AP File Photo
In 1966, artificial turf is installed at the Astrodome in Houston.
By Ronald Blum
The Associated Press
Maury Wills remembered back 43 years to that April night when he became the first batter to hit on artificial turf in a major league game.
Even when the green rug was novel, he didn’t like it.
“I’m a traditionalist,” said the Dodgers speedster, who opened that night at Houston’s Astrodome with a single off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. “I’m still an old-school guy. I believe baseball was meant to be played outdoors and be played in the daytime.”
Turns out, most others think baseball is better on grass, too. The sport’s turf wars are nearing an end.
Once regarded as magic carpets that would eliminate bad hops and minimize rainouts, artificial surfaces are going the way of the dead ball and complete games.
After the Minnesota Twins play their Metrodome finale on Oct. 4 and open Target Field next April 12, just two non-grass fields will remain in the major leagues: the Rogers Centre in Toronto and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
That’s down from a high of 10 artificial surfaces, in 1977-78 and again from 1982-94. While colleges and high schools actually are installing more faux fields — to accommodate multiple sports — artificial turf is unloved by Major League Baseball.
“Baseball in the Metrodome is an unnatural act,” Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz said, citing both the carpet and the roof.
Next season will have just 162 games on turf, the fewest since 1969.
“I’m personally very happy that they’re gone,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “I understood the need for artificial turf, particularly in multipurpose stadiums. But I think the players are better off and I think that the game is better, so I’m happy.”
Players who still spend a majority of their games on turf say they can feel it.
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon makes sure to give All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford days off when he has a lot of consecutive games on turf.
“I got away with it when I was 21. I’m a little older now — I’m almost 30, and it becomes tougher,” Crawford said. “It definitely takes a toll on your body when you have to play 81 games on it. And we’re in a division where you play another nine games on the road. That means you’re playing more games on it than you are on grass. Basically, you play the best you can with it, but it’s not easy.”
Artificial turf began as a necessity. Houston moved to the Astrodome in 1965, but when the glass roof panels were painted white to eliminate glare the grass died.
Astros owner Roy Hofheinz asked assistant Tal Smith to find a solution, and Smith was contacted by Brown athletic director Philip R. Theibert, who told him about an artificial field that had been installed at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I.
Smith visited on Nov. 9, 1965 — he remembers because it was the day of the great Northeast blackout.
“We bounced baseballs and basketballs and everything else, and ran on it,” said Smith, now the Astros president for baseball operations.
Monsanto Co., which initially called the surface Chemgrass, couldn’t manufacture a large amount quickly, so the 1966 season at the Astrodome began with an artificial infield and natural outfield, with the entire surface converted to turf in July.
Heralded as the wave of the future during an era of lunar exploration, artificial surfaces swept through baseball as one field after another put in spongy green surfaces of AstroTurf and 3M’s Co.’s Tartan Turf. Within a few years, baseball fields across the country looked more like oversized pool tables.
The Chicago White Sox installed it for the Comiskey Park infield in 1966, and San Francisco and St. Louis replaced grass with carpet in 1970. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh made the switch that year, too, when moving into their new cookie-cutter stadiums.
Philadelphia (1971) and Kansas City (1973) followed suit, and Montreal hit the carpet in 1977. Seattle and Toronto used artificial surfaces when they joined the major leagues that year.
It became so commonplace that from 1970-87, at least one postseason field each year had artificial turf. There were all-turf World Series in 1980, 1985, 1987 and 1993.
Gold Glove first baseman Keith Hernandez says grounders “bounced like a SuperBall.” But that wasn’t the biggest problem: His ankles aren’t good to this day because of the turf at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, his home field from 1974-83. He would soak his feet in buckets of water while the Cardinals batted.
“On day games the thermometer would read 148 off the turf,” he recalled. “I remember Reggie Smith, when we got him from Boston, was out in right field in a day game in St. Louis in August, July, it’s 100 degrees, and he had rubber cleats, and he had to call time out. They had melted.
