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The legend of George Toma

The Sodfather.

We parked on the street in front of the stadium, most likely on 22nd. The address is well known to every Kansas City sports fan: 22nd and Brooklyn. My sister and mom stayed in the car. A gate was open, so Dad and I walked through then up a ramp to the second level. As we walked through the tunnel the world exploded in a variety of colors, especially the most vivid green I had ever seen. I’ve written before about this moment, akin to when the movie The Wizard of Oz went from black and white to technicolor. In those days it wasn’t just color, it was Technicolor!

We had been living in western Kansas, where the predominant color most of the year was brown, so seeing this explosion of colors was shocking. The field was dressed for football, so I’m thinking it was the fall of 1969. The grey lady, Municipal Stadium, built in 1923, still had some life left in her. The Chiefs, in the midst of their 1960s to early ‘70s dynasty, would soon be Super Bowl champions and two years later play one of the most iconic games in NFL history on this field. That game, dubbed “the longest game” was the last professional football game played in Municipal. It took place on Christmas Day, 1971 and lasted nearly seven hours. The Miami Dolphins won in double overtime, breaking my eleven-year-old heart for the first time and setting off a decade’s long playoff heartbreak for multiple generations of Chief fans. The Royals had just completed their inaugural campaign in the summer of 1969 and would play here for three more summers before decamping to the eastern suburbs.

Looking over the field, I had never seen such a vibrant shade of green. I never knew that such color could exist. The end zones were painted a beautiful gold. It was intoxicating and mesmerizing for an eight-year-old. As we stood admiring the field, we noticed a man below working near midfield. I didn’t think much of it at the time but years later realized that the man was almost certainly George Toma. Who else would be working on the field in the late morning during midweek?

Every sports fan in Kansas City knows who George Toma is. Most serious sports fans in the United States know who George Toma is, yet I believe he remains one of the most underappreciated sports celebrities of our times. There hasn’t been enough written about George Toma. I mean the man is a living institution, not just for Kansas City sports but in the history of the National Football League. He really deserves someone like Joe Posnanski to write a long piece on him, and I mean in the here and now, not when he is gone.

In fact, Posnanski once wrote about a letter that Toma had sent to him many years ago. It said “At age 72, I’m still an underdog. That’s what I love about you. You’ve always been for the underdog. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you think you’re an underdog too.” I’ve always been fascinated with underdog stories and Toma’s is one of the best.

George Toma was born on February 2, 1929, in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania. 1929 was a bad time to be born in the United States. By September of 1929, stock prices were cratering, banks were starting to fail, and a severe drought would bring on massive dust storms which prompted an exodus of 3.5 million people out of the Midwest, in search of better times. Many of these people were called “Okies”, a derisive term given to the transient poor of the Midwest, who were just trying to stay one step ahead of starvation. When Toma was ten, his father, who worked as a coal miner, passed away.

Toma picked up the mantle of being the man of the house and went to work at a vegetable farm. Toma’s next job was working with the ground crew at Artillery Park, home of the Wilkes-Barre Barons. In those days, the Barons were a Class A team affiliated with the Cleveland Indians organization. Artillery Park was also the site of the longest home run ever hit by Babe Ruth, a titanic blast hit in an exhibition game on October 12, 1926, that carried an estimated 650 feet. Ruth himself was so impressed with the shot that he asked the distance to be measured. Ruth declared the dinger to be the longest home run he ever hit. Young Toma eventually worked his way up to be head groundskeeper for the Barons. He was a senior in high school at the time. It was at Artillery Park that Toma first experimented with different seeds and sod and how sunlight and shadows affected his field. By trial and error, he learned how much water the field would need for optimum growth. He also came under the tutelage of Emil Bossard, one of the early groundskeeping legends. Toma’s turf career took a short break when he served in the military during the Korean war.

When the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season, the turf at Municipal Stadium was, to put it charitably, terrible. Ownership realized they needed someone to revamp the turf, so on Labor Day weekend in 1957, Toma, recently discharged from the service, flew to Kansas City to interview for the job. He also had an interview lined up for the groundskeeper job of the Denver Bears, then the AAA team of the New York Yankees. The climate in Colorado is much friendlier to grow grass and Toma knew it. He took the Kansas City job though, telling friends that the field was in such bad shape that “if I mess it up, nobody will ever know it.”

