Tuesday, Mar 20, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Briggs


Mud Hens’ Dream Team has some greats

Dig through Toledo's baseball history finds Hall of Famers, legends

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    Mike Hessman waves to the Fifth Third Field crowd after hitting a grand slam in a 2015 game. Hessman was the heart of the 2005 and ’06 Mud Hens title teams.


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    The Hens are honoring the Dream Team's 25th anniversary this weekend with retro uniforms.

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The Toledo Mud Hens are going retro chic this weekend in rocking red, white, and blue threads modeled after those of perhaps the greatest sports team ever mobilized. 

You know them as the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. 

Or the Dream Team. 

Which — always dangerously — got us thinking. 

What if we made a Mud Hens Dream Team? Position by position, from Joss to Bresnahan to Stengel to Puckett, the turn of the 20th century to present, who were the best players — and managers and executives — to wear a minor league baseball uniform for Toledo? 

In light of the Hens’ coolest uniforms of the season and the 25th anniversary of Magic, Bird, and Jordan joining forces for world supremacy — poor, Angola — we gave it our inexpert crack. 

There are only two rules for inclusion on the Dream Team. A player had to be a full-time Hen, meaning those who only passed through on a rehab assignments are not eligible. He also had to be, well, real. Apologies to Ed Crankshaft, Montgomery Brewster, and Lou Brown. Great Mud Hens, all. 

As for the criteria, our definitively, categorically ... subjective list sought to identify — with a couple notable exceptions — the best all-time former Hens, not necessarily the best Hens. In other words, success in the big leagues outweighed achievements here, giving us Casey Stengel over all-time Hens wins leader and first-ballot good guy Larry Parrish at manager, Kirby Puckett over, say, Ryan Ludwick in the outfield, and so on. 

Here goes nothing ... 

Manager — Casey Stengel: The man who navigated the pinstriped clubhouses of Maris, Mantle, and DiMaggio is just the guy for the job. One of the game’s great managers — and characters — Stengel got his big break in Toledo, where he arrived in 1926 as only he could. 

After spending the 1925 season as the player-manager and team president of the Worcester (Mass.) Panthers, Stengel was recruited by New York Giants skipper John McGraw to lead the powerhouse franchise’s top affiliate in the Glass City. The only problem: Stengel remained under contract in Worcester. To solve the dilemma, he reportedly penned a letter to the club president himself. 

Dear Mr. Stengel: 

Having an opportunity [to] improve my position by going to a higher classification as manager, I hereby tender my resignation as manager of the Worcester club. I cannot leave without thanking you for your courtesy, consideration and advice, which was of great help in running the club. 

Very truly yours, 

Casey Stengel

He received a prompt and remarkably courteous reply. 

Dear Casey: 

Your letter came as a surprise but we realize that ability should be rewarded. Therefore, I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered and wish you luck in your new position. We congratulate Toledo on getting your valuable services. 

Very truly yours, 

Charles D. Stengel

Stengel went on to manage the Hens for six seasons, leading Toledo its first pennant in 1927, and later presided over one of baseball’s most celebrated dynasties. His Yankees teams won seven World Series titles between 1949 and 1958. Incidentally, the manager of the preceding Yankees dynasty had Toledo ties too. Joe McCarthy, who also led the Bombers to seven championships, spent four seasons as a Hens second baseman.

As for Stengel’s lineup ... 

First base — Bill Terry: On Sept. 18, 1923, the Giants purchased the contracts of two Mud Hens players: Freddie Lindstrom and Terry. Both became Hall of Famers. One even became a Dream Teamer! That’s Terry, best remembered as the last NL player to hit .400 in a season, batting .401 in 1930. He batted .362 with 29 homers in 197 games here in 1922 and ’23. 

Second base — Tim Teufel: Teufel never became the star many envisioned after he batted .323 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs with the Hens in 1983, then finished fourth in the AL rookie of the year balloting the next season. But the International League MVP — best known for his hip-swiveling Teufel Shuffle as he readied for each pitch — nonetheless went on to a solid, 11-year big league career with the Twins, Mets, and Padres.

Shortstop — Bobby Murcer: Hailed as the next Mickey Mantle, the former Yankees center fielder began his career as ... the previous Derek Jeter? In 1966, Murcer passed by Key Street en route to Broadway as a 20-year-old shortstop for Toledo, then affiliated with the Bombers.

Murcer batted .266 with 15 homers in 133 games, walloping his way into history along the way. He homered in four consecutive at-bats of a June doubleheader against the Toronto Maple Leafs — hitting two in each game — at Lucas County Stadium. Incidentally, the five-time all-star later matched the feat in New York, where he indeed succeeded Mantle in center and spent almost four decades as a player, executive, and announcer for the franchise. 

Third base — Mike Hessman: No shortage of choices here. We wouldn’t argue against Lindstrom, the schoolboy star who secured the hot corner in Toledo before he could legally drive a Model T. Or Travis Fryman, a five-time all-star who spent the 1990 season with the Hens. Both players surely enjoyed more success in the big leagues — the main criteria for this team. 

