Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Astrodome and Astroturf by Todd Taylor

The Astrodome and Astroturf

Baseball under Transparent Plastic

In the history of the West, time is divided into two main epochs: before and after air conditioning. Back in 1939, Willis Carrier, a pioneer in the field, prophesized the day would come when people lived in comfort under domes of transparent material. Roy “Judge” Hofheinz, a Texas native, former mayor of Houston and Texas state legislator, believed in Willis’s vision and parlayed his investments in a radio station, a sludge industry, and a law firm to stake interest in the world’s first air-conditioned shopping mall, covered by a dome. The Galleria was never built but Hofheinz refocused his attentions to bring the first major league baseball franchise to the South.

Hey, at least the Astrodome is not in the shape of a penis. Hofheinz loved big things. He also had an unveiled affection for NASA and cowboys. His vision was as big and simple as the technology was emerging and untested. The simple vision was watching professionals play baseball in air-conditioned comfort without a single column obstructing the players’ or fans’ views: the first ballpark in the world to have a roof over its playing field. The project had different nicknames, like “The world’s biggest room” and “The Big Bubble.” Larry McMurtry called it “the working end of the world’s largest deodorant stick.” In a drained swamp in Houston, the first modern dome was conceived. The 642-foot clear-span plastic dome bridged a gap five times the diameter of Rome’s Pantheon. The blueprints detailed a building twice the size of any enclosure built before it. It boasted 45,054 chairs—the largest single public seating installation in history—and the world’s largest parking lot, with space for 30,000 cars.

Houston’s first baseball game on record was played in 1867. The Houston Stonewalls beat the Galveston Robert E. Lees. The Texas League played on and off over the years, and the Houston club in 1962 was The Colt .45s[1]. So, in January, 1962 when Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson stood on a small platform with Hofheinz and nine other dignitaries to perform the groundbreaking for the Harris County Domed Stadium, they pulled out six shooters and shot the dirt for the official ground breaking ceremony.

Hofheinz believed technology would be the solution to many of humankind’s largest challenges, that nature was something to be tamed, controlled. Mere weeks before the opening of the dome, the first crewed Gemini flight took off from Cape Kennedy. Hofheinz saw astronauts as hope, in human form. In the offseason, the Colt .45s changed their name to The Astros. Hofheinz’s Astrodome opened on April 9, 1965.

Comfort and odd opulence welcomed fans inside of the dome. There were no shadows or wet, soggy spots on the field. The light was perfectly diffused. No dry wind. No hot sun. The air-conditioning remained a constant seventy-two degrees by four mammoth refrigeration units supplying “approximately the amount of cooling given off by daily melting of enough ice to cover a football field to a depth of nearly five feet.” 60,000 pieces of clothing were made for the players and staff by a fancy designer. Male staff dressed in spacesuits as they took tickets, punched elevator buttons, and assisted guests. Female staff dressed in gold lamé and high-heeled boots. The groundskeepers—called Earthmen—wore full-body orange spacesuits, topped with bubble helmets. The amenities to the rest of the park were off-the-charts and spare-no-expense, prompting Bob Hope to joke, “If they had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you’d never have to leave.”

And yet, despite all this—the Astrodome’s size, the vision of its progenitor, the skill of its construction, not to mention it was built ahead of schedule and on budget—there was only one relatively minor defect which came to light during the first game. It just wasn’t very good for playing baseball. Actually, it kinda sucked.

The Problem with “Solutions”

It started auspiciously—sort of—but it also reads like prophecy. In 1965, Satchel Paige[2], fifty-seven years old and retired, was invited to the Astrodome to try it out in an exhibition game. Paige deadpanned the stadium was a “windless, environmentally perfect pitcher’s dream.”

The top of the dome was filled with almost five thousand translucent Lucite[3] tiles which acted as skylights. The thinking was two-fold. The tiles were designed to diffuse the shadows from the roof’s latticed steelwork. Also, grass needs sun to grow. Hofheinz had predicted the specialized needs of the grass. He oversaw testing at the Texas A&M College Experimental Station prior to the installation of 14,000 square yards of Tifway Bermuda grass sod, specifically bred for indoor use.

However, Hofheinz did not predict, in the slightest, how the tiles would magnify the sunlight into the players’ eyes. The tiles acted like a prismatic lens, concentrating the sun’s rays through thousands of magnifying glasses. During the day, the glare was blinding. Fly balls disappeared somewhere around the dome’s lipstick-red third tier. At night, the gridded pattern of the girders made the ball hard to track and follow.

