sport,” he proclaimed on opening night.
The world would never be the same after April 9, 1965. Stuff we take for granted were things fans could only dream about. Sports had been mostly for sports fans. The Astrodome turned sports into an escape for the masses.
For sheer entertainment, Elvis played there six times. Evel Knievel jumped 13 cars. Billy Graham spoke and Mick Jagger sang, though not on the same night.
The first concert had The Supremes opening for Judy Garland, who sang “Over the Rainbow.”
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies may have been blue. In the Astrodome, Boog Powell looked up and was blinded by the glare from the see-through roof panels. The Baltimore Orioles’ first baseman wore a batting helmet to keep from getting concussed by a pop fly.
The Astrodome also gave us a Nolan Ryan no-hitter, a 199-yard game from rookie Earl Campbell that Howard Cosell called “the greatest football game I have ever broadcast.”
George Washington may not have slept there, but Claudell Washington hit four of his 164 career home runs at the Astrodome. He hit more at Yankee Stadium, though not even the House the Ruth Built had the historic impact of the place in Houston.
Ask any woman who was making coffee for her boss in the 1970s. She will probably remember where she was when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Or turn your TV to FOX Sports 1 on Friday and watch the first of approximately 92,482 regular-season college basketball games. The first nationally televised game was Jan. 20, 1969. Elvin Hayes and Houston snapped UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in front of 52,963 fans. The original “Game of the Century” led to the creation of March Madness and Dick Vitale.
To think the Astrodome cost $37 million. For a season-and-a-half of what the Yankees pay A-Rod, the country scored four decades of Oilers, Astros, Cougars, Gamblers and a place that wound up housing thousands of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims.
Imagine what it was like to show up in 1965 for that first Astros’ exhibition game against the Yankees.
Houston fans were used to sweating and swatting mosquitoes at Colt Stadium. They pulled up to see an 18-story monument to the future. Instead of bleachers, there was a sea of cushioned seats colored red, yellow, purple, blue and burnt orange.
The cheapest seats cost $1.50 and it was 50 cents to park. Adjusted for inflation, that’s still only $14.87, or roughly what a pretzel and beer will set you back at Wrigley Field these days.
And you know what else?
Fans entered the world’s largest room. Every cubic foot was air conditioned.
The roof rose 208 feet above the field. It was made of 4,596 Lucite panels that let the sun in and the grass grow. Only the glare was too intense and the grass never grew.
Orthopedic surgeons were forever grateful.
Fans could choose from five restaurants. The wrap-around scoreboard flashed Cowboys, ricocheting bullets and snorting bulls. When opponents hit a home run, the scoreboard would scream “TILT.”
Mickey Mantle hit the first TILT in Astrodome history.
Lyndon Johnson was there. So were the Gemini Twins, Gus Grissom and John Young. Three weeks earlier, they’d become America’s first duo in space.
NASA had headquartered in Houston and the race to the moon was on. Hofheinz was a legendary Texas mover-and-shaker. He wanted his team to reflect the spirit of the times, so he went from old-Texas Colt .45s to new-frontier Astronauts.
He quickly shortened it to Astros, knowing headline writers would do the same. The real astronauts were given lifetime passes to games. They could watch the grounds crew, called The Earthmen, work in astronaut suits.
Blastoff girls brought fans food in the Countdown Cafeteria. There was a chapel, a bowling alley, a children’s library, a movie theater, a barber shop and a presidential suite.
“If it had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you’d never have to leave,” Bob Hope said.
Hofheinz rarely did. He built an apartment over the right-field bleachers. With gold-plated plumbing fixtures and 26,000 pounds of art, it would make Jerry Jones’s skybox look like a trailer park.
Speaking of skyboxes, there’d never been any before the Astrodome. Here, there were 53, each with a closed-circuit TV, a Dow-Jones ticker and a refrigerator. Corporate sports schmoozing had come to America.
The overall Astrodome inspiration came from a trip to Rome. Hofheinz visited the Colosseum and was struck by its circular design. Most sports venues were rectangular.
The Judge took old-world architecture back across the ocean. Round, multi-use stadiums became the rage. Along came Three Rivers, Riverfront, Veterans and Busch stadiums. They had the utilitarian charm of a proctoscope.
All are gone now, as are most of the domes the Astrodome inspired. It makes for a mixed legacy for the oldest dome of all.
It hasn’t had a team since 1999 or any event since 2009. It has turned into Fat Elvis, and Houston voters didn’t want to invest in a second act.
The “Save Our Dome” movement has all but given up, and the Astrodome’s fate lies with county commissioners. Everybody expect demolition orders to be issued soon.
That made news on Tuesday, though not enough people seemed to care. If it had been Wrigley or Fenway, fans would be lining up to stand in front of the bulldozers.
The sad fact is there isn’t much worth saving with the House that Roy Built, except the memories. The next time your eyes pop out when you see a scoreboard replay, or you order something fancier than a hotdog, or you go home with no splinters in your behind, think of the place that pioneered it all.
As Rev. Graham said in his first revival there, “This is in truth one of the great wonders of the world.”
The Eighth Wonder has finally reached the end of the rainbow. It was a place where dreams really did come true.