Authors: Lawrence Wright
Such a structure had never been built before. Overheated Texans used to cool their churches and restaurants by placing fans over tubs of ice. Then, in 1923, the Second National Bank became the first air-conditioned building in Houston. By the 1950s, Houston laid claim to being “the air-conditioning capital of the world,” which included the PlazAmericas, the first fully air-conditioned mall. But the building of the Astrodome was a civic leap of faith. It still stands imposingly beside the freeway, “like the working end of a gigantic roll-on deodorant,” as Texas author Larry McMurtry noted with his unsparing eye. Hofheinz moved into an apartment inside the dome that occupied seven floors of the right-field bleachers and was equipped with a chapel, a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, and a private bar called the Tipsy Tavern. Bob Hope observed the decor and pronounced it “early King Farouk.” Hofheinz dressed the stadium ushers—attractive young women called Spacettes—in quilted golden outfits suitable for the frigid interior climate. The grounds crew, who wore orange jumpsuits with space helmets, were called Earthmen. “It was like having your own planet,” the Judge’s widow, Mary Frances Hofheinz, later recalled.
Another county judge, Ed Emmett, inherited the Astrodome dilemma when he took office in 2007. Most Houstonians said they’d prefer to have the old stadium torn down and made into green space, and they decisively rejected a bond proposal of $213 million to convert the structure into a multi-use event facility. However, Judge Emmett decided it didn’t make financial sense to raze the Astrodome. “It’s solid,” he told me, as we walked around the vast interior. “When Hurricane Ike came through [in 2008], every other structure in this area was damaged, but not this place. Plus, it’s already paid for.”
Emmett turned to the public for suggestions. About a hundred ideas were submitted, some scribbled on bar napkins: make it a parking garage, a ski slope, a science museum. One suggestion was to flood the arena, which is two stories below ground level, and reenact naval battles. Another group proposed turning it into a gigantic movie studio. “None of these ideas came with any money attached,” Emmett noted, as we stood in what had once been shallow center field, near the spot where Muhammad Ali knocked out Cleveland Williams in 1966. Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs—there’s an endless roster of memories here. I have a friend who scattered his father’s ashes on the playing field. Except for a brief birthday party for the stadium on its fiftieth anniversary in 2015, the last time the public was admitted was in 2005, when refugees from Hurricane Katrina took shelter here.
Emmett favored making the Astrodome’s 350,000 square feet of floor space into a giant indoor park, or else simply providing a space for festivals and special events. It’s a minimal plan, he admits. “We could have the state archery contest here,” he said. “The Texas horseshoe tournament. I’ve also got ties to the cricket community.” It seemed a long way from opening day, April 9, 1965, when the Astros beat the Yankees 2−1, and Mickey Mantle hit the stadium’s first home run.
I got a tour in a golf cart with a flashlight through the home team’s old locker room, where the hot tub was still intact. Judge Hofheinz also used to prowl around late at night in his golf cart, exploring his creation. The playing field was now given over to storage, much of it from the larger, sleeker NRG Stadium next door. There were stacks of stadium chairs, turnstiles, and a hut for a parking-lot attendant. Two hundred feet above us was the roof with its geometric plastic tiles. When the stadium opened, there was reasonable concern that outfielders wouldn’t be able to see the ball, so someone stood on the catwalk overhead and dropped baseballs as Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub raced around struggling to catch them. To reduce the glare, the Lucite panels were painted with a translucent coating, but that killed the grass. Hofheinz had the dead grass painted green until he was able to replace it with AstroTurf, a grass-like carpet, which was now lying in massive rolls like haybales on the concrete stadium floor.
The retractable pitcher’s mound was buried under a couple of steel plates. Two of my favorite ballplayers, Nolan Ryan and J. R. Richard, once stood on this spot. They were briefly teammates, although Ryan was the one who got the first million-dollar contract in baseball history, creating resentment on Richard’s part. Both could throw hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs and breaking balls at almost that speed, but the six-foot-eight Richard was by far the more intimidating pitcher. I never saw a pitcher so thoroughly overpower hitters. At the moment he released the ball, his right foot was almost off the mound and his hand seemed to be right in the batter’s face. His slider was probably the most difficult pitch in the game to hit. It was thrilling to watch him.
