The Judge smoked 25 cigars a day, great tobacco-filled dirigibles that befit a man of his dimensions: the 57-inch waistline, the cuff links as big and loud as cymbals, the long Cadillac limousine in which he drove himself through Houston. It was said that Judge Roy Hofheinz could not find a chauffeur willing to work his hours, which were roughly the same as a 7-Eleven's.
Sleep, and you cannot graduate from high school at 16 (as the Judge did), pass the Texas bar at 19, be elected to the state legislature at 22 and to the judgeship of Houston's Harris County at 24. To the Judge life was a Whitman's Sampler of possibilities. He devoured the legal profession, politics, the slag industry, real estate, radio, television and professional sports—licking his fingers clean of each career before plucking out a new one.
The son of a laundry-truck driver, Hofheinz was also at various times Lyndon Johnson's campaign manager, the mayor of Houston, the builder of the Astrodome and the owner of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The last two roles best suited the Judge's personality, though a Houston contemporary named Willard Walbridge once found it insufficient to equate Hofheinz with P.T. Barnum. Said Walbridge, "He made P.T. Barnum look like 14 miles of bad road."
Thus in the early 1960s, when the Judge was planning sport's first domed stadium, he insisted that the dugouts be an extravagant 120 feet long. This was done not as a pioneering concession to player comfort but so that as many ticket buyers as possible could be obliged when they asked for seats behind the dugout.
August 15, 1994
When those seats, fully upholstered, theater-style, were installed, their various colors formed a garish palette that the Judge (whose garb ran to canary-yellow panes and test-pattern blazers) thought profoundly beautiful. "I'm inclined to think the Lord agrees with me a little bit," he explained, " 'cause I've never seen the flowers of the fields all one color." It is instructive to note that the Lord agreed with the Judge, not the other way around.
After all, it was the Judge, not the Lord, who carved out the modern physical landscape of professional sports, a terrain blistered by domes and green with the fungus of artificial turf. Both were the brainchildren of Judge Roy Hofheinz.
Even as baseball emerges from the architectural dark ages of the 1960s and '70s, marked by the blight of the multipurpose stadium, and begins once again building traditional parks like Camden Yards and The Ballpark in Arlington, these—and all big-time sports stadiums and arenas constructed today—are designed around the luxury skybox and the elaborate electronic scoreboard. Both are the intellectual offspring of the Judge, who changed the very way Americans attend their games.
"We combined baseball with a cocktail party," says Fred Hofheinz, 56, the Judge's younger son, himself a former mayor of Houston and his father's righthand man in the first years of the Astrodome. "You can wander around your box with a drink in your hand and sell some guy some insurance. And I promise you, there are people all over sports now who never look at the sports event. The whole time, they're selling. I was at a Rockets game last Saturday, and I don't even remember who won."
On an April night in 1965, the Astros flew from their spring training home in Cocoa, Fla., to Houston, where they bused directly to the brand-new Astrodome to drop off equipment. Larry Dierker, an 18-year-old rookie pitcher on that club, bounded from the clubhouse into the concourse-level seats that night, taking in the multiple miracles before him: the air conditioning, the grass growing indoors (artificial turf was not laid until the following year), the translucent roof (greenhouse by day, a planetarium by night)—the whole otherworldly quality of this $32 million marvel on the Texas prairie. To this day, Dierker recalls the moment exactly. "It was," he says, "like walking into the next century."
As the story of Los Angeles begins with irrigation, so the story of the Astrodome begins with air conditioning. Willis H. Carrier was the Edison of the air conditioner, a mechanical engineer who predicted in 1939 that man would soon live beneath climate-controlled bubbles, with Cod powerless to impose weather on his creatures. To many of his contemporaries, Willis H. Carrier was, well, downright daft.
But was he? The globe is now goitered with domed stadiums, everywhere from Tokyo to Toronto. In Carrier's native upstate New York, Syracuse Orangemen play basketball and football in the Carrier Dome, an eponym that suggests Carrier was right after all. He was right. But it was the Judge who made good on the prophesy.
