Groundskeeper mixed baseball, fertilizer and tomato growing at Memorial Stadium

The Great Tomato War raged for nearly two decades

  • Earl Weaver and Pat Santarone (right) display a couple of stadium tomatoes.
Earl Weaver and Pat Santarone (right) display a couple of stadium… (Irving H Phillips Jr., Baltimore…)
April 09, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper at Camden Yards, was a 13-year-old growing up in Delaware when the legendary Pasquale "Pat" Santarone, who had a similar job for 23 seasons at Memorial Stadium, announced his retirement two months before Opening Day 1991.

Santarone, considered one of the leading groundskeepers in the country during his career, had learned the business from his immigrant Italian father, Val, groundskeeper at Elmira, N.Y., then a Double-A-Orioles affiliate, as a 7-year-old cutting grass.

Santarone took over as head groundskeeper after his father's death.

Santarone's route to Baltimore rested on his friendship with Orioles skipper Earl Weaver, who threw out the ball for the home opener Monday.

Their nearly 50-year friendship dated to 1961, when Weaver managed the farm team in Elmira. A year after taking over the Orioles, he brought Santarone to Baltimore.

Santarone was perhaps the only groundskeeper in the U.S. — or perhaps in the world — who grew tomatoes inside a ballpark.

In 1970, the year the Orioles won the World Series, he began growing tomatoes in a fenced-off area in left field in foul territory, and continued to grow them every year until his retirement.

Each April, Santarone, who lived in Jacksonville, Baltimore County, planted at least 10 plants that he had raised from seedlings in soil that was a combination of infield dirt and ground-up sod.

For 17 years, Weaver and Santarone had a feud equaled only by the Hatfields and McCoys. The fans simply enjoyed the great summertime Tomato Wars.

Both men denounced each other's efforts at growing tomatoes as well as how the finished produce tasted.

Weaver grew his tomatoes at his Perry Hall home, conceding the American League ballpark garden plot to Santarone.

In a 1979 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Santarone explained that he taught Weaver, who didn't know a rake from a lawnmower, how to garden.

"But I didn't teach him all my secrets," Santarone said. "That's what makes him so grouchy — sitting up all night trying to figure out what I haven't told him yet."

Weaver described his opponent's tomatoes as being "nothing more than scrub tomatoes … all pulpy inside," that "I wouldn't lay claim to."

To which Santarone replied, "He's never grown that big a tomato in his life. He wouldn't know how."

Santarone was also a consultant to Pimlico Race Track, and in the 1979 interview boasted that his tomatoes had been fertilized with manure from Spectacular Bid, and in 1978, from Secretariat.

"Do you know anybody else who just missed having Triple Crown manure in his garden?" he asked, and then added, "That Weaver — from the looks of his tomatoes, I believe he's getting his from a horse that ran ninth in a nine-horse race."

Santarone then accused Weaver of watering his plants with buckets of chlorinated water from his swimming pool.

"That's a rotten lie," Weaver told the newspaper. "The truth is that in my weak moments I imagine this guy is my friend and I invite him to dinner and when I'm not looking he gets a bucket and draws water out of the pool and dumps them on the plants."

"I'll say this for him," Santarone said in the interview, "he's a tenacious S.O.B. He hates to be beat, whether it's baseball, golf, cards or growing tomatoes."

Back at Memorial Stadium, Santarone had his own problems — all usually manmade — spilled beers and soda and fly balls.

Santarone said he'd wash off his plants with a hose because he didn't want "alcoholic tomatoes."

"Those long foul balls break the plants off half a dozen times a year," he told The Evening Sun's Mike Klingaman in 1989. "Some of them are pruned almost in half, but they always grow back."

Santarone also said that his plants benefited from the sprinklers used to irrigate the ball field grass, and the field lights that remained on until midnight, acted as a few hours of warm sunlight.

In a bizarre and brazen act in 1979 that got him charged with "malicious destruction of a tomato plant," by Baltimore police, Orioles fan George L. McAllister Jr., who lived in Federal Hill, climbed out of the stands and ripped one of Santarone's plants out of the ground.

McAllister's woes did not end there. Besides being arrested, he was charged with disorderly conduct and violating baseball rule No. 56, which prohibits fans from going onto the field.

Unlike his opponent's tomatoes, Santarone's were internationally famous, helped no doubt by TV images whenever a ball popped down the left field side. People all over the world wrote asking him for seeds.

Santarone and Weaver also patented a fertilizer called Earl 'n Pat's Tomato Food.

Santarone put his bounty to good use. An excellent cook, he won Delmarva's Annual Chicken Cooking Contest in 1976 for his original recipe for Chicken Campania, which he named after his mother's home province in Italy, that uses chicken and chicken livers.

Santarone's plans to transfer his garden patch to Camden Yards never bore fruit.

He left Baltimore in 1991 and moved to Hamilton, Mont., in the Rockies. He died there in 2008 at the age of 79.

In Santarone's obituary in The Sun, Weaver answered the tomato question this way: "Well, he was there when I'd go on the road, and I think there was a little tomfoolery," Weaver said. "He might have been pinching off some of my buds."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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