Not that Toma
claims to be all that expert on home lawns; after all, he has little time to
devote to his own yard in Westwood, Kans., where he lives with his wife Donna.
Like the hotel chef whose recipes call for 20 pounds of butter and eight dozen
eggs, Toma thinks big and he experiments. "It's hard to tell people how to
grow grass," he says, "because we're unorthodox. Sometimes we go
against the book." He recalls his embarrassment several years ago when a
television crew showed up outside his house and began filming his grass.
"My lawn is an experimental station," he says, trying to explain a
front yard that the newscaster rated as only fair and a backyard that was
Bill Veeck, in
semi-retirement in Chicago, considers the idea of Toma mending a worn carpet
and actually groans. "Ball parks should smell like ball parks," Veeck
says, "and that's the smell of new-cut grass." When the grass-loving
Veeck bought his last club, the Chicago White Sox, in 1975, one of his first
acts was to "tear out that phony artificial turf infield" at White Sox
Park. He wishes the Royals would follow his example. "Artificial turf makes
it impossible for people to appreciate what George can do with grass,"
Veeck says. "Somehow you don't pay the same due to a guy who has trouble
getting gum off an infield or squeegeeing the water away."
It was Veeck who
gave Toma his start as a groundskeeper. When Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians
in 1946, he traveled to Pennsylvania to reorganize the Wilkes-Barre Barons, a
Cleveland farm club, handing out assignments like an army staff sergeant.
Stanley Scheckler, the Barons' groundskeeper, became the team's trainer and bus
driver, and Veeck assigned groundskeeping to the tiny youngster—Toma stands
5'5"—with a Ukrainian name who pulled the drag around the infield for
Scheckler. When asked why he put an inexperienced kid of 17 in charge of what
he describes as "seed and sand and sun and showers," Veeck can only
offer mystically, "Because he was a magical man."
Toma was amazed.
"I didn't know bluegrass from rye grass," he says.
He wasn't in the
dark for long. The Cleveland groundskeeper was the legendary Emil Bossard, whom
Toma remembers with a mixture of affection and awe. "He was the
greatest," Toma says. "I looked up to Emil." Toma followed his
mentor to Driver, Va. in 1948 to build diamonds for two Cleveland farm teams.
In 1949 they built three fields in Marianna, Fla., and in 1950 they built five
on the site of an old naval air station in Daytona Beach, Fla., knocking down
the barracks with bulldozers. "Emil seeded those five outfields by hand
with a bucket, like Johnny Appleseed," Toma says, "and there's not a
machine on the market today that could put it down and make ii come up
better." It was Bossard who taught Toma that the secret to a good infield
lay in painstaking handwork, not in tractor-drawn drags.
For more than a
decade (interrupted by a stint with the artillery in Korea), Toma was a minor
league groundskeeper, kicking around in the Cleveland and Detroit
organizations, tending fields in Buffalo and Charleston, W. Va. It wasn't
glamorous work. "When you're a groundkeeper in the minors," he says,
"you're almost alone." Toma had to clear litter from under the
bleachers, clean the dugouts and dust the press box. For some clubs he ran the
ball and strike lights on the scoreboard, and in Wilkes-Barre he even pitched
batting practice to young prospects like Rocky Colavito.
meanwhile, was hitting baseballs over fences in the major leagues. Williams
believes he was the one responsible for Toma's getting the Kansas City
"I went to the
park one day and I'm just sitting down in the stands and the groundskeeper came
up," Williams recalls. "I said, 'You know what you ought to do with
that batter's box? You ought to put a little more clay in there Put a little
more clay in there so a guy can dig his spikes in and they really hold.'
"We had this
little discussion, and sure enough, I got in the batter's box that night and,
geez, it was good. I hit two home runs!" Williams says that when Lou
Boudreau, the A's manager, found out what had happened he was furious.
two home runs created the Kansas City groundskeeping opening isn't documented,
but in August 1957 Toma was offered the job. He remembers going straight to the
press box in Charleston and calling up Bossard for advice.