Over the next seven decades, Toma made the fields of Municipal, and later Kauffman and Arrowhead, his personal canvas. His work soon caught the eye of Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League. The NFL was preparing for the first Super Bowl in 1967, and Rozelle put Toma in charge of the field. Toma designed a special logo at midfield for that first Super Bowl. Rozelle was thrilled with his work, calling it the “most beautiful field I’ve ever seen” and Toma has worked the turf at every Super Bowl since. For those of you counting at home, that means Toma has worked the turf for 54 Super Bowls. Simply amazing. For that first Super Bowl, Toma worked alone, pulling a 3x4 cart with his equipment. Now he oversees a crew of 32 workers and enough equipment to fill three tractor-trailers. In the early Super Bowls, Toma often kept a blanket on the sidelines, in the event that he would have to chase down a streaker. Toma said that sometimes fields get a case of static electricity. Did you know that? I had absolutely no idea. Toma has a solution for that of course. He has a machine that sprays the field with Downy fabric softener. I tell you; the man is a genius.

The Kansas City Chiefs moved into Municipal for the 1963 season, sharing the venue with the Athletics. Toma stayed in Kansas City when the A’s decamped for Oakland after the 1967 season. In 1969, the expansion Royals started playing at Municipal, which prompted Toma and crew to toggle between football and baseball for a short time late in the season. The Chiefs moved to Arrowhead and its artificial turf for the 1972 season and the Royals joined them for the 1973 season. Toma stayed with the teams, noting that artificial turf also needed maintenance and proudly stated that he and his crew doubled the life of the Kansas City turf.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Often, when I attended baseball and football games in the 1970s and 1980s, I would see Toma and his crew diligently watering the infield dirt before games and raking it between innings. Even then, I thought what a waste of talent it was to have the best turf man in the world at your disposal and outfitting your stadiums with AstroTurf. Astroturf was very unpopular with most players of the age. They often complained about how hard the surface was and the pain it brought to their knees and hips. On July afternoons in Kansas City, the turf would broil, sometimes reaching upwards of 120 degrees. Through it all, Toma and his crew continued to plug away.

The Royals front office of the 1990s was best known for screwing up a good thing. They traded away their best players and prospects. They blew multiple drafts. The free agents they signed promptly fell into the abyss. The last four years of the decade, the team lost 86, 94, 89, and 97 games respectively. The one good thing the Royals brass did do was to ditch the artificial turf at Kauffman and bring back grass. The Chiefs converted the Arrowhead playing surface back to grass for the 1994 season. The new bluegrass field at Kauffman was unveiled on April 26, 1995. George Toma threw out the first pitch. Kevin Appier threw 6 23 innings of hitless ball and the Royals spanked the Baltimore Orioles by a score of 5-to-1. Toma was back in business and the Kansas City teams were back on the best grass known to man.

Toma, a legendary workaholic, officially retired from full-time work in 1999. He continues to work as a consultant for several sports facilities and their groundskeepers around the United States.

Toma was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, receiving the Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer Award. He was inducted into the Major League Baseball Groundskeepers Hall of Fame in January of 2012 as a charter member. In October of 2012, the Royals inducted Toma into the club’s Hall of Fame.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Over the years, Toma accumulated a handful of colorful nicknames. There’s the classic “Sodfather”. Nitty-gritty dirt man, the God of sod and Sultan of sod soon followed.

Many fans debate about who should have the next statue at Kauffman. Alex Gordon? Meh. Sal Perez? If he ever retires, absolutely. But right now, my vote would go to putting up a statue of George Toma in the lot between Arrowhead and Kauffman.

Toma, now 92, says that he has to work, that he can’t sit still. “The second he stops is the second I think problems start” says his son Ryan. How’s Toma’s yard look? “I have the worst grass on the block!” Toma crows with obvious delight!

Toma, a humble man, is quick to credit Lamar Hunt and Charlie Finley for their help with his career. “They’re the ones that made me.” Toma proudly states that his crew could drag an infield in 28 seconds and roll out the rain tarp in 45.

One of the most memorable nights of his career was September 17, 1964, when the Beatles played Municipal Stadium. Toma recounts how the band was snuck into the stadium in a beer truck in order to avoid the throngs of hysterical girls waiting for them. The band then signed autographs for his son Chip and Ringo gave the youngster an autographed drumstick. George Toma, still working a hard day’s night.