Excerpt from the Book

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

LIKE A MILLION SUNS

Within the limitations of $45 million, the Astrodome is as perfect as possible.
— Judge Hofheinz

PERHAPS THE MOST MEMORABLE PROCLAMATION on Sunday April 4, 1965, came not from a pulpit but in the pages of the Houston Chronicle’s Texas Sunday magazine: “An era ends Friday. Houstonians may stop suffering while being entertained. No longer will their faces burn red in the semi-tropical sun. No longer must they perspire for the pleasure of watching experts at play.”

The following Wednesday, the newly minted Astros left their spring training camp in Cocoa, Florida, and flew to Houston. With five days remaining before the start of the regular season, it was early to break camp, but the Astros needed time to get used to their brand-new ballpark and gain at least a little “home field advantage.”

For many players that day, this was their first-ever look inside the Dome. The massive structure was now complete, and it was an impressive sight. Eighteen-year-old rookie Larry Dierker was amazed at what he saw and years later recalled the moment exactly. “I felt,” he said, “like I had walked into the next century.” Dierker and his teammates wandered around inside the huge structure, jokingly hailing each other along the length of the ridiculously long dugouts,* and stopping to gawk whenever the giant electronic scoreboard was tested.

The Astrodome in 1965. (George Kirksey Papers, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

The Astrodome in 1965. (George Kirksey Papers, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

The grass had also arrived. Nurtured and pampered in soil from the Dome site at a turf farm in Wharton, Texas, it had been rolled up, trucked in, and placed in the building the previous winter. It was proving challenging to maintain—the groundskeepers were finding that with little sun and no wind to dry it out, it couldn’t be watered too much. But it looked fine. The skylights and the diffusers worked exactly as planned: bright sunlight was evenly distributed on the field, and no shadows were visible.

Taking the field for the first time for a practice session, the players satisfied themselves that thrown and batted balls behaved more or less the same inside the Dome as outside. The hitters’ background view from the batter’s box was good, and given the truly level playing field, the fielders had a good view of the batter. (To improve drainage, a typical outdoor field is “crowned” to create a slight downward slope from the center to the perimeter; for baseball the crown can limit visibility of the batter from the outfield.) The infield grass was neither too slow nor too fast. For the ballplayers doing their jobs, it looked like business as usual. Relief pitcher Hal Woodeshick was asked how his curve balls were breaking indoors. “I don’t know,” he shrugged, “I ain’t got a curve ball.”

Several players, however, were having some trouble tracking fly balls. The 4,596 Lucite skylights had been designed to diffuse bright sunlight, and they did that job well—too well, as it turned out. Rather than limit the painful glare of direct sunshine to a single orb in the sky, the diffusing layer of the skylights spread it over a much larger area. Players stumbled around, assuming a defensive posture when a ball headed for the roof and then missing it completely when it fell to earth. Veteran coach Nellie Fox took his glove and went onto the field, presumably to show the youngsters a thing or two. Eyebrows were raised when even he misjudged several flies.

At first, general manager Paul Richards and field manager Luman Harris confidently dismissed the problem. Harris muttered that the players should have worn their sunglasses. Richards, glancing at his watch, noticed it was 4:30 p.m. and surmised that the problem might be limited to late afternoons. They agreed that the arc lights might help and agreed to turn them on for the following day’s practice.

The barrage of misjudged balls continued, however, all witnessed by reporters who were milling about, watching the “historic” first practice in the Dome. Richards became concerned and made his way to the outfield to have a look for himself. When he returned to the sidelines, he asked a group of sportswriters how many day games were on the Astros’ 1965 schedule. When he heard the answer was twenty-one, Richards frowned.

“I didn’t realize it was that many.”

As darkness fell outside and an intrasquad scrimmage began, the roof turned dark and the problem disappeared. There was no problem tracking the ball against the dark roof under the arc lights. Everyone relaxed a bit. The highlight of the evening came when Astros second baseman Joe Morgan swatted a home run into the right field seats, a first for the new facility. The scoreboard lit up with its all-electronic “home run spectacular.”

The caption on this April 9, 1965 photo read, “Houston players and managers seek solution to tricky problem.” Left to right: outfielder Jim Wynn, field manager Luman Harris, infielder Sonny Jackson, infielder Joe Morgan, and general manager Paul Richards.  (AP Images)

The caption on this April 9, 1965 photo read, “Houston players and managers seek solution to tricky problem.” Left to right: outfielder Jim Wynn, field manager Luman Harris, infielder Sonny Jackson, infielder Joe Morgan, and general manager Paul Richards. (AP Images)

INDOOR ARENA EXCELLENT FOR NIGHT GAMES, the Chronicle announced hopefully on its front page the next day. The story mentioned the previous day’s troubles in the outfield and the players’ complaints, but breezily went on to point out that “ball players are notoriously critical and pessimistic about the hazards of any playing conditions.”

That Thursday afternoon, the sun shone outside the Astrodome, and hope sprang eternal within as the players took the field for a second day of workouts. This time, the Astros’ coaches came prepared with colored sunglasses in a dozen different shades for the players to try out.

The players also came prepared—they wore their batting helmets in the field.

An Astros coach stepped onto the field and started hitting practice flies to the outfielders. Sporting their new sunglasses, one by one each fielder trotted out to track the ball, then froze as he lost it in the brilliant haze of the roof. Some players would raise their glove, hoping they had guessed correctly. Most couldn’t resist the natural defensive impulse to cover their head, a move that in most cases was unnecessary, as the fielder was nowhere near where the ball landed.

Thump. The ball would land on the grass, five feet in front of the fielder. Or ten feet behind.

“It was like looking at a million suns,” recalled Astros shortstop Bob Lillis. “You just couldn’t see a thing.”

A practice game began with the Astros facing their Oklahoma City minor-league affiliate. The first ball hit to left field landed fifteen feet in front of the fielder. Thump. The first hit to center fell five feet away as Oklahoma City centerfielder Ron Davis gazed helplessly at the roof. Thump. In fact, it was not until the third inning that any ball hit to left or center was caught. In the seventh, Mike White and Rusty Staub enjoyed back-to-back doubles on fly balls to center that dropped ten and fifteen feet away from Davis as he gazed heavenward.

Thump. Thump.

At the end of the seventh, Astros manager Luman Harris had had enough and called the game. “That’s murder out there,” said Davis, who then returned to Oklahoma with his minor league teammates. A sportswriter mused that Davis was probably thankful he hadn’t made the big leagues.

There would be no more denying the problem of daylight baseball in the Dome—it was time to worry. There were indeed twenty-one day games on the Astros’ 1965 schedule—a fivefold increase from the previous season when the team had avoided the worst heat in the outdoor stadium by playing only four day games at home. And more ominously, two daytime exhibition games would be played during the upcoming highly publicized opening weekend. The HSA and the architects now found themselves in a race to find a solution for day games, the first of which was to take place in less than forty-eight hours.

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