The Sodfather- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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(Cheryl Carlin)

The Sodfather

Major-league teams are turning to third-generation groundskeeper Roger Bossard to give them a winning edge

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There, assisted by a small crew, Bossard does much of the mowing, fertilizing, watering, sodding, rolling, raking and edging himself. During an hours-long process that precedes every home game, each position on the infield is repeatedly wet to suit each player's preferences (hard, soft or in between). Wielding an inch-and-a-quarter hose like an artist, Bossard adds brush strokes of water to a diamond-shaped canvas. For the third and final application, he screws on a misshapen brass nozzle that once belonged to his father. Hammer-pounded at the opening to produce a fine mist, its functionality is surpassed only by its sentimental value.

Among baseball insiders and fans, it's commonly believed that Bossard (like other groundskeepers) puts his talents to devious uses. "If the visitor's bullpen mound is not the same as the main mound, say it's just an inch off as far as the drop, it literally might take the opposing pitcher three batters, four batters, maybe an inning to adjust to the drop," he told Chicago Public Radio last year. "Now, once again, I would never do anything like this. These are things that I've heard of."

Perhaps at the dinner table. Grandfather Emil, who became known as the "evil genius of groundskeepers," was a whiz at what is euphemistically called maximizing the home field advantage. Over time he honed several techniques, including tilting base lines in or out so balls rolled fair or foul, digging up or tamping down base paths to prevent or abet stealing, leaving grass long or clipping it short to slow or speed grounders. He also moved the outfield fences back 12 to 15 feet to stymie the home-run-slugging Yankees. By and large, his tricks were employed selectively to bolster home team strengths and take advantage of opponent teams' weaknesses. And just about everyone, even superstars, fell victim. Years after his 56-game hitting streak ended in 1941, Joe DiMaggio remarked that Emil and his sons had helped ruin the run. "The Yankees hated to come [to Cleveland]," DiMaggio said, "because our every defensive flaw was exploited by the Bossards the way they prepared the playing field."

Emil's contributions were so critical that Indians manager Lou Boudreau called him "the tenth man in our lineup." The stellar condition of Emil's field, combined with his surreptitious diamond doctoring, facilitated more than a few Tribe victories. "I wouldn't be surprised if [Emil] helped us win as many as ten games a year," Boudreau told Baseball Digest in 1955. During Emil's tenure, the team won the World Series in 1948 and a pennant in 1954.

By the time Emil died, in 1980, Gene had presided over Comiskey Park for 40 years without witnessing a World Series trophy in White Sox hands—the result, some said, of a curse the team suffered following the "Black Sox" gambling scandal of 1919. But it wasn't for lack of trying. More than a few players were grateful for Gene's efforts. All-star Sox second baseman Nellie Fox was a better bunter thanks to raised base lines. Those who needed speed, such as Sox sprinters Luis Aparicio and Minnie Miñoso, found a bit more pep in their steps on Gene's extra-firm base paths.

And, like his father, Gene was a master at tweaking the terrain. Opponents lost their footing on tractionless mud, grounders fizzled on shaggy grass and bunts went foul when they should have gone fair. Among Gene's most cunning inventions was an infamous bog near home plate that came to be known as "Bossard's Swamp." The quicksand-like patch of dirt slowed ground balls that were hit off the Sox's low-slung, sinkerball pitches.

Roger's initiation into the family business began early. "Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, when all the family [got] together, all the kids—we're always hearing my two uncles and Grandpa and my dad talking about players, different teams, different soils, different grasses, different fertilizers, what new technique can we come up with," he recalls. "At the time, you don't realize it's embedded in your mind. Then all of a sudden, at 14 or 15, Dad says, ‘Can you come down Sunday, the team's out of town, and give me a hand?'"

Roger officially came on board (part time, at first) during the 1967 pennant season. After waiting nearly four decades for a World Series title, he came down with the flu after the White Sox finally won in 2005 and couldn't attend his team's victory parade in downtown Chicago. He was, however, the first to get a diamond-encrusted championship ring (even before the players) when fans packed the Cell to celebrate. Except for the birth of his two children, he says, the post-series honor was "the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

On a cloudy and cool morning in late November, Wrigley's face-lift is complete. But is the team worthy of its new field? "I can't say I want the Cubs to [win a World Series]...obviously being a Sox person," Bossard confessed to Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Sullivan. "Let's just say I hope the Cubs are in it next year, playing us."

Meanwhile, Bossard has begun to think of hanging up his hose—or at least cutting back, in eight or nine years. "There's no way I could hit a light switch and just shut it off," he says. And if Brandon, his 10-year-old son, wants to continue the family business, that would be just fine. Bossard pére has already seen early signs of interest. "This past year I take him out [to the Cell] and we play catch, I hit him fly balls and then I do some of the work I need to do," Roger says. "And doggone if he doesn't grab the hose and I don't tell him a thing. I gotta tell you, it almost brought a tear to my eye because it brought me back to when I was a kid."

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