Astrodome Memories

 

 

 

In January 1965 my parents up and moved from Sioux City to Houston* and took me with them.  It was a difficult time, having to adjust to a new school and a new neighborhood in the middle of the eighth grade.  To this day, hearing Petula Clark's "Downtown" will trigger a flashback of that time's adolescent anxiety and unhappiness.  But there was a great distraction in Houston that winter and spring. The fabulous Harris County Domed Stadium was about to open. 

The Astrodome was the biggest thing in town, on many levels. I acquired a thick souvenir guidebook and leafed through it hour upon hour. 

I learned that the roof was constructed using a system of interlocking steel triangles called lamella trusses, and that there was room under said roof for an 18 story building (canonically, the nearby Shamrock Hilton).

I learned that there were no fewer than six restaurants in the building, and was properly impressed by pictures of the ritzy skybox suites.  I learned about the 40,000 plus "theater style" seats. I read about the "acoustic nightmare" solved by the ingenious public address system, and the hundreds of holes drilled into the bottom of each and every theater-style seat to help alleviate the situation.

I learned about the private Xanadu Judge Hofheinz built for himself high above the right field mezzanine, and about the x thousand moveable field level seats and the y horsepower motors that drove them on tracks into football configuration in only z hours. I read about the doomed Bermuda hybrid selected for the field, and the soon-to-be-infamous three by five foot translucent panels in the ceiling. 

It's trendy now to trash this revolutionary and beautiful ballpark, but as someone once said, you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.  It's unfair to lump the Astrodome with the bland, multipurpose stadiums built concurrently in National League cities St. Louis, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.  A roof and air conditioning were necessities in Houston; there was simply no way to have Wrigley Field-style baseball on the Texas Gulf Coast.

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Parking was never an issue at the Eighth Wonder of the World. There was room for a stadium full of people, each arriving in their own Winnebago.  You could walk a quarter mile from the building in any direction and still be in the parking lot. Now finding your car after the game in hundreds of landmark-free acres of cars, that was an issue.

The main air conditioning unit loomed on the left as you walked up the ramp of the East entrance. The splashing waterfall type, it was massive.  And it worked.  Over the years, the Dome was always cool.  If anything, too cool.

The Pavilion was the Astrodome’s bleacher section. For many years, it cost $1.50 to sit in the Pavilion and watch a major league game. This was a damn good deal, although I once saw an NBA doubleheader at Hofheinz Pavilion for 75¢ and an empty potato chip bag.

You couldn’t leave the Pavilion without holding a ticket stub for a more expensive seat (basically, any seat that wasn’t in the Pavilion). Older gentlemen in blue Astrodome blazers stood at the left and right field gates checking each person that tried to escape.  But I discovered you could sneak out by crawling under a toilet stall wall, emerging in a stall in an mirror-imaged bathroom on the Mezzanine side of the fence. A couple of years later they blocked this exit with two by fours and hurricane fencing. By then I had too much dignity to crawl under a toilet stall partition anyway.

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Before games, Dad liked to feed us at the Domeskeller, a buffet-style eatery under the Pavilion seats. My father is a fan of all things German,** although there was nothing especially charming about the concrete-themed Domeskeller. You’d get your food from a steam table and then sit at picnic tables placed against the outfield wall.  You could see out onto the field through wire fencing. I once met the Jet Pack man down there behind the center field wall and got to look closely at his machine. 

Initially, people were excited about Astroturf. It was state of the art. It was supernaturally green. It didn't require mowing. It had zippers.  There hadn't been untold thousands of head, knee and ankle injuries on the stuff yet.  In fact, we were told that Astroturf would actually reduce football injuries. They installed Monsanto's brain child the second year, 1966, as a response to the grass dying.  The grass died because they had to paint over the translucent roof panels so that outfielders could follow fly balls during day games. 

They apparently had some Astroturf left over and used it as carpeting here and there in the stadium.  At a game in early 1966 I actually hacked off a foot square chunk near an elevator in the Domeskeller area (someone had the idea before me, because it was already cut up). I figured I would practice kicking field goals off it. I also made off with a shoebox-sized box of Houston Apollos pocket schedules that year, maybe at the same game. Charlie Palmquist, Teen Vandal.

