A Dome of Glaring Proportions
A dream came true on April 9, 1965 for Houston Astros President Roy Hofheinz. Three years of construction and planning came down to this one day where the eyes of the world would bestow upon Space City, Texas as a new era of sports was formally introduced with the opening of the Astrodome. While Houston’s entry into Major League Baseball began as the Colt .45’s in 1962, they now emerged as the Astros, complete with stars in their eyes as well as their uniforms. Houston was in the spotlight of the world. Hofheinz, creator of the Harris County Domed Stadium, had every right to stand proud as the gates opened to the masses for the very first time.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and wife Ladybird were in attendance for the first game on this Friday night. Tons of media from across the world were on site to record the opening of the world’s first domed stadium. The legendary Mickey Mantle hit a 400-foot home run to center to the amazement of all fans in the stands. The Astrodome gleamed across the night sky as Houston took on the American League Champion New York Yankees in an exhibition game that ended in a 12-inning, 2-1 victory for the Astros. In the midst of celebration, however, Hofheinz also had other thoughts orbiting the back of his mind as he looked out to the playing field from his elaborate seventh level suite.
The 642-foot roof span of the Astrodome featured 4,596 skylights that were designed to filter the necessary light to allow a grass field to grow. They were produced of translucent Lucite, designed to collectively diffuse an even amount of sunlight throughout and prevent shadows on the stadium field from the many steel girders above. The Astros took the field for the first scrimmage in the Dome on Thursday, April 8th against their Oklahoma City farm club. While the skylights of the Astrodome allowed the great amount of sunlight filtering through the domed roof during the day, the Lucite also produced a tremendous glare that blinded outfielders. Routine fly balls were missed entirely by fielders during the scrimmage, especially in left and centerfield where they claimed the glare was worst. This wasn’t the first time the glare had been noted. Previous visits to the Dome by some of the Astros players resulted in warnings of such a problem. Joe Morgan hit a home run during the lively scrimmage between the Astros and 89ers. The awe-inspiring Astrodome scoreboard “Home Run Spectacular” was set off for the first time and everyone in attendance of this small gathering was proud of this new sports palace. But it was also very apparent to Astros management that the glare problem would have to be addressed swiftly. The Astrodome was opening the next day but glare would not be a problem because it was a night game.
By the morning of April 9th the Astros decided that the next day’s afternoon exhibition game (the second of five during the Astrodome’s opening weekend) would be played with color-dyed baseballs. With approval of National League President Warren Giles, the team used yellow, orange and cerise dyes on baseballs in an effort to determine a color which might help see a baseball against the glare coming through the domed roof. Giles noted the Brooklyn Dodgers experimented with yellow baseballs in 1938 during a doubleheader but usage was stopped because the baseballs became discolored more quickly than a normal ball. Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley, an advocate of dyed baseballs in the Major Leagues, sent six dozen orange baseballs for the Astros to experiment with. In addition, several shades of sunglasses were delivered to the team. There were twenty-one days games schedule at the Astrodome in 1965 and a solution had to be found. There were four fly balls lost in the glare of the skylights during the afternoon exhibition game on Saturday, April 10th with the Baltimore Orioles.
Growing grass was not an initial issue in the Astrodome. It was proven to work over two summers of experiments at Texas A&M University. The hybrid was called Tifway 419, a blend of African and Common Bermuda grass. It was grown at the Davidson Grass Farm in Wharton, Texas and was considered to be the best grass to maintain under the controlled conditions of the Astrodome. Dirt from the Astrodome floor was trucked to the farm and blended with a mixture of concrete sand, clay soil and peat to provide a strong foundation for growth and footing to a major league field. In November, 1964, Houston players Don Nottebart and Rusty Staub visited the grass farm along with Manager Lum Harris to inspect the sod that would be installed at the Astrodome within a few weeks.
Roy Hofheinz and General Manager Paul Richards met with the DuPont Company, manufacturers of the dome skylights to discuss possible solutions to the glare. Phone calls flooded the Astros offices with suggestions on how to solve the glare problem. Some of the ideas included the use of a balloon or blimp inside the Astrodome during day games to shield the amount of sunlight. “Never fear. I will not be the first man to call a game on account of sunshine,” Roy Hofheinz stated on April 17, 1965. The Astros were on a road trip and Hofheinz wanted a solution before the team returned to Houston. It was decided the Astrodome skylights would be painted with a translucent acrylic coating over a three day period at a cost of $20,000. The coating had been suggested by numerous greenhouse owners and was approved by a group of architects and engineers specially brought in by the Astros.
By April 22nd seven hundred gallons of off-white paint was sprayed to the top of the Astrodome and diminished sunlight in the stadium by 25-40%. There had been a dramatic cut in sun glare but the effect on the grass playing field was just as immediate. The field began to decay and develop a yellowish tint. Constant watering did not help. By mid-May Astrodome crews were spraying green paint on a dried out field of grass. Despite the efforts of painting the domed roof, there were still spots of persistent glare. On May 23rd, Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants hit a routine two-out fly ball in the first inning. Centerfielder Jim Wynn gave chase but lost the baseball in a patch of glare against the dome skylights. The result was a three-run inside-the-park home run. Two days later crews were once again on top of the Astrodome spraying another layer of paint.
With two paint jobs to the Astrodome roof, the glare did eventually become less of a problem but it also killed the grass playing field. Unknowingly at the time was how the constant air-conditioning inside the Astrodome actually caused the grass to dry quicker after being watered. Despite replacing grass in patches, spreading sawdust to fill in spots and spray painting, it was very evident that the playing field in the Astrodome was doomed. As the 1965 season progressed the field became increasingly more difficult to play on. From the stands the field looked nice and green. Many players claimed the field was as hard as concrete and too much dust kicked up on plays.
