By Chris Daigle
If you were born before 1988, it’s fair to say you spent part of your life in the Astrodome if you lived in Houston. It was like our collective living room that could hold 60,000 people at one time, sometimes even more than that. It was our memory factory.
Every sport, except perhaps curling or bobsled racing, was played at the “Dome.” Watching from high above, far removed from the action in its outfield perch above the action, whether it was football, baseball, tennis, boxing, basketball, auto racing or jumping over cars with a motorcycle, was the scoreboard.
This was not just any scoreboard. That never suited Roy Hofheinz as he planned the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was to be as grand as the building itself!
The “Home Run Spectacular,” as it was named, lasted 24 seasons in the Astrodome, and like its home, was never duplicated. It was the crowning jewel in a fantasy land; it has been witness to over 1,500 baseball victories; it has made us laugh and probably made some cry, but it always has been part of the lure of what makes the place so entertaining.
An event just wasn’t complete without the pictures and the lights that came on for an Oilers touchdown or an Astros home run. It was the one thing that could make an audience, from peanut vendors to players, stop and stare. It was as big as Texas, befitting a city, a stadium and an organization set on innovation and the future.
On September 5 1988, 40,000 lights shone for the last time at an Astros vs. Reds game to a sellout crowd. Gone, but not forgotten, the 474-foot scoreboard was silenced to make room for 10,000 more seats and boxes for a future that never came.
Okay, okay, no sniveling now. Logic tells us that there is no point in getting all sentimental over a scoreboard. It was nothing but half a mile of wiring, fuses, circuits, bulbs and transistors. Never mind that at 474 feet, it was longer that the football field it presided over. It was just a machine. Of course, millions of us did have a relationship with the Great wall of Houston during the 23-and-a-half years it entertained us.
When the Astrodome opened in April, 1965, the scoreboard was the wildest wonder of them all in the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It carried the art form of scoring a game to the next level, when we didn’t know there could be another level.
Bill Veeck had introduced the concept of adding fireworks with the ball scores in Chicago, 10 years before. But the Astrodome gave us that much, and more: Electronic cheerleading, cartoons, and a Wild West show. When we referred to the scoreboard, we really meant the Home Run Spectacular. Whenever a member of the home team parked a ball into the seats, bulls snorted, six shooters went off, a cowboy whirled a lariat, stars danced across the cosmos and the Texas flag was raised in tribute.
To compensate for those stretches when the Astros suffered a power shortage, they touched off the board after every home victory. It was the surest way to keep the fans in their seats until the end of the game.
Opposing pitchers hated the animated scoreboard with a passion, as though the antics shown were a personal commentary on their skills. One year, the New York Mets struck back: After a Mets home run, teammates all jumped out of the dugout, each waving a sparkler. Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher engaged in a kind of “Tom and Jerry” cartoon with Bill Giles, the original keeper of the switches for the scoreboard. Giles programmed the computer that fed information to the scoreboard. He said, “Every time Leo went to the mound to change pitchers, I’d put a comment on the board about it. Once, Leo got furious and called me every name in the book, then ripped out the dugout phone.”
Later, in one of those ironies so dear to sports, Leo became the manager of the Houston Astros, and suddenly the scoreboard was great.
Another critic of the scoreboard, and its alter ego, was Dick Young, the gray eminence of the New York tabloids, traveling with the Mets in a 24-inning game at the Dome. The game lasted till well past midnight, violating the curfew of many in the crowd. Unfortunately, it was Boy Scout night at the Astrodome. Bill Giles said, “I put on the board the line, ‘Sex Will Never Replace Night Baseball.’”
Giles defended himself for that, saying, “Well, it was around 2 in the morning. But Dick Young wrote that I ought to be barred from baseball, that it was a disgrace, putting up that message in front of those Boy Scouts.”
Other adventures with the scoreboard involved upsetting umpires who charged that the Astros were using the scoreboard to intimidate umpires after the message, “Kibler did it again” was shown. This was in reference to umpire John Kibler, who had just ejected a Houston player for the second game in a row. When an aging Willie Mays hit his 550th career home run, the message was, “This is your captain speaking, we are passing through some turbulence, fasten your seat belts.” In a 1967 game, when Giants pitcher Ray Sadecki threw to first base nine straight times, the message was, “This is ridiculous!”
And now, in the name of progress, it’s been 30 years since the bull roared and the ball flew, and the stars sparkled, and we all applauded. History was replaced with 10,000 seats to appease Oilers owner Bud Adams, who took the Oilers to Tennessee anyway and named them the Titans. The seats are still there; only we are not. For now, scoreboard watching will be a little less fun for the Boy Scout in each of us.
Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.