By Chris Daigle
It was a baseball story that sounded too weird to be true. It supposedly happened 40 years ago, yet the evidence was scant that in my 61-year old mind, I thought it happened in about 1972 or so. The tale was about a 25-year-old guy living in a tent for 10 days on top of one of the most famous sports venues in the world: The Astrodome.
That’s all much as I remembered. After all, I was 23 years old at the time, just out of college, and the Astrodome was where everything went on. Like Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium, everything was “At the Dome.” Yet I kept coming back to one question: How was this man allowed to do this?
The story went something like this:
In October of 1980, as the city of Houston reveled in the Astros’ first post-season berth in franchise history, a radio station general manager at FM 100.3 KILT named Dickie Rosenfield came up with a promotional idea. As the hometown team chased a pennant and walked that yellow brick road to the World Series, the station would send an employee to live on top of the Astrodome – the heart and soul of Houston.
The man would eat, sleep, and pass the days on a roof platform and inside a circular steel gondola that hung from the ceiling. He would not come down until the Astros won the pennant. Somebody at the station, most likely Rosenfield, thought up the name “Astroman.”
The promotion was modeled after the flagpole sitter stunts of an earlier era, when somebody would climb atop a pole or raised platform and sit there as a test of endurance meeting a taste of publicity. Sometimes the sitter would not come down for weeks.
Nonetheless, this Astrodome stunt seemed different. Somebody lived atop the “Eighth Wonder of the World” during the classic five-game NLCS series against the Philadelphia Phillies! Somebody relied on a rope system for food! He had a landline phone for radio interviews! Really??
“It was a different time,” says Denver Griffith, the man at the center of our story. Griffith was 25 years-old then, a native Texan with a high school diploma and a sales job at KILT radio. He handled the accounts of Houston’s music venues and rock clubs, using the gig to score concert tickets and establish relationships with promoters. To those that knew him, Griffith had a nose for a good time.
That is partly why he was chosen for the Astrodome assignment. He was young, single and a little bit adventurous. “Back then, in the 70’s, life around the radio station was pretty wild,” he says. “It was pretty much anything goes.”
For decades, Griffith has carried the memories of those 10 days atop the Astrodome. A lot of time has gone by, and almost nobody else recalls the stunt. Contemporary news accounts from back then are spotty. Archived video is hard to find. You can find traces of Griffith’s sit-in on internet message boards and there’s a brief synopsis on Wikipedia with no citation.
Zoom ahead to 2017 when the Astros not only made it to the World Series for the second time in franchise history, but won the whole thing this time. The town of Houston was engulfed in baseball fever. KTRK Channel 13 (ABC in Houston) tracked down Griffith and ran a short piece. The story was just two minutes long and mentioned the usual details: 1980, NLCS and a man atop the Astrodome.
But was it true? I tracked down Mike Acosta, who is an historian-authenticator for the Astros (which is an extremely cool job to have as your team is about to see World Series number two), who pointed me to the KTRK story, and with the name Denver Griffith firmly established, Facebook led me right to him. Yes, he is real, and he answered.
Before we go any further in this story, we must establish two things. If you did not grow up in Houston in the 1960’s or 1980’s, you cannot understand what the Astrodome meant to our city. Not just as a sporting venue, but as a symbol.
Once billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” the building was finished in 1964, eight months ahead of schedule, and opened in April, 1965 on the birthday of Roy Hofheinz, the genius behind the idea. It was the first stadium with a roof and the first stadium with air conditioning. Tickets were $3.50 for mezzanine seats and parking was one dollar. Just being there was a big deal.
Housing the Houston Astros and the NFL’s Oilers since 1968, the stadium was pioneering in more ways than one. At age 7, my memories of smelling fresh paint, along with hot dogs and popcorn, seem like yesterday. The place was known around the world. Anywhere in Europe, if you mentioned Texas, you’d be asked about the Astrodome.
The second point to be made is that the Astrodome was Houston’s “Coliseum.” The Astros were its original “gladiators.” From 1962 to 1978, the team had little success, with three winning seasons total. I remember them being called the “Lastros” for their dismal record. So, when the team finally got to the NLCS, we took notice.
Denver Griffith couldn’t wait to talk. “Astroman lives!” he told me. Griffith was a Houstonian and a little adventurous, just like his father, who owned many of the drive-in movie theatres around town. One sales job led to another, and he eventually landed a sales job at KILT, the rock radio station at the time. Rosenfield convinced the higher ups at the Astros to allow someone on top of the Dome for the entire series. “I had a knack for these crazy promos, and I wasn’t married, so it was on,” Griffith said.