“If I wore the metal spikes, it would have me branded under the soles on my feet on a real hot day, from the metal, it would sunburn my heel and the balls of my feet. I remember and I would go, ‘Why are my feet on fire?'”
Much has been made over the years about turf’s impact on hitting, but since 1966 the overall major league average is .266 on both grass and carpet, according to STATS LLC, hurting some hitters’ averages while helping others. Pat Tabler, Larry Walker and Willie Mays all hit much better on grass, while John Cangelosi, Sonny Jackson and Franklin Stubbs were far better on turf.
It didn’t take long before the turf fad started to fade. By the time the Blue Jays’ Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams to win the ’93 Series at the SkyDome, as Toronto’s ballpark was then known, turf fields already had become passe.
The White Sox became the first team to take the false grass out, in 1977. Two years later, the Giants put the real stuff back at Candlestick Park.
Kansas City (1996), St. Louis (1997) and Cincinnati (2001) also removed their carpets, and artificial surfaces in Seattle (1999), Houston (2000) and Pittsburgh (2001) were wiped out when their teams moved during the great ballpark boom. When the Expos left Montreal in 2005 and became the Washington Nationals, only three artificial fields remained.
Even where artificial turf has remained, the old carpet is gone. FieldTurf, a more realistic, grasslike surface promoted as having more give than the original manufactured surfaces, was installed in Tampa Bay (2000), Minneapolis (2004) and Toronto (2005). It’s also the type of field being used by 65 colleges, company spokesman Darren Gill said.
Players still complain about it, however. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who spent nine seasons at the Metrodome, said the new turf was “like running in sand” and hurt his hamstrings, lower back, knees and calf muscles.
Tampa Bay is examining possible sites for a new ballpark, which would have grass. While the Rays for now have to play on artificial turf under the last fixed dome in the major leagues, the Blue Jays could put in grass because their roof retracts.
“We could do it, but it would probably be a really, really expensive, proposition for us,” general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. “It’s been a thought, but I just don’t think it makes sense for us financially.”
Hunter, who left the turf of the Metrodome for Anaheim’s grass after the 2007 season, can’t wait until it’s all gone. While there’s still turf, his body pays the price.
“During the season, you feel it after your first couple games,” he said. “It takes me like a month and a half to really get over some of the soreness that you have after the season.”
Baseball writer Mike Fitzpatrick contributed to this story.
A timeline of artificial turf use in Major League Baseball:
1966 — 1 of 20 stadiums have turf — Added to Houston’s Astrodome.
1969 — 2 of 24 — Added to Chicago’s Comiskey Park infield.
1970 — 6 of 24 — Added to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. Installed in Cincinnati’s new Riverfront Stadium and Pittsburgh’s new Three Rivers Stadium.
1971 — 7 of 24 — Installed in Philadelphia’s new Veterans Stadium.
1973 — 8 of 24 — Installed in Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium.
1977 — 10 of 26 — Installed in Montreal’s new Olympic Stadium. Seattle’s Kingdome and Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium join AL as expansion stadiums with artificial turf. Removed from Comiskey Park.
1979 — 9 of 26 — Removed from Candlestick Park.
1982 — 10 of 26 — Installed in Minnesota’s new Metrodome.
1995 — 9 of 28 — Removed from Kansas City’s Kaufmann Stadium.
1996 — 8 of 28 — Removed from Busch Stadium.
1998 — 9 of 30 — Tampa Bay, playing at Tropicana Field, joins AL as expansion stadium with artificial turf.
1999 — 8 of 30 — Seattle Mariners move to Safeco Field.
2000 — 7 of 30 — Houston Astros move to The Ballpark at Union Station.
2001 — 5 of 30 — Removed from Cincinnati’s Cinergy Field. Pittsburgh Pirates move to PNC Park.
2004 — 4 of 30 — Philadelphia Phillies move to Citizens Bank Park.
2005 — 3 of 30 — Montreal Expos move to Washington’s RFK Stadium.
2010 — 2 of 30 — Minnesota Twins plan move to Target Field.