But despite the travails and triumphs of the teams we follow with such passion each season, the classic American game that legend has attributed to Abner Doubleday — played with a bat and ball — is fundamentally a profound and simple joy.
My hometown Cleveland Indians opened this 2010 baseball season on April 5th in Chicago by scratching out just four hits in a 6-0 loss to the White Sox. An ill omen, to be sure. Three days later, 250 miles east on Interstate 80, it will be Opening Day for the Toledo Mud Hens.
For some, the Toledo Mud Hens are a team of 16” softball players who played from the mid 1980’s to the early 90’s in the Chicago Theatre League, led by their manager and sweet-singing slugger, Coach Tom “Wolf” Larson. (More on these Mud Hens later.)
But for the vast majority of those who follow baseball, the Toledo Mud Hens are a minor league baseball team that plays in the International League. The current Mud Hens are the latest of a series of pro ballclubs that have called Toledo home since 1883.
The name “Mud Hens” was bestowed upon the team in 1896, as one of the two parks they played in that year was located near marshland inhabited by American Coots, also known as marsh hens or mud hens.
Today, the team mascot’s name is Muddy, and the female mascot is named Muddonna. (Which sounds a bit sacrilegious to this former altar boy’s ears – but I’m sure the reference is to the pop singer not the BVM. Which should not be confused with the MVP.)
I find it particularly interesting to note that The Mud Hens have a connection to my hometown, though only the most trivia-obsessed baseball fan living beyond Northeast Ohio will be intrigued to learn that The Mud Hens relocated temporarily to Cleveland from 1914-1915. The move was made to ensure that Cleveland’s League Park would have a game every day – and thus help the Cleveland Indians to counter territorial threats by the Federal League. (Damn that upstart Federal League!)
Another Cleveland connection to The Mud Hens is even more surprising. When the team was playing in Cleveland, it took on a new nickname: the “Iron Men”. The nickname of my high school alma mater, Cleveland Central Catholic, is “The Ironmen”. This is the kind of information baseball fans love to exchange in the long pauses between pitches, between innings, and between hot dogs and beer.
The Mud Hens may be a minor league team, but they’ve had a lot of major league talent over the years – and some legendary ballplayers have worn Mud Hens gear, including Addie Joss, Travis Fryman, Kirby Puckett, Casey Stengel, Jim Thorpe (yes, that Jim Thorpe), Frank Viola, and the great, drunken Chicago Cub’s slugger, Hack Wilson, who knocked in 191 RBI’s for the Cubbies in 1930 – a major league record that still stands. Click here for a complete list of Toledo Mud Hens alumni enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It should also be noted that Toledo is the site of a failed late 19th Century attempt to break pro baseball’s color line. The 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, was the only major league team with black players (Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother, Welday Walker) before Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers made history in 1947. Sadly, Cap Anson, the racist star of the Chicago White Stockings (alas, the modern day Cubs) refused to play on the same field as a black man. Though Anson relented when told his team would lose its share of the gate for an exhibition game against Toledo – Anson’s steadfast resistance to interracial play helped to draw an ignominious color line in baseball for another 63 years.
Now, back to 16” softball. Most of what you need to know about this wacky, egalitarian, and blessedly coed sport is encapsulated in this graphic from the website of the Chicago 16” Softball Hall of Fame.
Back in 1983, the Practical Theatre Company joined the fledgling Chicago Theatre Softball League, and someone — most likely Coach Wolf Larson himself — dubbed our team The Toledo Mud Hens. We played against teams from the Remains and Steppenwolf Theatres, among others. Bashing around the big 16” orb, a good time was had by all. And who can forget the time John Malkovich helped us to tackle Donny Moffat and give him a pink belly? But I digress…
These photos, taken in 1983, capture the distinctive batting stances of the early PTC Toledo Mud Hens. What we lacked in skill, we made up for in style. Of course, not all Mud Hens were without skill. Coach Wolf consistently crushed the ball at the plate and caught everything in centerfield within reach – and many that were far out of reach.
Terry Barron was a real honest-to-goodness shortstop that could field and throw with dexterity and flair. I witnessed Terry’s heroics many times from my post at third base. How good was I? Well, I still have a bent ring finger on my left hand from where I mishandled yet another bouncing, bounding 16” projectile.
Over the years, players came and went – but Coach Wolf continued to hold the team together with the help of player-manager Ken Snedegar, and a new cast of Mud Hens clucked together into the early 1990’s. This edition of The Mud Hens was a winner. Heck! They even won league championships! And they had baseball cards, drawn by John Goodrich.
Here’s a select batch of some of Johnny B’s favorite Mud Hens cards from the six sets that he and Ken Snedegar produced. John tells me that many Mud Hen veterans have chosen the Paul Barrosse card from the first set (1985) as their favorite Mud Hen card portrayal of all time. It certainly captures my proficiency in the field.
For John, half the fun of the cards was the meticulous stats and “fun facts” on the backs, supplied by Captain Snedegar. You can see by the reading the back of Barb Reeder’s card in ’90 how far John and Sned progressed in their card-making, stat-tabulating craft.
Today, Coach Wolf is living in faraway Madrid, Spain – where I presume they have no 16” softball. Yet I know that, even in Spain, Wolf Larson is well aware that it’s baseball’s opening week – and that The Toledo Mud Hens will take the field to start the 2010 season this Thursday.
As for the Chicago Theatre League’s Toledo Mud Hens – they played in the league championship final on August 31, 2009. Does anyone know who won? Do we still know any Mud Hens on that team? Let’s hear you cluck, Mud Hens!