The vast swards of synthetics, the acrylic acres, the polyester parks we play in—these were spun off from a technology that was meant, in the beginning at least, to serve the fitness needs of America's children. AstroTurf, as we've come to know it, was not, as you might suppose, born as an answer to the surfacing needs of America's stadiums. In truth the scientists weren't thinking at all about the future of football in Buffalo as they stretched elastomers. It never occurred to them. They were looking for something that the kids in New York City playgrounds could "bounce on."
It is another of those accidental applications, an invention now more famous for something other than its intended use. Alas, the kids in New York City playgrounds still run around mostly on asphalt, but almost every city north of Knoxville has, whether we like it or not, some kind of stadium carpeted in the bright green plastic that has altered the way our games are played.
The stuff was made famous in the mid-'60s when Judge Roy Hofheinz challenged the Monsanto Company, primarily a chemicals manufacturer, to do some interior decorating in his new Houston Astrodome. The judge's grass, underexposed to natural light, kept dying and was unsightly. So Monsanto produced some 14,000 square yards of an odd padded material, rolled it out under the dome and stitched it together with three miles of zippers. It was a huge hit. Artificial turf, manufactured by several companies now, is in use in hundreds of stadiums, domed and otherwise, in countries throughout the world and is known, whatever the trademark, by the judge's weatherproofed ball field.
But the turf was actually invented because a New York educator was looking for a way that kids in city parks could play without skinning their knees. It was the notion of the late Dr. Harold Gores that if there were some soft surface that could be cheaply made, then more urban playgrounds could be built—on school rooftops, perhaps. Gores was the first president of the Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL), a nonprofit research organization that was developed and funded in the late 1950s by the Ford Foundation in response to published studies, done during the Korean War, that showed that city boys were generally in much worse physical shape than their country brethren. Gores reckoned the reason was the lack of open space, the dearth of fields and playgrounds in urban areas. He decided that if he couldn't actually make a tree grow in Brooklyn, he could at least get somebody to make him a counterfeit countryside there.
Gores asked Monsanto to work on his idea. His widow, Helen, remembers: "He'd come home night after night with swatches. They all looked like rubber and felt like rubber to me." There were unusual requirements, standards that real grass never had to meet. It didn't need to be watered or cut, but it had to drain, provide some bounce and have longevity. Finally Monsanto came up with something similar to what Gores had envisioned. Monsanto called it ChemGrass, and in 1964 EFL underwrote its first installation—to the tune of $200,000—for the field house at the Moses Brown School, a private boys' school in Providence. (It wasn't exactly inner-city, as Gores had intended for the product, but the school's headmaster had served on Ford Foundation committees.)
The faux field, however, was not destined for many schoolyards. Maintenance might be low, but that first sodding remains expensive. A spokesman for Balsam Corporation, which bought the AstroTurf business from Monsanto in the 1980s, says, "It really hasn't been widely used for playgrounds. Soon after its invention, the product went quickly into use for athletic fields."
When Gores died last year at the age of 83, the Associated Press noted his contributions as "an adviser on education matters to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson." Under Gores the EFL persuaded schools to accept air conditioning and carpeting, both virtually unused before the 1970s, and to eliminate some interior walls so children could enjoy freedom of movement. He was known for innovation. But none of the obituaries remembered to give him credit for his part in the development of all those year-round indoor meadows where grown men, if not the boys he meant to help, play amid the fresh scent of nylon.