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Diamond Cutters
Gary Smith
September 21, 1998
The Bossards, baseball's first family of groundskeeping, have been perfecting the tricks of their trade for three generations, creating fields that give the home team an edge.
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September 21, 1998

Diamond Cutters

The Bossards, baseball's first family of groundskeeping, have been perfecting the tricks of their trade for three generations, creating fields that give the home team an edge.

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This next little beauty I'm gonna show you...look, this one's got to stay between you and me and the foul pole. Folks in this country just take it for granted, like cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, that home plate to first base is 90 feet. Thing is, did you ever see anybody measure? Think about it. Two, three plays a ball game are bang-bang, and if you've got a speed team, a roster full of Punch 'n' Judy hitters, you don't think the odds tilt your way if you play 81 games on a field with a baseline of 89 feet? Don't go looking at me that way again, boy. Most of my Indians teams back in the '30s, '40s and '50s were power clubs, slower than stegosauruses, so I didn't have to do it all that often. Can't vouch for Gene, though, after the White Sox sweet-talked him into leaving Cleveland and becoming the youngest head groundskeeper in major league history—age of 23, in 1941. All the Sox had were banjo hitters and flyboys.

Here's the secret, Brandon: Keep your infield grass border a foot shorter than the one in your typical field, even when you're not fudging. If your grass extends too close to the base path between first and second, an 89-foot baseline will stick out like a turkey in a cowboy hat.

Now I'll put you back on the ground for a minute. Assume the baby position. That's it, real low. Notice anything? Your eyeballs ain't tilted, kid—the baselines are! Gene tilted 'em in, so bunts would stay fair in Chicago; I tilted 'em out, so bunts would roll foul in Cleveland—we had the stegosauruses, remember? Not only would Gene tilt them in, but he'd also lay so many layers of lime on the baselines that they'd act as bumpers to keep bunts fair.

Lord, the battles we used to wage with rakes and hoses and lawnmower blades, Gene and I—a headline writer back then called it the GROUND WAR. Father against son, each working every angle on his 2⅔ acres to give his team an edge. Gene letting his infield go four days without water before the Indians came to town, turning Comiskey to brick so his nickel-and-dimers could ricochet a single through the infield. Me and my sons Harold and Marshall siphoning half of Lake Erie onto our infield in Cleveland before the White Sox came calling. Gene's grass scalped to the nub, three quarters of an inch; our grass waving in the wind, three inches tall. "Wish I had brought my shotgun"—that's what Al Lopez, the old Chicago manager, moaned after one game in Cleveland. "There must be quail out there!"

Let me show you something, kid, since we're here at first base. See this patch of dirt, where a runner leads off and takes his first four, five steps when he's stealing second? Oh, boy, did I have some fun here! Just before the Pale Hose came to Cleveland for a crucial series in the '50s, I told Yankees skipper Casey Stengel, "Chicago won't steal any bases against us this weekend." Casey's fuzzy ol' eyebrows shot up: "How can you soak this field any more than it is now?" I said, "That's my secret." So I got out the pickax, the rake and the hose, went down a good foot, and...well, let's just say the result was nearly as dramatic as what Gene and Roger got away with in the early '70s, when the A's had Billy North and Bert Campaneris stealing everything that wasn't padlocked. One time North got on base right off the bat and took that first step to swipe second, only to find himself half-crawling, half-swimming through porridge as the pickoff tag was slapped on his spine and Gene and Rog slapped themselves laughing. You think you're gonna have that kind of fun walking around in a suit and a tie with a briefcase full of depositions?

Speaking of padlocked, your great-grandpa's the one who figured out how to padlock bases. Not to brag, but I had a brain for that sort of thing. Watched too many sacks get yanked right out by their stakes on a hard slide; it offended me. So I came up with those metal posts and sleeves to anchor the bags—they're still used today. I also came up with those protective screens used during batting practice in front of the pitcher and first baseman and behind second, and it was me who cooked up the roller-and-rope contraption that cut in half the time it took to get the tarp onto the infield, and it was my idea to start using the spun-glass material that cut the weight of the thing in half, and I was the first fella to stripe the grass, the way almost every big league groundskeeper does today. Not to brag, but I also invented the nail drag—the two-by-four frame bristling with tenpenny nails—and the cocoa mat, both of which you'll see grounds crews pulling behind them to smooth out infields to this day. I'm the one who had dogs roam the stands to pounce on balls before fans could in St. Paul, in the American Association, when times were hard and the owner couldn't afford to lose 'em during batting practice.

I ain't sayin' it, naturally, but others did: Nobody in the business could shine my shoes. Who did the mighty Yankees call in just before the '53 World Series when their field wasn't looking tip-top? Who did the Red Sox and the Giants and the Cardinals call when their infields went to hell and they needed to start over? Who redid every infield in the American Association back in the Twenties and Thirties?

This fella George Toma, the groundskeeper who did 32 Super Bowls and a couple of Olympics—who trained him? I ain't sayin', but he'll tell you ol' Emil shoulda been voted to the Hall of Fame. He'll tell you about the pool-table fields I laid without any of the gizmos they got today, just an eyeball and a string. He'll tell you how, in just a day, I could take two kids with rakes and a 10-quart bucket and seed a whole ball field that'd make your heart sing, and how the only guy you could talk about in the same breath as Emil Bossard was Johnny Appleseed. But Mr. Appleseed, with all due respect, could never tell you what I'm fixing to tell you about doctoring a pitcher's mound.

******

Don't wait, kid. Soon as your club brings a new twirler to town, you find out how he likes his mound: high, low, steep slope, gradual slope, short porch, long porch. Porch—that's what we call the dirt behind the rubber, where the pitcher takes that backward step as he rocks into his windup. If you've got a hurler who can live with a short porch, wheeee, the havoc you can raise with a visiting pitcher who takes a long step back. In my day, regulation mound height was 15 inches, but I'd change it for our starter. Bob Feller liked to ride high, and I got away with 18.

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