I Never Smoked Astroturf

Tug McGraw? Joe Namath? Charles Edward Greene? Bill Lee? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I laughed out loud when I read the answer given by Major League Baseball star Tug McGraw when he was asked whether he preferred grass or Astroturf:

I dunno. I never smoked any Astroturf.

This quote appeared in a newspaper article last year listing the most bizarre quotes in sport [BQI]. But when I searched online I found that some websites claim Joe Namath, the great football quarterback, said it. Did Namath or McGraw really say this? Maybe it was made up and added to McGraw’s other wacky sayings?

Quote Investigator: There is strong evidence that McGraw did utter a version of this quip when he played for the Mets. An article in The Times of San Mateo, California on April 30, 1974 contains an interview with McGraw in which he repeats the saying and indicates that he spoke the words on television the previous day [TMA]:

Back in the Mets’ locker room, McGraw laughed and said that he might get in trouble for something he said as a guest on a San Francisco TV talk show the day before. “A young boy called up and asked me if I preferred grass or astroturf,” chuckled Tug. “And I told him that I had never smoked astroturf. I guess that I shouldn’t have said that.”

“But I think that is part of why baseball isn’t as popular today as it used to be before World War II. People don’t look at players as human beings like they used to.”

The phrasing used by McGraw for this initial version of the quip is not very clear and concise. Unsurprisingly, it was altered in subsequent reportage. QI has not seen video footage of the TV talk show, so he does not know what McGraw said on camera.

The saying has also been ascribed to other sports figures such as football quarterback: Joe Namath (Broadway Joe Namath), football defensive tackle: Charles Edward Greene (Mean Joe Greene), and baseball pitcher: Bill Lee (Bill Spaceman Lee). But these attributions appeared in later years and may be imitative and/or apocryphal.

Here are additional select citations in chronological order.

The statement McGraw made in April of 1974 was picked up and reported in the New York Times in June of 1974 [NYM]:

Tug McGraw of the Mets, whose biography is titled “Screwball,” was asked if he preferred grass or AstroTurf: “I don’t know, I’ve never smoked AstroTurf.”

A few days later the quotation appeared on the other coast of the United States in the Los Angeles Times [LAT]:

Mets pitcher Tug McGraw, on whether he prefers grass to AstroTurf: “I don’t know. I’ve never smoked AstroTurf.”

In 1982 the saying was credited to quarterback Joe Namath in “Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations” [MJN]:

JOE NAMATH American football star

asked whether he preferred Astroturf to grass

I don’t know, I never smoked Astroturf.

In July 1985 the Scottish newspaper Evening Times ran a profile of the Glasgow Lions, a team that once played American football in Scotland. The article attributed the saying about Astroturf to the American football player Charles Edward Greene who was known by the nickname “Mean Joe Greene”. (The newspaper omitted the final “e” in Greene) [LTL]:

Maybe some day soon the sport will take off and they’ll all become millionaires, like big Mean Joe Green, who said to the journalist who asked him if he preferred Astroturf to grass: “Ah don’t know man. Ah ain’t ever smoked Astroturf.” Here’s to the Lions.

In 1986 a collection of pieces by Anthony Burgess, the critic and literary figure, was published. A review by Burgess of “A Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations” included several examples from the reference [DBP]:

Instead of the epigram we have the wisecrack. Bette Davis on a passing starlet: ‘There goes the good time that was had by all.’ Alfred Hitchcock: ‘I have a perfect cure for a sore throat – cut it.’ Joe Namath American football star, asked if he preferred Astroturf to grass, said: ‘I don’t know, I never smoked Astroturf.’

In 2008 “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” credited the words to Tug McGraw, but the reference included the following comment: “this quote is also widely ascribed to Bill Lee” [BGQ].

The websites iwise.com and thinkexist.com attribute the saying to Joe Namath. This is the version given by the two websites [IJN] [TJN]:

Joe Namath: I don’t know whether I prefer Astroturf to grass. I never smoked Astroturf.

In conclusion, Tug McGraw had a notable sense of humor and was known for oddball sayings. Evidence indicates that he originated this quip though it is possible that other athletes used it after he did. Thanks for your question.

(This question was inspired by a remark made by Ellen W. in the comments section at the New York Times blog of Freakonomics: Quotes Uncovered.)

[BQI] 2010 November 2, The Independent, The Most Bizarre Quotes in Sport by Simon Rice, [Slide show gallery: 6 of 22], United Kingdom. (Accessed online at independent.co.uk on 2011 February 14) link link

[TMA] 1974 April 30, The (San Mateo) Times, “McGraw: The Mets’ Wacky Folk Hero” by Garry Niver, Page 19, Column 2, San Mateo, California. (NewspaperArchive)

[NYM] 1974 June 30, New York Times, What They Are Saying, ProQuest Page 194, Section Page 6, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)

[LAT] 1974 July 3, Los Angeles Times, Quotebook, Page E2, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[MJN] 1982, Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations compiled by Jonathon Green, Page 260, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[LTL] 1985 July 8, Evening Times, Life with the Lions by Andy Cameron, Page 4, Column 2, Scotland. (Google News archive)

[DBP] 1986, But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?: Homage to Qwert Yuiop, and Other Writings by Anthony Burgess, Now Quotes, Page 159, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper)

[BQG] 2008, Baseball’s Greatest Quotations: Revised Edition by Paul Dickson, Page 362, Column 2, HarperCollins, New York. (Google Books preview)

[IWTW] IWise Wisdom on Demand, IWise.com website, Quote attributed to Joe Namath “I never smoked Astroturf”. (Accessed 2011 February 14) link

[TETW] ThinkExist.com website, Quote attributed to Joe Namath, “I never smoked Astroturf”. (Accessed 2011 February 14) link