The Texas Turfgrass Association’s invitation to speak at their conference about my life as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Man, gave me the opportunity to search through some wonderful old photos and many memories. I was first called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man in the title of an article about me in the May 1982 issue of Sports Illustrated by writer John Garrity.
My connection with sports goes back as far as I can remember. I was born and raised in Edwardsville, Pa., a coal mining town in the anthracite coal region. We had no money, but we had a lot of fun, and sports were a big part of it. Our football was an old sock filled with rags. Our baseball was rags wrapped tight with tape. Our bases were the largest rocks we could find. We tried to build pitching mounds and used an old spring mattress to drag over an uneven field. We marked our field with white screened coal ashes. When it snowed, we used black coal dust from our coal bins. We played baseball until the weeds took over, and then switched to football as our grass cutter.
Two field shots from 1942 really took me back to when my groundskeeping career began. I was 12 when I started working for a neighbor, Stan Scheckler, who was the groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Class A Eastern League. The ballpark was 2 miles away. As a senior in high school, at age 16, I was named Wilkes-Barre head groundskeeper when the Cleveland Indians owner, Bill Veeck, made a trip to the field. Years later, when Garrity asked Bill why he’d put me in that position, he said that he’d watched me pulling the drag around the infield for Stan and promoted me “because I was a magical man.” At the same time, Bill named Stan head trainer and bus driver. I had much to learn, and Stan helped me a lot. The park was multipurpose with baseball, high school and semi-pro football, plus rodeos.
In 1948, Bill had me go with the Cleveland Indian’s Emil Bossard, to Driver, Va., to build two minor league spring training fields at a deactivated naval air base. In 1949, we went to Marianna, Fla., to build two fields at a deactivated army air base. In 1950, we built five fields at a deactivated naval air station at Daytona Beach. Emil seeded those five outfields by hand from a bucket as precisely as the best machines on the market today. Emil’s three sons followed him into the business, with Marshall and Harold also working at Cleveland and Gene with the White Sox. Gene’s son, Roger Bossard, is now head groundskeeper for the White Sox, and he also builds fields.
In the early days, we didn’t have the equipment we have today. We had one push reel mower for the infield. The outfield and sidelines were mowed with a five-gang Worthington reel mower we borrowed from the parks department. It would take about 100 pounds of grass seed to get the field ready for the following year. In my 13 years at Wilkes-Barre, we only watered the outfield once, using a fire hose. We watered the infield grass and dirt with a garden hose.
In 1951, Uncle Sam came calling, and I spent two years in the Army, going to Korea during the Korean Conflict. In 1952, Cleveland moved the Barons to Reading, Pa., so when I came home in 1953, there was no baseball in Wilkes-Barre. I was set to go to a new park in Canada, but Wilkes-Barre got an expansion team so I was able to stay.
On November 1, 1957, my major league career began when I accepted the head groundskeeper position with the Kansas City Athletics. The field was a mess, just a little bluegrass with crabgrass, goosegrass, knotweed and the clover that was part of athletic field mixes in those days. My thinking at that time was I could improve the field in a hurry, but if I messed up, no one would ever know since it was so bad. Sod came from cattle pastures back then. We found some in north Kansas City and had enough for the infield harvested by Briggs Sod Company in 18-by-72-inch strips, rolled by hand and laid by hand. We aerified and pin-spiked the outfield and seeded it. During the winter, I shredded and screened infield dirt. When the season started, I had one lead man and a crew of high school students.
In the spring of 1958, I was introduced to Dr. James R. Watson, an agronomist for the Toro Company and an outstanding person and mentor. He took me and Dick Erickson, the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, and taught us about the “man” in turf management. That spring the weeds were coming in again. I sprayed an herbicide to get rid of them. The field turned brown, and the radio and press were on me. After one bad home stand the field turned around when the common bermudagrass we’d seeded made it an oasis of green. Back then, common bermudagrass seed sold for 35 cents a pound. We got a great return on our investment.
In my 16 years at the stadium, that’s the only time I used an herbicide. I only used a fungicide once during those years and never used an insecticide. The cold winters would kill out the common bermudagrass each year, so we’d overseed our cool-season mix of Kentucky bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses with common bermudagrass in May and have a complete bermuda field by July 1.
As I told John Garrity for that article, a groundskeeper isn’t just somebody who cuts the grass. Groundskeepers, then and now, are always learning, always experimenting, looking for ways to make our fields better and watching out for the safety of the athletes.
George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, one of the founders of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 68 years in the profession.