By David Smale
When George Toma signs an autograph — something he’s done countless times in his 79-year career as a groundskeeper — he finishes with “and then some.”
That message speaks to a work ethic developed as the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner in the 1930s and 40s. You do whatever is necessary, and then, when you’re sure you’ve done everything, you do a little more.
It’s a motto that has carried him through a multi-Hall-of-Fame career and earned him nicknames like “the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man,” “the Sodfather” and “the Man of Sod.”
His father died when Toma was 10 years old, as a result of Black Lung Disease from working in the coal mines. Kids as young as 8 years old in Edwardsville, Pa., were expected to work in the mines, but Toma wanted nothing to do with the trade.
After his father’s death, he got a job on a nearby vegetable farm, earning 10 cents an hour, working 10 hours per day, six days per week. The next year he worked at a chicken farm, where he said he learned a lot about work ethic.
When he was 12, he went to work for a neighbor, who was the head groundskeeper for a Class-A minor league baseball team in Wilkes-Barre and his career started. He became the head groundskeeper at age 16 while he was still in high school.
Other than a two-year Army stint in Korea in the early 1950s, Toma has spent his entire career improving fields.
He came to Kansas City in 1957 to resuscitate a Major League Baseball field with more gravel than grass, and that “grass” was really crabgrass and clover. Before heading to Kansas City to check out the conditions, he called his mentor, Emil Bossard, who said, “George, don’t go to Kansas City. I’ve been going there once or twice a month trying to straighten that place out.”
Toma still took the job, “because if I screwed it up, nobody would notice,” he said.
He said he almost got fired when he killed all the crabgrass, leaving a brown field at the start of the 1958 baseball season, but by July 4 it was “an oasis in the desert,” he said. “Everybody loved the field. Players said they couldn’t believe how beautiful Kansas City’s field was.”
Kansas City is still his home more than 60 years later, though he still carries the hardscrabble eastern Pennsylvania accent. Through the years, he worked on the field at Municipal Stadium, home of MLB’s A’s and later the Royals, as well as the Chiefs beginning in 1963. In 1972 he moved with the teams to the Truman Sports Complex, where he worked until 1999.
Following the announcement of the merger of the AFL and the NFL, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle came to Kansas City and famously told Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, “Your groundskeeper is amazing.”
That certainly played a role in Toma being named the official groundskeeper of the first Super Bowl — and every single Super Bowl since. He was the head groundskeeper at Super Bowl LIV, which was played on his 91st birthday this past February.
Which brings us to today. His longtime friend from the Chiefs, Mitch Wheeler, who serves as the director of development for The Battle Within, called and asked if Toma would be willing to lend his name to a charitable event called “The Wiffle at the Hollow.” It is a two-day Wiffle Ball event to raise funds for The Battle Within, a program to help veterans and first responders heal from the traumas they have endured in their service to others. Each warrior faces his or her own battle. These are ordinary people who have been thrust into extraordinary situations for the betterment of others. These traumatic injuries are carried in the mind, body and soul, often in secret.
The Battle Within has built a community for warriors nationwide to attend a free, five-day program built by warriors using holistic techniques steeped in ancient warrior culture and backed by modern evidence-based methods.
The Wiffle at the Hollow started small, but has grown dramatically in each of its first four years. Joe Ungashick owns the field, part of his large front yard just south of the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, about five miles from Toma’s home.
Toma was approached about being the “ceremonial” groundskeeper in 2019, but instead of just being there, he went to work. He worked all day that day and the next. In the weeks leading up to the event, he got the neighborhood kids to help, a crew he said ranked up there with the best. “They were 10 to 12 years old,” Toma said of his crew. “The girl across the street was 10, and she painted the lines. There was no fooling around. There were 12 of them, and they maintained the field with me. I can honestly say they were better workers than some of the professional people I’ve worked with around the world.”
In Toma’s second year as the “official groundskeeper” of the event, the field — now officially known as George P. Toma Field — will rival any you’ll find in professional complexes. The pitcher’s mound and home plate are finely manicured, and the basepaths are painted with the same care Toma used when he did it for the A’s and Royals. Permanent fences — including a “green monster” in left — give the field a certain authenticity.
“It was a request to come out the night of the event and raise his hat when we say he’s our head groundskeeper, and he was out here for a month,” sajd Justin Hoover, executive director of The Battle Within. “For me, the field looked amazing a week ago. I talked to George and he said, ‘We’ll get there.’ I’ll keep complimenting him at every step, and he’ll keep saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get there.’”
Perfectionism and hard work is not only the way he approaches his work, it’s what he expects of those who work with him. This year, Epic Landscape Productions donated hundreds of man hours to help Toma get the field ready. When the owner of Epic, Marty Siler, handed his employee a shovel to move some dirt for Toma, Toma asked Siler, “Do you play golf?” When Siler affirmed the question, Toma said, “You must use a caddy.”
He even chastised me for getting there after the start of the event on the first day, even though I had no official responsibility.
The event, besides being a successful fundraiser, was a lot of childlike fun for all the participants — except for Toma. When the first day’s games were completed after nine hours of competition, Toma pulled his truck up to the field and turned on the headlights so he could repaint the field and complete other treatments. He wanted the groups that played on Saturday to have the same experience as those who played on Friday.
The fact that the field was named after him this year was nice, but Toma was focused on getting the field perfect.
“That’s nice, but I’m just the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man,” he said. “Being out here is for the veterans and first responders. I would do anything for veterans, and then some. They went to war and gave everything they had. And now they need help. It’s my privilege to help them.”
Hoover appreciates people like Toma.
“I served as an infantryman in Iraq in 2004 and 2005,” said Hoover. “It was a very challenging year, where I saw a lot of combat. I ended up with two Purple Hearts. I got out shortly after and came back to Kansas City. I had all those experiences and didn’t know what to do with them. The next decade was my ‘lost decade,’ chasing the American dream, but I stuffed all that stuff down. My step-daughter was dealing with depression and suicidology in high school, and it really brought all that ‘stuff’ back. My wife finally convinced me to find help. I went through The Battle Within curriculum four years ago, and it was life changing. For the first time, I had folks I could sit down with and share those burdens.”
Once he felt healed, he realized that he needed to stay in the environment. Now, as the executive director, he can speak to the value of the program. His whole leadership team is made up of veterans and first responders who have benefitted from The Battle Within.
“We know we have brothers and sisters sitting somewhere in their basement with a bottle or these feelings, that, left unchecked, can lead to suicide and isolation,” said Hoover. “Wiffle at the Hollow means so much, because the community comes out to support our men and women. It’s such an amazing event. I love having conversations about a Wiffle Ball event in a guy’s front yard. People look at me strangely. Then they show up and see everything, and they are amazed. It’s worth the effort.”
Just like Toma…and then some.
David Smale is a freelance writer living in Kansas City.
To donate to The Battle Within in honor of George Toma, visit https://www.classy.org/team/324733.