Camden Yards tomatoes recall Memorial Stadium
No, you’re not dreaming, and yes, those are tomatoes you see growing near the Orioles bullpen where pitchers warm up at Camden Yards.
“They were planted by Orioles groundskeeper Nicole Sherry, and she’s very familiar with the rivalry between Earl Weaver and groundskeeper Pat Santarone,” said Bill Stetka, who is director of Orioles alumni and team historian. “Nicole says it’s a nod to Memorial Stadium.”
What became known as the Great Tomato Wars between Orioles manager Earl Weaver and Pasquale “Pat” Santarone dates back to the early 1960s in Elmira, New York, when Weaver managed the minor league Orioles affiliate, and the two men became close friends.
Santarone had gotten his green thumb from his father, Val, an Italian immigrant, and was succeeded at his death by his son, who had begun cutting grass at the ballpark as a 7-year-old.
Weaver came to Baltimore in 1968 as Orioles manager, and the next year, he brought his pal Santarone to Memorial Stadium as groundskeeper. When the Orioles won the World Series in 1970, Santarone planted his first crop of tomatoes in a fenced-off area in left field in foul territory, and continued doing so until 1991 when he retired.
Every season, Santarone, who was known as the “Sodfather,” put in at least 10 plants he had raised as seedlings in a mixture of his own making that consisted of infield dirt and ground-up sod.
For much of the next 17 years, Weaver and his groundskeeper maintained a rivalry only equaled by that of a Kardashian family feud.
Fans were delighted to hear the two tomato experts continually bicker in public and in the media over their growing methods and how they tasted.
In a 1979 interview with The Sun, Santarone said Weaver, who didn’t know a lawn mower from a rake, had learned everything he knew about growing tomatoes from him.
“But I didn’t teach him all my secrets,” he said. “That’s what makes him so grouchy — sitting up all night trying to figure out what I haven’t told him yet.”
Weaver told the newspaper that Santarone’s tomatoes were “nothing more than scrub tomatoes ... all pulpy inside.”
Santarone shot back: “He’s never grown that big a tomato in his life. He wouldn’t know how.”
The groundskeeper also had been a consultant to Pimlico Race Course, and in the 1979 interview, couldn’t resist saying that his tomatoes had been fertilized with manure from Spectacular Bid, and in 1978, from Secretariat.
“Do you know anybody else who just missed having Triple Crown manure in his garden?” he asked.
He added: “That Weaver — from the looks of his tomatoes, I believe he’s getting his from a horse than ran ninth in a ninehorse race.”
Santarone accused Weaver of watering his plants with buckets of chlorinated water from his swimming pool.
“That’s a rotten lie,” Weaver told The Sun. “The truth is that in my weak moments, I imagine this guy is my friend and I invite him to dinner, and when I’m not looking, he gets a bucket and draws water out of the pool and dumps them on the plants.”
“I’ll say this for him,” Santarone countered. “He’s a tenacious SOB. He hates to be beat, whether it’s baseball, golf, cards or growing tomatoes.”
Back at 33rd Street, the groundskeeper had his own problems with spilled beers and sodas and fly balls, and said he washed off his plants with a hose because he didn’t want “alcoholic tomatoes.”
Another liability was long foul balls that injured plants, with some being almost pruned in half. But with Santarone’s expertise, they grew back.
He also explained that his crop benefited from the sprinklers and field lights that remained on until midnight, producing a little artificial sunlight.
In 1979, an over-exuberant fan, George L. McAllister Jr. of Federal Hill, climbed out of the stands and ripped one of Santarone’s tomato plants out of its home. Baltimore Police charged him with “malicious destruction of a tomato plant,” and McAllister’s woes did not end there, as he was charged with violating baseball rule No. 56, which prohibits fans from going onto the field.
While Weaver’s tomatoes might have slumbered in his home garden, Santarone’s tomatoes became worldwide celebrities because whenever a ball popped down the left field side, they were on TV. So popular were they that fans worldwide wrote him asking for seeds.
The two men put their rivalry aside long enough to patent a fertilizer they named Earl ‘n Pat’s Tomato Food.
“Pat was a gourmet cook, and he won chicken cooking contests,” said Stetka, noting a little-known fact that Santarone also grew peppers with his tomatoes.
Santarone had planned to move his tomato patch to Camden Yards, but it never happened. He retired in 1991, and moved away to Hamilton, Montana. It’s the current groundskeeper, Sherry, who fulfilled that much-delayed dream.
Weaver, who retired from the Orioles for the first time in 1982, then returned for the 1985 and 1986 seasons, told The Sun upon hanging up his uniform the first time: “I still grow better tomatoes than he does, I don’t care what he says.”
He added: “No more gardening. No more tomatoes. No more peppers. No more squashes. That was all right as long as I was a club manager. But it’s work, and I’m sick and tired of working.”
Santarone died in 2008 at the age of 79.
At the time of Santarone’s death, Weaver addressed the tomato question one last time in the groundskeeper’s obituary: “Well, he was there when I’d go on the road, and I think there was a little tomfoolery. He might have been pinching some of my buds.”
Weaver was 82 when he died on an Orioles Caribbean cruise in 2013.