The Dome is owned by the citizens of Harris County. They built the thing, amazingly, for a little over $40 million.  Nowadays, $40 million spent on a big league stadium might get most of the hole dug. The Houston Sports Association, the owners of the Astros, signed a 40 year lease for just under $1 million a year.  Nowadays, $1 million a year will get you a third string catcher.

You could walk all the way to the top of the Dome over a spidery network of ramps and stairs that began near a skybox on the third base side. Knock on wood, being allowed to make this trek during a game would have been a good Make a Wish Foundation request—had young Charlie been stricken with a disease more serious than myopia. The so-called gondola, a large lighting truss that could be lowered for special events, was usually empty but once in a while they'd put a fearless cameraman up there. It was more than 200 feet from the gondola to the second base dirt.

For those too impatient to wait for a ballgame there were Astrodome Tours. In the 60s, no relative's stay in Houston was complete without a visit to the Dome. You'd cruise into that huge empty parking lot and join a few dozen cars at the west entrance.  Tours were a couple of bucks and started every hour.  A perky guide with a microphone and portable PA walked you completely around the stadium, moving up and down through the various levels, pausing occasionally to let us rest in a "theater style" seat and just take in the purple, orange, yellow, green, and red wonder of it all.  I should have applied for a job as guide--I certainly had the knowledge.

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National League Baseball was the Dome's centerpiece, its reason for existence. During summers when I was home from college, and later, during my first couple of years working for the Air Pollution Control Department my friend Scott Starks and I often went to the ball game.  Always to approximately the same seats, in the far right field Pavilion. There we'd watch the game over Jose Cruz's shoulder, along with the rest of the right field gang, including Earl (“The Chief”) and his cronies, and Linda and Steve and their two kids.  More on Cruz’s Crew in a minute.

A stuntman once planned a pre-game attraction in which he would drop in a special barrel from the Gondola into a small tank of water near second base. He didn't make it.  A bad release, wind currents, quantum effects, or simple bad luck pushed the barrel slightly off line.  The barrel hit the edge of the tank and the stuntman died. That must have put quite a damper on that night's game.  I'm glad I wasn't there.

Ali vs. the Karate Guy  After one otherwise routine game (or was it before?), workers dragged closed circuit screens onto the field, and Scott and I were treated to a live exhibition between Muhammad Ali and a karate champion. What a joke! The karate guy spent most of the fight crabbing around on his back trying to kick Ali in the shins. I lost a lot of respect for karate watching this pathetic show.  It was pretty clear that the hand moves of a boxer were superior to the hand moves of a karate expert. This guy didn't want any part of Ali.

Rotating Herb on a Stool  For hour upon languid hour, between the start of batting practice and the "batter up" call at 7:35 PM, the PA system would play catchy and interchangeable Herb Alpert hits such as "Spanish Flea," "A Taste of Honey," and "Tijuana Taxi." The music was accompanied on the scoreboard by the slowly rotating image of a trumpeter on a stool.

Speaking of Astrodome music, the Judge's daughter, Dene Hofheinz Mann, got plenty of airtime in the sixties on the Dome's giant PA.  I could make a joke here involving the phrase "acoustic nightmare," but her Astrodome song wasn't bad, especially the snappy chorus.  The lyrics are from memory and if someone knows them all, please email me.

Astrodome
Got the weather beat
Astrodome
Got the weather beat
Astrodome
Got the weather beat
Houston Astrodome

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Ironically, right about the time Alanis Morissette was coming into this world a few minutes behind twin brother Wade, I first became aware of O Canada, the Canadian national anthem. They’d play it before Expos games. Scott and I eventually learned all the words and would sing along and laugh hysterically; what was so funny, I can't remember. It's actually a pretty good tune, as national anthems go.

Once between innings I looked up at the main scoreboard over my right shoulder and read a news bulletin that Richard Nixon had resigned the Presidency of the United States.  Everyone knew it was coming, so I wasn't shocked. But it did generate a buzz from the crowd—the sound of ten thousand conversations starting at once.

