How Houston Baseball Changed New Orleans
One rule I live by while watching sports is to never pull for teams from Atlanta or Houston. Not that there is anything wrong with those cities but fan support is usually based on irrational geographic biases. Most often we yell for the teams from where we are from. As a jingoistic New Orleanian, I have regarded Atlanta and Houston as rivals for mythical geographic supremacy. It has hurt that two Southern cities close to New Orleans were matched in this year’s World Series, while New Orleans does not even have a baseball team.
Nevertheless, this year’s Series made me have kinder thoughts about one of those cities, Houston, and its impact on New Orleans.
In 1960, Houston was awarded a major league franchise. Prior to that, major league sports never had a presence in the deep South, mostly because of segregation laws. Also, the cities of the east and the mid-west that did have teams were closer to each other. That was important back in the days when most of the travel was done by train.
Civil Rights and the jet plane opened new possibilities. (The Braves franchise relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966.). Houston at the time was one of the nation’s boom cities. Locating a team there would open a new market across Texas and the Gulf South. With completion of Interstate-10 people from Louisiana could have a quicker drive to catch major leagues baseball.
One drawback that Houston had was that it was hot – a hellacious place to sit in a stand during the summer to watch a baseball game. Fortunately, there were three factors that Houston’s promoters had to their advantage: money, land and hutzpah.
We will build an air-conditioned stadium that is topped by a dome, they said. A domed stadium? No one had ever heard of such a thing.
There would be challenges. One was that the dome itself was originally intended to be clear, but when some players went on the field to practice catching flyballs they couldn’t see the approaching sphere because of the glare. It was decided that the roof would have to be darkened to not let so much sunlight in. But that created another problem. Without light the grass on the field would die. Minds started clicking. An artificial surface was created. It was known as AstroTurf.
Originally, the baseball team was named the Colt ‘45s and played in a temporary stadium while the dome was being built nearby. By the time the dome was completed in 1965 the team’s name, in honor of Houston’s emerging role as a space center, had changed to the Astros. By disposing of the Colt 45 name, Houston was no longer a city of the old west but a town of the space age. It even had a one-of-a-kind stadium now known as the Astrodome.
During that time, New Orleans had been asking for an NFL franchise. This city did not have as much land and money as Houston had but it did have hutzpah, too, and its boosters said give us a franchise and we will build a dome that is bigger and better than Houston’s.
Bolstered by that promise, and backed by political clout in Washington, New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise in 1966. The team played in Tulane stadium for eight years until a dome that was far superior to the Astrodome took its place in the skyline. The New Orleans dome was built to last and could serve as a multipurpose facility. Through the years there have been many modifications to the building; including more suites and better sight lune. Other cities – including Minneapolis, Seattle and Indianapolis – would build domes also, but they were constructed on the cheap and did not last.
Even the Astrodome did not have lasting power. In 1999, the Astros moved to a new stadium, originally named Enron Field (Ooops!), that became Minute Maid Park in 2002.
These days, the trend in stadiums takes the idea of a closed dome one step further to retractable roofs that can be opened and closed depending on the weather, including Houston’s stadium.
Meanwhile, the Superdome takes its place as the best and longest surviving of the domes, as well as having been the bait for getting the Saints franchise. Before the Saints, New Orleans was a beloved, but quaint and, to some, a rather backwards Southern town. The Saints literally put the city in the big leagues. New Orleans grew in prestige and proved itself as a formidable business player because of the dome.
And it all started with the dream of a baseball team in Houston. After awarding an NFL franchise to New Orleans in 1966, Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced his choice of who would be the franchise’s owner. This was an important pick because the person would form the franchise; infuse big money and even select the team’s name and colors. He would set the franchise’s course for the future. His names was John Mecom, a descendent of s family involved in oil, gas and real estate. Oh, and he was from Houston.
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