In 1900 the American League declared major league status, same as on the line with the National League, which was founded as the first and only major league since 1876. The NL fought the battle, but gave in and in 1903 the World Series was born. In late 1960 another battle with the American League appeared to loom. Houston and New York were awarded National League expansion franchises on October 17th with play slated to begin with the 1962 season. For a short time, however, it appeared Houston may have had an opportunity to begin play in 1961…in the American League.
In 1960 the American League created a big stir within baseball when it announced the move of the Washington Senators to Minnesota (becoming the Twins), replacement in Washington with an expansion franchise (again called the Senators) and a tenth AL team in Los Angeles, where the NL Brooklyn Dodgers had relocated two years prior in 1958. Some thought a more logical choice than Los Angeles would be a city that was a former member of the infamous Continental League, which was created to force and persuade major league owners to expand to more U.S. cities in the early 1960s. Thoughts circled to Dallas/Ft. Worth, a former member of the CL, as a worthy suitor for an AL franchise. A bump in the road occurred when Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers, forbid any team from playing at the LA Memorial Coliseum where his team was playing until Dodger Stadium was finished being built. O’Malley held the contract for the stadium and he did not want any additional tenants.
In November of 1960, just weeks after Houston was awarded the NL franchise, news emerged from the Minor League meetings in Louisville, Kentucky that the American League made a proposal which had both leagues playing in 1961 with nine teams playing an interleague schedule. It was said Houston would be chosen as the ninth team in the NL because their organization was further along than the expansion franchise given to New York. The plan for Houston would’ve had Major League Baseball playing at Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) where the minor league Buffs played their home games. Territorial rights still had not been settled with the owners of the Buffs by the Houston Sports Association, owners of the Houston expansion franchise.
Speculation quickly rose, however, that Houston was also likely to gain an American League franchise with the Houston Buffs if the Los Angeles stadium situation with Walter O’Malley was not cleared. At the forefront of this news was William Hopkins, the majority stockholder and President of the Houston Buffs. Hopkins was ready to finance and organize the Houston Buffs transfer into the American League for the 1961 season. The owners of the Buffs were ready to pay territorial rights to the American Association, where they had been playing since 1959 after moving from the Texas League. Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) was solely owned by the Hopkins group and had plans to expand the stadium to 30,655 for 1961 and 46,000 by 1962. Houston, it appeared, was almost set to have both AL and NL franchises similar to what was seen in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and planned for Los Angeles.
By this time, however, Houston and Harris County already voted on a bond issued for a domed stadium (The Astrodome) that would seat at least 43,000 for the Houston Sports Association, the ownership group of the NL expansion franchise. William Hopkins’ group once tried to join the HSA in efforts to get MLB to Houston but was denied. It appeared there was some bad blood brewing between the Buffs and the new NL major league franchise.
In late November, 1960 baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced his opposition by stating, “Any effort by the American League to move into the Houston territory at this time would, in the opinion of the commissioner, be a complete abrogation of all agreements and understandings in connections with the expansion program.” Warren Giles, President of the National League, also stated, “The American League has no more right to go into Houston than the National League into Detroit or any other major league city. As far as I’m concerned, Houston and New York are members of the National League even though they won’t operate clubs until 1962.”
This opposition by baseball’s top brass had William Hopkins quickly responding in defiance. “This territory belongs to the Houston Buffs and the American Association,” he stated. Hopkins also reiterated that the Houston Sports Association had not completed a purchase of the Buffs and associated territorial rights for bringing a major league franchise to Houston. Numbers had been exchanged but nothing settled. It is worth noting that while the news of a possible AL shift to Houston was coming out of the minor league meetings in Louisville, the General Manager of the Buffs, H. B. (Spec) Richardson (future General Manager of the Houston Astros) had a more calming tone when commenting on the matter. “We, in Houston, have no intention of standing in the way of our city entering the major leagues. They (the HSA) have rejected all of our bids, offering $362,500 for the franchise which we do not consider adequate.” The Buffs offered a purchase price of $600,000.
