KC legend Toma earns groundskeeping honor
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
Tuesday, January 10, 2012 4:13 PM CT
"Ole Nellie -- we were close after that," Toma said. "Nellie and all those guys were good old-timers."
George Brett, Kansas City's hard-grinding star, used to walk off the artificial turf to the dirt cutout around third base at Royals Stadium to spit his tobacco juice. Just to keep Toma and his crew from cleaning it off the plastic blades of grass.
"I had breakfast with George on Friday and we were reminiscing about the old days," Toma said.
Toma has fond memories of Fox, Brett and the many Hall of Fame players he has known. Now Toma is a Hall of Famer on his own -- one of the inaugural inductees in the Major League Baseball Groundskeeper Hall of Fame.
Along with his early mentor Emil Bossard, Toma was inducted into the new hall on Sunday night at the 14th meeting of Major League Baseball Groundskeepers in Anaheim, Calif. Toma, who was introduced by current Royals groundskeeper Trevor Vance, was returning home to Kansas City on Tuesday.
Bossard, who died in 1980, began his career in 1910 with the St. Paul Saints at Lexington Park and was with the Minnesota team for 25 years. In 1935, he was hired by the Cleveland Indians. He is the patriarch of the noted Bossard groundskeeping family still active in the Major Leagues.
Toma came under Bossard's guidance at a young age. Toma's father, a Pennsylvania coal miner, died when George was 10 and the youngster had to go to work. By the time he was 13, his neighbor, the groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre baseball team, got him a job at the ballpark.
"When I was 16 years old, [team owner] Bill Veeck made me the head groundskeeper. I was a senior in high school. My neighbor he made the bus driver and trainer," Toma said. "Then in '48, '49, '50, he would send me with Emil Bossard, the world's greatest groundskeeper, and I learned that way."
Toma went to work for the Kansas City A's at old Municipal Stadium in November 1957 despite some advice from Bossard. The Cleveland groundskeeper had traveled to K.C. at the behest of A's manager Lou Boudreau, a longtime Indians star, to do occasional work on the Municipal field. Toma recalled Bossard's warning:
"Don't go there, George. I'm there once or twice a month trying to straighten that place out for Boudreau. Don't go out there. In the springtime it rains so much it'll flood you out; in the summer it's so hot, it'll bake you out. Stay out of there."
Toma went anyway and, indeed, had a tough initiation when under his care the field looked like a desert.
"We had to kill the whole field because it was all weeds," Toma recalled. "When you do that, everything turns brown."
To his rescue came Dr. James R. Watson, an agronomist for the Toro Company. Watson, now retired and living in Colorado, taught him some tricks of the trade.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be the groundskeeper I am today," Toma said.
Toma groomed the field for the A's and the football Chiefs. Eventually he wound up working for Charlie Finley, who took over as A's owner.
"Charlie had my contract so he would collect from the Chiefs for my services," Toma said. "They didn't get along."
When Finley fled K.C. and put the A's in Oakland in 1968, he asked Toma to go with the team, but Toma stayed put. The Royals were founded and moved in for the 1969 season.
"I enjoyed it at the old stadium," he said. "We had football, baseball and soccer, we never re-sodded and they said we had the best fields for all three sports."
When Royals Stadium, now called Kauffman Stadium, and football's Arrowhead Stadium opened in the Truman Sports Complex in the early 1970s, Toma took over, although his domain became artificial turf.
"The grounds crew did a great job," Toma said. "Usually they got seven or eight years out of it, but we saved them and the county a lot of money. We got 13 years out of the baseball field and the football field."
Toma was the Royals' groundskeeper until 1997, overseeing the change to real grass in 1995. He's kept active in baseball as a consultant and now works the Minnesota Twins' Spring Training fields each year at Fort Myers, Fla.
Toma has prepared the field for every Super Bowl. When the NFL's final two square off on Feb. 5, he'll have turned 83. His birthday is on Groundhog Day. He won't have much of a break between football and his duties with the Twins.
"I leave Sunday for Indianapolis to start work on the Super Bowl. Then I get home for two days, then I go down to Fort Myers for eight weeks," he said.
Because he began at 13, this marks his 70th year in the business.
"Everybody's been good. Everybody's worked with me, they never worked for me," Toma said.
His wife Donna keeps him on track. Toma's three sons have been successful, too -- Chip is head groundskeeper at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa.; Rick is a deputy director for HUD in Washington, and Ryan is a pilot for Delta Airlines. The Toma clan includes seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Even when he's at home in Kansas City, Toma can't rest.
"I cut six lawns twice a week for senior citizens. I don't charge," he said. "Last Thursday I did seven yards, picking up the leaves with the lawnmower. I can't sit still. It gives me something to do."