Mickey Herskowitz / Special to MLB.com
Astros in the 50s and 60s: 56K
Did you know that the original blueprints for the Astrodome called for a bomb shelter in the basement? In the event of a nuclear attack it would have been available to all the fans, provided they could beat the players to it.
Over the past 35 years, many a Houston team might have enjoyed the use of a bomb shelter, but that feature was cut from the final budget.
In every other respect, the Astrodome met the test of time. In a sporting sense, it was the difference between Roy Rogers and Buck Rogers. It has been duplicated, but never really surpassed.
At the exact midpoint of the Sixties, the opening of the world's first indoor, all-weather, all-purpose stadium was the biggest sports story of 1965. "We are building something," Judge Roy Hofheinz assured us, "that will set the pattern for the 21st Century. It will antiquate every other structure of this type in the world. It will be an Eiffel Tower in the field."
No one ever accused the Judge of understatement, but the Big Bubble was easily the high point of the decade -- the best of times, in stunning contrast to the worst of times, ten years without a winning season. My lasting memory of the official opening night was not of the packed crowd, which included a president and a governor and the seven Mercury astronauts. It was of a scene in the Astros bullpen, where amid all the fanfare a pitcher named Jim Owens was stretched out on a bench, sleeping off a hangover. The uninhibited Turk Farrell gave him a shove and bellowed, "Hey, Owens, wake up. Where do you think you are, in a canoe?"
In the beginning, in the spring of 1962, there was Apache Junction in the Arizona desert. It is true that over the next 38 years, the team would change spring training camps, stadiums, its name and managers, many of them, and would still be pursuing its first World Series. Some have suggested that the Astros had been born with a curse. Possibly it was not wise to train in the shadow of a place called Superstition Mountain, where Indian spirits and the ghost of an old Dutchman were said to guard a lost gold mine.
No one takes such legends seriously, of course. We only know that the Colt .45s did not suffer any bad luck until the first inning of the first preseason game they ever played. Al Heist, their best outfielder, stepped in a whole and broke his ankle, ending his career.
To keep the Colt .45s from appearing bland, Judge Hofheinz, the visionary who ran the franchise, got the inspired idea to deck them out in blue cowboy suits on road trips, with matching hats and boots. Passing through airports, they were a puzzling sight to travelers who did not get the connection to Texas. The players finally refused to wear the outfits and the Judge gave up.
A ninth-place team drew two million fans that year, proving that if you have a great mousetrap you can get by without a lot of cheese. A million more paid a dollar each to see the stadium when it was empty. It seems odd now to recall how much resistance there was to the idea of an indoor ballpark. The purists feared a terrible retribution if we mortals tampered with Mother Nature. And for a while we had a wonder.
Public opinion was fairly divided as to whether the Dome would ruin or revolutionize baseball. It was a place where the fans laughed at the cartoons on the giant scoreboard and cheered on cue.
In 1965, the Astros peeled off a ten-game winning streak, an occurrence so unthinkable that their opponents accused them of tinkering with the air conditioning currents, causing the air to blow out when the home team was at bat. Ah, if only winning had been so simple.
In their first decade, the Astros signed some bright and exciting young players, who went on to do wonderful deeds, becoming All-Stars and playing in the World Series -- for other teams. The list included Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, Dave Guisti, Jerry Grote and Mike Marshall. At 19, Staub was a cleanup hitter in the majors, the symbol of the team's future. He hit .333 in 1967 and a year later they traded him.
But the Astros kept searching. Larry Dierker signed on at 18, stayed around to pitch the 1,000th game played in the Astrodome, and celebrated his 12th season in Houston by pitching the first no-hitter of his career against Montreal.
In 1966, the Astros got hot, stayed in the pennant race until midseason, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with Sonny Jackson and Joe Morgan turning a double play.
The Astros did not have a winning season in that decade; it was easier to land a man on the moon. In 1969, they achieved their first .500 record, 81 and 81, under manager Harry (The Hat) Walker.
While the Astros were dreaming of a team worthy of the stadium they played in, veterans who had won their fame in other cities came and went: Shantz, Robin Roberts, Pete Runnels, Nellie Fox, Johnny Temple, Don Larsen (who pitched the only prefect game in World Series history as a Yankee).
But for most of us the star of the team remained the Astrodome, a pleasure palace that changed our habits and attitudes. A generation grew up without ever seeing a raincheck. Of course, even our monuments get overtaken by time.
As the Astros move downtown, to new, state-of-the-art quarters, we can thank the Dome for 35 years of comfort, if not greatness.