Artificial Turf And How It Grew
DEWITT CLINTON PARK, IN HELL’S KITCHEN, IS PRETTY TYPI cal for New York City. It’s open to anyone with a ball to kick I or a Frisbee to toss, which means that it has been beaten nearly to death by overuse. The park has natural-grass baseball fields, though there is little grass to be seen on them. It’s more like a sea of dirt, pocked with holes and a few struggling patches of green. When kids play ball, a cloud of red dust hangs in the air, coating their hair and clothes. After an hour on the field they look as if they’d spent a day in the desert.
Parks like DeWitt Clinton are the reason why New York City is tearing up many of its public playfields and replacing them with artificial turf. New York is not alone; Los Angeles, Dallas, and other big cities are buying great swaths of the stuff to repair their battered parks, leading the product into a boom time never before seen. Furthermore, the short, scratchy brush of past decades has had a major makeover; today’s pseudoturf is long and lush, gently padded with rubber pellets. But it’s been a rough road getting there, a road full of twists both comic and tragicomic. It began in 1965, far from New York, at a gigantic party in Houston.
“I’ve covered most of the major pageants and spectacles in sports: the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl, the World Series,” says the longtime sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz. “There was never a night filled with the electricity, charged with the drama, of the opening of the Astrodome.” On April 9,1965, Houston’s Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, introduced itself to the world with Texas-sized fanfare. The evening featured an exhibition game between the newly renamed Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, but fans could be excused for ignoring the game in favor of the eye-popping spectacle at every turn. Female ushers called Spacettes, outfitted in gold lamé miniskirts and blue go-go boots, showed patrons to their plush color-coded seats. The well-dressed crowd included President Lyndon B. Johnson and the astronaut Gus Grissom. On the field the grounds crew, dubbed Earthmen and wearing orange space suits, groomed the bright green natural grass. On the far wall, a two-million-dollar electric scoreboard, 474 feet wide, entertained the crowd with galloping cowboys, stampeding cattle, and blasting rockets.
The most spectacular element, however, was the stadium itself. Its dome covered more than nine acres and had a clear span of 642 feet—twice that of any previous structure—and a maximum height of 208 feet. The magnificent ceiling was composed of 4,596 Lucite panels. They seemed to glow like the facets of a precious jewel.
The mastermind of the Astrodome was a Texas legend, Judge Roy Hofheinz, who watched the festivities from his private skybox. At 53, Hofheinz was fat and jowly, with beady eyes blinking behind horn-rimmed glasses. But along with an unimpressive physique—one reporter described his belly as a “spillway”—he had a forceful personality. The son of a laundry-truck driver, he had become a county judge at 24, a millionaire at 30, and the mayor of Houston at 40. Along the way he had done more than anyone to guide Houston’s growth from a steamy backwater into a major city, a transition crowned in 1962 with the start of construction on NASA’s Mission Control as well as the debut of the city’s first big-league baseball team, known at the time as the Colt .45s and owned by Hofheinz.
By then Hofheinz had retired from politics but not from public life. Even before being awarded the baseball franchise, he had poked, prodded, and bullied Houston officials into accepting his grand vision for a domed stadium. “We needed it,” says the former Houston third baseman Bob Aspromonte. “We couldn’t play outdoors here. Not with 100-degree temperatures all the time, and high humidity, and mosquitoes as big as my hand.”
Aspromonte knows what he’s talking about, because for the Houston team’s first three years, while the Astrodome was being planned and built, the Colts had endured the elements outdoors, and the results were just as he describes. Colt Stadium is remembered today as one of the most wretched places in which to play or watch baseball. Insect repellent was sold at the concession stands. One Sunday afternoon 78 people required first aid for heat exhaustion. After that the Colts played mostly late-afternoon and night games, but the conditions were still intolerable. Without an indoor stadium, there was no way the franchise could survive.
