The Marquis de Sod, the Sultan of Super Bowls, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man, the Sodfather.
George P. Toma has earned many titles throughout his 70-plus years in the groundskeeping industry, having maintained the turf for countless Pro Bowls, multiple Olympics, many MLB and NFL games and every Super Bowl that has ever been played. His career in field care began out of necessity at a young age and led him to become one of the most influential and celebrated groundskeepers in the game.
“Getting to work on a field every day, I have truly been blessed,” Toma said.
That passion for the industry, for the science of growing grass, and the commitment to maintaining it no matter the weather or work required, is what propelled Toma to become the most well-known and well-tenured groundskeeper in history. Here’s a look at the long and remarkable career of industry pioneer George Toma.
Where it all began
Following the loss of his coal-miner father to black lung disease, 10-year-old Toma went to work on a nearby farm in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to help support his family. It was there that he established the admirably strong work ethic that would guide his decades-long career in groundskeeping and leave a lasting impression on the many aspiring turf pros he mentored along the way.
In 1943, he began working with a neighbor, Stan Scheckler, who was the groundskeeper at Artillery Park, home of the class A Wilkes-Barre Baron baseball team, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Scheckler, who was like a father to Toma, introduced him to the art of groundskeeping. When Bill Veeck took over the Indians in 1946, 16-year-old Toma was promoted to head groundskeeper. During spring training for the Indians, Toma met the man who would become one of the most important mentors in his career, Indians Groundskeeper Emil Bossard. Bossard, who already had a few decades of experience, took the enthusiastic teen under his wing, and together the two oversaw the conversion of deactivated air bases into spring training facilities. In 1950, the pair built six fields in Daytona, Fla., including one where the Daytona Speedway is now located.
Toma throws out the first pitch of the Royals’ 1995 season.
In 1957, Toma got a call that the Kansas City Athletics wanted to interview him for their head groundskeeper position at Municipal Stadium, which would also serve as the home field for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Spurs soccer team. He presented the idea to Bossard, who said, “Don’t go to Kansas City. It’s a very bad field. In the springtime it will flood you out, in the summertime it gets so hot it’ll bake you out.” Toma chose to ignore his mentor’s advice, a decision that would ultimately lead to his remarkable career.
“I went out and looked it over, it was a bad field. I said, ‘Well George, the best thing to do is take over the Kansas City job. It’s Major League, and if you screw it up, the field’s so bad nobody would ever notice it,'” he said of his decision to head west.
He took over Kansas City’s Municipal Field on November 1, 1957, and got to work overhauling the troubled turf. Without the luxury of a full-time crew, the position required Toma to take on the work of five-plus men, personally screening 20 tons of dirt for the infield. Because there were no sod farms in those days, he, along with mentor Dr. James Watson, agronomist for the Toro Company, perfected the technique of pregermination, using a combination of bluegrass, fine fescues and ryegrass from March to May, and then throwing in bermuda (35 cents a pound at the time) around Memorial Day. By July 4, 1958, the field was being hailed as the best in baseball.
Municipal Field never had automatic irrigation, and all watering was done by hand using 1,500 feet of hose. Toma enlisted a number of high school students to serve as the tarp crew, but the guys were only available for night games. When the forecast called for rain during day games, one of the four part-time crew members would grab some money from the ticket office and run downtown to recruit a few of the local “winos,” who were willing to assist in tarp removal for the reasonable rate of $2.
Toma and Emil Bossard in Daytona Beach, Fla., 1950.
Still, with limited money, equipment and manpower, the always-resourceful Toma managed to maintain the turf to a level of perfection that had never before been seen. Toma recalled a time the Jets arrived at Municipal Field for a Saturday pregame workout and legendary coach Weeb Ewbank insisted his team work out on the sidelines because the field was “too beautiful to practice on.”
Ewbank was not the only one to notice Toma’s success. Following the merging of the AFL and NFL, Commissioner Pete Rozelle recruited Toma, along with a six-man grounds crew, to prep the field for the league’s first championship in 1967. Two years later, the annual championship would officially be dubbed the Super Bowl, and Toma would be the groundskeeper for that game as well … and every other Super Bowl for the next 45 years.
The Super Bowl years
For each Super Bowl, Toma enlists a team of groundskeepers he refers to as the F-Troop, a group of about 30 skilled people hand-picked by Toma, including his son Chip, a legendary groundskeeper in his own right who said he learned to push a lawn mower before he learned to ride a bike. Chip, groundskeeper for Marywood University, has traveled the globe tending the turf at World Cup events, Asian Games, World Bowls and more. He said one Super Bowl stands out in his mind, but for reasons beyond the turf.
The Chiefs’ practice field, Swope Park, 1963.
While Toma, Chip and the rest of the crew resodded the center of the field the night before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, Toma’s son Rick, a first lieutenant in the Army, was halfway around the world in the Middle East in a tank heading into battle on the front lines in Desert Storm. “You could tell it was weighing on my dad a little bit. Here’s his son going into battle while he’s resodding a field at 2 in the morning,” Chip recalled.
