Grass vs. artificial: National turf wars escalated in York
The minor league teams in the late 1960s in York weren’t very good. And minor league baseball had run its course until revived this weekend.
But a large crowd one day came to York’s Memorial Stadium to see a game played on an artificial turf infield. It would become the first outdoor game to be played on Astroturf. The turf, installed free for experimental reasons, remained in place for about 10 years before softball cleats tore it up.
Here is a York Daily Record story from a few years ago telling the story of the pioneering turf: …
By his own estimation, Denny Doyle possessed modest baseball talents, at least by major league standards. In eight seasons during the 1970s, he batted .250 for the Philadelphia Phillies, California Angels and Boston Red Sox.
But Doyle needed only one minor league at-bat to earn some measure of distinction in professional baseball. He’s the answer to the little-asked question: Who was the first hitter in the first official game played outdoors on artificial (as opposed to natural) grass?
On a Sunday in April 1968, he played second base for the visiting Reading Phillies of the Eastern League, in a game at York’s Memorial Stadium. A crowd of 6,248 turned out, perhaps not so much to see the hometown York Pirates as to view the new AstroTurf infield developed by Monsanto Chemical Co.
The York Gazette and Daily (predecessor to the Daily Record) described the scene this way: “Fans and players, as well as Monsanto officials were anxious to see the reaction of the performers to the plastic grass and the consensus seems to be that infield play will be very fast with balls bouncing hard and true.”
Reading and York combined for six errors that day: four of them by York infielders. Still, the Gazette and Daily said none of York’s errors “could be blamed on the ersatz turf.”
Now 53 and operating a baseball school in Winter Haven, Fla., Doyle recently reminisced about that first game. “Were there any errors next to my name?” he asked. There were none. “Then it was a successful day,” he quipped. (Not so at the plate, as he went hitless in four at-bats but scored a run.)
AstroTurf was originally known as Chemgrass. It evolved not from the needs of professional baseball and football teams but from a request by the Ford Foundation. After the Korean War, the foundation looked at fitness data collected from draftees, said Ed Milner, president emeritus of AstroTurf Manufacturing. What it realized was that city kids weren’t as physically fit as their country cousins. (No longer part of Monsanto, AstroTurf Manufacturing employs 95 people at its factory in Dalton, Ga. The plant produces enough turf every week to cover three football fields.)
In 1962, the foundation challenged the industrial world to come up with an artificial playing surface as an improvement over asphalt playgrounds in cities, Milner said. Monsanto accepted the challenge, and in 1964 installed the first turf at a prep school in Providence, R.I. (A spokeswoman for the foundation said there were no records in its archives about such a challenge.)
Meanwhile, the Astrodome opened in Houston in 1965, billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” The new home of the major league Houston Astros ushered in the era of skyboxes, animated scoreboards and, ultimately, artificial turf in baseball. The Astrodome’s natural grass grew as long as the building’s clear plastic roof remained. But players kept losing fly balls in the sunlight, so the roof was painted. That helped the players but killed the grass.
Crews actually spray-painted the field green at the end of the season. Enter Monsanto, which sought $375,000 from the Astros, according to the book “Lords of the Realm” by John Helyar.
“That’s interesting,’ Astros owner Roy Hofheinz told Monsanto. “Coincidentally, that’s exactly what I was going to charge you for promoting the product.’ “And that is why,” according to the book, “the synthetic grass was called AstroTurf, and why the Astros had the first field full of it gratis.”
In 1968, York’s Memorial Stadium received a free gift of AstroTurf, as well. The major league Pittsburgh Pirates were two years away from moving to a new home at Three Rivers Stadium. They would share it with the National Football League Pittsburgh Steelers, and the surface would be AstroTurf.
But the Pirates, who provided minor-leaguers to the York Pirates, apparently wanted to know what they were getting. So they and Monsanto co-sponsored the installation of an AstroTurf infield at York’s Memorial Stadium, the Gazette and Daily reported. Pirates officials could not be reached for comment.
The project cost $25,000 to $30,000, the Gazette and Daily said, a “gift to the city from the chemical firm.”‘ A photo accompanying the story showed workers laying strips of the woven plastic blades, which the paper said were taped to a sponge-rubber pad, over a base of asphalt on rock. Unlike artificial-turf fields found nowadays, the Memorial Stadium infield had dirt base paths.
Batted balls traveled faster across the turf than on grass. Doyle realized during warm-ups that he’d have to play 10 feet to 15 feet deeper. But he forgot how deep he was on a double-play ball, he said. He was late covering the base and “got my butt knocked off.” Doyle remembered “everybody moaning” about having to play on the turf, perhaps none so ardently as his double-play partner that first game, shortstop Larry Bowa.
“He was appalled that he had to get out there on that stuff,” Doyle said. (Bowa, who enjoyed a long career with the major league Philadelphia Phillies, is a coach for the Anaheim Angels. He could not be reached.)
Memorial Stadium’s AstroTurf outlasted minor-league baseball: York lost its team after the 1969 season. Amateur softball – backed by Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell Co. and the man for whom Memorial Stadium was renamed – flourished in the 1970s at the stadium.
Because of shorter base paths in softball, second base was placed on the turf. Players, some of them wearing metal spikes, eventually wore the turf down to its backing. Barry Altland, the city’s superintendent of building maintenance at the time, placed the turf’s removal around 1978. (Altland still holds the position, though he has added electrical maintenance to his duties.) The infield has been dirt ever since.
The Robertson administration – if it can win approval for a minor-league team – plans to raze the stadium and erect a new one. The grass would be green. And it would be real.
Yes, the new Sovereign Bank Stadium sports real grass.