While domed stadiums are common today, in the early 1960s people wondered if they were even possible. First came worries about whether the dome would hold up. Gymnasiums and other indoor athletic facilities already existed, of course, but none on so massive a scale. Then, as the dome took shape, other questions arose. Would clouds form under it? (No.) Would fly balls hit the ceiling? (No, though balls did occasionally hit off the Astrodome’s hanging speakers, and some batted balls have reached the ceilings of other domed stadiums.) Would the Astros use the air conditioning to blow competitors’ home runs back onto the field? (No, but that’s an interesting idea.…)
One question took a bit more thought: Could natural grass grow in a stadium with little natural light? Since no good data was available, a special greenhouse was built at Texas A&M to test five types of grass under low light. A variety called Tiffway Bermuda performed the best and was planted in the Astrodome.
When the gleaming white dome was finally finished in 1965, a press release proclaimed that “the Astrodome is to Houston what the Eiffel Tower has been to Paris.” But a major flaw had been found. During day games the magnificent domed ceiling caused so much glare that players couldn’t see fly balls, and sunglasses were little help. The problem was not evident at the grand opening, since that game was played at night, but soon everybody knew about it. “The glare was blinding,” says Herskowitz, who watched from the press box as squinting players missed easy pop-ups and cowered “so they wouldn’t get hit in the nose.”
Hofheinz, ever the showman, soon had players experimenting with orange and yellow baseballs. But the situation couldn’t go on forever. Within a few weeks he ordered the ceiling panels to be given a grayish tint, with a double coat for the area over home plate. That solved the glare problem, but soon afterward the grass, deprived of sunlight, began to wither and die. Bare patches of dirt appeared, leaving the outfield hard and rutted. Groundskeepers resorted to spraying the field with green paint, and any ball hit to the outfield was stained green. The Astrodome was becoming a laughingstock.
Hofheinz needed the field fixed, and he knew just the man to put in charge: his special assistant, TaI Smith. “Hofheinz came into my office one day,” recalls Smith, now president of the Astros, “and said, ‘I don’t care what you do. You’ve got unlimited resources. Do whatever you have to do, but find a solution to the field problem.’”
UNBEKNOWNST TO SMITH, PEOPLE HAD BEEN THINKING about a replacement for natural grass for some time. In 1958 the Ford Foundation had allocated $4.5 million to establish a research group called the Educational Facilities Laboratories. The group’s first president was Dr. Harold Gores, who has been described by one historian as “the facilities gadfly of American education.” EFL’s mission was to “encourage research, experimentation and the dissemination of knowledge regarding educational facilities.” One of the group’s findings was that inner-city schools had too little green space. According to a 1961 report, “Originally there may have been living lawns and playfields, but the scuffle of too many feet soon turned the grass to gravel, the gravel to dirt and mud.”
The report followed with a call to action: “Whoever invents for rooftop and playground a material that looks like grass and acts like grass, a turflike substance on which a ball will bounce and a child will not, a covering that brings a slice of spring in Scarsdale to 14th Street in April, will have struck a blow for stability in the big city.” And in case such poetry wasn’t enough to inspire innovation, the writers added: “ NOTE TO INVENTORS: The non-educational market should be substantial.”
Eventually a copy of the report ended up with the chemical giant Monsanto. At the time, the company had a division called Chemstrand that made synthetic fibers and was pushing the use of carpeting in public-school classrooms. Monsanto executives decided to give artificial turf a try, and soon Chemstrand engineers were puzzling over how to make plastic grass.
The technological challenges were daunting. What Monsanto needed was basically an outdoor carpet that could survive rain and sunlight, resist mold and mildew, and endure the constant abuse of running feet. It had to look and feel like grass, be soft enough for rough-and-tumble play, and not cost too much. Chemstrand started making small batches of turf out of woven nylon, a tough and durable fiber that could take plenty of punishment. There was a tradeoff, of course, because while the nylon fibers were durable, they were also bristly and abrasive, more like a hairbrush than a lawn. The early turf wasn’t quite as rough as a doormat, but it was certainly no fun for bare feet.
