WILKES-BARRE – George Toma still loves Artillery Park, the place where his long career as a groundskeeper started.
When I was back home last year, I just had to go to Artillery Park and look around, Toma said from New Orleans during a recent interview by phone. I can remember the corral in center field where they kept the horses and the caissons for the 109th Field Artillery.
Toma, who turned 84 Saturday, was in New Orleans last week as head groundskeeper preparing the field for today's Super Bowl – a role he's had since before the championship game was called a super event. His story stretches out years before that.
Toma was 10 when his father died. Stanley Scheckler, who had a small grocery store in the same Edwardsville neighborhood, was like his second father. Toma said Scheckler knew he was a hard worker. Toma worked at Garrahan's Farm in the Narrows section of Edwardsville, where he was paid 10 cents an hour for 10 hours a day, six days a week.
When Scheckler needed help at the ballpark, he asked the neighborhood kid. Toma graduated from Edwardsville High School in 1946. He spent two years in the Army, but eventually he was named head groundskeeper at Artillery Park.
The Barons were a minor league team for the Cleveland Indians. Toma was sent to Cleveland to be mentored by the groundskeeper there, Emil Bossard, he said. In 1957, Toma went to work for the major league Kansas City Athletics, led by famed owner Charlie O. Finley, at Municipal Stadium.
Toma is known throughout the sports world, but he likes to say he might have left Wyoming Valley, but his home area has never left him.
Toma's uncle, John Yarrish, was a teacher and athletic director at Plains High School who encouraged Toma to stick with groundskeeping.
Toma's sister Catherine Dulski, 85, lives in the family home on Swallow Street.
Toma's son, Chip, lives on Academy Street in Plymouth. Chip is head groundskeeper at Marywood University in Scranton.
Toma has two other sons – Rick, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Ryan, a pilot for Delta Airlines.
Toma loves to talk about the old days of streetcar rides to Plymouth for Golden Quality ice cream and Huber Field for Shawnee Indians football games with Johnny Mazur at quarterback.
And last year Toma was able to walk down memory lane when he re-visited Artillery Park, now the home of the Wilkes University Colonels baseball team.
I used to think I wanted to be a male nurse, Toma said. But I would faint at the site of blood. Once I got to the ballpark, I knew what I wanted to do.