The Judge smoked 25 cigars a day, great tobacco-filled dirigibles that befit a man of his dimensions: the 57-inch waistline, the cuff links as big and loud as cymbals, the long Cadillac limousine in which he drove himself through Houston. It was said that Judge Roy Hofheinz could not find a chauffeur willing to work his hours, which were roughly the same as a 7-Eleven's.
Sleep, and you cannot graduate from high school at 16 (as the Judge did), pass the Texas bar at 19, be elected to the state legislature at 22 and to the judgeship of Houston's Harris County at 24. To the Judge life was a Whitman's Sampler of possibilities. He devoured the legal profession, politics, the slag industry, real estate, radio, television and professional sports—licking his fingers clean of each career before plucking out a new one.
The son of a laundry-truck driver, Hofheinz was also at various times Lyndon Johnson's campaign manager, the mayor of Houston, the builder of the Astrodome and the owner of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The last two roles best suited the Judge's personality, though a Houston contemporary named Willard Walbridge once found it insufficient to equate Hofheinz with P.T. Barnum. Said Walbridge, "He made P.T. Barnum look like 14 miles of bad road."
Thus in the early 1960s, when the Judge was planning sport's first domed stadium, he insisted that the dugouts be an extravagant 120 feet long. This was done not as a pioneering concession to player comfort but so that as many ticket buyers as possible could be obliged when they asked for seats behind the dugout.
When those seats, fully upholstered, theater-style, were installed, their various colors formed a garish palette that the Judge (whose garb ran to canary-yellow panes and test-pattern blazers) thought profoundly beautiful. "I'm inclined to think the Lord agrees with me a little bit," he explained, " 'cause I've never seen the flowers of the fields all one color." It is instructive to note that the Lord agreed with the Judge, not the other way around.
After all, it was the Judge, not the Lord, who carved out the modern physical landscape of professional sports, a terrain blistered by domes and green with the fungus of artificial turf. Both were the brainchildren of Judge Roy Hofheinz.
Even as baseball emerges from the architectural dark ages of the 1960s and '70s, marked by the blight of the multipurpose stadium, and begins once again building traditional parks like Camden Yards and The Ballpark in Arlington, these—and all big-time sports stadiums and arenas constructed today—are designed around the luxury skybox and the elaborate electronic scoreboard. Both are the intellectual offspring of the Judge, who changed the very way Americans attend their games.
"We combined baseball with a cocktail party," says Fred Hofheinz, 56, the Judge's younger son, himself a former mayor of Houston and his father's righthand man in the first years of the Astrodome. "You can wander around your box with a drink in your hand and sell some guy some insurance. And I promise you, there are people all over sports now who never look at the sports event. The whole time, they're selling. I was at a Rockets game last Saturday, and I don't even remember who won."
On an April night in 1965, the Astros flew from their spring training home in Cocoa, Fla., to Houston, where they bused directly to the brand-new Astrodome to drop off equipment. Larry Dierker, an 18-year-old rookie pitcher on that club, bounded from the clubhouse into the concourse-level seats that night, taking in the multiple miracles before him: the air conditioning, the grass growing indoors (artificial turf was not laid until the following year), the translucent roof (greenhouse by day, a planetarium by night)—the whole otherworldly quality of this $32 million marvel on the Texas prairie. To this day, Dierker recalls the moment exactly. "It was," he says, "like walking into the next century."
As the story of Los Angeles begins with irrigation, so the story of the Astrodome begins with air conditioning. Willis H. Carrier was the Edison of the air conditioner, a mechanical engineer who predicted in 1939 that man would soon live beneath climate-controlled bubbles, with Cod powerless to impose weather on his creatures. To many of his contemporaries, Willis H. Carrier was, well, downright daft.