The groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 3, 1962, for the first-of-its-kind domed stadium ended with a bang as Roy Mark Hofheinz celebrated the occasion by firing his Colt .45 into the air.
Born in Beaumont and raised in Houston, Hofheinz grew up fast and not by choice but out of necessity. Just 15 when his father, a laundry truck driver, suddenly died, he finished high school in a year and went to work to support his widowed mother.
Despite the demands of being the breadwinner, young Hofheinz continued his education at a breakneck, sleep-deprived pace. He accomplished what most full-time students thought impossible by graduating from law school and passing the bar exam at 19.
The boy in a hurry became a man in an even bigger hurry. At 22, he ran for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives and won a two-year term. At 24, the ambitious upstart was elected Harris County judge, a powerful position that he held until 1944.
After taking eight years off to concentrate on his law practice and business interests, Hofheinz returned to the political arena winning two successive mayoral elections. The Bayou City had never seen an elected leader quite like “The Judge,” as he was then known, who had his own controversial way of running Texas’ largest city.
When four council members refused to attend a special session the maverick mayor had called, he ordered their arrest. Relations with the city council deteriorated to the point that a majority voted to impeach him. But a defiant Hofheinz called their bluff by refusing to step down and forced his critics to cry uncle.
After voters rejected his bid for reelection, Hofheinz turned his attention and inexhaustible energy on a new prize — a big league baseball team. As early as 1952, a group of Houston big wigs had tried to buy an existing club — the St. Louis Cardinals — but failed, as did an attempt to interest the MLB establishment in awarding their hometown a fresh franchise.
Hofheinz and longtime associate R.E. “Bob” Smith, a rich oilman, joined with other well-heeled locals toorganize the Houston Sports Association. The HSA found common cause with like-minded individuals in other cities also left out in the cold and together they threatened to form a new league.
Major League Baseball got the message loud and clear. In 1960, the National League was expanded from eight to 10 teams to make room for new franchises in New York and Houston.
As the official owner of the Houston club, Judge Hofheinz had to come up with a place to play that satisfied the franchise requirements. He did not want to build just another ballpark but a revolutionaryB multi-purpose stadium with a giant dome that could be used for baseball, football, basketball, rodeos, motorsports, you name it.
During construction of what was originally called the Harris County Domed Stadium, the Colt .45s (winner of a “name the team” contest) played for three seasons in a temporary mosquito-infested park a pop fly away. By the time it was ready for Opening Day in April 1965, Hofheinz had changed the team’s name to “Astros” (abbreviated version of “Astronauts”) and the stadium’s to the “Astrodome.”
Larry Dierker, who spent almost four decades with the club as player, manager and broadcaster, never forgot the first time he saw the inside of the Astrodome: “It was like walking into the next century.”
In those early years, the Astrodome was the main attraction not the woeful baseball team. (The Astros did not win more games than they lost until 1982 and did not advance to the World Series until 2005.) Millions of people paid a dollar a head to tour “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Not that there weren’t problems in the beginning. Outfielders were blinded by bright sunlight in the pursuit of flyballs. When colored baseballs did not help, the translucent roof panels were painted over.
That, of course, killed the Bermuda grass. Until Monsanto created the artificial ground cover “Astroturf,” Hofheinz made the maintenance crew paint the dead grass green.
Capitalizing upon the amazing success of his architectural wonder, Hofheinz added hotels, a theme park, exhibition hall and bowling alley under the umbrella label “Astrodomain.” He even lived for eight years in an opulent private apartment in the nose-bleed upper reaches of his beloved dome.
A 1970 stroke put The Judge in a wheelchair for the last dozen years of his life. Five years later, $38 million in debt caused him to lose control of his “Astro Empire” and to hold a fire sale of his last holdings — a depressing nail in his financial coffin.
Roy Hofheinz’s enormous girth (a 57-inch waistline) and 25 cigars a day unquestionably contributed to his death at age 70 in 1982. But the Astrodome still stands protected from the wrecking ball by the Texas Historical Commission, which has designated the structure a “state antiquities landmark.”
As “This Week in Texas History” begins its 37th year, I want to wish my many loyal readers the very best in 2020!