George Toma: Kansas City’s iconic groundskeeper

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At age 10, he went to work on a vegetable farm, but not by choice. The family needed the money after his dad, a coal miner in eastern Pennsylvania, passed away.

Fortunately for George Toma, the minor leagues rescued him as a teenager in the 1940s. But not because he could hit or pitch. Instead, clubs sought a reliable groundskeeper – and, over the next seven decades, Toma became one of the most respected in America.

In fact, he launched into stardom from Kansas City. This despite friends warning Toma to avoid taking a job in overseeing the city’s Municipal Stadium, then home of the big-league Athletics. The field was cooked, and the weather would cook him, he was told.

“So I went out there on Labor Day 1957 to look it over,” Toma said. And … “If I mess it up,” Toma thought to himself, “nobody will ever know it.”

Toma turned the canvas, er, field into his own Sistine Chapel and created quite a legacy, one that is leading to induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame with the Class of 2016.

The ceremony is part of the Hall’s Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca/Cola Dr Pepper Bottling Company, set for 11 a.m. May 18 at the University Plaza Convention Center in Springfield. (Ticket information is below.)

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Toma has been as synonymous with Kansas City as barbecue. He worked for the Athletics until they moved to California in 1967, and then the Kansas City Royals (1969-1999) and the Kansas Chiefs (1963-1991) as they moved from Municipal Stadium into the Truman Sports Complex.

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Along the way, Toma has handled field prep work of all 50 Super Bowls. He also oversaw the infields of the Los Angeles Coliseum and Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium for the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics, respectively, and several fields of the 1994 World Cup Soccer. For the 1996 Atlanta Games, alone, Toma led the installation of 13,500 yards of sod in 24 hours with 12 hours of sod bed preparation.

Additionally, Toma has prepared fields for 37 Pro Bowls, and in 2005 readied Louisiana State’s Tiger Stadium after Hurricane Katrina led the New Orleans Saints to relocate games there. He also worked Kauffman Stadium during the 2014 and 2015 World Series.

“The cheapest insurance for an athlete is a good, safe playing field,” Toma said. “And I liked to do it without taking too much money out of the owners’ coffers.”

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Toma’s big break came in 1942 with the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons. He then spent the next 15 years working as a groundskeeper of minor league ballparks. At one stop in Virginia, he mentored under Emil Bossard, one of baseball’s earliest and respected groundskeepers.

All of which set up Toma for success in Kansas City, where his first masterpiece was the turnaround of Municipal Stadium in 1958. The field was home to big-league baseball with the Athletics, after serving for decades as a baseball home to Triple-A clubs and the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs.

Toma with then-Royals owner Ewing Kauffman

Toma with then-Royals owner Ewing Kauffman

“It had a lot of weeds, so I killed most of the field. In about a month, the field was one of the best in the majors – a pool table,” Toma said. “We didn’t sod. We used pre-germinated grass seed, and never re-sodded for sports changes, A’s baseball, Royals, Chiefs, Spurs soccer and special events. Now teams re-sod their fields two or three times a year.”

After the Chiefs relocated from Dallas in 1963, Municipal Stadium became all the more challenging. Remarkably, it maintained its pristine condition.

In fact, then-National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle visited for a Chiefs game and Toma recalled that “He said he had never seen such a beautiful, outstanding playing field for football. That made the press the next day.” It was the comment that led to Toma overseeing field work of the first Super Bowl, and all others thereafter.

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Toma for years never had a full-time assistant.

“If it weren’t for the boys from Lincoln High School and Central High School, there would be no George Toma,” he said, explaining teenagers from those nearby schools would drop by and help ready Municipal Stadium’s field. “We had the best baseball field in sports.”

Former Kansas City Royals head groundskeeper George Toma waiting at the gate to work the dirt at first during Sunday's baseball game against the Kansas City Royals on May 17, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Courtesy of Kansas City Star

Along the way, Toma worked out deals with Anderson Fertilizer, International Seeds and several others. John Deere donated $700,000 worth of equipment to his efforts. He also oversaw the grounds of the personal estate for then-Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, and William Jewell College’s athletics fields.

“As I look back now, I was a pioneer,” Toma said. “I love Kansas City. I didn’t want to leave Kansas City. I could’ve worked for other ball clubs. But this town has taken care of me.”

Just as he has taken care of its prized fields.

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Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company

When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 18

Where: University Plaza Convention Center, Springfield

Honorees: Missouri State University baseball coach/athletic director Bill Rowe to be named a Missouri Sports Legend; Inductions of St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper George Toma, and Mansfield High School baseball coach Doug Jones

Diamond 9 awards: Marin Whorton Cooney (Ozark High School/Missouri Southern), Sophia Alexander Denning (Strafford High School/Drury); Bob Detherage (Hillcrest High School/Kansas City Royals); Bill Helfrecht (Glendale High School/Missouri State), Brent Maggard (Sparta High School/Crowder/Southern Arkansas), Kristen Marshall (Glendale High School/William Jewell), Troy McMain (Willard High School), Christian Overstreet (Nixa High School/Missouri State), and Tom Wilson (Bolivar High School/Detroit Tigers).

Tickets: Individual ticket is $40. Head table ticket is $100. A table of eight is $400 and includes an autographed print along with associate sponsor recognition in the printed program. Congratulatory ads and other sponsorships are available. Call the Hall of Fame at 417-889-3100.