"The cheapest insurance for any athlete is a good, safe playing surface."
This simple philosophy is why George Toma has overseen every Super Bowl field, was named a consultant for the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games, has worked NFL games in London, Tokyo, Berlin, Barcelona and Mexico and soccer's World Cup. He is the most influential groundskeeper in professional team sports history, and is widely remembered for his work in Kansas City. Today, the Kansas City Royals are proud to announce the "Nitty Gritty Dirt Man" as the 25th member of the Royals Hall of Fame.
Toma is the first inductee elected through the Royals Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, which is part of a redesigned voting process established in 2011. The veterans committee vote -- taken in even numbered years -- considers the candidacy of non-field personnel in addition to players and managers no longer eligible for election by regular phase of Royals Hall of Fame voting. The committee consists of 16 members, comprised of select Royals Hall of Fame members, Royals' executives and members of the media. Candidates must be named on at least 75 percent of all ballots cast to be elected.
Toma was born Feb. 2, 1929, in the coal mining town of Edwardsville, Pa. After losing his father to black lung disease at the age of 10, Toma worked odd jobs to help support his mother and sister before getting his big break in groundskeeping. His neighbor, Stan Schleker, was the groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons -- a Minor League affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Schleker hired Toma when he was 13. The Barons played at Artillery Park, the site of where Babe Ruth hit the longest home run of his career, a long ball that traveled more than 600 feet during an exhibition game.
Legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck bought the Indians in 1946. He promoted Toma to head groundskeeper. At that time, the Indians were generally regarded as having the best groundskeeper in baseball, a man named Emil Bossard. Toma spent several Spring Trainings learning from Bossard.
In 1950, Toma was drafted, and he served two years in Korea as part of the 15th Field Artillery, Second Division. After the Korean War, he returned to Wilkes-Barre and continued working as a groundskeeper at Artillery Field. In 1955, Toma moved to the Detroit Tigers AAA affiliate -- the Buffalo Bisons. He continued to move up the ranks, but just like any Minor League ballplayer, he had Major League ambitions.
Park Carroll, general manager of the Kansas City Athletics, called Toma in 1957 and offered him a job as the head groundskeeper. Kansas City's Municipal Stadium enjoyed an iconic history, but it was widely ridiculed as having the worst playing surface in baseball.
He also received an offer from Bob Howsman, the owner of the Denver Bears -- the New York Yankees AAA affiliate.
Howsman offered Toma a chance to work with the Bears in Denver for a year. Afterward, he'd be promoted to work at Yankee Stadium in New York. Toma called his mentor, Bossard, and received this response:
"Son, let me tell you, don't go. There's no drainage or irrigation in the springtime, so it floods you out. In the summertime, it gets so hot that it bakes you out."
Toma decided to take the job in Kansas City.
How do you fix a field on less than a shoestring budget? Toma and his crew, which consisted of one full-time person and students from Lincoln and Central High Schools, gathered broken seats and cardboard and sold it for cash to buy seed and cow manure to help the grass grow. The field quickly turned around thanks to Toma's creativity, and he was soon receiving job offers from other teams. He turned down more lucrative opportunities because he loved Kansas City and appreciated the support of new Athletics owner Charlie Finley. Finley was never a Kansas City favorite, but he treated Toma and his grounds crew with utmost respect.
Luckily for Toma, Finley was his boss when the Chiefs moved to Kansas City in 1963. His first interaction with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was in 1962. Toma saw a man he didn't know walking on the field and ran over and gave him the riot act. An hour later, Mayor Roe Bartle stepped out of a limousine with Jack Steadman, president of the Dallas Texans (future Kansas City Chiefs), and Hunt, whom Toma had just yelled at earlier in the day. There were no hard feelings after the incident, and Toma was glad to have the challenge of prepping the field for both baseball and football. Just as the field received rave reviews from baseball players, football players called it the best field in football. Soccer matches were also occasionally played on the field, and the legendary Pele called it the second best soccer field he had ever played. Toma's growing reputation earned him the job of prepping the field for the first Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1967.
When the Chiefs moved to Arrowhead in 1972 and the Royals to Royals Stadium in 1973, Toma worked with both teams. Having the best groundskeeper in sports in charge of artificial surface fields left many people wondering if his talents were being wasted. Fans came up with bumper stickers and banners reading "Let George Do It!" But Toma, being a team player, dutifully took care of the turf, landscaping and even Royals founder Ewing Kauffman's lawn.
Toma worked on artificial turf before and knew there was much more to maintenance than just cleaning it with a vacuum. The original turf at Royals Stadium lasted only one year before it had to be replaced. However, the replacement lasted well beyond its prescribed lifetime because of the work and dedication of Toma and his crew. When Kauffman Stadium advanced to natural grass, Toma was there to help make it perfect. The lush green grass took the ballpark from beautiful to nearly perfect on Opening Day 1995, and, fittingly, Toma threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Toma remained with the Royals and Chiefs until he retired in 1997. While with the Royals he worked the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, NFL games, the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games, 1994 World Cup, 1997 Maccabee Games in Israel and a countless number of consultant jobs. In post-retirement, he still works the Super Bowl and is now in charge of the Minnesota Twins Spring Training fields in Ft. Myers, Fla. In 2001, he was honored by the Professional Football Hall of Fame with the Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer award -- just one the many honors and accolades awarded for his unprecedented career.
The Royals Hall of Fame is honored to salute the career of this Kansas City legend and true sports pioneer -- the man George Brett says is simply:
"The greatest groundskeeper is the history of the game."
On Aug. 31, 2012, at Kauffman Stadium, Toma will take his rightful place in the Royals Hall of Fame.
Jill Seib manages the Royals Hall of Fame Collection and Royals Scholastic Victory Program, an educational program for students. She has been with the Royals since 2009.