Toma has never
forgotten Bossard's words: "He said, 'Don't go, George. Stay out of Kansas
City!' He said it was one of the hardest places in the United States to grow
grass. They don't have any drainage. They don't have any good soil. In the
spring, the rains flood you out. In the summer, it's too hot.' "
Because Toma had
an attractive offer from the New York Yankees—a one-year contract to groom the
field of their Denver farm club followed, he says, by a promised promotion to
Yankee Stadium—he intended to heed Bossard's advice. But Toma stopped off in
Kansas City on the way to Denver, and he was mesmerized by what he found there.
"It was a rockpile," he says of the old park. "A hayfield." The
day of his visit, raindrops plunked drearily on a mottled sea of mud and
crabgrass. "I thought. 'This park is so bad and Yankee Stadium is pretty
nice. Maybe I can mess up Yankee Stadium, but no way can I mess up this place!'
He opened the 1958
season with a respectable crop of bluegrass, but as the spring progressed,
Bossard's warning took on an aura of prophecy. The blue-grass wouldn't
Having failed with
bluegrass, Toma decided to gamble on Bermuda. He seeded, and it began to rain.
And it rained some more.
It rained, in
fact, for two weeks, and the grass caught an algae disease. "The whole
field died," Toma says. The man who thought he couldn't mess up Municipal
Stadium had turned it into a bowl of shredded wheat. "The writers and
announcers were really on me," he says. "They wanted to run me out of
At that point Dr.
James Watson, an agronomist with a grass and equipment firm, who was the
stadium's regular consultant, suggested a new approach with the Bermuda.
"He's the guy who really saved me," Toma acknowledges. "If it
hadn't been for Dr. Watson, there'd be no George Toma." Under Watson's
guidance, Toma reseeded and within two weeks, according to Toma, "that
field looked like an oasis in the desert." He cut the Bermuda to half an
inch and dragged the infield with obsessive care. "I don't think we had a
bad hop all year," Toma says with pride. "We had a pool table outfield
and a pool table infield."
And when Williams
came to town and asked for more clay in the batter's box, what did Toma give
him? "Pure sand," Toma says with a grin.
If pressed to name
the ideal owner, from the point of view of groundskeeping, Toma chooses neither
Kauffman of the Royals nor Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs, but, of all people,
Charles O. Finley, his boss with the Kansas City A's. "In Kansas City I'm a
son of a bitch for saying that," Toma says. "People hate his ass. But
he was one of the greatest guys I ever worked for. If it rained and the kids
busted their fannies, Charlie said, 'Hey, double their salary today!' When they
were laid off at the end of the season, he had an extra week's pay for the
kids. The ground crew loved the guy."
Toma's crews at
Municipal Stadium were youngsters who grew up in the shadow of the ball park,
students from Lincoln and Central high schools. "The kids were from the
ghetto," Toma says, "but they had pride. We always had to do with the
least amount of money. We would go through the stands and pick up popcorn
boxes. We'd salvage broken seats. Then we'd go down to Cohen's junkyard at 19th
and Vine and sell the seats. We'd sell the cardboard from the popcorn boxes.
Then we'd take the money to the Rudy Patrick Seed Company to buy grass seed.
Rye grass was $9 for a 100-pound bag." Sometimes, Toma says, he dipped into
his own pocket. "Instead of taking my wife to dinner, it went for grass
With a big game
coming up and rain in the forecast, Toma's kids would sleep at the park, ready
to cover the field with a tarp when thundershowers hit. "I don't think
you'll find that anymore," Toma says, shaking his head. "Finley would
say, 'Take the kids to Bryant's Barbeque and tell Arthur Bryant to send me the
bill.' Maybe Finley was an s.o.b., but he treated us great. He put a little
sparkle and pride into the people who worked on the grass."