The HSA, always knowing they needed the purchase territorial rights from the Buffs, were very dedicated to staying on the timeline of major league owners in making appropriate plans and presentations regarding a stadium. The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz, knew the big key to getting a major league franchise was making sure the domed stadium they proposed was actually built and supported by Houston and Harris County. The HSA felt the rest would fall into place as formalities of bringing the majors to Houston. In early December, 1960 the National League gave the HSA permission to begin to sign players as soon as they cleared any issues with territorial rights.
In the end, the American League did arrive to Los Angeles in 1961. The Angels began playing at Wrigley Field, which had been home to the minor league Angels for decades. The Los Angeles Wrigley Field was designed to look much like the north side Chicago counterpart (minus the ivy walls). To further the carbon copy the ballpark was even named for William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs. The ownership group of the transplanted Washington Senators encountered an early fight with the American Association in Minnesota over costs of territorial rights as they reemerged as the Twins. The new replacement franchise in Washington D.C., also called the Senators, eventually moved to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.
In Texas, the Houston Sports Association did purchase the Buffs and all territorial rights by mid-January, 1961 and operated the team in the American Association for the final year of minor league baseball in Houston. The final price was $393,750 which was well below the original asking price by William Hopkins. The HSA quickly decided not to continue the name into the National League. The American League in Houston for 1961 was never really more than a short tale of tug of war during an era where the majors were expanding and the minors had to protect their interests. The Houston Colt .45’s emerged in 1962 in the National League playing at Colt Stadium, next to the domed stadium construction site. The Buffs, under ownership of the Colt .45’s, moved to Oklahoma City as Houston’s minor league club and became the 89ers. In three years the .45’s changed their name to the Astros with their home base in the Houston Astrodome, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” The rest is history. After fifty years in the National League, the Astros have now become members of the American League and balancing the NL and AL by 15 teams each. It has ironically brought this short, but interesting tale full circle.
On January 17, 1961, three months after Houston was awarded a Major League franchise, the Houston Sports Association purchased the minor league Houston Buffs to operate in the American Association. The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz and R.E. “Bob” Smith, paid nearly $400,000 to the owners of the Buffs who also gave territorial rights. The original asking price had been around $100,000 just a few years earlier. Times were different. MLB was coming to Houston in just over a year and the HSA needed those rights in order to move on as a franchise. Once the deal was done it didn’t take very long for the stockholders of the HSA to determine the Buffs name would not be carried into the majors for the 1962 season. Out with the old and in with the new. The HSA ownership group made plans for a name-the-team contest. There has been some speculation that not carrying the Buffs name tied to animosity during the Buffs negotiations.
Over the next six weeks there were more than 12,000 entries sent to the offices of the Houston Sports Association. Mail was received from 39 states as well as Canada, England, France, Spain and Turkey. Two students from the University of Houston spent an estimated 150 hours sorting through entry names and eventually narrowing them to around 75 choices. By the time the list was whittled down to 30 names, the clear fan choice was “Rebels”.
In early March, 1961 the list of entry names had been shortened to Colts, Generals, Hawks, Longhorns, Ravens, Spurs and Stars. That list was quickly narrowed to Colts, Spurs and Ravens. William Neder, a Houston salesman, chose “Colts” on his entry. What he wrote on his entry instantly caught the eyes of the Houston front office. Neder wrote, “The Colt .45 won the west and will win the National League.” On March 8th the Houston Sports Association announced the name of the first Major League team in Texas would be “Colts”. The name was a personal favorite of team Vice-President George Kirksey, who oversaw the contest. Neder was quoted, “I thought Colt was a good name but then I saw the Colt .45 and I thought well, you know, Colt .45s would be even better than playing Colts because there probably be about four or five hundred people entering that name. So I entered the name Colt .45 as the gun rather than as the horse and as the tie-breaker I put ‘the Colt .45 was the gun that won the west and would win the National League.’ It’s the only contest I ever entered in my life. The first one and the last one.” William Neder won all-expenses paid round trip to the 1961 World Series for his winning entry.
