HOUSTON -- The Astrodome, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World and the Taj Mahal of Stadia, celebrates its 25th anniversary Monday with a showcase of the past and present.
Members of the 1965 New York Yankees and Astros teams will stage an Old-Timers game followed by the 1990 season opener between the present-day Astros and the Cincinnati Reds.
'I always like to call the Astrodome the 'Silver Jewel of Texas,'' said Ethan Cartwright, director of marketing for the Houston Sports Association, which runs the facility. 'The silver color of the Astrodome is very appropriate this year. We're even going to put some birthday candles on top.'
The first game played in the Astrodome was on April 9, 1965, an exhibition between the Astros and Yankees. Among those in attendance were President Lyndon Johnson and Judge Roy Hofheinz, whose idea it was to build a domed stadium. The Yankees won the game, 2-1, with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle hitting the first home run.
Among the former players scheduled to participate in the 25th anniversary game Monday are Yankees Johnny Blanchard, Clete Boyer, Al Downing, Joe Pepitone, Gene Michaels, Bobby Richardson and Ralph Houk. Former Astros expected to play in the Old-Timers game are Bob Aspromonte, Enos Cabell, Larry Dierker, Don Larsen, Roger Metzger, Norm Miller and Jimmy Wynn.
Hofheinz originally wanted to build a domed shopping mall. Houston at the time had no professional baseball team, but when the National League voted to expand to two cities, Hofheinz unveiled a model of the domed stadium and some credit that presentation as the reason the city was granted a franchise.
The opening of the Astrdome in 1965 immediately captured worldwide attention. It was the world's first covered, air-conditioned stadium and greatly impacted the stage on which sports would be played. Domed stadiums have become more common, with facilities being built in New Orleans, Seattle, Indianapolis and Minneapolis, among other cities.
Nearly all of the domed stadiums are bigger than the Astrodome, but few are as unique or have as storied a past.
Construction on the Astrodome, officially named the Harris County Domed Stadium, started in 1960 and was built at a cost of more than $35 million. The structure covers 9 acres, is 710 feet in diameter and has a maximum inside height of 208 feet. The floor is more than 25 feet below ground level.
Since then, other facilities have been added -- the Astrohall, Astroarena, Astroworld amusement park and numerous hotels -- to form an area known at the Astrodomain.
There were problems initially with the skylight roof, which consisted of plastic windows which made catching baseballs difficult. The use of a light blue acrylic coating solved the problem.
Because of the limited sunlight, grass did not grow well and eventually, AstroTurf was developed and replaced the natural grass.
But baseball was not the only event to take place in the Astrodome. Muhammed Ali twice fought in the Astrodome. Professional and college basketball games, bullfights, concerts, a 10-day Billy Graham crusade and numerous meetings and trade shows have been held inside. Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs played their famous 'Battle of the Sexes' tennis match in the Astrodome.
The facility is currently home for the Astros, Houston Oilers, University of Houston Cougars and the annual Houston Lifestock Show and Rodeo.
It is estimated the Astrodomain generated more than $225 million into the Houston economy last year.
In the mid-1980s, the facility was badly in need of improvements, so much so that the Oilers threatened to leave the city. But a bond election was passed and more than $100 million in improvements were made, including the addition of 10,000 seats, 65 luxury boxes, replays screens, TV monitors throughout the stadium and new scoreboards to replace the gigantic board removed to make room for seats.
'Up to the first 20 years, the facility stood alone,' Cartwright said. 'But we have had to enhance, improve and expand. We had to bring the facilities up to standard. The Astrodome remains a fantastic theater for sports. It's like a redecorated mansion.'
Seating for baseball has increased to 55,000 while seating for football is up to 60,000, giving officials hope of luring a Super Bowl.
'The Astrodome is once again at the pinnacle of being the ideal sports entertainment facility,' Cartwright said. 'It still offers a very intimate, theater atmosphere. It's not an enormous stadium where you can get lost.'
The facility still intrigues the public, drawing nearly 100,000 annually for tours.
'We are forever making changes,' Cartwright said. 'We want to say ahead of the game. We want to remain in the foremost in someone's mind when they are thinking about conventions, meetings and the sports industry.'
The facilities are being considered as a site for the next Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.
'I challenge anyone to go to another dome and compare our facility,' Cartwright said. 'I believe the Astrodome still offers the best experience in the country.'NEWLN: adv. weekend April 7-8