American Inventions - Game 2, Houston

Even in disuse, today's invention remains Houston's most recognizable landmark. How long will it survive, though?

To mark the first season of basketball in the American Athletic Conference, we're featuring inventions that symbolize each of the other nine cities in the league, two inventions apiece. Here's the first invention we came up with for today's opponent, the Houston Cougars.

INVENTION #2: THE ASTRODOME

Despite its name, the Astrodome's origins did not begin when Major League Baseball arrived in Houston in 1962. Even before then, when Houston had a minor league team, Roy Hofheinz, who was mayor of Houston in the mid-1950s and became known as Judge Hofheinz after an earlier stint as Harris County Judge, saw there was a problem with baseball in his city. It was hot and humid. The mosquitoes ate fans alive. It rained too much, causing delays and rainouts. He wanted to take baseball indoors.

No one had ever built a domed stadium, though. Hofheinz may have gotten his inspiration from the Roman Colosseum, which had an awning that covered the seating area. Then again, most baseball stadiums of that era already had those. Hofheinz wanted to cover the playing field as well, and that would require something completely original.

Not only did Hofheinz want a dome, but so did Major League Baseball. They only awarded Houston an expansion team because Hofheinz and his money men promised they would have a covered stadium built. And so, on January 3, 1962, ground was broken on the world's first domed stadium. (The team, originally named the Colt .45's, played in the temporary Colt Stadium for three years, a spartan ballpark which was plagued by rain and heat and mosquitoes, just like the minor-league stadium had been before.) It cost a then-unthinkable $35 million, and after two and a half years of construction the Astrodome was ready for the 1965 baseball season.

And was it ever ready! Luxury skyboxes, a new innovation. Cushioned seats instead of wooden or metal benches. Special clubs and bars for season-ticket holders. Female ushers wearing miniskirts and groundskeepers in space suits. A scoreboard that "exploded" in about the most stereotypically Texas way possible after an Astros home run.

The Astros played five exhibition games in one three-day weekend in April 1965, and dignitaries were everywhere. President Lyndon Johnson arrived in the second inning of the premiere. Texas governor John Connally threw out the first pitch. Astronauts based in Houston also threw out ceremonial pitches and received lifetime passes to MLB games.

You probably already know the story of the natural grass that was laid down inside the Astrodome when it first opened. Originally the roof had translucent panels to allow sunlight in and keep the grass growing. But the Astros and their opponents immediately had problems finding fly balls in the glare during day games. The panels were painted white, but then the grass died, and when the air conditioning turned off, the soil would release its held-in moisture, causing it to rain inside. The next year, an artificial surface called Astroturf had been invented and laid down inside the dome. It touched off a wave of Astroturf installations across the sports world, creating a scourge that lasted for decades until FieldTurf, a more grass-like surface, was finally invented.

Maybe the best part of the Astrodome was Roy Hofheinz's over-the-top apartment behind the right-field wall. A Google search of "hofheinz astrodome apartment" brings back several fantastic articles and a handful of pictures of the showy, opulent rooms in Hofheinz's sometime home. The apartment was knocked out when the outfield seating was expanded in 1988 to mollify the Houston Oilers, although it had been pretty much abandoned long before that, when Hofheinz was forced to sell the Astros. (Hofheinz died in 1982, but his name lives on in the Houston sports scene, in a somewhat ironic way. The UH basketball team plays in Hofheinz Pavilion, a dark, low-ceilinged, claustrophobic arena that is pretty much the opposite of the Astrodome.)

In the late 1990s, both of the Astrodome's main tenants moved out. The Oilers moved to Tennessee after the 1996 season, and the Astros relocated to Minute Maid Park in 2000. When the NFL returned to Houston, they did so in a new facility, Reliant Stadium, built right next to the old dome. A long period of relative disuse followed, including a few college bowl games, high school football, and most memorably as a shelter for Hurricane Katrina victims relocated from New Orleans. Houston voters rejected a bond initiative to remake the Astrodome into a convention center in 2013, and while the city seems determined to avoid it, ultimately the Eighth Wonder of the World may be demolished. Progress. Progress?

Here is a roughly 20-minute newsreel-style video produced shortly after the Astrodome opened.

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