One night Scott and I read in lights that the US had pulled everyone out of Saigon, that it had fallen to the North Vietnamese.  Another odd murmur ensued. 

In the most famous single game ever played in the Dome, in 1968 Elvin "Big E" Hayes led the University of Houston to a close victory over Lew Alcindor's UCLA team.  [For the sports impaired, I'm talking about basketball here.]  I wasn't actually at the game, but I was listening intently to a Zenith table radio in my parent's kitchen three miles away.  Go Cougs!  Talk about civic pride. 

I went with Dad and Grandpa Palmquist to the very first regular season game played at the Dome, in April 1965.  My first view of the field as we moved down the aisle to our seats was unforgettable: a visual feast of color, complexity, and titanic scale.  

Of course, it was sold out.  We were in the red seats (field boxes) down the right field line. Final score: Phillies 2, Astros 0.  Richie Allen accounted for all the scoring with a two run homer. Unknown rookie Joe Morgan played second; Sonny Jackson, current Giants coach, was a rookie shortstop. To send the crowd away happy, they set the scoreboard off at the end of the game even though we didn't win and certainly didn't hit any homeruns.  A final note: In those days many people smoked, and it was pretty hazy in there by the end of the game. I wonder if some anxious phone calls went out to the Carrier people.

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Later that first year Dad took pal Alex Smith and me to a big Dodger gameKoufax vs. Dierker.  In those days, Koufax was almost unhittable and just about every one of his road games was a sellout.  Dierker beat him that day, 2-zip, before a SRO crowd.  Larry went on to become an announcer for the locals and has been the manager for the last few seasons.  Now you chuckin' in there, Larry!

The Sorry Atlanta Braves  In my mid 1970s, heavy baseball-watching period, Atlanta was a terrible team. They had no pitching and a uniquely sloppy defense.  The Astros seldom had trouble beating these guys. I bet we won 80% of our home games against Atlanta in this period. They were a far cry from today's Braves.

Frozen Ropes, Coming and Going In terms of hitting the ball hard consistently, nobody came close to Roberto Clemente.  The Pirates were a good hitting team generally and it seemed like Clemente drove the ball almost every at bat.  If he got a home run, it was of the line drive variety. He also had an amazing throwing arm. I got a good look at how hard he could throw the ball sitting out there in the right field Pavilion.

Most Booed Opposing Player   Without a doubt, cocky Pete Rose. The crowd loved to boo him and he reciprocated by liking it. Most booed opposing manager: again, without a doubt, the Dodger's Tommy Lasorda.  He didn't like the booing as much, though.

People drank beer at the games and concessionaire Araserve didn't hit a home run with traditionalists when they sent out vendors with trays of tepid beer in soggy cups covered with saran wrap, unlike the fresh pours from iced bottles provided by authentic beer men in traditional ballparks. Still, Houstonians made do. In later years one had the option of a "bucket of beer," a tub the size of a Costco cereal box. Once during a special promotion the beer was a cup.  For several years, if a homerun happened at just the right time on a Foamer Friday****, the beer was free.

Once night in the Pavilion some guys to my left were drinking and getting rowdy. They had at least one Bucket in the group. Eventually, a kid on a date sitting in front of the rowdies turned around to complain to them about the language, or getting his chair kicked or something.  Words were exchanged, and then suddenly, splash!  The guy with the date was hit with a full cup of beer, right in the face. He was wet and sputtering!

Moral: Don’t hassle drunk people at games, even when you are in the right.

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As I mentioned, the far right field Pavilion crowd—the Chief and his cronies, Linda, Steve, and Linda and Steve’s kids—called themselves Cruz’s Crew.  Jose Cruz played right field, so he was the one player I got to see up close. (I knew Linda's name because she almost always wore a softball shirt with her name on the back.)  They liked Scott and me, although we didn’t go out there quite as regularly as the crew. I suppose we were honorary members of Cruz’s Crew. Scott said the Chief, real name Earl, was a probably a professional man, perhaps a barber. This rang true.

