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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 downright shabby.
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.
Ted Williams, meanwhile, was hitting baseballs over fences in the major leagues. Williams believes he was the one responsible for Toma's getting the Kansas City groundskeeper's job.
"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.
Whether Williams' 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.