Roy Mark Hofheinz began relieving Texans from the sun—and of their money—as a nine-year-old during Prohibition, when he set up a refreshment stand in his front yard, displaying a hand-lettered sign that read NEAR BEER SOLD HERE, BUT NO BEER SOLD NEAR HERE. He was still cooling customers in the 1970s, when his Astro World amusement park hummed with the sound of that ultimate Texas extravagance: It had outdoor air conditioning.
At home in the dead of a Houston summer, the Judge would often turn his own AC up high enough to frost the family room; when he had the house feeling like a refrigerated boxcar, he would build a fire in the fireplace and bask in its crackling warmth.
Yes, sir, air conditioning could bring Christmas in July So together with Houston oilman R.E. (Bob) Smith, who had a bigger pile than Cod, the visionary Judge decided to build the world's largest air-conditioned indoor shopping complex, just off Westheimer Road in Houston. That was the late '50s. The word today is mall.
About that time a group of local investors was trying to land a major league baseball team for Houston. Frustrated in its efforts, the group began planning a third big league, the Continental League. "This was the heyday in ownership profitability, in control of ballplayers," Fred Hofheinz points out. "The reserve clause was still in place. Most baseball clubs were privately held by rich individuals. Baseball was a club—an inside club. And the Continental League was designed to put pressure on everybody to expand the American and National leagues."
In little more than a decade, baseball's reserve clause would be challenged by Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the mahoganied country club of owners in the other three major professional sports would be gate-crashed by a couple of California hepcats named Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy. But in 1960 the baseball Establishment forestalled these events by simply allowing two more members beyond the red velvet ropes, granting National League franchises to New York and Houston. The latter team would be called the Colt .45s. And the Colts would be owned by Judge Roy Hofheinz, who abandoned his plans for a shopping mall when he alighted on a better, more colossal use for the cool, gentle breezes stirred by the man-made miracle of air conditioning.
Understand that the Judge blew a lot of smoke, and not all of it came from a lighted corona: He always said that he was inspired to build the Astrodome after a visit to Rome with his wife, Dene. "Mama and I were standing there looking at the Colosseum," he would say of the ancient arena, which was at times roofed by a tarplike velarium in inclement weather. "It was a large, round facility, and most of the stadiums in the U.S. had been built to conform to the shape of the playing fields. Rectangular."
And indeed, the Astrodome would be round, built to fit baseball and football and basketball and boxing and tractor pulls and concerts and what-have-you. So would the four undomed ballparks that would follow rapid-fire in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the abominations of Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Those parks are called octorads, or rounded rectangles, and it was precisely that kind of esoterica—architectural and otherwise—that had a dead-bolt lock on the Judge's imagination.
For his intellect was as sharp as the crease in his trousers. The Judge wore a gold watch, but it concealed a tiny slide rule, which says a lot about the man. "I remember vividly a stack of books on the kitchen table," says Fred. "All of them about domes."
Convinced that man could raise a dome higher than man could hit a baseball, the Judge and R.E. (Bob) Smith purchased 494 acres of scrubland, empty save for a lone mesquite tree, from the Hilton Hotel Corporation. The city had already planned 14 lanes of freeway to run past the site, and ground was broken for the Harris County Domed Stadium, to be opened in 1965. For three seasons the Colt .45s would play outdoors in a temporary, low-budget ballpark called Colt Stadium: By day fans would be hotter than bejesus and by night would be buzzed by Cessna-sized mosquitoes.
The name Colt .45s evoked the old Houston, whereas the Judge was looking to help shape the new, Space Age city, which was already home to NASA. So he telephoned a friend, astronaut Alan Shepard, one evening in the winter of 1964 and asked him if the Mercury Seven crew would like a ball club named for them. Of course, replied Shepard, who was such a sports fanatic that he would carry golf clubs to the moon on his trip there in 1971.
Thus the Colt .45s would become the Astronauts, a name the Judge preemptively clipped to Astros, knowing that newspaper-headline writers would do so anyway. (Defiantly, newspaper headline writers briefly referred to the Astros as the 'Tros, and to this day they are often the 'Stros.) The Harris County Domed Stadium would become the Astrodome, and the Judge would become master of what he called his Astrodomain: the Astrodome and the Astros, the Astrolite scoreboard and the Astrotots puppet theater, the Astro-Bowl bowling alley and the AstroWorld amusement park and the AstroHall exhibition arena. They were enough to make you AstroSick, but the names took root.
