On this week’s edition of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Josh Levin discussed a peculiar field maintenance strategy. An adapted transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Levin’s essay by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.
Last weekend, a writer named Shaena Montanari shared a Facebook post that included the phrases “24 gallons of gasoline was poured and set on fire” and, inevitably, “a poor decision was made.”
Montanari then shared a video that showed a small section of a baseball infield that was literally on fire, with a solitary man futilely shoveling very small amounts of dirt in the direction of the flames.
According to a local politician, repairs to the field will cost around $50,000. “Unfortunately, it was not a very good idea,” the politician said. “In theory it sounded plausible, I guess, to those who participated.”
Ridding one’s infield of moisture by setting it aflame sounded so plausible, in fact, that someone in Utah had tried the same thing in March.
In that case, a high school baseball coach allegedly poured 15 to 20 gallons of unleaded gasoline and lit it on fire in an effort to dry the wet field. That coach was put on administrative leave, and there are concerns that the fuel could seep into the groundwater.
As noted in the local news story embedded above, there is a video on YouTube dating to 2011 that’s titled “Somebody’s version of drying the baseball field.”
You might’ve heard someone in the background say something like, “I’m not sure we’re going to get away with this.” I don’t know if they got away with this, but a Little League manager in Illinois was issued a citation in 2006 for “using gasoline in an attempt to burn off excess water on a baseball diamond.” And in 2010, a baseball association in Canada set some diesel fuel on fire to dry an infield, saying, “What usually takes a day, day and a half for Mother Nature to take care of, we did in half an hour.” As Barry Petchesky wrote in Deadspin at the time, “The field was shut down by the town as an environmental risk, and won’t be available for the rest of the season. But the field’s totally dry now.”
In all the stories I’ve cited so far, tongue-clucking local authorities deemed setting the infield on fire a bad thing to do. But I’ve also found a bunch of instances in which setting the infield on fire—which, to be clear, I do not recommend or endorse—is presented in a more positive light.
The earliest reference I can find to the practice is from 1948, in a San Francisco Examiner piece about a baseball game between the San Francisco Seals and the Cleveland Indians:
Yesterday’s contest was interrupted for fifteen minutes midway by rain. It was delayed fifteen minutes while groundskeepers burned gasoline and distributed sawdust around the infield strips. It is remarkable that the two teams played so well under such miserable conditions. There was only one error in the contest.
I also found, in a book titled Vaudeville on the Diamond, a story about how Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1948.
Asheville had experienced heavy rainstorms two days prior to the game, the field was too wet, and team officials feared that they would have to cancel the game. According to [a local writer], the desperate grounds crew came up with the idea of pouring gasoline on the field and lighting it on fire. … They even flew a helicopter over the field to fan the flames and accelerate the drying process. … The ploy actually worked, and the field dried off enough to allow the game to take place, and only twenty minutes behind schedule.
More recently, I found a 2000 story about how the groundskeeper for the minor-league Wisconsin Timber Rattlers set that team’s infield on fire. “Just throw a little gasoline on it,” he said. “That’s the only way we could dry out the clay. It’s 50 degrees out, so the warm weather’s not going to do it. We were trying to expedite the process.” The outcome: “It worked a little bit. It helped solidify the shortstop area, but it was still a little soft.”
But before you lash your gas can to the top of your Subaru and set out for the ballpark, please consider yet another argument against lighting the infield on fire. This one comes via a 1977 article in the Salt Lake Tribune:
The Spokane-Tacoma game was postponed because of gas fumes. Umpire Eric Gregg became ill from fumes of gasoline burned to dry out the home plate area Sunday in Spokane and called off the contest after two innings. Gregg said he called the game because he did not want to endanger his health.
For a final ruling, let us turn to former Baltimore Orioles head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska, who wrote the following on ballfields.com in 2015:
In order to light an infield soil on fire, it requires a fuel to keep the fire going since soil is not particularly flammable or capable of sustaining a fire. Gasoline and diesel fuel are the likely accelerators here. … Most of the time this is met with very limited, if any, success. The heat is not around long enough to evaporate much water. However, these actions likely result in contaminating the soil and in many parts of the country nowadays, this is illegal.
Also, don’t throw cat litter on your wet infield, which is apparently another thing people do. I know—if you can’t throw cat litter on it or light it on fire, then what’s the point? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps this is why baseball is no longer the national pastime: too many Puddle Sponges, not enough open flames.