EDWARDSVILLE — Grassroots.
George Toma — the “Sod God” and the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Man” — returned to his native turf Wednesday, paying a visit to Artillery Park where he learned his trade of grounds-keeping.
That knowledge, learned under the tutelage of his Edwardsville neighbor, Stan Scheckler, sent Toma on a storied career as head groundskeeper for all 48 Super Bowls. He made his name at football stadiums, but a Wyoming Valley baseball park is where he started his career.
“I’ve lived in Kansas City since 1957, but this is my home,” Toma, 85, said. “The Valley With A Heart is where I tell everybody I’m from. The people here are like family. If it weren’t for what I learned here at this place, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This will always be my home town.”
Toma’s father died when George was 10. The family lived on Swallow Street and his neighbor across the street was Scheckler, who worked as groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Class A Eastern League.
“He was like a father to me,” Toma said. “I learned a lot right here.”
As Toma walked onto Artillery Park, now the home of the Wilkes University Colonels, he recalled the old stadium — he pointed to where the rest rooms were, the bullpens behind the bleachers, the pump house, the offices in the center of the old grandstand, the trolley repair shop behind the third base line and the 109th Field Artillery horses.
Toma said he could close his eyes and go back in time and hear the roar of the crowd as the Wilkes-Barre Barons took the field. He remembered players like Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon and Richie Ashburn and others who played at Artillery Park.
“It’s in pretty good shape,” Toma said of the field.
Learned by doing
Toma started hanging around at the park with Scheckler around 1941. Toma was a 12-year-old who lost his father two years earlier and Scheckler took him under his wing. Toma watched and listened and worked hard, learning his trade.
In 1946, Toma became head groundskeeper at Artillery and Scheckler took over driving the team bus and doubled as the trainer.
Toma held the position until 1950 when he entered the military and went to Korea. He returned in 1953 to find no baseball at Artillery — Wilkes-Barre had lost its franchise to Reading.
Toma got a call from Hank Greenberg who wanted Toma to come to Reading to be the groundskeeper, but Toma declined. Before he nearly accepted an offer to go to Canada, Wilkes-Barre got an independent baseball franchise made up mostly of Detroit Tigers prospects and Artillery Park was filled with baseball again.
Toma was put in charge of the grounds.
Going back in time
Toma looked around Artillery Park, remembering nearly every detail of what it was like back in the day. He also remembered what was across the street where Wilkes University’s Ralston Field now sits.
“Garrahan’s Farm was there and I worked the fields for 10 cents an hour,” Toma said. “Barney Lesko also had a farm and I worked for him too. And the coal mine was right over there by the dike.”
Toma remembered spectacular State Police rodeos at Artillery Park that ripped up the field, but were fun to watch. And Coughlin High School’s football team practicing in the park — varsity in the outfield and junior varsity on the infield.
“This was real baseball in this ballpark,” Toma said. “Every time I would run into Bob Lemon, or Richie Ashburn or Don Zimmer, they would always talk about Wilkes-Barre. How it was such a great baseball town and how they liked playing here.”
Toma visited with his sister, Catherine Dulski, 87, who still lives in the family homestead. He said many of his high school buddies have passed away — guys like Jimmy Mazillo who operated the scoreboard at Artillery.
Toma said the big trees along Northampton Street were small when he worked there. He said parts of the chain-link fence remain from the old park.
“If I close my eyes, I can see it all,” he said. “Those memories are still very much alive with me. … This is coming home for me.”
Is he ready for next year’s Super Bowl in Arizona?
“Lord be willing, I’ll be there,” he said.