“I made my major league debut in 1964 at old Colt Stadium, a rickety wooden structure that wasn’t any better than the minor league stadium in Los Angeles where I watched the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League. In September of that year, Colt Stadium occupied a small corner of what was to be the Astrodome parking lot while the dome itself, with all the cranes surrounding it issued a stark announcement of the things to come . . . I never dreamed that the steel structure I saw in September could become so magnificent in the space of six months, vaulting over Dodger Stadium and that of every other major league team. A monument unto itself.”
- Larry Dierker, This Ain’t Brain Surgery: How to Win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind
January 3rd, 1962 marked the official start of construction for the Astrodome and ushered a new era for sports and entertainment for the city of Houston. The only stadium to be prominently featured as a part of a professional team’s logo, the Astrodome is forever linked with a city that was a prominent part of advances in space exploration in the 1960’s and the baseball team that called it home for 34 years. As the team transitions to the American League, the Astrodome will stand as one the prominent symbols of the Astros history in the National League.
Baseball-Statistics.com has a very nice write up on the history of the Dome, but here are some of the particulars:
At the time of its completion in 1965, the Astrodome (dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”) boasted many engineering accomplishments. At 660’ wide, the circular roof was the world’s largest self supporting dome. Encompassing 9½ acres, an 18-story build could be tucked away inside. This massive expanse added up to the world’s first multi-purpose (baseball, football) sports dome.
The enormity of the Astrodome is reflected in the field demensions: 340’ at the left and right corners, 375’ in the power alleys and 406’ to dead center. The stadium would become more imposing for hitters when the power alleys were moved to 390’ for the 1966 season. Think Petco Park with a roof and the ball does not carry in air-conditioning. Updates were made to the Dome in 1977, lowering the outfield walls from 16’ to 10’ and moving them in to 375’ in the power alleys and 400' in strait away center. The foul lines would also be steadily brought in over the years to a final resting place of 325’.
Looking at Jeff Bagwell’s home/away splits for 1999 – the last season for baseball in the Astrodome – we find that during away games we have the following differentials during away games*:
Runs: +15; HR: +18; RBI: +32; Average: +.066; Slugging %: +.240; Total Bases: +72
*Stats taken from Baseball-Reference.com
As difficult as the dimensions of the field made it to send one out, the roof made it just as difficult to pick up the spin on the ball. Light coming through the white-washed Lucite roof panels impaired batters ability to see the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand. Minute Maid Park has the same problem during mid-afternoon games with light coming throught its glass paneling. Painting the panels helped with tracking fly balls, but it did not allow enough light for the field grass to survive. This lead to the development of “Astroturf”: a synthetic playing surface that continues to have a major impact on the world of sports to this day. The turf itself was not installed until 1966, so for the inaugural 1965 season the field was mostly green painted dirt.
Sending out a homerun in the Dome may have posed a major challenge for hitters, but the feat was not impossible. For a retelling of the first long ball to soar over the 16’ outfield walls, Larry Dierker’s This Ain’t Brain Surgery sets the scene nicely:
“The first official preseason game in the Dome came the next day and it was played at night, when tracking fly balls was not a problem . . . Yankees skipper Johnny Keane inserted Mickey Mantle in the lead-off spot so that he would be the first batter in Astrodome history and Mantle hit a long home run off Turk Farrell into the big ramp beyond the center field fence that served as the batters eye . . . We ended up beating the Bombers 2-1 in extra innings on a hit by our first base coach, Nellie Fox. Looking back, the game foreshadowed the entire history of the stadium where low-scoring games were common.”
Like the Mercedes-Benz Super Dome, the Astrodome became a haven for those seeking refuge from the devastation of Hurricane Karina in 2008. I am not sure what the next few years will bring for the Astrodome as it has not be utilized as an entertainment venue since 2006, but I would hate for it to go the way of the King Dome in Seattle and the RCA dome in Indianapolis. My grandparents moved to Houston in the early ‘60s. My grandfather delivered some of the first loads of steel to the Astrodome construction site in ’62. To see this monument – Larry Dierker’s words, not mine – leveled in a cloud of dust, would be a dark day in the history of the team and the city. I think it is very fitting that Reliant Stadium, the first retractable roof venue in the NFL, stands next to the original innovator at 8400 Kirby Drive.