For two decades, towns and teams have been tearing up grass playing fields and replacing them with artificial turf, on the theory that ersatz sod is better than the real stuff. This 21-page report starts with a story on the roots of synthetic turf, follows with a heartfelt look at its unwelcome effects on baseball and ends with a disturbing account of carpet carnage in football. And it raises this question: Are the rugs that cover sporting America more trouble than they're worth?
Brand names of synthetic turf do not speak well for the poetic imagination of corporations. In no significant order, the stuff has been called, at one time or another, Poly-Turf, Durra Turf, Tartan Turf, Poligras, ChemGrass, Wyco Turf, Desso Turf, SuperTurf, Omniturf, All-Pro Turf and, of course, AstroTurf.
Names like these have done nothing to add to the sex appeal—or the sales appeal—of ersatz grass, but the fact is, by any name, the synthetic turf business is not a fun place to be. As it has turned out, manufacturing unnatural turf is not an easy way for a corporation to make big bucks—or even to stay solvent. Only one company has managed to stay above ground, as it were, through it all. That is mighty Monsanto of St. Louis, which, with $6.7 billion in 1984 sales, ranked 51st on the most recent FORTUNE 500 list of the largest U.S. industrial corporations. For the record, Monsanto employs 50,000 people and produces a chemical cornucopia of more than 1,000 different products that range from artificial chicken-feed supplements to silicon wafers for computer chips.
AstroTurf happens to be Monsanto's most famous brand name because of its constant exposure to massive audiences via TV sports coverage. However, best known does not mean most important: AstroTurf is a drop in the Monsanto bucket when it comes to revenues. It produces $20 million a year, a mere ⅓ of 1% of the company's overall revenues.
Yet minuscule as it all may be, Monsanto is still in the turf business after 20-plus years, and that is a lot more than you can say about some other companies. Indeed, the vast green nylon landscape out there is littered with the plastic skulls and vinyl bones of many an entrepreneur who tried to harvest greenbacks from counterfeit grass.
"Turf," as the synthetic stuff has come erroneously to be known, had an unlikely genesis. During the Korean War, millions of young American men took physical examinations for the military draft. After the conflict ended, someone looked at those exams and found that, as a rule, city boys were in worse shape than country boys were. This finding alarmed some people at the Manhattan-based Educational Facilities Laboratories, a nonprofit research organization then funded by the Ford Foundation. EFL decided that one major reason for the gross disparity in fitness between rural and urban Americans was that deprived city kids had to play their games on bleak asphalt or barren ground, if they were lucky enough to find space at all. Thus, EFL decided to underwrite the development of an artificial surface that resembled the resilience, texture and look of real country grass.
EFL invited some giants of U.S. industry to begin research on something that might carpet the urban wasteland—one original idea was that playing fields could even be created on rooftops—and help turn wan city urchins into strapping, healthy specimens. In 1964 synthetic grass came to, ah, life, at Chemstrand, a subsidiary of Monsanto, in the form of a nylon knitted fiber woven into a polyester backing. To cover the cost of America's first historic installation of turf, EFL chose to give $200,000 to the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I. The school's name has the ring of the ghetto, but in fact Moses Brown is a 21-year-old private school that is mainly populated with preppies.
As things have turned out, the choice of an affluent school was peculiarly fitting, since synthetic turf has proved to be far too costly to be routinely used on the playing fields of the underprivileged. There are about 50 high schools in the U.S. with synthetic fields, about 10 of them in the New York City public school system, while there are more than 200 ersatz surfaces covering the gridirons and diamonds of big-time professional teams and colleges. Monsanto's first big commercial sale was to the Houston Astrodome, and the job cost $575,000 in 1965 dollars. Adjusted for intervening inflation, that would come to $2 million today. Because of cost savings in both manufacture and installation, 1985 prices aren't quite that staggering: It costs, on the average, $500,000 to install a football field of AstroTurf and about $1 million for a big league baseball field.
Soon after the Astrodome sale, Monsanto found itself with a high-powered rival for the turf market. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, another Fortune 500 giant, was ready and waiting. The board chairman of 3M, William McKnight, was the owner of a successful stable of thoroughbreds, and in 1960 he had ordered 3M research and development people to look for a material that could be used as an all-weather, all-purpose surface for horse racing. The laboratories at 3M ultimately came up with a plastic carpeting that was actually put down and raced on at The Meadows, a harness track in Washington, Pa. in 1963. It never did catch on—not for horses—but from it in 1965 came Tartan track, a similar surface that immediately became popular as a running surface for humans. Tartan track was used for the track events in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Tartan Turf came next in 1967. It was a blackish-green fibered nylon surface that had more the texture of a living-room rug than the bristly toothbrush feel of AstroTurf. In 1968, 3M sold football fields of this material to Tennessee and Wisconsin.
In the early 1970s, it looked as if there would be a pitched battle betweeen these two titans of turf. Not so. Late in 1974, 3M suddenly dropped out, quit cold. What happened? Well, there was a massive worldwide petroleum shortage that year, which made synthetic turf even more expensive to produce. Also, like AstroTurf, 3M's synthetic turf was producing revenues that were a mere fly-speck on the corporate balance sheet—a scant $9 million out of what was then a $3.6 billion corporation total. The whole line of Tartan rugs was folded and, in effect, vanished forever.