The Astrodome was paid for with municipal bonds, but the Judge built 53 luxury boxes with $2 million out of his own silken pocket. "It was done," says Fred, "to attract people who used baseball games as a backdrop to sell their products."
And the Judge could sell nasal spray to the noseless. When players refused to appear on the Astros' pregame radio show because they weren't receiving watches or lube jobs or golf shirts or gift certificates in compensation, the Judge made an impassioned clubhouse speech to his charges: "Radio is the only link that a blind man has to his beloved Astros, for Cod's sake, and...."
"I don't even remember what all he said," recalls Dierker, "but for weeks after, players were lining up to do that show."
So the Judge had no trouble renting his luxury boxes, which he said were inspired by, of course, a trip to the Colosseum. "I found out that the emperor and all the bigwigs sat at the top of the stadium," he used to say. The truth is, the bigwigs did not sit at the top of the Colosseum, and the Judge did not set foot in the old arena until 1967, when he flew to Rome to purchase the circus from John Ringling North. For publicity purposes the papers were signed in the historic show place. When the Judge's photo-opportunists tried to move a large stone into the picture, Colosseum guards went berserk. The stone had been in place for 2,000 years, having been laid there by the emperor Vespasian.
When the Astrodome opened for its first exhibition baseball game, on April 9, 1965, it was proclaimed the world's single largest air-conditioned space. When the first home run was hit that day, by Mickey Mantle, of all people, the 474-foot-long scoreboard flashed TILT! If an Astro hit a homer, on the other hand, the scoreboard (with the world's largest screen) would produce a smoke-snorting bull, American and Texas flags thing from its horns like the Hags on the fenders of a presidential limousine. (All of which would soon prompt Chicago Cub manager Leo Durocher to say, portentously, "Houston is bush.") On this day of the first exhibition, in fact, the President himself was in rapt attendance; the Judge's close friend Lyndon Johnson watched the 'Tros beat the Yanks 2-1.
"There was a mania to get inside the Dome that first year," says Astrodomophile Chuck Pool, a former Astro publicist who is now media-relations director for the Florida Marlins. "There was a Boy Scout Circus in the Dome in 1965. Ordinarily the Scouts would sell 50,000 tickets for these things, but maybe 3,000 people would attend. People bought tickets as a donation. But in 1965 they sold 60,000 tickets, and everyone with a ticket showed up to watch the Boy Scouts, with thousands more outside screaming to get in."
Sixty thousand people paid to watch a Webelo tie a slipknot. Millions of tourists would pay $1 apiece to enter the Dome and watch nothing at all. Fifty-three thousand would watch UCLA and Houston—Lew Alcindor versus Elvin Hayes—play on Jan 20, 1968, the night college basketball came of age. And 19 million worldwide watched five years later as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs caricatured the battle of the sexes by playing a preposterous tennis match in the Astrodome. While King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory that night was trumpeted as a sporting milestone, her triumph would prove fleeting, as two decades later only a handful of women in golf, tennis and Olympic sports would be able to match the handsome incomes of their male counterparts. But on this night of spectacle in the Dome, King made her testoster-oned tormentor look ridiculous.
Nothing was quite so ridiculous, though, as that week the Astrodome opened, when baseballs fell like baseball-sized hail on the Astros and the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dome's translucent roof panels created such a glare during day games that Baltimore's Boog Powell took the field in a batting helmet. The league tried different-colored balls—red, yellow, cerise—to combat the problem, which was basically this: The Astros were in danger of becoming the first team to call a game on account of sunshine.
The club immediately painted over the roof panels, banishing sunlight. "And that was the death knell for grass," says Fred. The grass, Tifway 419 Bermuda, had been specially developed by scientists in Tifton, Ga. But without sunlight the grass was going, going, gone. And yet the death knell for Tifway Bermuda 419 would be the life knell for another kind of turf being developed by scientists at Monsanto—as well as the life knell for knee surgeons for decades to come.
