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 Fields of Green. Story by Wright Thompson.

 

He takes in the world he's helped create. Here, just off Route AC, south of Columbia, grass is king. But over the next hill, past the pond and the trees and the neatly arranged research plots, who knows? "We always made the assumption that we'd have natural grass fields," says Fresenburg, "and it's not looking that way. We took it for granted they'd always be there."

Fake grass, like most synthetic things, was both a product of the search for progress and a response to it. In the 1950s, as America moved away from its agrarian roots, sociologists noticed some frightening side results. People in the city, without the green grass and open spaces, weren't as fit as people in the country. The Ford Foundation got together with Monsanto, trying to develop an urban playing surface.

It took years, but in 1965 two scientists named James Faria and Robert Wright did it, taking the first swing at Mother Nature's supremacy. The first fake grass was installed in Houston's Astrodome; hence its name. Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., became the first outdoor stadium to go with the synthetic stuff, according to inventor and technology historian Mary Bellis. Much of the sporting world followed. Even baseball, with its roots in the pastoral history of America, began to switch. It was the perfect surface for a new, post-war America: fast, slick, and a testament to our ingenuity.

Even as Fresenburg was dreaming of the outdoors, the country was becoming more like the world around his parents' bakery and less like the one around his grandparents' place on the river.

AstroTurf could be used indoors and, when used outdoors, it required less work than grass. Less work equaled less money, which is athletic directors' favorite song. Some athletes hated it; it was hard on the knees. Other players, the speed guys, loved it.

"I didn't mind playing on turf because I could fly on turf," says former MU quarterback Corby Jones, now an attorney in Kansas City. "I knew I was going faster. I remember the turf in Tulsa -- I broke a 60-yard touchdown. And I was floating. It was real hard turf. You didn't want to fall on it, but you wanted to run on it. It was like running on cement."

Of course, all things are cyclical, or at least grass lovers hope so. By the 1990s, the trend was reversing. The '80s had ended. Excess was out. Grunge was in. So were retro ballparks, green urban spaces and, of course, natural grass.

"We watch the pendulum swing all the time," says Dave Minner, the Iowa State University turf grass specialist who, while working at MU in the 1990s, hired Fresenburg. "The pendulum was swinging away from synthetic turf toward natural grass."

       
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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.