Review of "The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome" By Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack

tags: book review, The Eighth Wonder of the World, Robert C Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

In the summer of 2017 when the Houston Astros have emerged as a World Series contender, it seems appropriate to examine the construction of the Houston Astrodome, which put Houston baseball on the national radar screen in 1965. Although Houston was awarded a Major League franchise in 1962 as the Colt .45s, it was the unveiling of the Astrodome that allowed the city and team, known as the Astros since 1965, to embrace the modern world and move beyond frontier images. Hyped as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Astrodome’s rise and fall is chronicled by academics Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack in a volume that is accessible to the general reader. However, readers seeking a history of Astros baseball in Houston will be disappointed as the focus of the authors is upon the Astrodome itself, including the political deals and engineering innovations necessary for the construction of the domed stadium as well as the structure’s decline and proposed demolition. Relying primarily upon newspaper archival research and interviews with living participants in the drama of Houston’s domed stadium, Trumpbour and Womack do a solid job of tracing the rise and decline of the Astrodome, although there is some chronological overlap in the chapters that could perhaps use some editing.

Trumpbour and Womack credit former Houston judge and mayor Roy Hofheinz with providing the vision and political savvy that gave birth to the Astrodome. Muggy Houston was an obvious candidate for an indoor stadium, but Hofheinz envisioned something much grander than a utilitarian structure in which to view ballgames. He wanted to revolutionize the entertainment experience and draw spectators away from the comforts of their suburban homes. Thus, Hofheinz catered to the wealthy by building luxury boxes and restaurants—common and expected features of a contemporary sporting venue. But for the average fans, prices were kept reasonably low, all seats were provided with comfortable cushions and backs, and food amenities extended beyond traditional beer, hot dogs, and soda. Hofheinz also envisioned the Astrodome as an entertainment center that would also be a venue for concerts, conventions, and shopping alongside attractions such as the Astroworld theme park. Trumpbour and Womack also portray Hofheinz as a Texas liberal who welcomed minorities by removing any vestiges of Houston’s segregated past from the new structure. In fact, the authors are almost uncritical in their depiction of Hofheinz, writing, “Handling the overall management of a Major League Baseball team, supervising operations for a temporary ballpark, following through on plans for a nearby exhibition hall, and overseeing all aspects of construction of the first ever fully enclosed, air-conditioned stadium may have overwhelmed any other person, but Roy Hofheinz had grown up taking on challenge after challenge” (33).

Other key figures in bringing baseball to Houston and constructing the Astrodome were Texaco heir Craig Cullinan Jr., sportswriter George Kirksey, banker William Kirkland, financier Bob Smith, and engineer Kenneth C. Zimmerman. Trumpbour and Womack devote an entire chapter to Kirksey’s efforts to lure an established franchise to Houston before the National League awarded an expansion team to the city for the 1962 season. Despite his considerable labor in bringing Major League Baseball to Houston, Kirksey was eased out as he was primarily a baseball man while Hofheinz had larger plans for the Astrodome—designs that were not fully realized as Hofheinz’s health began to fade. The authors also devote considerable space to construction challenges confronting engineer Kenneth Zimmerman who designed the knuckle and star columns that allowed the Astrodome to withstand hurricane winds, although the engineering chapter may be a bit difficult for those of us not technologically inclined. Houston’s Livestock and Rodeo was also an essential client and supporter, both financially and politically, in moving the Astrodome project forward.

While celebrating the triumphs of constructing the Astrodome, Trumpbour and Womack do not overlook the major problems with the stadium’s opening. The light flooding in from the high ceiling made it difficult for players to judge fly balls, so the ceiling panels were painted. This solution to the glare problem, however, led to the grass on the infield and outfield dying. An artificial playing surface, popularly called AstroTurf, was installed and soon embraced by many baseball clubs—although today artificial turf has virtually disappeared from baseball.

Baseball traditionalists were opposed to many of the innovations unleashed by Hofheinz, and Trumpbaur and Womack acknowledge that they seem to have won the day with the emergence of the retro-stadium approach beginning with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992. Yet, the authors observe that the retro parks “allowed patrons to enjoy a variety of modern amenities while basking in the quaint and presumably more innocent ambiance of a turn-of-the-century ballpark, even though the new construction was merely a modernized replica of that bygone era” (151). In addition, Trumpbour and Womack argue that the retro parks are gentrified, with high ticket prices freezing out fans of more modest means, a betrayal of the Hofheinz vision. The authors lament that once Hofheinz was no longer involved with the daily operations of the Dome, customer services rapidly deteriorated. Although the Dome was refurbished to meet the demands of Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams, the football franchise departed the city and deprived the Astrodome of an important tenant. When football returned to Houston with the Texans, a new stadium was constructed, and in 2000 the Astros left the Dome for Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) with a retractable roof.

Following the loss of its two major clients, the future of the Astrodome remains problematic at best. Efforts to restructure the Astrodome as a commercial site were thwarted by the financial collapse of 2008, while a 2013 bond issue to refurbish the Astrodome was turned down by voters. While efforts to save the Astrodome as a significant historical site continue to gain some traction, Trumpbour and Womack are pessimistic about preservation efforts. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that “the Dome will always be remembered as a unique structure that changed the trajectory of sports and entertainment architecture in a nation that prides itself on its leadership in both sports and entertainment” (189).

In a summer of increased baseball interest in Houston, Trumpbour and Womack remind readers of the significant role played by the Houston Astrodome in baseball, architecture, and entertainment. Bond issues in which Houston taxpayers were asked to financially support team ownership with stadium construction are an important component of the Astrodome story, but it would be interesting to see sport historians Trumpbour and Womack expand their analysis of public subsidies being employed to support private businesses and supposedly foster economic growth. In other words, was the Houston Astrodome a good investment by the community or might the bond issues have been better spent on schools and other community improvements? As Trumpbour and Womack suggest in their book on the Houston Astrodome, the study of sport in America usually reflects larger social and political issues.    

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