For the remainder of the 1965 season, the Judge simply painted over the dead grass and dirt in his outfield, mixed in some sawdust with it and called it grass, though it was essentially a sandlot.
"I think he suspected all along that the grass wouldn't work," says Pool. "Artificial turf was developed in '64 through a Ford Foundation study that indicated city kids entering the Army had lower coordination than suburban and rural kids. The study concluded that it was because city kids had no play areas. The first artificial turf was installed at Moses Brown Playground in Providence. And Hofheinz had installed a patch at spring training in '65."
Before sealing the deal to introduce artificial turf into the year-old Astrodome, the Judge procured a 30-foot-long sample of the wonder-stuff from Monsanto, installed it at old Colt Stadium and assaulted the surface in sundry Hofheinzian ways that would never have occurred to the manufacturer. Among the durability tests administered by Hofheinz: Rented elephants urinated on the nylon rug while trampling over it—approximating the kind of abuse a Lenny Dykstra might one day deliver to the surface.
In March 1966 carpet was laid in the Dome. In the first major league baseball game played on AstroTurf, a Los Angeles Dodger rookie named Don Sutton got his first major league win. The Astro starter was Robin Roberts, who was headed for the Hall of Fame, and it appeared that AstroTurf was headed there as well. Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which opened later that year, would forsake grass in 1970 for low-maintenance AstroTurf. By 1973 five more stadiums would have synthetic surfaces, and AstroTurf welcome mats would join lawn jockeys and pink flamingos as staples of American exterior decorating.
As would be expected of a man who knows where to rent an incontinent elephant, the Judge traveled widely in life. The 1970 stroke that left him in a wheelchair (until his death, in 1982 at age 70) did little to slow him. No, the Judge smoked life down to the butt end, as if it were one of his Sans Souci Perfectos, the cigars he snuffed out in gold ashtrays shaped like upturned fielder's gloves.
Aides would simply carry the Judge up to the Parthenon, like the potentate he was, on a visit to Athens. Like Lord Elgin, the Judge assembled all sorts of curiosa—unsightly statuary, antique furniture, garish baubles—to cart back to Texas. The crates piled up at his Houston homes, not unlike in the last scene of Citizen Kane.
"I'm surprised they haven't made a movie about this man," says Pool. "He was truly larger than life. At the end he had grown a beard and looked like Orson Welles. And his voice, it had this...riveting intensity."
What was the epigraph that began Kane?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree.... The Judge had moved into his Dome following the death of Dene in 1966, into his famously sybaritic apartment above the right-centerfield-pavilion seats.
Behind the odd-shaped windows the Judge lived for eight years, surrounded by a billiard parlor, and a minigolf course, and a beauty salon, and a barber shop, and an interfaith chapel, and a children's library, and a presidential suite reserved for LBJ, and bathrooms with gilded toilet seats.
The Judge had another sometime residence, the Celestial Suites at the Astro World Hotel. A bathtub there was so large, it required an indoor-pool permit. In fact, the $3,000-a-night Celestial Suites penthouse was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the planet's most expensive hotel room. Elvis stayed there, though rumor has it that he found the place, decorated with the detritus of the Judge's European shopping sprees, too gaudy.
On weekends the Judge relaxed at his bayfront retreat, called Huckster House. The great man unwound there by clanging a locomotive bell he kept in the front yard, ringing the thing like Quasimodo at ungodly hours of the night "just to let the neighbors know we're around."
Alas, it is all lost now: Huckster House, the Celestial Suites, the apartment at the Astrodome. Pool took the media through the Judge's chambers for one last tour before the Astros gutted the residence in 1988. It had been 15 years since the Judge lived in the Dome, but parts of his crib remained spookily intact. Pool, rummaging through the rooms alone, opened one door in the dark, flipped on a light and was greeted by a disembodied head falling off a shelf: It was the overstuffed noggin of Chester Charge, the Astros' first mascot.