With some samples in hand, engineers and scientists tackled the head-scratching problem of how to test the turf. What exactly does grass do anyway? “There was no book you could go to that said it needs to be this way or that,” said Ed Milner, a chemical engineer who was an early member of the Chemstrand team (Milner had previously specialized in spandex stretch yarn for ladies’ underwear). “So our fundamental research people started measuring things like: How do balls roll on natural grass? And how do balls bounce? And how much traction do you need to do the things that you do in sports? And how much cushioning do you need when you fall down?”
Engineers subjected their scraps of artificial turf to a battery of tests. They bounced balls and rolled them; they ground the grass with spiky disks and pounded it with metal plates; they steamed it in ovens and baked it in the sun. The Chemstrand lab was a veritable turf torture chamber, and after a couple of years they were ready for a real-world test. They found a willing partner in a Providence, Rhode Island, prep school, the Moses Brown School, whose dirt-floored field house was a dust-filled mess. In 1964 the school installed indoors a green meadow of artificial turf that had been given the delightful name ChemGrass.
ChemGrass might have lived in obscurity for decades if not for Hofheinz’s marvelous stadium, with its glaring roof and dead grass. One day in 1965 TaI Smith got a call from the athletic director of Brown University, also in Providence, who, knowing about the Astrodome’s troubles, tipped him off to the ChemGrass at Moses Brown. In the fall of 1965 Smith flew to Providence to take a look. He went inside the field house, hit a few baseballs, and ran up and down the field. “It was green. It had fibers. It looked like grass,” he recalls. “I reported to Judge Hofheinz that I thought we had a solution to our problem.”
Hofheinz liked the idea; high-tech grass would fit perfectly in his space-age stadium. In November Hofheinz and Monsanto agreed to a test. Monsanto worked like mad to create the necessary amount of turf, and on January 17, 1966, workers laid out enough strips of ChemGrass to create a big square of bright green on the dirt floor of the Astrodome.
At 9:00 P.M. a squad of ballplayers arrived. They started hitting grounders onto the new surface, and it soon became clear that something was very wrong. Balls were bouncing every which way but straight. A grounder hit near the pitcher’s mound, for example, would bounce almost at a right angle toward third base. The problem was that the turf had a “tilt.” All the short, stiff fibers on a given strip of turf lay in the same direction, and the direction of the tilt sent the ball bouncing off at crazy angles.
THE ENGINEERS SOLVED THAT PROBLEM BY SIMPLY TURN ing the turf around. If the strips were laid so that the ball hit along the grain, the bounce was usually true. With this change, everything seemed fine. After the practice Aspromonte told the Houston Post that he “would rate this infield as one of the top two in baseball.” While this may have been a bit too optimistic, natural-grass fields certainly did have their own problems, with pebbles, ruts, and divots. The test convinced Hofheinz that ChemGrass was the stuff for him. In fact, he announced to the shocked Monsanto engineers that he wanted to start playing exhibition games on it in two months.
Chemstrand was not at all prepared for production on such a scale. But the Astrodome would be quite a plum for Monsanto, so the company decided to go for it. “The Astrodome facility was an absolutely monumental challenge,” says Ed Milner, who remembers the factory running days, nights, and weekends to finish the job. “Those guys on the line busted their buns.” The manufacturing process was fairly straightforward, basically the same one that is used today. First nylon pellets are mixed with pigment and heated to melting, around 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the molten nylon is extruded through tiny holes in metal plates called spinnerets. This creates long ribbons of nylon, which look more or less like green dental floss. The plastic yarn is cooled, wound onto bobbins, and woven on looms like carpet.
The process sounds simple enough, but the job called for three and a half acres of fabric, and the original extruder could make only six ribbons of nylon at a time. That’s when everything was working. Unfortunately, few pigments could stand up to the high temperatures needed to melt nylon. Also, variations in temperature or ingredients could plug the tiny holes in the spinnerets, gumming up the whole machine. And once the ribbons were finished and fed into a Wilton loom, the process was still slow, since the loom could weave less than one square foot of fabric per minute. (A knitting machine introduced in 1970 could spit out 14 square feet per minute.)