The Colts name did have some early confusion and the HSA explained the moniker symbolized the old cowboy pistol and not a horse. In November, 1961 the name was permanently modified to “Colt .45’s”. George Kirksey gave a clear set of qualifications in choosing a name for the new Houston team. It had to be easy to say and remember. The name would also have to be different and distinctive from other baseball team names. A former sportswriter himself, Kirksey also wanted the name to be easily adaptable to news headlines. Overall, the name had to have a certain “romance” or sentiment to its meaning. Kirksey stated, “The name Colts, in tribute to the gun which played such a tremendous part in civilizing the West, met all four requirements perfectly.” Media speculation had team nicknames for the Colt .45’s as “Forty-Fives”, “.45s”, “Six-Shooters” and “Sharpshooters”.
On April 10, 1962 the Houston Colt .45’s opened their first season with an 11-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at their new (albeit temporary) home, Colt Stadium. The massive skeletal frame of a domed stadium slowly rose during the next three seasons over the first base side of the stadium, which was the true future of baseball in Houston. The Colt .45’s name would not extend to the Astrodome. The firearm company of the same name wanted to share revenues with the team for using the name. Team President Roy Hofheinz wanted no part of revenue sharing so he hired an unnamed artist to begin concepts of a new name and identity for the 1965 season when the Domed Stadium was scheduled to open. This artist attended twenty-five games at Colt Stadium in 1964 and came up with just as many sketches for a new look. Hofheinz publicly announced on October 1, 1964 the end of the Colt .45’s name with the last game of the season. All focus was on the opening of the new and revolutionary domed stadium and Hofheinz did not want to deter any attention from this new sports palace. On October 9th he announced the new stadium would open with an exhibition series against the 1964 American League champion New York Yankees.
On December 1, 1964, Roy Hofheinz announced that the Harris County Domed Stadium would be called the “Astrodome” and the Colt .45’s would become the “Astros” in 1965. Hofheinz stated, “We felt the space idea was more logical because the ball club is in Houston- Space City U.S.A., and our spring training headquarters is in Cocoa Beach, Fla. at Cape Kennedy- Launching Pad, U.S.A. The name and insignia will help dispel the image Texas as a land of cowboys and Indians, and it behooves every citizen in this area to call attention to the 20th century aspects of Texas and Houston.” A little over a week later the Astros unveiled their new logo that displayed baseballs in orbit around a depiction of the Astrodome. The colors used by Houston since 1962, navy and orange, were carried into the new identity of the Astros. It was the first time a team depicted its stadium in their primary logo.
The Astros name was not without its doubters. In January, 1965 an organization called CETA (Call ‘Em Tros association) was formed and distributed bumper stickers that had the “AS” part of the Astros name marked out. Handouts were passed out featuring the phrase, “Refuse to recognize the name.” Another small group named the Astro-Suppression Society, intended on passing out stickers saying, “Let’s Call Them the Houston Astronauts.” The name controversy was short-lived.
Since 1965 the name “Astros” has become a staple for generations of baseball fans in Houston. Many of us can recall going to games in the Astrodome as kids, listening to Gene Elston’s call of the action on Astros radio or wearing our favorite rainbow jersey to the game. Some of us fall under the “all of the above category”. The 2012 season celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston with the Astros wearing several uniforms of the past; including the original Colt .45’s uniform. Dozens of former players who made so many baseball memories in Houston were honored on the field at Minute Maid Park. In the fall of 2012 the Astros returned to their roots of navy and orange, which were worn from 1962-1993.
When the Colt .45’s appeared in the sixties everyone thought of the gun of the wild-west. When the Astrodome opened in 1965 everyone changed their direction to the association of NASA and the Astronauts based in Houston. Today we look back on the Astros name and think, “Wynn”, “Dierker”, “Aspromonte”, “Cedeno”, “Richard”, “Ryan”, “Biggio” or “Bagwell”. The list can go on and on. That is what a Houston Astro is. The Astros are the people who carry on and mold a tradition of baseball in Houston. They are a public trust and a staple of the community. Cheers to the next fifty years of Major League Baseball in the great city of Houston.
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.