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Apr. 17—With Fifth Third Field hosting exhibition games between big league taxi squads this month, I have to say, the novelty — and nostalgia — of it is all is kind of cool.

And I don’t just mean the return of our long-lost pastime, though that’s great, too.

I’m talking about the sight of teams playing in major league uniforms in Toledo’s minor league ballpark, including the beauties worn by the Tigers, replete with the best logo in baseball: the Old English D.

While these prospect-filled contests are billed as a peek into the future, the imagery also invites us on a look back.

Before teams of up and comers sported the threads of the Tigers, Cubs, and Reds for exhibitions in Toledo, the greats of the game did just the same.

There was a time when the biggest stars and best teams regularly passed through town.

Cy Young. Ty Cobb. Christy Mathewson. Tris Speaker. Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Hank Greenberg. Charlie Gehringer. Al Kaline. Frank Robinson. Sweet Lou and Tram. Miguel Cabrera.

All visited with their big league clubs, and they did not tend to disappoint.

The Babe played at Swayne Field three times — with the Red Sox and Yankees — and in 1928 followed a home run by Gehrig with an even bigger blast of his own. Kaline played at old Lucas County Stadium in Maumee six times and once hit a homer that orbited not just over the 410-foot wall in center, but the taller second row of fences beyond. And Robinson, well, he delivered the most famous blast of them all.

In 1976, Robinson, the player-manager of the Indians, turned a friendly game against the Mud Hens — then Cleveland’s top affiliate — into a bicentennial fireworks show, decking Bob Reynolds with a left-right combo after the Toledo pitcher whistled a fastball over his head. Robinson had cut Reynolds in spring training.

“Probably the most bizarre incident I’ve ever seen,” longtime Hens broadcaster Jim Weber said.

Today, these pomp-filled affairs may seem like a relic from another eon.

Long gone are the days when major league owners filled the schedule — and their pockets — with exhibitions, as is the tradition of big clubs playing an annual game at their Triple-A affiliate. The first collective bargaining agreement in 1968 limited teams to three in-season exhibitions per year and, by 2002, they were banned altogether.

But for more than a century of baseball fans in Toledo, these contests were a staple, featuring big names, crazy games, and enough fun tales to fill a $1 program. (Another quick one: In 1975, Phillies star Dick Allen was slated for a one-at-bat cameo against the Mud Hens. Never bothering to change out of his warmup suit, Allen slugged a homer, circled the bases, and, as the Blade chronicled, “continued jogging to a car in the Rec Center parking lot. He reportedly was headed to Raceway Park.”)

We’ll spare you the book, but with the help of indispensable Mud Hens historian John Husman and our own dive into the archives, I think I’ve got the highlights.

Start in 1914. While major league teams have popped in since 1876 (Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings beat the semi-pro Toledo Athletics a cool 43-2) — and for one season Toledo had such a team itself (1884) — this was the year of the first showstopper, courtesy of John Willys, owner of the Willys-Overland Motors Company, the city’s largest employer.

At a time when baseball was king and Willys was the nation’s second-largest auto manufacturer after Ford, the boss knew just how to make a splash. Willys rented out Swayne Field and paid Connie Mack’s defending champion Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago Cubs a then-record $2,000 each to play a game for the enjoyment of his employees.

The Toledo News-Bee called the June contest “one of the most notable exhibition ballgames ever played,” as a full house of 12,000 workers and guests watched Hall of Fame A’s slugger Frank Baker hit a homer to right onto Detroit Avenue and the Cubs win, 8-7.

In fact, the day was so nice that Willys did it twice.

The next summer, he brought in John McGraw’s powerhouse New York Giants and the Tigers, which pitted Mathewson against Cobb. Detroit won 4-3 in a tidy 1 hour, 22 minutes (yes, they played nine innings).

The games marked the start of a golden era of exhibitions here.

Two years later, just before the start of the season, the Toledo Iron Men — as the Hens were then known — hosted the Red Sox, Indians, and Tigers on four consecutive April days. The first two were especially of note, with Toledo beating the reigning champs from Boston, 6-0 and 6-1, including some pitcher named Ruth in the opener.

Wonder whatever happened to that guy? After Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1920, he returned to Toledo for two more games, most famously in 1928.

By then, he was the biggest star in sports and his June 18 trip here with the Yankees was bigger than a state occasion, beginning with a visit to the Blade at its just-opened downtown building (which, of course, remains today).

There, in an office inside the newsroom, he made the day of a young fan with a disability — “This is the nicest thing that ever happened to me,” the boy said — and signed dozens of baseballs. Ruth then repaired to the front balcony, where he rained the balls down on the thousands of fans below. (Ruth also left behind a gracious note for Paul Block, Sr., then-publisher of the Blade.)

“Bruised elbows and jostled ribs meant nothing to the baseball cheerers,” the newspaper reported. “It was a ‘Babe Ruth ball or bust.'”

“I only wish I had a baseball for every one of you,” the Babe announced.

Unfortunately, that was it for the day, as rains washed out the exhibition between the Bombers and Casey Stengel’s Mud Hens. But Ruth and the rest of Murderers’ Row made the wait for the rescheduled game worth it. In September, he and Gehrig hit back-to-back homers onto Detroit Avenue in leading the world champion Yankees to an 8-6 victory.

Hard to top that, huh?

(Well, actually … as a brief aside, we should note this wasn’t even the best performance in Toledo by a Yankees legend. That would belong to Mickey Mantle, but it came as a member of the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees’ top affiliate. In a 1951 game, the 19-year-old wonder boy from Commerce, Okla., dazzled a crowd of 8,323 at Swayne Field, slugging two homers and hitting for the cycle. “Mickey Mantle 7; the Mud Hens 0,” the Blade reported. Additionally, greats like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Kirby Puckett, and Derek Jeter all played in Toledo as minor leaguers, but never while in the majors.)

Now, where were we?

That’s right, the Tigers’ many exhibition games in Toledo. (At least that’s where we are now!)

No team has played here more, from the days of Cobb to Kaline, with Greenberg and Gehringer in between, and 14 times since 1987, when the Tigers and Hens — off and on partners over the years — exchanged vows for good.

Beginning in ’87, the Tigers made an annual midseason trip to Maumee, much to the annoyance of the major leaguers, but much to our delight. Many years, overflow crowds well into five digits packed Ned Skeldon Stadium to see Sparky and Lou and Tram; to watch the Hens tag former MVP Willie Hernandez for seven runs in three innings in 1987; to smile as Toledo manager John Wockenfuss summoned himself from the bullpen for five scoreless innings in 1989; to crane their necks when Cecil Fielder hit a home run in 1991 that reportedly just landed on the Turnpike last week; and to curse their luck — and Bud Selig — when the game ended in a 1-1 tie in 1992.

The Tigers and Mud Hens played their last midseason game in 2000, and, since the Hens moved downtown in 2002, they have met once, the week before the season in 2012. With Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and the regulars all playing three to five innings, the Tigers won 8-3 in front of 12,000 fans at Fifth Third Field.

The day couldn’t have been more fun.

It also couldn’t have been more of a vestige of another time, leaving us only with a trove of memories, stirred up now more than ever.

First Published April 17, 2021, 10:00am