Despite the challenges, by March 19, the date of the first exhibition game, Monsanto had produced enough ChemGrass to cover the Astros’ infield (with basepaths and pitcher’s mound of dirt, as on a regular baseball diamond; the outfield would remain natural grass until the All-Star break). The turf came in strips 200 feet long and 14 feet wide, bristling with blades three-eighths of an inch high. Each strip was backed with a thin layer of vinyl foam and weighed about 3,000 pounds. The strips were cut to size and held together with zippers. As Milner said, “It was the longest infield fly in the world.”
Engineers finished the installation at about 2:30 A.M. on game day. When the field opened, players and commentators greeted the plastic grass, newly renamed AstroTurf, with a wide range of reactions. Leo Durocher, manager of the Chicago Cubs, derided the infield as “the world’s biggest pool table,” and players complained that balls took odd bounces off the zippers. But The New York Times called it a “triumph of chemistry,” and the director of publicity for the Houston Sports Association compared it to a “green hairbrush.” He meant it as a compliment.
Everyone agreed on one thing: The AstroTurf was stunning to look at. “When you walked in, the stadium was beautiful,” recalled Aspromonte. “It was as green as the jacket on the Masters golf champion,” said Herskowitz. “It was as pure a green as you’ll find on the most beautiful golf course in the world.” Judge Hofheinz loved the hoopla. He had scraps of turf from the trial in January cut into squares and sold for a dollar apiece.
As the Monsanto engineers watched that first game, they were pleased to see their AstroTurf performing well. But they did notice one potential problem: The field was very fast. Grounders that should have been snared instead skipped into the outfield. As one engineer remembered, a blazing hit down the first-base line “just about took the first baseman’s arm off.” The Los Angeles Dodgers won the game, 8 to 3, with each team getting 13 hits. Afterward, the engineers met on the field to discuss the turf’s performance. One mentioned to Hofheinz that they could probably find a way to slow the field down. The Judge looked at the engineer and replied, “Forget about it, son. Give me nothing but three-base hits.”
The fast turf gave the Astros a strong home-field advantage, and Hofheinz gave AstroTurf a strong jolt of publicity. Two years later AstroTurf was introduced to pro football by the AFL’s Houston Oilers, who shared the Astrodome with the Astros. But the technology still had a lot of problems, which became more apparent the more AstroTurf was used. During the late 1960s and 1970s, as plastic grass sprouted on baseball and football fields across the country, it faced growing criticism from players. The new surface caused trouble not only for bouncing balls but also for runners who had to stop and make quick turns on the slippery bristles. Because players ran faster with the grain than against it, football teams had to adjust their game plans depending on which way the tiny blades were pointing.
Then players began to complain about “turf toe” ( turf had already changed from a synonym of grass to an antonym), a ligament sprain in the big toe that was exacerbated by AstroTurf. On outdoor fields teams worried about the large puddles left by poor drainage. Finally, while pseudoturf was durable, it was also extremely abrasive. Monsanto, and competing firms with similar products, suggested fixes like elbow pads and special turf shoes. The criticism kept getting louder, especially from the National Football League Players Association.
In the early 1970s the NFLPA asked the Stanford Research Institute to study the injury issue. Stanford collected data from the 1973 football season and found a slightly higher rate of injury on artificial turf, though most of these were minor injuries (to the researchers, anyway), like rug burn, foot blisters, and bruised toes, that didn’t keep players out of the game. Nonetheless, the NFLPA lobbied the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the injury data and declare artificial turf a “hazardous substance.” The commission declined, and the controversy eventually died away, but not before Monsanto’s major competitors, 3M and Biltrite, had left the turf business. For the next decade or so, AstroTurf was the only major player in artificial turf. Unfortunately, the lack of serious competition led to a research-and-development slowdown that bordered on stagnation. Why bother improving the product if you’re the only game in town?
Eventually, new managers arrived at Monsanto and decided that things had to change. They kicked R&D into high gear, and by 1981 engineers had solved the directional problem by “texturizing” the fibers used to make the grass. Right after extrusion, the smooth nylon yarn was crushed and crimped. The resulting kinky fiber, when knitted into turf, created a uniform surface with equal traction in every direction.