The thought of an artificial playing surface for the Astrodome was considered by Roy Hofheinz during construction. The Dome would be used for other events than baseball and the field would need to be versatile. Astrodome lead architect Si Morris provided a carpet-like material to the Houston front office at the suggestion of Hofheinz. GM Paul Richards noted that players were not used to playing on an artificial surface and it could lead to injuries. The general consensus agreed with Richards but Hofheinz had privately laid the groundwork for artificial turf to become a necessity at some point in the future. Playing baseball indoors was controversial enough with baseball purists without bringing an artificial field into the mix.
Tal Smith helped Roy Hofheinz oversee construction of the Astrodome in almost every detail. He was now tasked to find a permanent solution for the decayed Astros playing field. The U.S. military commissioned a study in the early 1960s to explore the difference of motor skills between kids who grew up in city versus country environments. The appointed Ford Foundation discovered city kids needed more open playing fields and contacted the Monsanto Company about developing an artificial surface that would look like grass, be installed in a city environment and withstand heavy traffic over a period of years. The first installation of this new synthetic turf was at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island in 1964. Smith learned of this and contacted Monsanto and thirty-foot samples of their “Chemgrass” were sent to Houston for preliminary tests. Roy Hofheinz brought the Harris County Sheriff’s mounted patrol to ride on it, cars drove over it and elephants even trampled the surface. In November, 1965 the Monsanto Company agreed to make its first installation of an artificial surface at the Astrodome after Roy Hofheinz offered the stadium as a free test site.
On the evening of January 17, 1966 a group of Astros players and members of the University of Houston football team participated in a private practice session attended by Hofheinz, other front office staff and representatives of Monsanto. An infield was set up on an all-dirt floor that was being prepared for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in the Astrodome. Astros players ran across the surface and also gave their opinions on the true bounce of a baseball across the artificial surface. Hofheinz decided the first home exhibition game of 1966 would be played on what was now being called “Astroturf”. The declaration took the Monsanto representatives by surprise as they felt this surface wasn’t ready for permanent use. It was soon agreed that Astroturf would be installed for the infield and foul territories as a test to begin the 1966 season. Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte, who participated in the practice, said “I would rate the Astroturf infield as one of the top two in baseball. The only infield that might be better is the infield at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, but there you have to worry about the darn wind.”
Despite making a decision to install Astroturf in the Astrodome, Roy Hofheinz was not quick to make a public announcement on its use. New pallets of grass were being installed to the Astrodome’s outfield in March, 1966. Hofheinz stated, “We have had the soil changed on the playing field and feel confident that this will help keep the grass in a healthy condition for an indefinite period. There are still other playing surfaces that have been studied and we are exploring every possibility to come up with a playing surface that will best suit the multi-purpose needs of the Astrodome.” The Astros soon announced they would begin using baseball’s first portable pitching mound, which would make it possible to convert the Astrodome field for other sports and events without damaging the mound. The mound would be on a steel base of which clamps would connect and allow the mound to be hauled away safely for storage.
Astroturf made its public debut during an exhibition game between the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers on March 19, 1966. Two hundred news media along with National League President Warren Giles watched nineteen year-old Larry Dierker square off against Johnny Podres. Roy Hofheinz greeted media by presenting small swaths of Astroturf, the same field in which was used for the test two months prior. Remaining portions of Astroturf were sold at the Galaxy Gift Shops in the Astrodome for $1 apiece. The backside of each piece was stamped “ASTROTURF FROM THE ASTRODOME – HOUSTON, TEXAS” The Dodgers were back in Houston on April 18th as the two teams played the first-ever regular season game on an Astroturf field. On July 6th the Astros grounds crew began removal of all remaining grass in the outfield in preparation of more than 90,000 additional square feet of Astroturf. The last piece of sod was sent in a package to Chicago Cubs Manager Leo Durocher, who had been very opinionated against Astroturf. Durocher later returned the package with a pound of fertilizer included to Astros Publicity Director Bill Giles. In 1966 Leo Durocher ripped the dugout phone off the wall at two separate games in frustration to Astro rallies. Each time the Astros sent a repair bill.
The first game played on a complete Astroturf field was on July 19, 1966 as the Astros won 8-2 over the Philadelphia Phillies. Turk Farrell tossed a complete game and contributed with a three-run homer in the game. Phillies Manager Gene Mauch added, “I don’t think the AstroTurf is going to play a big part in the outcome of many games. The primary question to some of us was if it was going to be safe. And from what I could see, it looks safe enough.”
Astroturf spread throughout Major League Baseball and other sports across the United States and around the world. The Astrodome saw replacement of the revolutionary surface in 1978 in which pieces of the original 1966 field were given away to fans. A new “Astroturf-8” surface was later installed in 1988 that gave the Astros a separate playing surface from the turf used for football. It marked the first time a stadium utilized two separate Astroturf fields for baseball and football.
The move to Minute Maid Park in 2000 marked the first time the Astros played a home game on grass since the debut of Astroturf in 1966. Houston played its final game on a traditional Astroturf surface in 2004 against the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium. The late 1990s and 2000s saw many Major League cities return to natural grass with the building of several new baseball-only ballparks. Astroturf as was once used in the Astrodome and other major stadiums has now become mostly obsolete. But the use of artificial turf continues on all levels of sports. It has evolved into a surface that doesn’t cause as many injuries. The name Astroturf has even given way to newer ones. Good or bad, there is no doubt that Astroturf revolutionized sports.