When ex-big leaguer Tug McGraw was asked what HE thought of artificial turf he said, “I don’t know, I’ve never smoked the stuff.”

Artificial Turf – A Child of the Sixties
Andrew MacDonagh
Jan. 1st 2017

When ex-big leaguer Tug McGraw was asked what HE thought of artificial turf he said, “I don’t know, I’ve never smoked the stuff.”

For a time, artificial turf played a huge part in Baseball, in the strategy of the game and the longevity of player’s careers.

What is Artificial Turf? Artificial Turf is a series of fibres and materials made to (unsuccessfully) look like natural grass.  Primarily the application is to provide a cheaper and more durable alternative to grass in stadiums and arenas where grass based sports are played. The downside? Limited usage life, unique cleaning requirements and several health and safety concerns.

Baseball introduced the world, for better or worse, to artificial turf.  The Houston Astros, after playing their first few seasons in the outdoor, blistering Texas HEAT, were moving indoors to their new INDOOR state-of-the-art DOMED stadium.  They were so excited about the move that they became the first team in history to be named after their stadium calling themselves the Houston Astros.  No longer known as the Colt 45’s because now they played at the Astrodome.

The original concept of the Astrodome did not include artificial turf.  The ceiling had been designed with a glass panel ceiling that was, in theory, to let through enough light to allow the grass to grow.  It didn’t work.  The panels had to be painted in order to reduce glare and distraction for the players.  Now the light source had been diminished and the grass was dying.  OK, it was dead.  The Astros played their first season on dead grass which had been painted green.

So, a solution was reached in 1966 and a new kind of turf was installed on the field.  Artificial turf called “ChemGrass” which became known as “AstroTurf” due to its association with the club.  The new turf was so cutting-edge that there wasn’t even enough to do the whole field at one time.  First the infield was outfitted with AstroTurf and then the outfield a few months later.  The era of the true new multi-purpose stadium was born.

The installation of the turf in stadiums was beginning to damage the overall traditional look and way of the game.  There was a much more “artificial” impression once AstroTurf became popular.  This combined with escalated scandals and salaries in the game, led to an overall erosion of the old time feel and simplicity of baseball. The authenticity of the game was being challenged. That's a problem.

The game was suddenly faster, there were higher bounces, speedier grounders. The pace of the game had changed.  A pace that we have realized in later years, is vital to the continuity of baseball.

At the time though in the 1970’s, even the most traditional teams were not concerned about keeping with tradition.  Artificial turf was installed in other new multi-purpose stadiums such as Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, and Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. Early AstroTurf baseball fields used the traditional all-dirt path, but in the early 1970s, teams began using the "base cut out" layout on the diamond, with the only dirt being on the pitcher's mound, batter's circle, and in a "sliding box" around each base. With this layout, a painted arc would indicate where the edge of the outfield grass would normally be, to assist fielders in positioning themselves properly. Even less grounds keeping costs. Now it was a “carpet”

There were major drawbacks which is why you only see two teams left in the majors with artificial surfaces compared to the heady 1980’s when there were as many as 12 teams playing on the stuff throughout the majors.

Health and Safety.  The AstroTurf was very hard on player’s bodies. It was normally placed on a concrete base due to no need for a grass style drainage system. This base provided almost no “give” to the players running on it.  This led to major leg and knee problems for players and extra wear and tear on every part of their bodies.  Not to mention countless skin loss due to burning from sliding on the material.

Montreal Expos star outfielder Andre Dawson always blamed his knee issues on the AstroTurf in Montreal. Dawson had both knees ripped apart and lost the skin off both arms over and over again — plus several productive years off the end of his career — because of the abrasive and unforgiving AstroTurf field and Iron Clad homerun wall at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, where he played his first 11 painful big league seasons before escaping to the more forgiving confines of Wrigley Field and then off to Florida grass in Miami. Dawson won eight Gold Glove awards and made eight All-Star teams, but he also endured 12 knee operations after playing 81 games a season (plus Pearson Cup match-ups) on a plastic field laid over Canadian concrete.

"I saw Dawson get his knees drained I don't know how many times in Montreal," says former teammate Tom Foley, now a coach with the Rays. "It takes a toll on you."

For some teams it worked.  Teams like the St Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals took advantage of team speed, speedy turf and large power allies in their home stadiums all the way to World Series titles.  Building teams around all the advantages that are possible by not hitting the ball at anyone and letting it just pick up speed as it rolls to the fence and as Willie Wilson rolls into third base standing up.
It wasn't always about speed and defence for the Cards however..."Go Crazy Folks, Go Crazy!"...anyways, we're going off topic...back to the turf...

It was hard on the eyes, way to bright. In addition, stadiums that were turfed generally had brutal sightlines due to a lack of intimacy in the ballpark because it was multi-purpose. Sorry Kingdome.

In the end, it wasn’t real baseball and one by one teams started to build single-use, old-style new stadiums. In keeping with the new throw-back trend, AstroTurf had to go. As did neon-colored and double knit uniforms. Baseball would no longer have baby blue away uniforms, clip on belts or nervous sliding catches.

When asked about his opinion and the disappearance of the turf, Dawson was quoted as saying, “Not soon enough”

In the end it came down to profits and bottom line.  At first, AstroTurf seemed like an outstanding alternative to raising grounds keeping costs and allowed the flexibility to have a stadium be used on more nights for more events. This would sell more tickets and make everyone money. Big money.

But in the end those same fans who are filling the seats did not like the look of the turf.  The game had been changed too much.  It was even impossible to bunt.  But that wasn’t the only problem or even the biggest one.

Player contracts and salaries had gotten larger and longer due to Free Agency and they were guaranteed. This meant the health of players had to be taken into consideration more than ever before.  There was also now a competitive balance issue as far as acquiring players as the common conception was that going to an “AstroTurf Team” could shorten your career.  This led to “AstroTurf” teams having to offer larger contracts just to get players to consider to sign. Just ask The Montreal Expos and Reggie Jackson about that one. Free Agent Reggie turned down the Expos even though the money was there, in part, because of the stadium.  He did not want to be a Dawson.

Grass came back. The age of the multi-purpose stadium has effectively ended and we are now back to where we belong.  In the grass.  On a field.

Toronto and Tampa Bay are now the last two teams to use the artificial stuff. Toronto has plans to go to real grass in 2018 and Tampa Bay’s plans may not even involve Tampa Bay in the upcoming years so I would say that it will be fully phased out of MLB by the year 2020. Thanks for the memories. And the sore knees.  1966-2020.




monolith sports - Artificial Turf