Engineers also tackled the drainage problem. In the beginning, a field consisted of woven turf atop a bit of felt, laid over bare dirt. Soon they had learned enough to pave the dirt with asphalt and add a layer of PVC foam for cushioning. If the field was outdoors, it would be shaped into a hill 16 to 25 inches high at the center so that water would drain into gutters on either side. But the arched design still left a lot of water when the field was overwhelmed by a heavy rain and caused problems in team sports, because players on one side of the hill had trouble seeing teammates on the other side.
The development of porous asphalt finally gave engineers the key to a flat field with good drainage. First the dirt was leveled, and then it was covered with a layer of crushed rock, usually several inches thick. Next came a layer of asphalt, a shock-absorbing foam pad, and finally the turf. The turf, its seams sewn together and reinforced with glue, was glued to the foam pad. To let water drain through, tiny holes were punched in the foam pad.
THIS WAS THE SYSTEM, WITH INCREMENTAL IMPROVE ments, that was used well into the 1990s. The division that made AstroTurf changed hands a few times (Monsanto sold it in 1988), but it still dominated the field. Artificial turf was quite expensive—about a million dollars for a fully installed football field—so it was mostly restricted to professional teams and schools and colleges that could afford a big investment. That changed in the 1990s, when a Canadian company called FieldTurf came up with a new approach.
FieldTurf was started by a pair of tennis buddies named John Gilman and Jean Prévost. In the mid-1980s Prévost visited a golf-equipment show and met a man named Freddie Haas, Jr., who had shunned the business world to become a pro golfer and eventually retired to Louisiana. (As a golfer Haas is best remembered for ending Byron Nelson’s winning streak of 11 straight tournaments by defeating him in the 1945 Memphis Open while Haas was still an amateur. The current PGA Tour member Jay Haas is his nephew.)
Louisiana may be warm, but that doesn’t make it a great place for golf. Much of the coast is barely above sea level, and it rains all the time, which makes the grass swampy. So Haas invented an artificial turf and built it into 10-by-10-foot boxes that he could tee off from. Unlike the short, scratchy AstroTurf, this artificial grass was several inches long and nearly submerged in sand and cork. When the cork decayed in the sultry Louisiana climate, Haas turned to shredded rubber.
Haas took out a series of patents on his invention in the 1970s and 1980s and set up a company named Mod-Sod Sports Surfaces to market it, with little success. That’s when Jean Prévost found him. Prévost saw Haas’s invention and loved it. Soon the two men had an agreement, and Prevost was in the golf business. Gilman, Prevost’s tennis buddy, was a former pro football player for the Montreal Alouettes. He thought the new turf would look great on a football field. He had coached on AstroTurf and didn’t think much of it. “Any old player who’s played on AstroTurf can show you parts of their body with no skin,” he said. “I knew right away that this was a lot better.”
There’s a big difference between a 10-by-10-foot tee box and an 80,000-square-foot football field (including the surrounding area), however. Gilman knew Haas’s turf would need substantial improvements. Over the next four years the two partners made numerous changes to the product, eventually taking out more than 40 patents. They ended up with an invention called FieldTurf. Instead of using the stiff but durable nylon of AstroTurf, Prévost and Gilman chose polyethylene, which is strong and elastic and much softer. (A bonus is that when polyethylene-based turf is used repeatedly, each flat fiber shreds into thin strands, making the field even softer.) The fibers are “tufted” into a mat, sort of like a giant shag rug. And, as with a shag rug, the fibers are long—two and a half inches in the case of FieldTurf.
The finishing touch is the infill. Once the plastic shag is in place, it is filled with a mixture of silica sand and rubber “crumb.” The crumb is made from old sneaker soles that are frozen to—110 degrees Fahrenheit and then shattered. An average football field takes a whopping 400 tons of fill, so much that only three-quarters of an inch of grass sticks out the top. The result looks and feels surprisingly like natural grass.