Complaints started with the Astros first exhibition game against the New York Yankees. The next day’s exhibition against the Orioles was played with baseballs dyed yellow, orange, pastel blue, and bright red, with an approval from National League President Warren Giles for the remaining home day games of the season to be played with the ball color that worked best. The color didn’t matter. Several different shades of sunglasses were issued to the players. The glasses did not help. “At least an outfielder will be able to follow the ball three-fourths of the way to him,” Hofheinz replied, initially non-plussed by the ungratefulness of the players for the awe-inspiring stadium he’d bestowed upon them. Players wore batting helmets in the outfield. Some wore chest protectors. Jim Wynne, San Francisco Giants center fielder, echoed a familiar lament the rest of the 1965 season at the Astrodome. “I saw the ball as it left the bat, but never after that.” The ball fell behind Wynne and by the time he retrieved it, an in-the-park homerun was scored.

To add insult to injuries, the grass, when heated up by the glare, released moisture. Since the dome was sealed, it rained inside the dome, causing rain delays.

The Lucite tiles were painted off-white with several coats, until the glare was completely abated. The outfielders could now see pop ups, but the grass couldn’t survive without sunlight. Within a couple months, the outfield became a mess of dead patches of grass, bald spots, and sawdust to fill in the gaps. The dirt and dead grass were painted green for the remainder of the 1965 season.

Baseball on Top of Plastic Grass

What doesn’t need sun or water to survive? What doesn’t get soggy, even when wet? What never requires mowing? What would never have fooled a goat into eating it?

Plastic grass.
The idea for synthetic grass was first proposed in 1961 by Educational Facilities Laboratory, a non-profit corporation formed by the Ford Foundation to help schools maximize their facilities for students to learn more effectively. The genesis was noble; to provide a green space for inner city kids whose urban schools lacked usable outdoor play areas. Chemical engineers Robert T. Wright and James T. Faria were employed by the synthetic fabric company Chemstrand, a subsidiary of Monsanto Industries[4]. The duo was already developing new synthetic fibers for use as high-traffic, tough carpeting. They were tasked with the project. Chemstrand worked from 1962-1966 on the new sports surface, testing for foot traction, cushioning, moisture drainage, flammability, and wear resistance. In 1964, the Moses Brown School, a highly selective Quaker school in Providence, R.I., was the first athletic facility in the U.S. to install ChemGrass.
Producing synthetic grass begins with nylon, which is melted, mixed with cadmium yellow and phthalocyanine blue, coated with suntan lotion for plastics to protect it from the sun’s rays, then extruded into thin, grass-imitating ribbons. The ribbons are tufted, like carpet yarn, into a fabric backing then attached with adhesive. The first short-pile synthetic grass was woven on a traditional carpet loom.
“Monofilament ribbon pile product” was patented in 1967. The Ford Foundation report on the material was the invention of “a material that looks like grass and acts like grass, a turf-like substance on which a ball will bounce and a child will not.” It was called “ChemGrass,” a name combining its parent company and the real grass it was imitating. The New York Times called the invention a “triumph of chemistry.” It was a modern fabric guaranteed not to shrink, fade, or tear.

Hofheinz was sold on the qualities and possibilities of the synthetic grass for baseball. He used an elephant trample on a swatch of ChemGrass to test its durability, but he thought the name sucked. As with almost everything within his purview to name, “astro” was the preferred prefix. Monsanto rebranded and kept the new name. Astroturf made its major sporting debut, installed before opening day in April 18, 1966 in the Astrodome’s infield and foul territory. The outfield was installed in early summer. The plastic surface cost two dollars per square foot, at a total of just shy of a quarter of a million dollars. Wall-to-wall carpeting—fibers attached to a rubber mat and laid on top of an asphalt base—had been installed. “The Big Rug” was nearly an acre of lush pool-table-green plastic.

On July 19, 1966, the Astros played the Phillies. It was the first MLB game on a field completely covered in Astroturf. Not everyone was a fan of the abrasive nylon underneath the players’ feet. Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Tony Gonzales didn’t like it. “The ball bounces like a rubber ball. You can’t hold your footing. It’s hard to stop when you charge the ball. They should have left it like it was.” There were also lumps underneath the carpet. Jim Gentile, the Astros first baseman, pointed to the little ridges in the infield. “One grounder came off the bat like it was coming right in my glove, then probably hit there somewhere and hopped over my shoulder.”

