Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened in 1965 as the Harris County Domed Stadium, Houston’s Astrodome was the world’s first large indoor venue (45,000 seats spread over five seating levels) for a major-league field sport. This baseball, football, and rodeo palace was conceived by entrepreneur and team owner Judge Roy Hofheinz, who lived in a luxuriously furnished apartment inside. The Dome was built near Colt Stadium, interim home of the Astros in their three seasons as the Colt .45s, and its dome was intended to spare players and fans from the sweltering Texas heat more than to prevent rainouts.
In its first season, the Astrodome featured a natural grass playing field. The dome, constructed from 4,796 clear plastic roof panes, allowed direct sunlight for grass to grow. But during day games the bright Texas sun blinded fielders trying to catch fly balls, so many of the roof panels were painted white to soften the glare. But the reduced light was insufficient to keep the grass alive, and at one point the dead brown turf was sprayed with green dye.
The Astros were resigned to play the 1966 season on an all-dirt field, until the Monsanto chemical company proposed using an experimental playing surface of nylon grass. It was installed and named AstroTurf. On April 8, 1966 the Astros and Dodgers played baseball’s first game on synthetic grass. The material’s durability and ease of drainage made it advantageous even in outdoor venues, and it quickly swept the sports world, football even more than baseball.
Inside, the Astrodome is indeed a marvel. Its 660′-wide circular roof was the world’s largest self-supporting dome when built, and its many large restaurants and lounges were unmatched in existing stadiums. Air-conditioning keeps the Dome’s temperature at a dry 72 degrees and over 90 percent of its seats are upholstered in fabric.
The roof is 208′ above the playing field at its highest point, high enough to be beyond the reach of fly balls, although a loudspeaker suspended over center field was once hit by Mike Schmidt for the longest single of his career. Over the outfield wall, a huge American flag hung in dead center field and baseball’s largest scoreboard once ran 474′ across the back wall. Both were displaced when seating decks were added (primarily for football games) in center field in the 1980s. This expansion brought the baseball capacity to nearly 55,000. On June 15, 1976, the Astrodome suffered its only rainout when torrential storms flooded the nearby streets and made it impossible to get to the stadium.
The Astrodome was always an extreme pitcher’s park, and although the dimensions were later shortened from their original 360-420-360 to 325-400-325, the ball never carried well. The stadium reduced scoring and home runs greatly, and thereby made the hometown hitters seem less capable than they really are while inflating the accomplishments of the pitching staff. It can be argued that Jose Cruz, Sr., would have been a serious Hall of Fame contender had he played in a friendlier park. Fans of Nolan Ryan, however, had no complaints. Most Astro teams played “little ball” in response to the Dome, and local fans are well attuned to the nuances of pitching and defense as a resuly. With the football Oilers relocated to Tennessee, and the Astros moving downtown to Enron Field for the 2000 season, the future of this one-time engineering marvel is uncertain.