In the late 1990s FieldTurf was a young company with just a couple of fields in Texas and Pennsylvania. One day Gilman got a call from some city officials in Lincoln, Nebraska, who were thinking of installing FieldTurf in a high school stadium. Could Gilman fly them east to visit some of his fields? Gilman took a deep breath (“we were very small at the time, just living off our credit cards”) and said, “Sure.” He hired a Lear jet to ferry the prospective buyers from field to field.
The buyers decided to bring an independent expert: Tom Osborne, the former University of Nebraska football coach (and now a U.S. congressman). When Gilman heard that the legendary Osborne was going to be inspecting his field, he hopped a plane to Maryland and was there waiting for him. As Gilman recalls, Osborne walked right out onto the turf and asked, “Where’s this artificial field?” Gilman pointed down to his feet.
The FieldTurf revolution was a major blow to AstroTurf. Southwest Recreational Industries, the company that owned AstroTurf at the time, developed a product similar to FieldTurf called AstroPlay and was promptly sued. Eventually SRI found a way to dodge the FieldTurf patents, but it was too late to catch up. In 2004 SRI went bankrupt. While AstroTurf still exists as a product, a major shakeup has occurred in the artificial-turf business. The industry, now perhaps 40 companies strong, is far more competitive than ever before.
As artificial turf starts to resemble natural grass more and more, resistance to it is weakening. FIFA, the international soccer federation, now allows artificial fields in international competition, though visiting teams must be allowed to practice on them beforehand. As Lennart Johansson, the president of UEFA (the European soccer federation), told Britain’s Daily Telegraph , “The quality of artificial surfaces is now much better, certainly much better than a lousy grass pitch in England in December.”
Natural grass will still be required for 2006 World Cup matches, but the great former player Pelé has endorsed pseudoturf for the 2010 tournament. Recent years have even seen successful systems that combine real and fake turf, such as DD GrassMaster, in which an embedded matrix of artificial grass strengthens and anchors a natural-grass field. The Denver Broncos use this system, as do such European soccer titans as Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Artificial turf has also been used in landscaping for commercial buildings and private homes, as well as for applications like “dog day care.” Even the dead can now enjoy its benefits, as the Sunset Hills Memorial Park, in Apple Valley, California, has installed a product called Virtual Lawn around the graves of such distinguished residents as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. As the cemetery’s owner told a newspaper, “There are so many advantages.…We won’t need to cut the grass or weed around the headstones, and the graves will stay as clean and shiny as the day they were set.”
Back in New York City the future looks just as bright. A decade ago many formerly grassy public parks had been beaten down to dust. According to Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner, one factor was the increasing number of people playing sports, both adults and children, but the biggest problem was the explosive growth of soccer. “Soccer chews up grass like nobody’s business,” he says. “It is a grass destroyer.” In Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, soccer raised so much dust that neighbors complained, and the Parks Department had to drag boulders onto the field to keep kids from playing.
Today Thomas Jefferson Park, like more than 30 others in the city, has converted its playing fields to artificial turf. Several dozen more conversions are planned or in progress. According to Benepe, the new tall-pile turf is cheaper than the old carpetlike versions and requires much less care than natural grass. A natural-grass soccer field costs about $250,000 to install and up to $100,000 a year to maintain (if there’s any grass left, that is). FieldTurf costs $500,000 to install but only around $5,000 a year to maintain.
Benepe says he has received few complaints about the switch. Still, if you haven’t tried artificial turf, it’s hard to imagine actually liking the stuff. So I visited East River Park, on the Lower East Side, to see it in action. The park is a veritable Eden of artificial turf, with three fields already in place. On a sunny day in June, a peewee soccer clinic was under way and a small-fry baseball practice was wrapping up. Children were running in circles around the one patch of dirt they could find, but other than that, they seemed to like the fake grass just fine.
I took off my shoes and walked to the center of a field, where the turf was softest. As I stood there and gazed out across the East River, watching a small boat chug by under a blue sky, I could almost believe it was grass between my toes.