Earl was an entertainer: When the other team went to a relief pitcher, the scoreboard would show a cartoon of a dejected hurler walking sadly to the showers. But when he turned the water on, it wasn't water! Some explosive substance worked its way through the pipes and blew up in the poor pitcher's face.

The Chief would loudly narrate this cartoon to the amusement of everyone in the section.  "Look out! That's not water! That's not water!" he would cackle as everyone laughed. Of course, everyone was already in a good mood at that point because if they were playing that tape, the Astros had a rally going.  [I happened to hear the Mission Impossible theme the other night and remembered that this was the music played during the "to the showers" cartoon.  It may have even been called "Pitching Impossible."]

Remember the infamous UH/Tulsa game?  Does 100 – 6 ring a bell?  That was University of Houston football, Astrodome style. The Cougars were explosively fast, possibly because UH was quicker than the schools of the more prestigious Southwest Conference to fully embrace black athletes. Triple option right, last second pitch, and a whippet-quick halfback makes an Astroturf cut and goes 63 yards for a touchdown. Still, Bill Yeoman should have been ashamed of himself, and probably was, for running up the score like that.

 

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The Now-Defunct Houston Oilers occupy many million neurons worth of tangy Charlie Anderson memories, but this is an Astrodome page and I won't dwell on them here. I didn't go to many Oiler games at the Dome until well after the glory days of Bum Phillips/Earl Campbell/Love ya Blue. Tickets were too expensive and too hard to get, I suppose, and by then I had gotten married and moved to the other side of town.

Much later, 1985 or 1986, I had season tickets for the Oilers.  I remember walking to the Dome from my office at Macintosh developer Vicon Systems, off Kirby Drive just south of 610.  Once I saw an actual Derrick Doll, in costume, heading in from the parking lot.***  To my knowledge, no one has ever experimented with cheerleaders at baseball games.  Why is that?

The 1986 All Star game was a typical Astrodome contest—final score: 3-2. Astro pitcher Mike Scott was in his heyday and the most exciting part of the game was when he came in and started to strike people out.  One Junior Circuit hitter fanned, and then another. The crowd was on its feet ready to scream at the final strike on a third batter, but instead of striking out, the joker jacked the ball into the left field stands. Boy, that quieted the crowd in a hurry.  Houston’s mayor, Kathy Whitmire, sat below me in the field boxes down the third base line.

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The Astros never made it to the World Series. But they came close in 1980 when they lost a heartbreaking five game series to Philadelphia. I was at game five. An Astro triple play was overruled, we lost a 2-0 8th inning lead, and Pete Rose stole the game. Ouch. Finishing fifth was a lot less painful.

Baseball was in a scoring funk during my Astrodome years; great pitchers like Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Ferguson Jenkins had hitters on their heels.  Lord knows, the Astrodome did nothing to reverse the trend.  It was a big park with cool, dense air and the ball didn't carry.  People still hit the occasional home run, but it wasn’t like today.  At any given game you’d be lucky to see one hit by either team.  As Scott once pointed out, a symbol for this punchless era was weak hitting shortstop Roger Metzger making his patented smooth turn back into the extra-long first base dugout after one of his routine 6-3 ground-outs. Suffice it to say, Trout was no A-Rod at the plate.

The Astrodome’s outfield design lent itself to disputed home runs. The outfield walls were surmounted with a sturdy railing, and then rows of seats. Balls would whack the railing or an empty chair and turf bounce halfway back to the infield.  They painted yellow lines to clarify things. Hit above the line, it was a home run, no matter how far back it bounced.  I'm sorry, yellow line or no yellow line, there's something unsatisfying about a homerun that bounces off a fence back to the third baseman.  Management eventually rectified this problem by building an inner fence.

When the grounds crew came out before and during the game to drag the infield, they were dressed in orange jump suits and white space helmets.  Some genius probably got a raise for thinking this up.

