Today marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of artificial turf to major league sports. Because of the inability to maintain a grass field in Houston's Astrodome, the Monsanto Company's synthetic playing surface--dubbed AstroTurf--became part of the sports landscape.
For better or worse, artificial turf has altered baseball, at least in the carpeted stadiums, by making it more a one-base-at-a-time game of speed and defense and by introducing the Zamboni machine, rug burn, turf toe and the kangaroo hop to the national pastime.
A brief history of AstroTurf: In the early 1960s, the Ford Foundation commissioned Monsanto to develop an artificial playing surface that would have the look and general feel of grass while providing some cushioning and the ability to remain playable in wet weather.
The result was an artificial surface that was installed at the Moses Brown Boys School in Providence, R.I., in 1964. Two years later, a similar surface was installed in the Astrodome, after the dome had been painted and the natural grass had begun dying in the diminished sunlight. The new rug, AstroTurf, was laid over the Dome's dirt foundation, and the first game was played on April 18, 1966, the Dodgers defeating the Houston Astros, 6-3.
Playing their home games on the turf, the Astros nonetheless finishing last in the National League in fielding that season.
More recent versions are laid over porous asphalt containing plastic drainpipes, a system originally tried in European soccer stadiums subject to rainy weather.
Artificial turf holds the heat well, as Casey Stengel once wryly noted. Its melting point is 490 degrees Fahrenheit.
The turf has been an attendance boon to such teams as the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, who draw from several states and now rarely suffer rainouts. Even long rain delays don't make much difference. A version of the Zamboni machine--familiar for its use in resurfacing ice rinks at hockey games--vacuums much of the moisture, and the field is again playable in minutes.
Of course, the new surface took some adjustment. Baseball players tailored their swings to become "turf hitters." Football players who skinned exposed parts of their bodies on the new surface developed staph infections, and elbow pads and gloves became standard equipment.
Some players who chew tobacco found themselves facing an uncomfortable dilemma. "The first time I saw turf was in New Orleans. I was playing for the Iowa Oaks," recalls former Angel pitcher John Verhoeven, now pitching coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills. "I used to chew tobacco then. I walked on the carpet and started to spit, then I looked down and thought, 'I better not spit on this stuff.' " Verhoeven managed not to soil the carpet, waiting until he got to the dirt part of the infield.
Management might like the predictability of attendance with synthetic turf, but many who play on it have a different view.
"If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it," former slugger Dick Allen said when the new surface was introduced.
Outfielder Andre Dawson of the Chicago Cubs rejuvenated his career when he took his tender knees from Montreal's turf to the natural grass of Wrigley Field. The Reds' Eric Davis has spent much of his career nursing injuries he blames on Cincinnati's turf.
Angel Manager Doug Rader, now 46, became Houston's full-time third baseman in 1968 and has the scars to prove it. He winces at the word \o7 AstroTurf\f7 .
Said Rader: "When I was young, my walk was a little more fluid than the present one. The only thing I can say about this is that I have not always walked the way I walk. How can I phrase it--I have refined orthopedics. My joints don't work the same way they used to, and it's not because of old age. They started getting bad when I was 29 years old. It's just from playing on that stuff.
"It really was devastating on my legs. I don't think there's anybody who will differ with the statement that early AstroTurf was very hard on you, especially when you spend as much time diving on it as I did. These scars (on both elbows) are from that."
Technology has improved. New carpets have been installed recently in the Astrodome, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Olympic Stadium in Montreal with superior drainage and shock absorption. Scientists claim synthetic surfaces are easier on athletes' legs than grass. The Astrodome renovated its surface a few years ago, installing separate rugs for baseball and football.
The new turf "is 1,000% better," Rader admitted.
How much does turf affect the game, and how much do teams tailor their talent to fit?
Outfielder Len Dykstra, a career .268 hitter going into last season, became more of a contact hitter in his first full season with the Philadelphia Phillies and batted .325 on artificial surface.