Fifty years ago, sports were changed forever. With the western shifts of the Athletics (from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955) and the more famous Dodgers and Giants moves to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958 Major League Baseball’s leagues had expanded beyond their historic borders, drawn by the Mississippi, Ohio and Potomac Rivers. In 1959 Houston, along with several other cities had owners making a bid to create a third Major League, to be known as the Continental League, that was intended to have teams in New York, Toronto, Denver, Houston, the Twin Cities, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Atlanta, and Buffalo. The American and National Leagues at that time had far more autonomy then they do now, and chose to do battle with the threat of a third league by issuing two expansion teams. The National League chose to place its teams in New York, who became the Mets, and Houston, which became the Colt .45s, while the American League created the second version of the Washington Senators (the first having moved to the Twin Cities) and creating the Major League version of the Los Angeles Angels, which had been the name of the Pacific Coast League team in LA before the Dodgers bought them out.
Houston is an incredibly hot, humid city for most of the baseball season, and when the team was created the ownership along with Harris County worked together to build the first domed stadium. The primary owner of the Colt .45s, Roy Hofheinz having been both mayor of Houston and the administrative Judge of Harris County in the past. Officially known as the Harris County Domed Stadium at first, it became the Astrodome, and the team changed its name from the Colt .45s to the Astros, to celebrate Houston’s having become the center of the burgeoning space industry with the creation of Mission Control on the then southern outskirts of town.
The clock has slowly turned for the last fifty years, and time has had its inevitable toll on the Astrodome. She has sat unused since 2002, beside the new football stadium, built for the new football team, the original Houston Oiliers having abandoned the city for Nashville in 1997, while the Astros moved to a new modern ballpark downtown in 2000. Yet there she stands on the southern edge of the Texas Medical Center, a reminder of when Major League Baseball in the South, and indoor Baseball and Football as a whole were untested ideas. It has hosted college bowl games, Billy Graham, the 1992 Republican National Convention, and victims of Hurricane Katrina, seen the tennis Battle of the Sexes, and boxing matches with Mohammed Ali, played host to Rodeos, The Jacksons, and Elvis. It is a younger baseball stadium then three current MLB Stadiums, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium, and only a year older than two others. It is more than forty years younger than the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Houston and Harris County have a long drawn out love-hate relationship with the Astrodome, in part because they are currently unable to decide what to do with it. The county still owes several million dollars in bonds on the structure (a firm number can’t be found online) and while voters have rejected further bonds to expand the stadium into a hotel complex, a new idea has been floated in recent years to create a massive indoor theme park.
As many as 25000 people are reported to have lined up on a warm spring evening this past week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Astrodome. That day’s Astros attendance was reported at 22593 for a 1:05 afternoon start. They waited in line for hours as the sun set and night set in around them, slowly walking along a serpentine line that at one point was over a mile long. People remained in a remarkably good mood, including many children who were born after the final events in the Astrodome were ever held. When the section of the line I was with reached the downward sloping ramp to enter the Astrodome itself, people began singing happy birthday to the dome. There were families posing with snapshots of family members who had been Astros and Oilers fans that have passed on, remembering parents and grandparents who weren’t able to see this day. Every few minutes a bus would drive down the center portion of the ramp with people who were unable to walk down the steps at the end.
Whatever the future may bring for the Astrodome, be it demolition, some sort of conversion or its continued use as the largest storage shed in America, there is little question that it’s impact on American sport has been immense. One fourth of current NFL stadiums have roofs of some sort, either permanent domes or retractable roofs, and six MLB stadiums do as well. There are additionally numerous NCAA teams at both the Bowl and Championship levels that play football in roofed stadiums. For many fans gone are the days of the rain-out, and while many may question the level of commitment of football fans who get to sit indoors in January in Houston or Arizona while their counterparts sit outside in Green Bay or Buffalo, there is no question that it has had a vast impact on the play of the game.