George Toma is the god of sod.
Universally regarded as the best groundskeeper in sports, Toma has maintained the field for every Super Bowl, two Olympic Games, three World Series and the 1994 World Cup. He has prepared the playing surface for 40 straight Pro Bowls and helped LSU rebuild its field following Hurricane Katrina. A Korean War veteran and the son of a coal miner, Toma came to Kansas City in 1957 to work at Municipal Stadium and earned fame for his manicuring of fields for the Athletics and, later, the Chiefs and Royals.
George Toma is as Kansas City as barbeque. He worked for the A’s until they moved to Oakland in 1967, then the Royals from their expansion season in 1969 until 1999. Toma, who grew up rooting for Chuck Bednarik’s Philadelphia Eagles, worked for the Chiefs from the time they arrived in K.C. in 1963 until 1991. When the Royals and Chiefs moved from the natural grass of Municipal Stadium into their new homes [and the artificial surfaces] at the Truman Sports Complex, Toma went with them.
In 1965, a year before the NFL-AFL merger, then-NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle visited Kansas City to see the Chiefs play. Rozelle called Toma’s emerald blanket of lushness “the most beautiful field I have ever seen.” Two years later, Rozelle hired Toma to ready the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first Super Bowl. Who knew the role would be in perpetuity? Toma has overseen the playing surface for all 53 Super Bowls. The five-foot-two-inch grass growing guru is an ageless wonder. In February 2019, Toma celebrated his 90th birthday with the grounds crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where he was preparing the field for Super Bowl LIII.
Toma once grew grass in the trunk of his car just to prove he could do it.
Born in the hardscrabble coal mining country of northeastern Pennsylvania February 2, 1929, George was ten when his father died of cancer. Forced to help support his family at an early age, he picked vegetables at eight then worked on a chicken farm at 11. In 1946, a neighbor helped him land a job taking care of the baseball field for the minor league Wilkes-Barre Barons. Toma’s big break came when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck bought the team and put Toma under the direction of Emil Brossard, who oversaw fields for the Indians organization.
In 1957, an opportunity opened up with the Kansas City A’s of the American League. “Don’t go to Kansas City,” Brossard told his protégé. “It’s a very bad field. In the springtime it will flood you out; in the summertime it gets so hot it’ll bake you out.” Toma visited Municipal Stadium over Labor Day weekend. “I went out and looked it over, it was a bad field.” recalled Toma. I said, ‘Well, George, the best thing to do is take over the Kansas City job. It’s major league, and if you screw up, the field’s so bad nobody will ever notice.’”
As it happened, everybody noticed what George Toma was doing. “It had a lot of weeds,” Toma said, “so I killed most of the field. In about a month, the field was one of the best in the majors – a pool table.” Local high school boys would drop by and help Toma ready Municipal Stadium’s diamond. Soon, they had built the best field in baseball. “We didn’t sod,” continued Toma. “We used pre-germinated grass seed, and never re-sodded for new seasons. Now teams re-sod their fields two to three times a year.”
The legendary Pele called Toma’s pitch the finest he had ever played on.
At the 1991 Super Bowl, halftime show rehearsals had left a huge indentation in the middle of the field at Tampa Stadium 24 hours before the big game. The NFL logo had yet to painted at midfield, which had been reduced to bare dirt. Toma decided to sod it. “The NFL said, ‘It’s 6 o’clock. Where are you going to get 1,000 square feet of sod?’ I said don’t worry about it. We’ll get it done.”
Toma knew the groundskeeper at the University of Tampa. He ordered his crew to remove a thousand square feet of soil, three inches deep at the center of the field. Any shallower and the players would tear it up with their cleats. Then he ordered the crew to follow him to the University of Tampa, where the gate was locked. Toma busted down the gate and took 1,000 square feet of grass along the fence all the way around the field. They shipped the three-inch thick pieces to Tampa Stadium as fast as they could dig it up. By 2 a.m., the field was ready for game day, logo and all. The NFL paid the University of Tampa handsomely for its broken gate and missing grass.
At the Super Bowl, Toma not only oversees the playing field but also the practice grounds of both participating teams. The fabled groundskeeper’s talents have allowed him to rub elbows with some pretty impressive company. Toma has met Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Justin Timberlake. Humble and hard-working, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man was especially impressed with Lady Gaga, who didn’t have an entourage and hung out with the grounds crew between practice sessions for her halftime performance at the big event in 2017.
The Godfather of Grass has consulted for many of the biggest events in sports. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Toma led the installation of 13,500 yards of sod with a dozen hours of sod bed preparation. In his three decades working for the Kansas City Royals, he prepared the field at Kaufmann Stadium for three World Series, first in 1985, then again in 2014 and 2015. George Toma was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2012.
For the inaugural Super Bowl, Toma had five days, a six-man crew, a truck and a box of tools to prepare the Los Angeles Coliseum. At the 2019 title game, he was given a 30-man crew.
A groundskeeping immortal, Toma officially retired in 1999 yet continues to consult for the NFL and work spring training games for the Grapefruit League. Kansas City Royals hall of fame third baseman George Brett once told Toma the key to success is to always do the job “and then some.” The grass-growing guru says that’s the way he operates and that’s what he teaches. “I teach and then some,” Toma says emphatically. “It’s what separates the average from the mediocre from the great.”
The chiseled, steely-eyed Toma is married and has three sons, one of whom followed his father into groundskeeping. Chip Toma, 66, works at CenturyLink Sports Complex in Ft. Myers, Florida, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins. His tireless father, who has forgotten more about turf maintenance than most folks will ever know, has been dragging a rake there since 2000.
George Toma, who never earned more than $50,000 per year as a groundkeeper, has been inducted into five halls of fame. In 2001, he received the Pioneer Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his service to the NFL. In 2012, Toma joined his mentor, Emil Bossard, as the first inductees into the MLB Groundskeeper Association Hall of Fame. Each year at the Sports Turf Management Association annual awards dinner, Mr. Toma hands out the George Toma Golden Rake Award for dedication and performance by an outstanding young groundskeeper.