Astrodome should be remembered
Major League Baseball will bid farewell to Yankee Stadium when the 85-year-old venue hosts its final All-Star Game tonight.
The House that Ruth built is being replaced by a $1 billion, state-of-the-art facility next door, where the Yankees will play in 2009. Meanwhile, at Houston’s Reliant Park, the Astrodome sits quietly, awaiting a similar fate. In its shabby condition, the Astrodome is an eyesore when compared to its replacement, Minute Maid Park.
The Astros played their last game at the Astrodome on Oct. 9, 1999. In the subsequent years, the Astrodome played host to high school and college football games and RodeoHouston, but it lost that role shortly after the 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium, home of Houston’s NFL franchise, the Texans, was opened adjacent to it in August 2002.
All that’s left for the Astrodome is several thousand sticks of dynamite, but it deserves a better fate.
Dome’s future up in the air
Harris County appears determined to destroy the 43-year old stadium, but what has come out of the rubble in the past few years is a heated discussion between officials from the county, the Texans, RodeoHouston and the Astrodome Redevelopment Corp. Proposals for the Astrodome’s second life have ranged from a 1,300-room hotel to a huge production studio, but none have a shot if the Texans and the rodeo don’t sign off on it. Those two parties have insisted they won’t agree to any proposal that violates their leases, which dictate that they have exclusive rights to the area on game days and rodeo days.
It’s a shame things have come to this when one considers the rich history behind the Astrodome, which goes way beyond the Astros, the city’s former NFL franchise, the Oilers, the rodeo, the championship boxing matches that were held there and the "Game of the Century" between UH and UCLA’s basketball teams in 1969.
No, the Astrodome’s greatest legacy was helping to break up the dark institution known as Jim Crow.
Rarely is it mentioned that when the National League awarded Houston a baseball franchise Oct. 17, 1960, it was given with the stipulation that the franchise would be operated on a non-segregated basis. This was no small measure, with the Astros being the South’s first baseball franchise, and it didn’t come by chance.
Baseball fuels civil rights movement
The Houston Sports Association, headed by former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz and oilman Robert E. "Bob" Smith, had tried fervently since its formation in 1957 to land a major league franchise, but the leagues denied the requests because they felt attendance would suffer because of Houston’s climate. That might not have been the only reason.
"The reason why Houston never had a baseball franchise in either the National League or the American League was because of segregation," former South Central YMCA executive director Quentin Mease, 99, said. "There were Northern and Eastern interests there who felt that it wasn’t right to have a franchise in a Southern city like Houston, Atlanta, Dallas or any of the major Southern cities."
Hofheinz had a plan for a huge, air-conditioned dome stadium that would take care of the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. But the county had no money with which to finance the dome, so its residents had to vote for tax-supported public bonds that would help fund the dome’s construction.
Mease, a representative of the Houston Business and Professional Men’s Club, an organization of moderate black businessmen, offered to organize the black vote in favor of the Astrodome if Hofheinz and Smith guaranteed that the stadium would be integrated. Hofheinz and Smith gave their word, and Mease campaigned all-out to garner support from the black community. The measure passed by a narrow margin, and Houston was awarded the franchise.
This helped to spur along movements to desegregate other public sectors in Houston. The city’s main hotels were desegregated to accommodate the black baseball players who would come with visiting teams. The desegregation of the city’s restaurants and theatres followed soon thereafter.
The University of Houston became one of the first athletic programs in Texas to desegregate its athletic program with the arrival of Warren McVea to the football team in 1964. Where did McVea make his varsity debut in 1965? You guessed it: the Astrodome.
Dome’s life close to an end
The Astrodome is hardly ever remembered for its role in Houston’s desegregation, and soon the Astrodome will just be a memory after some demolition crew has its way with it.
Some will cry, and some will say, "Good riddance." But those who truly understand the role that the Astrodome has played in this town’s civil rights and sports history will give it one final salute with two simple words: Thank you.