"I think what has happened to professional sports since 1960 is what I call the gentrification of it," says Fred Hofheinz, who chooses his words carefully, as if selecting tomatoes at the market, turning each possibility over in his head before speaking. "Up until then, there were sports fans and there were sports pages and a lot of people who followed sports. But beginning about the time that my dad and other promoters around the country became involved—with the advent of television—sports became something that everybody followed.
"Enormous new markets opened up, and the Dome was part of that: If you were to go to a Houston Buffs minor league game, you would have seen the die-hard fans, the people who kept scorecards and read the box scores every morning. That guy was in the minority at the Dome. At the Dome the wives came. The children came. Suddenly it was a whole new milieu of fans. The Dome greatly broadened sports' appeal for these people. In Houston it became a social event to go to the Astrodome. Women went to the Astrodome in heels!"
Indeed, the Judge created an entire press box for women society-page writers. The "hen coop" produced Astrodome stories that turned on such questions as "Is it proper for a man to wear his hat indoors?" Of course, the hats in question were cowboy hats, this being Texas; other American men had stopped wearing snap-brimmed fedoras to ball games (or anyplace else) after John Kennedy went bare-noggined on Inauguration Day in 1961.
Let the word go forth: The 1960s were to herald a new, hatless era. The Space Age. In Living Color. If the new decade wasn't exactly a new century, well, you could see a new century from there—from a concourse at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. That city, it should not be forgotten, would fairly redeem the violent 1960s, just 165 days before the decade expired, by landing Americans on the moon with a bronze plaque. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.
As for the stadium named for the astronauts: When the Judge was still living in his famously sybaritic apartment above the rightfield bleachers, an electrician named Don Collins had cause to work in the Astrodome at all hours. In the middle of some nights, in the vast, empty, dark arena, Collins could look up to a window of the Hofheinz residence and see only the glowing ember of a cigar, floating there like a firefly, high above the synthetic playing field.
The Judge is gone from this life some 12 years now, but the ember still glows, a spectral stogie. Its blue smoke hangs like a spirit above every arena in the land.