The name Colt .45s evoked the old Houston, whereas the Judge was looking to help shape the new, Space Age city, which was already home to NASA. So he telephoned a friend, astronaut Alan Shepard, one evening in the winter of 1964 and asked him if the Mercury Seven crew would like a ball club named for them. Of course, replied Shepard, who was such a sports fanatic that he would carry golf clubs to the moon on his trip there in 1971.
Thus the Colt .45s would become the Astronauts, a name the Judge preemptively clipped to Astros, knowing that newspaper-headline writers would do so anyway. (Defiantly, newspaper headline writers briefly referred to the Astros as the 'Tros, and to this day they are often the 'Stros.) The Harris County Domed Stadium would become the Astrodome, and the Judge would become master of what he called his Astrodomain: the Astrodome and the Astros, the Astrolite scoreboard and the Astrotots puppet theater, the Astro-Bowl bowling alley and the AstroWorld amusement park and the AstroHall exhibition arena. They were enough to make you AstroSick, but the names took root.
The Astrodome was paid for with municipal bonds, but the Judge built 53 luxury boxes with $2 million out of his own silken pocket. "It was done," says Fred, "to attract people who used baseball games as a backdrop to sell their products."
And the Judge could sell nasal spray to the noseless. When players refused to appear on the Astros' pregame radio show because they weren't receiving watches or lube jobs or golf shirts or gift certificates in compensation, the Judge made an impassioned clubhouse speech to his charges: "Radio is the only link that a blind man has to his beloved Astros, for Cod's sake, and...."
"I don't even remember what all he said," recalls Dierker, "but for weeks after, players were lining up to do that show."
So the Judge had no trouble renting his luxury boxes, which he said were inspired by, of course, a trip to the Colosseum. "I found out that the emperor and all the bigwigs sat at the top of the stadium," he used to say. The truth is, the bigwigs did not sit at the top of the Colosseum, and the Judge did not set foot in the old arena until 1967, when he flew to Rome to purchase the circus from John Ringling North. For publicity purposes the papers were signed in the historic show place. When the Judge's photo-opportunists tried to move a large stone into the picture, Colosseum guards went berserk. The stone had been in place for 2,000 years, having been laid there by the emperor Vespasian.
When the Astrodome opened for its first exhibition baseball game, on April 9, 1965, it was proclaimed the world's single largest air-conditioned space. When the first home run was hit that day, by Mickey Mantle, of all people, the 474-foot-long scoreboard flashed TILT! If an Astro hit a homer, on the other hand, the scoreboard (with the world's largest screen) would produce a smoke-snorting bull, American and Texas flags thing from its horns like the Hags on the fenders of a presidential limousine. (All of which would soon prompt Chicago Cub manager Leo Durocher to say, portentously, "Houston is bush.") On this day of the first exhibition, in fact, the President himself was in rapt attendance; the Judge's close friend Lyndon Johnson watched the 'Tros beat the Yanks 2-1.
"There was a mania to get inside the Dome that first year," says Astrodomophile Chuck Pool, a former Astro publicist who is now media-relations director for the Florida Marlins. "There was a Boy Scout Circus in the Dome in 1965. Ordinarily the Scouts would sell 50,000 tickets for these things, but maybe 3,000 people would attend. People bought tickets as a donation. But in 1965 they sold 60,000 tickets, and everyone with a ticket showed up to watch the Boy Scouts, with thousands more outside screaming to get in."
Sixty thousand people paid to watch a Webelo tie a slipknot. Millions of tourists would pay $1 apiece to enter the Dome and watch nothing at all. Fifty-three thousand would watch UCLA and Houston—Lew Alcindor versus Elvin Hayes—play on Jan 20, 1968, the night college basketball came of age. And 19 million worldwide watched five years later as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs caricatured the battle of the sexes by playing a preposterous tennis match in the Astrodome. While King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory that night was trumpeted as a sporting milestone, her triumph would prove fleeting, as two decades later only a handful of women in golf, tennis and Olympic sports would be able to match the handsome incomes of their male counterparts. But on this night of spectacle in the Dome, King made her testoster-oned tormentor look ridiculous.
Nothing was quite so ridiculous, though, as that week the Astrodome opened, when baseballs fell like baseball-sized hail on the Astros and the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dome's translucent roof panels created such a glare during day games that Baltimore's Boog Powell took the field in a batting helmet. The league tried different-colored balls—red, yellow, cerise—to combat the problem, which was basically this: The Astros were in danger of becoming the first team to call a game on account of sunshine.