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Today in Cubs history: The Cubs considered artificial turf for Wrigley Field

Yes, really.

Wrigley Field in the 1960s
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Can you imagine Wrigley Field with artificial turf?

It was being seriously considered, according to an article in The Sporting News published 52 years ago today, November 30, 1968.

In the article, Jerome Holtzman wrote:

Cub Owner Philip Knight Wrigley says he is giving serious thought to plowing up the Wrigley Field grass and replacing it with Tartan-Turf, one of the new synthetics.

Said Wrigley:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that these new artificial surfaces are the coming thing. We have been studying development of it and there’s no doubt it would pay for itself within a few years — because maintenance of grass turf is expensive.”

Then Wrigley added:

“It’s really more of a matter of when we can afford it. When we have the money we’ll probably install a synthetic grass. But it won’t be this year (in time for the 1969 season) because we’ve already earmarked $500,000 for the rebuilding of the right field upper deck.”

(FWIW, $500,000 in 1968 dollars is about $3.7 million today.)

Artificial turf was definitely the new up-and-coming thing in 1968. The article goes on to say that the Cardinals were considering putting artificial turf in Busch Stadium in 1969 — something they went ahead and did — and that the new ballparks then under construction in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh would have fake grass. Artificial turf was installed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco from 1970-78, and in a bizarre half-measure, the White Sox put artificial turf in old Comiskey Park in 1969 — but only in the infield. The Sox removed that and put grass back in 1976.

Holtzman’s article noted Cubs manager Leo Durocher’s disdain for artificial turf, which at that point was in only one ballpark, the Astrodome, and quoted him:

“They spent 20 million dollars to build a ball park and then they put in a ten-cent infield.”

The article notes that Tartan-Turf, which was being considered by the Cubs and other teams, was considered superior to AstroTurf:

Unlike AstroTurf, which is laid on the ground, Tartan-Turf is put down on a layer of fine, textured asphalt, which in turn covers six inches of gravel. Though there haven’t been any games played on Tartan-Turf, it is possible that it wouldn’t be as “fast” as AstroTurf.

At the time, according to Holtzman, team owners not only thought they’d save money on maintenance, but that artificial turf would cut down on injuries. Obviously, the latter turned out not to be true. Consider what happened to Andre Dawson playing the first decade of his career on bad artificial turf in Montreal. It didn’t wind up being cost-effective, either, because it quickly faded and wore out and had to be replaced fairly often.

At the peak of artificial turf’s heyday, which was after Skydome opened in Toronto in 1989, 10 of the 26 teams had fake grass fields (Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Seattle and Toronto). After new parks were built in the 1990s, this number slowly dropped to two by the mid-2010s (Toronto and Tampa Bay), but now some other parks (Arizona and Texas) have put in artificial surfaces. The technology has significantly improved over the years, with fake grass looking and playing much more like the real thing.

If the Cubs had indeed installed artificial turf in 1969, they likely would have torn it out in the 1980s or 1990s, as many other teams did. Personally, I’m glad they shelved the project and never did it at all.