On April 8, 1966, the Houston Astros had their home opener. Though this was the second Opening Day at the Astrodome, it was the first to be played on AstroTurf. In honor of this event, Richard looks back on the history of “artificial grass.”
Before we begin this week, a mea culpa from last. Inexplicably, I included Bob Feller on my list of the best players to never win a World Series. Feller was an excellent pitcher but he also was a World Series winner, in 1948 with the Indians. I remembered correctly that it had been years and years since the Indians won a title, but forgot that it had also been years and years since Feller was an active player.
In penance for that foul-up, I am spending today—one of the nicest of the year so far—inside writing this column. Being that I’m indoors on a nice day, it seems appropriate to write about artificial turf, the surface that makes indoor baseball possible.
First, a quick note on terminology: Like a lot of people, I use “AstroTurf” to simply mean “artificial turf.” This is incorrect; the Astros played extensively on an AstroTurf field, while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays did it for only a couple of seasons. This is because AstroTurf is a brand name (originally it was known as the vaguely sinister-sounding “ChemGrass”), whereas artificial turf is the generic name for all grass replacements. I will try to keep that straight, although the history of which company was laying plastic sod at which field is sometimes hazy.
There is no question that the first major league stadium is to have turf installed was the Astrodome. The Astros originally intended to have their field be grass, with light shining in through the roof. The panels designed to allow the light to shine in quickly became a source of complaints with players, who said it caused glare that made tracking fly balls difficult. To prevent a comedy of errors, the team painted over the panels, rendering them opaque.
This was good for catching fly balls, but obviously bad for growing grass. Within a few weeks, the Astros were playing on a combination of dead grass and dirt, painted green in appropriate locations. For a while, it appeared that this would become the standard for the team, an all-dirt field. (All-dirt fields are comparatively rare in the higher levels of professional baseball, though at least one stadium in the Japanese major leagues still has an all-dirt infield.)
|Dan Marino (and his knees) experiences the joys of ’80s-style turf. (Albert Dickson/TSN/Icon SMI)|
But the Astros were saved from playing on painted dirt by AstroTurf, which was invented by employees of the Monsanto Co. just a year earlier. Being that Monsanto was just a year old, there was only a limited supply of the material, and the Astros decided to fill in the infield first; it was not until July of 1966 that the field was completely covered with AstroTurf.
The Astros initially laid out their field in a traditional manner, imitating grass fields. In 1970, however, the Reds opened Riverfront Stadium. At Riverfront Stadium, the infield was entirely AstroTurf save for small sliding pits around the bases. The Astros followed suit with this idea in 1971, and other artificial turf parks, including Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, soon made this the default AstroTurf configuration.
You will note, of course, that unlike the Astrodome, places like Philly, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati had no roof and therefore no actual need for the turf. Nonetheless, they installed artificial turf surfaces, as did some of the newer domed parks opening around baseball. Only one new ballpark—the Rangers’ Arlington Stadium—opened with a grass field.
With the rise of new parks with artificial turf, it seemed it might become the dominant surface, especially as older parks were replaced with new ones. Candlestick Park went so far as to retrofit its field to turf, while the White Sox settled on a bizarre compromise for Comiskey Park, with a turf infield and grass outfield. (No other stadium has ever had the half-and-half configuration.)
In 1977 and ’78 more than a third of fields were artificial turf, including six outdoors, one of which, Royals Stadium, remains the baseball-only outdoor stadium to have a turf field. Throughout the ’80s, as many as 10 teams would continue to have turf fields, but they slowly began to die off as retractable roofs and “throwback” ballparks made the neon turf increasingly unwelcome.
(Perhaps appropriately, this week in 1992 marked the opening of Camden Yards. A more pronounced contrast to the roof-and-turf technological glories of Toronto’s SkyDome could not be imagined, and it quickly set the precedent the future parks.)
Excluding Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, which hosted its first baseball game in 1998 but was built in 1990, no new major league baseball stadium has opened with artificial turf since the SkyDome, more than 20 years ago. Today those also remain the only parks in baseball without natural grass fields.
Of course, artificial turf has evolved considerably since its early days. Today the surface is backed by an enormous amount of science designed to mimic the feel of real grass as much as possible. The primary benefit of the grasslike turf is a more natural bounce on the ball—no more of the pingpong baseball of the ’80s. Another advantage is improved safety, as newer surfaces are no longer—as Los Angeles Rams coach Tommy Prothro once complained—“like putting a throw rug over a driveaway.”
Another benefit of the new material is that it is a far cry from early nylon- or polypropylene-based artificial surfaces, which caused famously roasting temperatures when exposed to sunlight. (There is a “traditional” artificial turf field near my office, and once a summer I make the mistake of attempting to cross it. It is like walking through an oven.)
Many different brands have been entered into the field—my personal favorite being “TartanTurf.” Today the leaders in the market are AstroTurf, which recently reacquired the rights to the field in Toronto, and FieldTurf, which is the surface at Tropicana Field.
The Jays seem unlikely to leave the renamed Rogers Centre anytime soon, and despite their best efforts the same remains true for the Rays in Tampa Bay. So it appears unlikely that baseball will be entirely turf-free in the near future. But the day is coming when artificial surfaces will be relegated to the dustbin of baseball history. Generally I regard such things as regrettable, but in this case I am willing to make an exception.