Fifty years ago, looking up at a ceiling at a baseball game sounded nearly as outlandish as a man walking on the moon.
The 1999 season was memorable for a number of reasons, but mostly because it marked the final one the Astros played in the Astrodome.
For 35 years, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” was home to the Astros, as well as home to the rodeo, high school football games, motocross and endless amounts of concerts and other exhibitions. In 1999, the Astros’ run there had ended, but before they could sprint to the newer, shinier and significantly cleaner downtown ballpark that they would soon call home, they had some celebrating to do.
The last game of the ’99 regular season was going to be a big deal, regardless of whether the Astros won or lost. The club had a huge postgame celebration planned, and just about anyone who had made a dent in Astros history, and was still living, was invited back to close down the old Dome.
The All-Astrodome team was to be announced. Willie Nelson was booked to sing “Turn out the Lights, the Party’s Over” at the end. The stadium was a complete sellout.
Astros players did their part by winning the game handily. That win clinched the National League Central division title, the club’s third in a row, and made the postgame celebration much more enjoyable. There was little doubt that even if the team lost, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and others would maintain their professionalism and participate in the ceremony — albeit a little mopey, perhaps. The way it turned out was a lot more fun, with Mike Hampton riding a motorcycle onto the field, Biggio behind him, cigar in his mouth and his fist in the air.
At the time, I was a member of the media relations staff and in charge of all of the publications produced by the team. The 400-page media guide was by far the biggest challenge of that particular job, but in some respects, I felt a much larger sense of responsibility when given the task to come up with a viable plan for a commemorative “Farewell Astrodome” game program.
We would sell this commemorative issue the final weekend of the ’99 season and hopefully, it would provide a proper retrospective of 35 years of Astros baseball. We would look back at the history, pay homage to the best players, tell stories from the past. In the simplest of terms, our goal was to represent three-and-a-half decades of Astros baseball in a 150-page book that would ideally, someday, prove to be timeless. And accurate.
Clearly, a 28-year-old Ohio native who had been working for the team exactly three seasons and never saw the Astrodome when it was sparkly, shiny and new was going to need some help in making sure this was done right. So we decided to solicit the help of the people who were actually there in the old days, and who wrote about them: the Houston Chronicle beat writers.
Mickey Herskowitz wrote about the 1960s. Harry Shattuck, the ’70s. Neil Hohlfeld, the ’80s. And Carlton Thompson, the ’90s. This was, putting it mildly, a very good call. Their memories were sharp, the stories fantastic.
Next year, the Astros will celebrate their golden anniversary, 50 years of Houston baseball that includes three years as the Colt .45s before becoming the Astros in 1965. We’re going to do a lot of reminiscing with old players as we look back at five decades of baseball in this city. But first, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at where we were just before moving to what is now called Minute Maid Park. First up: Herskowitz’s memoir of Houston baseball in the 1960s.
By Mickey Herskowitz
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, 10 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?”
Every writer may feel this way about his years on the baseball beat, but the Sixties were a terrific time to be young and covering a club built from scratch, with nothing to lose, except the games. You traveled with the team, rode the bus to the ballpark, drank with them in the hotel bar, made and lost friends depending on the next day’s story.
Farrell once told me that if “you rip me one more time, I’m going to cancel my subscription to the paper.” Days or weeks or seasons later, he sat next to me in the dugout and said, proudly, “The boys told me you wrote my quotes real good.”
In the beginning, in the spring of 1962, there was Apache Junction in the Arizona desert, where Geronimo’s warriors once roamed. The team was called the Colt .45s, after the gun that won the west.
It is true that over the next 38 years, the team would change 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 hole and broke his ankle, ending his career.
Harry Craft was Houston’s first manager and the biggest name on the roster was Bobby Shantz, the wee left-hander who had pitched under Connie Mack, the only manager to ever wear street clothes, a stiff collar and a straw hat in the dugout.
Shantz had been selected early in the expansion draft along with Farrell, who threw a high fastball and liked a fast highball; Hal Smith, a catcher who helped Pittsburgh win the 1960 World Series; Al Spangler, a promising outfielder from the Milwaukee Braves; and Joey Amalfitano, a young second baseman who had been unable to break into the lineup of the Giants. When Amalfitano learned that Houston had paid $125,000 for him, he quipped, “I’m worth more than I thought. I may have to increase my insurance.” Later, Joey heard from so many insurance agents he had to get an unlisted phone number.
For most of the 1960’s, the Colts-slash-Astros were never consistently good enough to be heroic or bad enough to be funny. Mainly they were just different.
Opening at home, the .45s sent three left-handers against the Chicago Cubs — Shantz, Dean Stone and Hal Woodeshick — and swept their first series. It was a giddy way to launch a franchise. Reality sank in rather quickly, but they hung on to finish eighth in a 10-team league, ahead of the embarrassed Phillies and the last-place Mets.
The hapless Mets, their expansion twins, created a mystique while losing 120 games, encouraging the laughter of the crowd and sometimes joining in.
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. Most people thought they were a religious cult, or a very large country and western band. The players finally refused to wear the outfits and the Judge gave up.
Don Nottebart pitched the team’s first no-hitter in 1963 but the one that would become their most historic was recorded a year later, by Ken Johnson. He lost to the Reds, 1-0, on his own throwing error in the ninth inning. No pitcher had ever before lost a no-hitter.
In 1965, we sort of woke up one morning and found ourselves all under the same roof. Joe Garagiola, the ex-catcher turned sportscaster, took one look and declared: “It’s like falling out of Mechanix Illustrated. If they’d add a nursery and a cemetery you’d never have to leave.”
It was so spectacular that they had to open it twice, against the Yankees in a preseason series and then, for real, against the Phillies. Mickey Mantle hit the unofficial first homer. The one that counted came in the season opener when Richie Allen connected with a man on against Bob Bruce. Those were the only runs in a 2-0 win for the Phillies.
Bob Aspromonte hit the first domer for the Astros. During the season, Willie Mays collected his 500th.
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 to wonder.
The Dome was not exactly unflawed, a fact that added to the national curiosity. First, there were the fly balls that got lost in the glare of the lucite panels. A small ocean of paint eliminated the glare and then the grass died, leading to a discovery called Astroturf.
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. Once the artificial carpet was installed, the players who chewed tobacco always looked miserable on their first visit. It was a clear case of high expectations.
In 1965, the Astros peeled off a 10-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 last included Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, Dave Giusti, 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.
Don Wilson and Bob Watson joined the club as rookies 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.
Wilson would pitch two no-hitters, strike out 18 Atlanta Braves in one game and die young, in an accident at home. Bob Waston would be credited with scoring baseball’s millionth run and receive an award from the Tootsie Roll Company. Don’t ask who kept count; just be proud it was an Astro.
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 perfect 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 every 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.
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