The Astros always had pretty good pitching, right from the beginning.  Names like Turk Farrell, Bob Bruce, Larry Dierker, Mike Cuellar, and the star-crossed Don Wilson and James Rodney Richard come to mind.  Later, hurlers like Phil Niekro, Mike Scott, and Nolan Ryan continued the tradition.  I bet the Astros have had as many team no hitters and shutouts since 1962 as anybody.

 

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Charlie Anderson  I made it on the famous field exactly once—at the end of a 10K fun run in 1985. The finish line was just at the edge of the tunnel. It felt great to be out there, even though the only people in the seats were a few hundred sunburned joggers nursing water bottles.

Once before a game they trotted out some professional golfers.  They were good, I remember thinking.  They stood near the center field wall and aimed at home plate.  Every shot was pretty much dead on.  One of the guys was "Champagne" Tony Lima.  They rode around the perimeter of the field in golf carts so everyone got a good look.

The Foul Ball Myth  In all the games I attended I never caught a foul ball or home run or was even especially close to one.  Where Scott and I sat in the Pavilion, only a few guys could reach. Had we played Pittsburg every night, Willie Stargell would undoubtedly have gotten one back to us from time to time.

The Quick Getaway  My parent's house on Ardmore, and later my apartment near the Medical Center were just minutes from the Astrodome. Combining this proximity with my Dome parking lot moxie, I would sometimes get home from games (in which I was in my seat for the last out) before the post game show had ended! That's within 15 minutes, people! You can't sniff the parking lot exit at most stadiums within 15 minutes of leaving your seat.

Corned Beef on White with Mayo  In the 1960s, before I discovered beer, my favorite food item at the Pavilion concession stand was the corned beef sandwich.  A black lady would make you one for a dollar, fixed anyway you liked it, just as long you liked it with mayo and some pickle slices on white bread.  As the twig is bent, etc., this is still how I like my corned beef sandwiches. 

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The voices of the original Astros radio broadcasters  I can call up at will in my imagination.  Great job, guys: Harry Kallas, and especially Loel Passe and Gene Elston.  A tip of the orange or navy cap to long-time flagship station KPRC 950 and the "Dean of National Legue Engineers," Bob Green.

That ball is in Astro Orbit.   Hot ziggity dog and sassafras tea!”   “Now you chuckin' in there AstrosHe breezed him one time!”   “Schlitz...brewed in Milwaukee, Longview, and other great cities.

 

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Coda: August 18, 2001—Alex and I visit The Ballpark at Union Station.  With the roof closed for a Saturday afternoon game, the Astros easily handled the Pirates 3-zip before a near sellout crowd to move into first place in the NL Central.  The Dome's replacement is a beautiful downtown ballpark filled with amenities, charming quirks, and real grass.  I feel a little like a traitor but I have to admit, "Ten Run" Field has the Astrodome beat.  Thousands of kids are developing great memories of their own watching the now powerful Astros pummel hapless visitors to the tune of Ozzy's Crazy Train

Later we cruised by the Astrodome, now dwarfed by a massive football stadium going up just to the west.  Time marches on, and brother, you better keep marching right along with it.

 

 

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*Interestingly, Sioux City is almost due north of Houston.

**Not including Nazis and other WW II-related unpleasantness.

***If the World Wide Web is so great, how come I could find only two Derrick Doll pictures?

****The Friday Foamer was established around 1974.

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A big orange box was placed beneath the clock in both left and right fields. It was illuminated on even numbered minutes when the Astros were at bat.

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If an Astro hit a homer when the light was on, it was free beer the rest of the night.

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There was a limit of one beer per person per visit to the concession stand.

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The free beer stopped flowing in the 8th inning.

Of course, the Astros never hit any home runs in the Dome, so a modification was added around 1976.

 

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A batter from the visiting team was designated. It was usually a star of some sort and was publicized by Gene and Loel.

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Regardless of which team was at bat, the big orange box was illuminated on every even numbered minute.

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If the designated batter fanned when the light was on, it was free beer the rest of the night.

 

Foamer Information courtesy Dr. Scott Starks

More Dome and Astros information at  

Ballparks.com   Astros Connection   Gene Elston Forum   Columbia University   Astros Home Page

 

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