It is all lost now, but in its day the Judge's Astrodomain was a spectacle the likes of which the world had never seen, nor will likely ever want to see again. "I've stayed in some pretty good places," columnist Art Buchwald said after a night in the Celestial Suites, "but nothing quite so ridiculous as that joint."
There will never be another Judge. There will never be another Dome. French ambassador Herve Alphand visited Houston in 1965 and compared the steel-girdered roof of the Astrodome to the Eiffel Tower. "The Eiffel Tower is nice," agreed the Judge, "but you can't play ball there."
They all came: Bob Hope and Billy Graham, Buchwald and Buckminster Fuller. Lyndon & Lady Bird. Huntley & Brinkley. Princess Grace & Prince Rainier. When the (Astro) world was young, a Houston Astro might meet anyone upon arrival each day at the park.
On the eve of the 1967 Houston Champion International golf tournament, there was a pregame closest-to-the-pin contest: Various Astros drove golf balls from home plate to a flagstick in centerfield, competing against a team composed of PGA veterans and...Lawrence Welk. "I can still remember, [Astro infielder] Doug Rader kept calling Lawrence Welk Larry " recalls Dierker wistfully. "Hey, Larry...." The Astros were brash and young, and expected to remain so forever.
But time passes. Huntley & Brinkley split up, Princess Grace was killed in a car wreck, and sometime in there the Astrodome went flat, like a sunken soufflè. The Camelot optimism that ushered in the 1960s—that ushered in the Astrodome—had long before gone flat, like old champagne. Or the champagne music of Larry Welk.
The erstwhile Eighth Wonder of the World is now another dreary pitcher's park, albeit one that gave us fake grass and turf toe and rug burn and corporate boxes and those infernal cartoon clapping hands that tell us when to cheer. But happily, the legacy of the Astrodome is more than that, as the legacy of the 1960s is more than Vietnam and assassinations.
"I think what has happened to professional sports since 1960 is what I call the gentrification of it," says Fred Hofheinz, who chooses his words carefully, as if selecting tomatoes at the market, turning each possibility over in his head before speaking. "Up until then, there were sports fans and there were sports pages and a lot of people who followed sports. But beginning about the time that my dad and other promoters around the country became involved—with the advent of television—sports became something that everybody followed.
"Enormous new markets opened up, and the Dome was part of that: If you were to go to a Houston Buffs minor league game, you would have seen the die-hard fans, the people who kept scorecards and read the box scores every morning. That guy was in the minority at the Dome. At the Dome the wives came. The children came. Suddenly it was a whole new milieu of fans. The Dome greatly broadened sports' appeal for these people. In Houston it became a social event to go to the Astrodome. Women went to the Astrodome in heels!"
Indeed, the Judge created an entire press box for women society-page writers. The "hen coop" produced Astrodome stories that turned on such questions as "Is it proper for a man to wear his hat indoors?" Of course, the hats in question were cowboy hats, this being Texas; other American men had stopped wearing snap-brimmed fedoras to ball games (or anyplace else) after John Kennedy went bare-noggined on Inauguration Day in 1961.
Let the word go forth: The 1960s were to herald a new, hatless era. The Space Age. In Living Color. If the new decade wasn't exactly a new century, well, you could see a new century from there—from a concourse at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. That city, it should not be forgotten, would fairly redeem the violent 1960s, just 165 days before the decade expired, by landing Americans on the moon with a bronze plaque. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.
As for the stadium named for the astronauts: When the Judge was still living in his famously sybaritic apartment above the rightfield bleachers, an electrician named Don Collins had cause to work in the Astrodome at all hours. In the middle of some nights, in the vast, empty, dark arena, Collins could look up to a window of the Hofheinz residence and see only the glowing ember of a cigar, floating there like a firefly, high above the synthetic playing field.
The Judge is gone from this life some 12 years now, but the ember still glows, a spectral stogie. Its blue smoke hangs like a spirit above every arena in the land.
With $2 million out of his own silken pocket, the Judge built 53 luxury boxes, which he claimed were inspired by a trip to the Colosseum in Rome.
Worldwide, 19 million watched on this night of spectacle at the Dome as King and Riggs caricatured the battle of the sexes in a preposterous tennis match.