A Brief History Of Artificial Turf

A general view of the SkyDome during a Toronto Blue Jays game in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport

If the Blue Jays could, they'd probably replace the turf at the Rogers Centre with natural grass. Could we soon see the end of the artificial turf era in baseball?

A Blue Jays fan site called Drunk Jays Fans (hear me out, those guys are good) posted on Tuesday about an interview that Jays CEO Paul Beeston had done on Toronto radio. The subject of putting real grass in the Rogers Centre came up and the exchange was illuminating:

Speaking with Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt on the Fan 590's Prime Time Sports this evening, Blue Jays President and CEO Paul Beeston backed away from comments he made at the club's State of the Franchise event two weeks ago that got the city's baseball fans buzzing about the possibility of the Rogers Centre being converted to a baseball-only facility with a real grass field. Just like real teams have!

"We're not contemplating it at the current time," Beeston said, citing the fact that the Argos and Bills are still tenants, and that the building would no longer be viable for football if a grass field was installed.

Asked by Stephen Brunt if he envisioned a grass field being installed in the next three to five years, Beeston bluntly said "I don't see that."

"Do I think it's going to happen?" he later mused. "No. But do I think it could happen? Yes."

The invention of artificial grass for baseball stadiums came about by necessity; the Astrodome, the first stadium to have it, was supposed to have natural grass. In fact, it opened that way in 1965; here's a photo of what it looked like.

The problem was that the Lucite panels on the roof intended to let enough light in to let the grass grow brought in so much glare that outfielders couldn't see baseballs during day games. They painted over most of the panels to eliminate the glare -- and the grass died:

For most of the 1965 season, the Astros played on green-painted dirt and dead grass. As the 1966 season approached, there was the possibility of the team playing on an all dirt infield.

Instead, the Monsanto company came up with a product called ChemGrass; it was quickly dubbed AstroTurf, and the fake grass spread like artificial weeds when the multipurpose stadiums of the 1970s were built. Stadium operators discovered it was much cheaper, especially with both baseball and football teams involved, to have grass they didn't have to maintain except with a squeegee to get water out of it after it rained.

In 1971, the owners of Candlestick Park in San Francisco, a perfectly serviceable grass field for baseball (where it rarely rained during baseball season), replaced their field with AstroTurf. The Chicago White Sox did the same thing -- except only in the infield, resulting in a bizarre look (another view of it here), with the outfield continuing to feature natural grass. Old Comiskey Park was this way for seven seasons, from 1969-75. (The White Sox, not wanting to seem like copycats, called their artificial infield grass "SoxSod".)

By 1982, when the Metrodome opened in Minneapolis, ten of the then-26 teams (Twins, Blue Jays, Mariners, Royals, Astros, Cardinals, Phillies, Pirates, Reds and Expos) had artificially-turfed fields. It changed the game; baseballs bounced faster and truer on the fake grass, so the trend back to a stolen-base game that had begun in the 1960s accelerated. Teams began to build rosters around "speedy leadoff guys" and base-stealers. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 with a roster that stole 200 bases and hit just 67 home runs, by far the lowest HR total in the league and the fewest by a Cardinals team in a non-strike season since 1945.

They called it "Whiteyball" after St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog and during the 1980s, base stealers like Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman, with the occasional Rudy Law or Otis Nixon thrown in, dominated offenses. Teams with fast runners and fielders played better on turfed fields.

But the stadiums were derided as "cookie-cutters" or "concrete ashtrays". Richie Hebner, who played many years for the Pirates and Phillies, was famously quoted:

"I stand at the plate in the Vet and I don't honestly know whether I'm in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Philly. They all look alike."

As the 1990s dawned, baseball teams no longer wanted to share stadiums with football teams; they wanted their own parks. Driven by nostalgia and the desire for more good seating, teams built new baseball-only parks (they indeed felt more like parks than stadiums), beginning with the terrific Oriole Park at Camden Yards, all with natural grass. After 1990, only one team began play in a stadium with artificial turf -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whose stadium was built in the turfed 1980s to await a tenant. The list of retractable domes included Seattle, Phoenix, Milwaukee and a replacement for the Astrodome in Houston, all with grass that could grow when the roof was open, while still allowing indoor play during inclement weather. Another such park will open in Miami this year.

The grass fields, along with the cozier dimensions of the new parks (along with other factors beyond the scope of this post), shifted the game's focus from speed back to power. Sure, in recent years baseball has had base stealers like Marquis Grissom or Jacoby Ellsbury or Jose Reyes, but from 1970 to 1990 there were 36 player-seasons of 70 or more steals. Since 1991, an equivalent length of time, there have been just 10 such seasons. Artificial turf, now improved with the invention of NexTurf and FieldTurf, has become more grass-like and plays somewhat more like natural grass than the speedy AstroTurf.

And though there are no concrete plans to put grass in the retractable-roofed stadium in Toronto, reading between the lines of the Beeston interview, it sounds as if they'd like to do it if they could. If that happens, and the Rays eventually get a new stadium that they either are or aren't currently discussing, that would mark the end of a nearly 50-year era of artificial turf in baseball.

To which I say, good. Retractable domes are great; they eliminate rainouts and bad weather conditions. But baseball should be played on real grass.

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