But at the risk of a fan mutiny, Hessman is the exception. His life of long bus rides and longer balls became legend here, where the beloved slugger was the heart and muscle of the Hens’ championship teams in 2005 and ’06 and the IL MVP in ’07. The modern-day Crash Davis, who spent seven seasons in Toledo and collected all but 223 of his 7,959 career at-bats somewhere other than the majors, retired in 2015 with a minor league record 433 homers. 

Outfielder — Kirby Puckett: Keeping in mind the bone-chilled early-season crowds at Lucas County Stadium, untold dozens of Toledoans witnessed first-hand the greatest Mud Hen since World War II.

Puckett began the 1984 season in Toledo, but the then-24-year-old Twins prospect came and went with little fanfare, batting .263 with a homer and five RBIs in 21 games with the Hens. When he was summoned to Minnesota along with Toledo teammate Mike Hart, The Blade ran only a photo of Hart with a story headlined: “Mud Hens Lose Outfield Pair.”

Turns out, it was no pair. Hart had 17 hits across parts of two big league seasons. Puckett, of course, became the ebullient, five-tool face of two Twins championship teams and one of the best pure hitters in history. The late Hall of Famer made 10 straight all-star games before sudden blindness in his right eye forced him to retire in 1996.

Outfielder — Hack Wilson: Cleveland fans might remember the name from Manny Ramirez’s ethereal 1999 season, when, in driving in a franchise-record 165 runs, the Indians slugger trespassed closer to Wilson’s single-season RBI record than anyone in the past 79 years ... and still fell 26 runs short. Wilson had 191 RBIs in 1930 for the Cubs, the capstone of a career that detoured through Toledo on the way to Cooperstown.

A 5-foot-6, 195-pound keg of a man, Wilson came to the Hens in 1925 amid a sophomore slump with the Giants. After batting .343 in 55 games in Toledo, he was curiously left unprotected, and the last-place Cubs snagged him on waivers. All Wilson did was lead the NL in home runs four of the next five seasons. 

Outfielder — Jim Thorpe: The head says Elmer Flick, a turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer for the Indians. The heart says Curtis Granderson, a three-time all-star who played a leading role in the Hens’ 2005 renaissance.

But how do you pass on the greatest athlete of all time? Thorpe was Dan and Dave and Deion all in one, only better. The multidiscipline star not only was the hero of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm — he won the pentathlon and decathlon — and a Pro Football Hall of Famer but, yes, a half-decent outfielder in Toledo. Thorpe batted .358 in 133 games with the Hens in 1921.

Catcher — Roger Bresnahan: A Hall of Famer and the best-known catcher of the dead-ball era, Bresnahan starred everywhere from the sandlots of Toledo to the coliseums of New York. In the 1905 World Series, the Toledo Central High graduate caught four shutouts — three by Christy Mathewson — and hit .313 in the Giants’ five-game win over the A’s. He bought the Hens in 1916 and and spent several seasons as owner-player-manager. 

Starter — Addie Joss: With due respect to Dazzy Vance and Frank Viola, we’re keeping the battery local. Joss made his pro debut with the Hens at downtown Armory Park in 1900 — where the crowd included his future wife, Lillian Shinavar — and the Wisconsin flame thrower never left. 

Even after setting off two years later on a tragically abbreviated Hall of Fame career with the Indians — his 1.89 career ERA in nine seasons remains the second-lowest in MLB history — he returned each offseason to his home at 2440 Fulton St. Joss died of tuberculous meningitis in 1911 at age 31. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Reliever — Willie Hernandez:Long before flitting his famous screwball past hitters as the hole card in the Tigers’ championship bullpen — an oxymoron for anyone born after the Reagan administration — Hernandez was a 20-year-old starter in the Phillies’ system. The mustachioed left-hander spent much of 1975 in Toledo — then affiliated with Philadelphia — where he went 6-4 with a 3.26 ERA. 

Hernandez later became a reliever, and for Detroit’s last champion in 1984, its invaluable fireman. If only for that magical season, the ’84 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner gets the nod over Mike Marshall, another former Hens starter-turned-reliever who won the ’74 Cy Young Award as a rubber-armed closer for the Dodgers.

General manager — Billy Beane: Not to be confused with Billy Bean, a teammate on the 1988 Hens, Beane the player was a dime-a-dozen outfielder with a low on-base percentage. In other words, the sort of guy Beane the GM would have passed on. 

Beane, who had more at-bats in Toledo (487) than in the big leagues (301) in a 10-year playing career, found his calling in the front office. During the past two decades in Oakland, the man behind Moneyball has inspired a best-selling book, a Brad Pitt movie, and a whole lot of wins. 

Nobody is better qualified to pull strings for the Dream Team. Unless, of course, he discovers I’m an idiot and trades away the entire roster. 

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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