The Toledo Blade ungenerously, yet correctly, noted Astroturf was “an unnatural baseball surface of nylon strips held together by zippers.”[5] Later in the season, the Cubs’ manager Leo Durocher lamented, “Imagine that—a $45 million ballpark and a ten-cent infield… If baseball was meant to be played on that rubber mat, I’m crazy.”[6] Astros outfielder Bob Watson’s rookie year coincided with Astroturf’s big roll-out, having plenty of time to test the new merchandise. “If you dived for a ball, you’d have one tremendous rug burn.”

On the upside, since there was no sod to water, maintain, or cut, the groundskeepers touched up the turf with vacuum cleaners and brooms and raked the still-real dirt. Between games, a small tractor pulled an industrial vacuum to clean the Astroturf.

The Difference Between “Green” and Green

In many respects, Astroturf is like the astro “juice,” Tang. It’s a clever facsimile which works in a pinch if the natural thing it’s attempting to mimic isn’t available or feasible. Much like Astroturf, Tang was made in a lab and sponsored by a huge corporation[7]. Tang looks orange through a dazzle of chemistry, and it tastes “orange”-ish, but it’s not orange juice. It’s “sunset yellow” coloring, sugar, and three percent orange juice solids. It also just happed to be the most easily mixed powder in to John Glenn’s water container in 1962 on a 1962 Mercury flight. Tang was made by the same food scientist who invented Pop Rocks and Cool Whip, not a farmer interested in growing fantastic, delicious oranges with sun and soil.

As a person who has lived in arid climates most of my life, I have no affection for purely ornamental lawns. It took me over a year with a mattock to fully kill my lawn, replace it with wood chips, then plant trees and a garden. Yet, as a playing surface, grass hasn’t been attributed to causing cancer (as has some of the infill used in modern artificial turf) and it doesn’t get unbearably hot. The worst that happens when sliding in grass? Green stains can be challenging to remove in the wash.

Five outdoor baseball stadiums installed Astroturf in 1970. Many stadiums followed for the next two decades. Then, in just thirteen years, between 1992 and 2005, the National League went from having half of its teams using artificial turf to all of them going back to playing on natural grass. As of this writing, only one MLB team, the Tampa Bay Rays, is still playing on artificial turf.

Astrodome visionary Hofheinz acquired part of Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and in 1969 he became the majority owner. The next year the circus merged with Mattel (the toy company, makers of Hot Wheels and Barbie). The Securities and Exchange Commission discovered losses previously hidden by fraudulent accounting. Mattel’s stock price dropped dramatically. Hofheinz suffered an enormous financial loss.

The Astrodome lasted thirty-five years as a ballpark. Its replacement, built right next door[8], opened for the 2000 season. Its innovation was MLB’s first fully retractable roof, which fully opens or closes in thirteen minutes.

The Astros now play on real grass.

–Todd Taylor

[1] “The gun that won the West,” not the malt liquor which debuted in 1963.
[2]  Satchel Paige is a font of great quotes. Here are three quick ones: “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.” “The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second class citizen to a second class immortal.” “Mother always told me, ‘If you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won't sound good to no one else.’”
[3] Developed by DuPont. During World War II, Lucite replaced glass in fighter planes’ canopies, bombers gun turrets, and submarine periscopes.
[4] Monsanto is a chemical company that got its start producing saccharin in 1901. During the Vietnam War, Monsanto invented Agent Orange, a broad-spectrum chemical herbicide and defoliant. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. military exposed 4.8 million people to the herbicide, causing 400,000 deaths and disfigurements and birth defects in 500,000 babies. Monsanto is now the world’s largest seed corporation. Forty percent of U.S. crops contain its genes.

[5] The zipper adjacent to second base to dead center field was 247 feet long.
[6] In 1972, Leo Durocher became the Astros’ manager and posted two winning seasons in a row.
[7] In Tang’s case, General Mills.
[8] First named Astros Field, then Enron Field, currently Minute Maid Park. (Following this story’s trajectory of space program, and a huge, abusive corporation producing a synthetic facsimile of something that was perfectly fine in the first place.)

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