Texana Thursday: Remembering Judge Roy Hofheinz

Roy Hofheinz, right, poses with actress Ann Miller in this 1953 photograph (photo courtesy of the Portal for Texas History, University of North Texas)

Houston Astros fans everywhere are smiling today because the team won its first World Series championship last night. But surely nobody is smiling more than the man who created the ballclub in the first place.

Roy Mark Hofheinz was born in Beaumont and eventually became a Houston lawyer and businessman. He was active in politics, and became a friend of Lyndon B. Johnson, serving both as an advisor and campaign manager.

Hofheinz was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, and later, Harris County judge. He also served two terms as Houston mayor, though it was a contentious tenure because he and the city council didn’t get along. Hofheinz was voted out of office after two terms as mayor.

Like any ambitious businessman, Hofheinz was always on the lookout for the next big deal. As a Houston civic leader, he understood that if the city was to be seen as a big-league city, it needed a big-league baseball team.

Hofheinz himself didn’t have the kind of money to buy a team, much less the kind of stadium that a Houston big-league team deserved. He partnered with a group of local businessman, most notably Robert Edward “Bob” Smith, to form the Houston Sports Association. They approached Major League Baseball, hoping to land an expansion franchise for Houston.

To seal the deal, he told baseball officials of plans to create an air-conditioned, domed stadium that would be built for the new team. Given the heat and humidity of Houston summers, such a stadium would be not simply a luxury, but a necessity.

It took some wrangling, but baseball granted franchises to New York (the Mets) and to Houston.

The Houston Colt .45s would play in the temporary Colt Stadium while the domed stadium was being built nearby. Bonds were sold for stadium construction and things were underway.

After three seasons as the Colt .45s, and the new domed stadium ready to be opened, Hofheinz gave thought to renaming the team. The Colts’ team nickname may have fit the Wild West image of the past, but questions were being raised about trademark usage. Also, Hofheinz saw the new stadium—which he called the Eighth Wonder of the World—as a bold step into the future. This vision was enhanced in light of the NASA space program, which was in is headquartered in Houston.

At a news conference, Hofheinz announced that the team was changing its name and would be known as the Houston Astros. The Harris County Domed Stadium would become the Astrodome. Grass wouldn’t grow there, so a new turf—Astroturf—would be created for use there.

The Astrodome officially opened on April 9, 1965.

Unfortunately, Hofheinz and Smith had a falling out. In 1967, Hofheinz bought out Smith’s share.

In 1968, Hofheinz opened AstroWorld, a theme park located directly south of the Astrodome. The park was closed in 2005.

Hofheinz could only make things last for a few years, though. He suffered a stroke in 1970. His business empire suffered setbacks, and in 1975, the Ford Motor Credit Company and the General Electric Credit Company took control of the Astros.

In 1979, Dr. John J. McMullen, a New Jersey-based businessman who had been a limited partner in the New York Yankees ownership group, bought the Astros. In 1992, McMullen sold the Astros to Drayton McLane, a Temple-based businessman.

The current owner, Jim Crane, a Houston businessman, bought the club in 2011.

Hofheinz died in 1982. But there’s no doubt he’s smiling somewhere.