In both 1978 and 1979, he struck out more than three hundred hitters, a feat that only Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax had accomplished in consecutive seasons in the modern era. The following year was expected to be the season that Richard firmly proved himself to be the most dominating pitcher in baseball. He was thirty years old, and getting better every year. He won ten of his first fourteen starts. But then he began complaining about a “dead arm,” along with stiffness in his shoulder and back. He took himself out of several games when he couldn’t see the catcher’s signs. For weeks he complained of dizziness and pain. Because of his very public gripes about Ryan’s contract, fans turned against him, believing he was “loafing,” although he hadn’t missed a start in five years. Even the team doctors and staff didn’t believe him. The Astros reluctantly put him on the disabled list. “They said it was all in my head,” Richard later recalled. “They said I was unhappy, pouting about Ryan.”
On July 30, 1980, with an earned run average of 1.90, Richard suffered a major stroke from a blood clot in an artery leading to his right arm. Doctors had finally detected it several days earlier but decided it was stable, and so they did nothing. Richard never played in the big leagues again. After a couple of bad investments and two divorces, he was financially ruined. In January 1995, while Ryan was preparing to start his twenty-seventh season in the major leagues, a reporter for
The Houston Post
found Richard living under a bridge, about three miles from the Astrodome.
Ryan went on to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and served as president of the Texas Rangers. He is said to be worth $60 million. He is one of the most popular Texans of all time. Richard became a minister and got involved in serving the homeless population in Houston. They were two great players, but I wonder how their destinies would have differed if their plights had been reversed. One imagines that Nolan Ryan, the million-dollar man, and white, would have been treated as soon as he reported his symptoms. No one would have accused him of being a malingerer and a malcontent. No doubt he would have been rapidly attended to. Perhaps he would have been given better financial advice. On the other hand, Richard was always solitary and difficult. He was known to be using cocaine in his playing days. He was not as easy to make into a hero. Still…
I asked Judge Emmett if the fate of the Astrodome was that it, like its predecessor the Roman Colosseum, would become a venerable ruin. Emmett said he didn’t see that happening. Indeed, a few months after my visit, Emmett persuaded the Harris County commissioners to put up $10.5 million to design the redeveloped facility, which would include underground parking and a vast festival area. “The Astrodome’s days of sitting idle and abandoned are over,” the Judge promised. “I’m confident we can do it without a tax increase. A hundred million dollars more or less is easily doable in a county with a larger population than twenty-five states.”
Houston grew by 35 percent between 2000 and 2013, an astounding figure for an already mature city. It will soon bypass Chicago to become the country’s third-largest metropolitan area, behind New York and Los Angeles. “All the growth has been Latino, African American, and Asian,” the Kinder Institute’s Stephen Klineberg said. “Houston is now the single most ethnically diverse metro area in the country.” One out of four Houstonians is foreign born, and no single racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority. “We speak one hundred forty-two different languages,” Sylvester Turner, Houston’s second black mayor, told me. “We’re seeking to be even more inclusive.”
For many years Texas led the nation in the number of refugees it admits. In 2016, Texas took in 8,300 of the 85,000 refugees that came to America, a close second to California. (Under President Trump, the number of refugees permitted into the country has been capped at 45,000.) Houston accepts more refugees than any city in the country. At last count (2010), Texas has the largest number of Muslim adherents in the United States. However, the governor decided in September 2016 to withdraw from the federal resettlement program.
Like other cities in Texas, Houston has become more progressive over the years; for instance, 81 percent of Houston’s citizens favor background checks for all gun owners, and a majority approves a path to legal citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The proportion of Houstonians identifying themselves as Democrats was 52 percent in Klineberg’s latest survey, while the number saying they are Republicans declined to 30 percent—the largest gap in the history of his polling. Those numbers are not at all reflected in the political leadership of the state, which is far more right wing than the general population.
Nearly 40 percent of Houston’s population is under twenty-four—it’s an incredibly youthful town—so education is a pressing issue. More than half of that youthful cohort are Latino, and nearly 20 percent are African American; they are the future of Houston and also the most likely to be undereducated. Texas is near the bottom on education spending and academic achievement. These failures will have national consequences, since one out of ten children in the United States is a Texan—more than seven million of them. One in four Texas children lives in poverty.
There was a time when oil, cotton, and cattle were the only real sources of wealth in the state, and education wasn’t such a crucial predictor of success. “The question is whether older, wealthy Anglos are willing to invest in a Texas future that is predominately not Anglo, when it’s not a mirror of Europe but a microcosm of the world,” says Klineberg. “The hope for Houston and Texas is that it is in our basic DNA to do what is needed to succeed.” Houstonians know that they are at a crossroads. “This place could be either London or Lagos,” my friend Mimi Swartz, a longtime
writer, told me.