Nearly four decades later, Griffith has only one photo from his adventure. He is standing on a wooden platform on the Astrodome roof, a tent set up behind him and a pennant attached to a pole. He is wearing jeans, a cap and a white t-shirt with four words: I Love You, Houston.
He remembers the setup vividly. One night in September of 1980, the radio station held a party at an Astros game. “I was hoping to come out in an Astros uniform, but the owner of the station [at the time], Gordon Mc Clendon, put me in a Scottish kilt, because, after all, the station was KILT and he had a Scottish background, and that was it,” Griffith explains. He went up the long catwalk and the final door was like a spring-loaded submarine hatch.
On the roof, Griffith had an eight-man tent and access to a landline phone. He did interviews with the station DJ’s just about every hour. He spent the first night in a sleeping bag inside because of heavy rains outside. The other nights he spent outside, as the weather, the altitude and the views were that pleasant.
The other logistics were less appealing. Griffith was given a makeshift Port-A-Potty. “My food came in bags and left in bags,” he said. He never showered, instead using a powder to wash his hair.
The process of getting meals was tedious. At first, the Astrodome supplied a long rope, left over from a construction project, and a basket. But Griffith had to manually lower the basket from 18 stories up and haul the food back up, which was a taxing chore to do every day. “Talk about a workout, it was just crazy,” he said. “So I finally thought, ‘Forget this! I’ll just meet people at the end of the catwalk. They’ll hand up boxes of food, and I’ll just walk back up to the top,’” he said.
By the fourth or fifth day, Griffith was shouting out to restaurants on air and getting free meals delivered to his Astrodome lair. The assignment came with other perks, too. He could watch Astros games for free from 200 feet above the field, watching Cruz track fly balls. His memories are flooded with other weird instances.
“One day, my mom arrived at the Astrodome with food, and interrupted a practice run by Oilers coach Bum Phillips,” he said.
In the hours before he took his perch, a veteran Astros pitcher had one request: Could he pee on Tom Seaver’s head?
At night, when the games were over, Griffith would move from the roof to the gondola. For a moment, he would take in the silence and serenity of an empty Dome. “You’d come down inside and it was total darkness,” he said. “You couldn’t see a damn thing, and I sure knew I was 18 stories up.”
It was an incredible story, and it was incredibly weird. I asked whether this could be done today? “Probably not. There’s too much liability today. I told the Astros that if they wanted to do it again, I’d be there,” Griffith said.
A few years ago, “Astroman” pieced together a retroactive log of the stunt. First, he needed to remember the day it started. He found weather records of the day it stormed. He started on that day and counted forward. The Astros did not lose game 5 of the NLCS until 18 days later. Details were fuzzy, but he didn’t remember THAT many days on the Astrodome roof.
There were some newspaper articles, such as the Austin American Statesman, which printed, “Astros fall to Atlanta: As part of a ‘back the Astros’ night, sponsored by a local radio station, Denver Griffith, an employee of the station, climbed to a gondola inside the roof and vowed he would not come down until the Astros won the pennant. From the looks of things, Griffith may be up there a while.”
The story mentioned fans braving heavy rains to attend the game. Two days later, a Dayton Daily News reporter Hal Mc Coy mentioned Griffith again: “With another howling throng stuffed into the Astrodome, including local radio personality Denver Griffith peering through the roof from his temporary girder residence, the Cincinnati Reds quickly jumped on Houston’s Joe Niekro Saturday night.”
Griffith’s final day on the roof was September 30, 1980. The Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 3 to 2. They finished 89-73, 1 and ½ games behind the Reds. It was, at the time, the best season in franchise history. But the city would have to wait one more year for playoff baseball and until 2005 for a shot at the World Series.
On his final day on the roof, the boss asked Griffith if he wanted to make his departure an event. Astroman said no. “I just wanted to come down. It was over,” he said. Almost 40 years later, Harris County has tentative plans to renovate the Astrodome and it has been declared a Texas Historical landmark. There were political fights and public votes. The city didn’t want to leave its history behind.
The Astros, meanwhile, went back to the World Series. They gave it a good shot, but lost game 7 against the Nationals. There’s always next season. The games weren’t in the Astrodome, but we take what we can get. Denver Griffith is in Austin now, in the communications business. His tenure as Astroman is kind of funny and kind of weird, but it’s another exhibit of why we love this building. Kids growing up now will never know quirky things like this today. I’m still stunned it happened, which is a tribute to my 61 year-old memory.
“Houston was booming then,” Griffith said. “It was still coming up, still finding its way, and it was a looser atmosphere. Of course, it was also the 1970’s.” Thanks for the memories, Denver Griffith.