Cubs not exactly sad to see Houston depart for AL
As Houston prepares to depart for the AL, Billy Williams recalls the nightmares teams had to endure when playing in the Astrodome
Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams responded with a wry chuckle recently when asked if he would be sad to see the Houston Astros leave the National League.
An interesting chapter in Cubs history ends this week as they play their final games in Houston against the Astros as a National League team.
Next year, the Astros move from the NL Central to the American League West.
It's little wonder Williams may not miss Houston.
Or little "Wonder," as in "Eighth Wonder of the World."
While today's young Cubs fans have watched the Cubs play the Astros in Minute Maid Park, fans of a certain age remember many a nightmarish game in the Astrodome, dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965.
The Cubs had a record of 83-137 in the Astrodome from 1965-99.
The Astrodome was a space-age marvel of the 1960s, becoming the major leagues' first indoor stadium. It featured a then-newfangled electronic scoreboard and, eventually, a playing surface called AstroTurf.
Those two things caused the Cubs all kinds of torment in the early days, prompting manager Leo Durocher to rip telephones out of the dugout wall and christen the place with all kinds of names that weren't exactly "Eighth Wonder of the World."
So it's difficult to blame Williams if he says "good riddance" to Houston as a National League city.
"Houston has been in the National League for a long time," Williams diplomatically put it. "Because of the rivalry, it will be good for Houston and Texas (the Rangers). That will be good. But you always miss a club that was in the National League for so long.'
Houston came into the National League in 1962 as the expansion Colt .45s. They played in Colt Stadium, a place known for heat, humidity and divebombing mosquitoes.
The Harris County Domed Stadium, as the Astrodome was first called, opened in 1965 with a glass roof and a grass field. In addition to the scoreboard, the Astrodome featured an early form of skyboxes and theater-type seats.
"Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, it was amazing," Williams recalled. "That was the first time playing baseball in a closed house. When we were going down there, they had the other ballpark right next door. So from time to time, you'd look and see the holes where they had it dug out. We saw it coming. We saw the Astrodome coming.
"When it was finished, it was really the Eighth Wonder of the World. You'd look at it and say, 'Wow.' Even on the inside, you'd go inside and look up. All the ushers used to wear orbit uniforms. It was a funny thing."
The place had its quirks before AstroTurf came about. Outfielders routinely lost flyballs looking up at the glass roof. When the Astros painted the ceiling, the grass died, ushering in the AstroTurf era.
"The turf was hard," Williams said. "The closer the ball got to you, the higher it bounced. You could hardly see. I remember before they darkened the roof, George Altman and I went after a flyball. Both of us had a tendency to take our eye off the ball, and we couldn't pick it up again because it went through the rafters.
"With the air-conditioning, I always felt when you hit the ball good that they had a guy who switched the air-conditioning where they could blow the ball in."
The fun was just beginning.
Durocher, who would be the principal if there really was an "Old School," took over as manager before the 1966 season, the same year the Astros installed the artificial turf.
Durocher called the dome "a million-dollar stadium with a 10-cent infield." He wasn't a fan of the graphics department in the scoreboard. They could put up a caricature of Durocher or exhort the fans with "Charge" calls or taunt opposing teams.
In June 1966, when the Cubs were headed to a record of 59-103, Durocher yanked a phone out of the dugout. He did so again in August.
"Oh, he did," Williams said. "I think it was a bad call down in the Astrodome that made Leo take the phones out. I think there used to be four phones, and Leo snatched them all off the wall."
Reports said the Astros sent Durocher a bill for the phones and installed a pink phone in the visitors dugout so Durocher could rip it out and not disrupt communications. When the installation of AstroTurf was completed during the '66 season, Astros publicity director Bill Giles sent Durocher the last piece of sod.
Williams remembers other quirks.
"Now and then, you'd be standing at home plate, and it would be raining on the outside, and you had a leak right around home plate," he said.
Indeed, during one game, a puddle formed on one part of the playing surface. Durocher complained, and the scoreboard operators had a message for him: "OK, Leo, we admit there's a hole in the roof. But in any other park, today's game would have been called off."
When the Cubs played their final game of 1966 in Houston, the scoreboard bade Durocher farewell. "Baseball is a fun game, Leo," it read.
The Astrodome became dilapidated in its final years. Walking from the clubhouse to the dugout, you could hear the rats squeaking under the stands. The place smelled awful, and the turf had become little more than a hard, threadbare carpet by the time the Astros left for Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) after the 1999 season.
The new place is sparkling clean with wide concourses and a retractable roof, allowing for real grass. But it has its quirks, such as a small hill running up toward the center-field fence and a train going back and forth atop the left-field wall. The train carries oranges (the Minute Maid connection), but some people mistake them for pumpkins.
When the book finally closes on Cubs-Astros in the National League, it'll be the Astrodome that provides most of the memories, painful as they were.
"It was everything," Williams said. "Leo just didn't like it, and the players didn't like to go to the Astrodome to play because you always felt closed in. I remember many times going to Houston and saying, 'Let's play three games and get the (heck) out of here.' They had those tall pitchers. Then you had a deceptive background back there, and they threw out of that.
"You didn't enjoy going down there and playing in the Astrodome. It would get so hot down there; I played Triple-A baseball in Houston. You were playing in air-conditioning in the Astrodome, and that's the only good thing about it.
"It was a hell of a place to play a game of baseball."
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