Widespread use of artificial turf hasn't yet swept controversies under the rug


June 16, 1991|By Bill Glauber

Don Sutton was pitching against his boyhood idol, Robin Roberts. Playing second base for the Houston Astros was a future Hall of Famer named Joe Morgan. Clustered in the crowd of 25,000 at the Houston Astrodome were 12 astronauts, heroes who were racing to the moon.

It was April 18, 1966. The Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Astros, 6-3, in an otherwise routine game made memorable by the presence of a concrete-hard green carpet. This was baseball's first game played on AstroTurf, and the landscape of American sports would never be the same.

"I thought to myself that this turf would be quick," said Sutton, who recorded the first of his 324 major-league victories that evening. "I couldn't believe it, I figured someone would get killed. When the ball was hit, it was like skipping rocks on a lake."

Artificial turf has survived 25 years in U.S. professional sports, outlasting five presidential administrations, three professional football leagues and the Apollo space program. Despite past controversies and the never-ending disdain of baseball purists, the wall-to-wall carpeting of sports continues around the globe.

In a world without artificial turf, there would be no kangaroo hops, no turf toe, and, certainly, no sports-related rug burns.

"If a horse won't eat it, I won't play on it," Philadelphia Phillie first baseman Dick Allen said when AstroTurf was introduced. Former baseball manager Leo Durocher chimed in, "This travesty could ruin the game."

But baseball, and the nation, endured. Currently, 13 of the 28 NFL teams play on AstroTurf and the Dallas Cowboys use a surface called Texas Turf. As for baseball, 10 of the 26 major-league teams have artificial-turf home fields.

Artificial turf enabled snow belt football teams to move indoors, triggered a building boom of cookie-cutter stadiums in the 1970s, and fueled attendance surges for the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals -- teams that saw a drop in rain-outs and a rise in fans flocking to their parks from several states.

"The country that can send people to the moon and can win a land war in four days can't grow grass indoors," said Steve Hirdt, an editor of the 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst. "In terms of ambience, not many people would say, 'Take me out to the ball game for the smell of the rug.' "

The magic carpet

In the beginning, there was Chem-Gras. This carpet for athletics was developed by the Monsanto Co. with a grant from (( the Ford Foundation, which saw a need to enhance athletic facilities for urban youth.

Why not place a carpet atop pavement and call it a field?

The first carpet was laid at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., in April 1964. It was used for everything from baseball games to tennis matches to graduation ceremonies. The only team that avoided the stuff until game day was the school's football team. It turned out the carpet was too hard for scrimmages. Still, during ceremonies in 1989 marking the 25th anniversary of the turf's installation at Moses Brown, school athletic director and football coach Jerry A. Zeoli marveled over the impact one rug had in sports.

"We had an idea that it would develop into something big," he said.

But the carpet needed a showcase to create a market. Enter the Houston Astrodome.

It looked like a comic book spaceship and was billed without any trace of embarrassment as the eighth wonder of the world. When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it was a concrete and steel oasis in the midst of a Texas summer loaded with heat, humidity and mosquitoes.

Initially, grass was grown inside the stadium because the dome included Lucite panes. But when outfielders consistently lost sight of fly balls, the dome was painted, and the grass began dying.

"The grass was never very good to begin with," Morgan said. "It was like playing on dirt fields when I was a kid. Then, they started painting it. You'd finish a game with paint stains on your uniform."

The solution to the Astrodome's turf problem was Chem-Gras. Unlike modern versions of artificial turf, the carpet covered only the infield for the Astros' first few homestands in 1966. Instead of incorporating sliding paths around the bases -- a wrinkle that came into play in the 1970s -- the infield dirt was maintained.

"What happened was you would get one spin on the ball coming off the turf, and then, as soon as the ball hit the dirt, it took another spin," Morgan said. "It was like target practice."

Morgan, the player, barely remembers the first time he saw AstroTurf. But Hirdt, the statistical whiz who gives baseball numbers meaning, vividly recalls his first sighting of the carpet, which was named AstroTurf by local sportswriters in Houston.

"It was on television," Hirdt said. "The New York Mets were in Houston, and Lindsay Nelson had a piece of the turf in his hand, and he was explaining what it was. All I could think was, 'Is that all there is?' "

Changing the game

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