Toma continued as groundskeeper for the Royals and Chiefs throughout the evolution of the leagues, relocation to new stadiums and conversion to synthetic turf. Following his “retirement” in 1997, he passed the torch to Trevor Vance, a Royals grounds crew member who replaced him as head groundskeeper at Kauffman Stadium. Vance said Toma was “like a second father” to many of the crew members, and his perfectionism rubbed off on everyone he worked with.
“He treated a baseball field like a Super Bowl field every day. He wanted it to be perfect, which is tough to do in Kansas City. He played for the win every day. I’ve learned [that] some days you’ve got to be content with a tie. You never want to lose, but by god he’d go down swinging trying to make sure every day was a victory,” Vance said.
After leaving his position in Kansas City at age 70, Toma was not content to put his feet up and enjoy a hard-earned and restful retirement.
“I knew when dad turned 65 they were not going to give him a gold watch, and he was not going to go retire and sit on his back porch. He loves what he does. He likes to work the dirt by hand, and likes to water by hand,” Chip said.
Twins’ spring training.
Toma continued his career as a field consultant for venues across the country, and the ingenuity he honed in the days before 20-man crews and high-tech equipment are a hallmark of his approach to field care. After Hurricane Katrina, the Saints were forced to share a field with the Louisiana State University football team, requiring a hasty field turnover for back-to-back game days. One of the major hurdles was drying fresh paint in time for the Saints to take the field. Toma’s solution: airboats.
“I told Todd Jeansonne, groundskeeper at LSU, ‘You know, we have games on Saturday and we’re gonna have to turn the field over for the Saints’ game on Sunday. Can we get some airboats?’ He said ‘No problem.’ Fortunately LSU had half a dozen airboats used for swamp studies. As soon as they finished painting, they ran the boats to dry the field,” Toma recalled. (He has also enlisted helicopters to dry fresh paint on fields.)
Following his four to six-week stint at the Super Bowl each winter, Toma heads to Fort Myers, Fla., where he has been working the spring training fields for the Minnesota Twins for the past 14 years. The Twins’ fields have received high praise from players; he noted that Alex Rodriguez is a big fan of the infield. Last year, however, Toma was noticeably absent when players reported to Fort Myers. After suffering a blood clot at last year’s Super Bowl, he was sidelined for the start of spring training, but did manage to make it to Florida a few weeks later.
John Deere donated equipment to Toma when budgets were tight.
Toma continues to consult on fields and share his wisdom with the next generation of groundskeepers. Anyone who has worked with Toma has heard the infamous “and then some,” his catchphrase, signifying the extra effort people have to put in to maintain exceptional fields.
“It’s so true, that’s what separates people. What separates the great from the good is the ‘and them some,'” Vance said of the oft-heard Tomaism. “It was really about taking your time and doing the job right the first time, because we might not have time to do it a second time. He really instilled that in everybody: if you’re gonna do it, do it right. Your work is the signature of you, so do it right.”
It’s the “and then some” that fueled a successful 70-year career and earned Toma countless awards, including being one of the inaugural inductees into the Major League Groundskeepers Hall of Fame along with mentor Emil Bossard, who passed away in 1980.
Despite the accolades, Toma is quick to point out that his storied career would not have been possible without all the people who worked alongside him throughout the years. “There’d be no George Toma without the people I work with,” he said.
Toma and Trevor Vance, groundskeeper for the Royals.
Chip echoed that idea, saying that while his father may have a reputation for being stern, it is just his passion for the industry and his drive to help others be successful, and that he is quick to give credit where credit is due.
“He never fired anybody in his life! He took the kids from around the neighborhood and gave them a job,” Chip said of his father, who hoped to pass along the same opportunities that he got in 1943 when he was offered his first job in field care.
Toma and sons, left to right: Rick, Chip, George, Ryan and George’s grandson Joey.
Looking ahead, Toma is uncertain about what role he’ll play in future Super Bowls.
“I’m over the hill, probably, but if the league wants me to consult, I may be there,” he said of next year’s game.
Toma and A-Rod at spring training, Fort Myers, Fla.
For now, the 84-year-old volunteers his time tending to the lawns of his elderly neighbors.
He said, “I just try to keep in shape. I used to walk 5 miles a day for exercise, but I can’t do that now, so I cut three or four lawns for senior citizens with my Toro walking mower. They try to pay me and I say, ‘I should pay you, it gives me something to do. … I love my work every day, and I love working outside in all types of weather.”
Whether Toma makes the trip to MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII in February or not, his ingenuity and perfectionism will be well-represented by the many groundskeepers he’s mentored throughout his career. His impact on the industry will certainly be felt for many decades to come … and then some.
Toma in 2012 at the park where it all started in Wilkes Barre, Pa., in 1942.