clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Original Field Of Dreams

New, 5 comments

Bad for baseball, probably. Still, the Astrodome was an engineering marvel, designed brilliantly. Except for that one little flaw.

Looks like an image from "Close Encounters," don't it?
Looks like an image from "Close Encounters," don't it?
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If you could travel back in time 30 years and describe our technological advances to anybody remotely familiar with computers, the 1985 person would be impressed. Not shocked. Trust me on this -- I was a bit of a computer geek (bit of computer, full-on geek.) The developments have changed society in unpredicted ways, yet weren't unimaginable. (The only thing 1985 wouldn't believe is how we use this technology primarily to watch other people's home movies of pets.)

Now think of someone from 1935 being told about 1965. Much of it might seem preposterous. Pills which prevented pregnancy? A polio vaccine? Friggin' men in space? Atomic bombs? The ability to watch live events on a box in your home? A baseball stadium in Texas that was always 72 degrees and never had rain?

You can hardly blame Americans of 1965 for thinking that technological growth could and eventually would be able to do anything. (Producers of the first-contact film "2001," then in pre-production, tried to take out a insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, against lost box office if humankind met aliens before the film was released. Lloyd's declined.) Technology was something of a cross-denominational faith.

Judge Roy Hofheinz wasn't the first to dream up a domed stadium -- the Dodgers originally wanted one in Brooklyn. But Hofheinz had ins. Hofheinz was LBJ's campaign manager during Johnson's years as a lawmaker from Texas, a state where political strong-arming is considered performance art. A former legislator, Houston mayor and (duh) judge -- you could say Hofheinz was a Connected Guy.

Anyone interested in the details can find them in this amazing PDF, written by someone called Ted Powell who I think is really Park Service paperwork perfectionist Leslie Knope. The Astrodome's on our national register of historic landmarks (as it should be) and those get full write-up treatment from the park people.

A small army worked on construction. McDonnell Aircraft tested a big scale model of the thing for wind resistance, and they were by-god actual rocket scientists.

Rockets were everywhere; the starflight craze was Go! Competing with Soviets in a race to space was patriotically stirring, and helped repurpose nuclear terrors (the same rockets that could blow up the world might take astronauts to other worlds.) Almost everyone feared The Bomb; almost everyone loved the space program.

It was perfectly reasonable for the Colt 45s, as their new dome neared completion, to be renamed the Astros, after a NASA mission-control center in Houston. (At the groundbreaking dig, politicians fired Colt 45s into the dirt.) A giant scoreboard was the first capable of programming light sequences to show animation. During home run animations this hilarious audio got played. Seriously; click that, it's a hoot.

Celebrities abounded for opening ceremonies. Singing star and future bigot Anita Bryant threw out the first pitch -- for a practice session -- April 8th. Naturally, 24 astronauts were handed lifelong free passes. Billy Graham and LBJ attended the exhibition opener April 9th, against the Yankees.

Mickey Mantle said "it reminds me of what I imagine my first ride would be like in a flying saucer." Reviewers called it "something from outer space" and The Eighth Wonder of the World. Johnson wrote that the stadium had "shown the world what men can accomplish when imagination, energy, and sheer determination are combined in one tremendous project."

One problem; the roof hadn't been beta-tested by ballplayers. A latticework of metal and glass-ish plastic, it allowed sunlight to glow inside and grow real grass for the field. It also created thousands of refractive surfaces. The glare was so intense, balls were dropping everywhere. Players couldn't see. Fielders put on batting helmets.

No worries! A light coat of paint was applied to the transparent plastic. This solved the glare problem. But it blocked too much sunlight. And that killed the grass. The Astros finished 1965 playing on a field of dead grass, spray-painted green.

They installed "Chemical Grass" the next year, whose manufacturer (Monsanto) quickly renamed it "AstroTurf." Which I believe you are all familiar with. As you are its later competitor, "FieldTurf," supposedly more grass-like but having the drawback of looking like a carpet with mange. And you know about the domed stadiums that followed.

Oddly, it would be decades before the AstroDome's most influential innovation, luxury boxes, became a thing. The boxes started at $15 grand for the season, and had theme designs such as "Spanish Provano, Roman Holiday, and Bangkok," making them sound more like rooms at an adults-only hotel.

The Astros left in 2000. The building hosted its last event, a concert, in 2003. But it would be used again to house victims made homeless by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading some to make rather inappropriate remarks.

It's still standing, though fire officials declared the sprinkler systems unsafe in 2008 and a few parts were removed in 2013. Engineers consider it structurally sound. Suggestions for further use have included amusement park, farmer's market, convention center, you name 'em. My favorite, with no chance of happening, is planetarium. Seems Houston doesn't want to let it go. Because, once upon a time, the future was amazing.

Two good videos I found. One's a trailer for an Astrodome documentary some fans are making; it's sentimental cheese, but I felt that way about the Metrodome. I'm embedding this newscast, which is also vastly cheesy yet has the same optimism for a new park as 1965. Hey, the organist has been replaced by a computer, and we'll all love the next 35 years at Enron Field!

Catch you later for the game thread, and catch ColossusOfRhode's piece on the Minneapolis Millerettes next Saturday!