Toledo, the Home of Champions: Sports History in the Glass City

Toledo is well known for the Mud Hens and Walleye, but its history in the sports world goes way back and boasts some monumental moments and people. Jeremy Davis was a participant in Midstory's 2019 High School ThinkLab program.

From the “Maumees” to the Mud Hens, the “Storm” to the Walleye, the Glass City’s sports identity has shifted as the city changes, but Toledo remains a hidden gem of sports entertainment. Toledo’s minor league teams, along with local college and high school teams, highlight the possibility of revival and inspire pride by rallying Toledoans and players together.

The arrival of the Mud Hens downtown in 2002 corresponded with a time of urban redevelopment. In fact, an estimated 50 million dollars has flowed into the city as a result of the opening of Fifth-Third Field. Suburbanites and Toledoans alike make their way downtown to catch a game and socialize, making the city streets bustling and parking spots scarce once again, even if only on game nights (for now). 

Image result for fifth third field toledo
Courtesy of visittoledo.org.

From eating one of Tony Packo’s iconic hotdogs to yelling “Hit somebody!” at a Walleye game, Toledo sports culture has all the excitement of big-city sports while maintaining the quirky charm of small-town athletics. The history of Toledo sports is as old as the city itself, and it remains present in Toledo sports today. Simply put, to understand the city, we must look at the history of Toledo’s sports and the interesting facts that surround it. Check out a few of them below.

#1 The Roaring Twenties started in Toledo (according to Jimmy Breslin).

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

According to American journalist Jimmy Breslin, “The Roaring Twenties started in July, 1919 in Toledo, Ohio.” Breslin was referring to the World Heavyweight Championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard. “Toledo’s Day in the Sun,” thus named because of the 100-degree weather, was anticipated to be the largest match in American history with potential earnings in the millions. In a temporary stadium in Bay View Park, Jack Dempsey defeated Jess Willard in four rounds, knocking him down seven times. Tex Rickard, the promoter, reported 19,000 people at the fight. In doing so, he kept enough profit that was under the table to buy Madison Square Garden in New York and commence the “Golden Age” of boxing.

Controversially, Toledo Historian Tedd Long and Professor Steven Doig of Arizona State University believe that at least 50,000 people were in attendance. Despite the allegedly open seats, the fight was one of the most publicized sporting events in the twentieth century and eventually led to the cultural and economic upturn of the 1920s. Toledo led the trend towards one of the most celebrated eras of American culture by playing host to a legendary sporting event. Although the fight was lopsided and the weather was terrible, the city was still able to benefit, taking in seven percent of the profits and, more importantly, playing a role in national history.

#2 Toledo is home to several sports integration pioneers.

Courtesy of Flickr.com

Contrary to popular belief, Jackie Robinson was not the first African American in professional baseball. In fact, roughly 60 years before—in Toledo, Ohio—the first was a man named Moses Fleetwood Walker. While attending Oberlin College, Walker became a catcher and was so talented that the University of Michigan recruited him during the 1882 season. Soon after, he left Michigan to pursue a baseball career with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Unfortunately, financial problems plagued the team and Walker was let go after just one season of professional baseball. Walker’s playing career may not be as memorable as Jackie Robinson’s, but it is equally important for us to recognize. As the first African American in professional baseball, Walker deserves recognition in popular culture; Moses Fleetwood Walker Square, outside Fifth-Third Field, currently serves as a symbol to the efforts Walker made to the betterment of America’s social environment.

William McNeil ‘Bill” Jones is one of the lesser-known integration stories. Jones was one of the original ten African-Americans who joined the NBL to integrate professional basketball. Born in Toledo, Jones led the Woodward high school basketball team to city championships in 1929 and 1930 and later attended the University of Toledo. Soon after, Jones signed with the Jim White Chevrolets of the National Basketball League for the 1942-1943 season. Unfortunately, after five games, the team disbanded due to financial difficulties. In 1991, Jones was inducted into the UT Athletic Hall of Fame.  

#3 The Toledo Mud Hens were managed by Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel.

Before winning nine World Series championships as a player and manager, Charles Dillion “Casey” Stengel had his humble beginnings in Toledo as the manager for the Mud Hens. In 1926, his close relationship with the owner of the New York Giants led Stengel to become the new manager of the Giant’s top minor league affiliate. In Stengel’s second season, the Mud Hens defeated the Buffalo Bison for the Minor League championship. Stengel went on to spend four more years in Toledo before leaving to work with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932. From 1949 to 1953, “The Old Professor” won five consecutive championships with the Yankees, to this day the only manager to do so. He would pick up two more championships in 1956 and 1958. Stengel was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1965. Arguably one of baseball’s most exceptional minds, Stengel’s stint in Toledo guided him to further success and helped to draw national attention to the Glass City.

#4 Moe Berg, an American spy during World War II, played for the Toledo Mud Hens.

Courtesy of Forbes.com

Casey Stengel once said, “Moe Berg was as smart a ballplayer as ever come along.” During his time at Princeton, Berg studied six languages, including Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German and Sanskrit. Upon graduation, Berg signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers where he was immediately sent to the affiliate teams. In 1924, Berg spent half the season with the Toledo Mud Hens, having an array of injuries. While his time in Toledo was short, “the strangest man in baseball” learned the skills of a big leaguer.

The most intriguing part of the Berg story, however, is what happened off the field. In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited him as a spy. Missions involved parachuting into Yugoslavia to meet with several local leaders and inquire about positions of strength and ideologies. Berg was even assigned to kill Werner Heisenberg, a German working on the atomic bomb. Luckily for both parties involved, it was determined that the Germans were nowhere near developing a weapon of that caliber, so the assassination was called off. To this day, Berg’s tale remains one of the most mysterious yet fascinating stories in sports, and even more enchanting is the fact that he represented the 419. 

#5 Since 1920, professional golfers have been allowed to enter the clubhouse thanks to Sylvanus Pierre Jermain.

Courtesy of OttawaPark.org

Considered the “Father of Public Golf in Toledo,” Jermain held much political power in the sport of golf in the 1900s. In 1907, he wrote rules for U.S. golf that would become the foundation for standards today. While serving as president for the Toledo District Golf Association, Jermain founded several courses, including BayView and Spuyten Duyval. One of his notable achievements was bringing the U.S. Open to Toledo’s Inverness Club, where he was a member. Through grit and perseverance, Jermain managed to convince the club to allow players to enter the clubhouse, an act that gained widespread attention and still continues today. Jermain also suggested an international match between the United Kingdom and the United States which is now known as the Ryder Cup.

Honoring Jermain’s staunch support of Toledo parks, Jermain Park was dedicated in homage to his work for the both the city locally and the game of golf nationally. Evident in the variety of tournaments today, the modern-day rules and traditions of the game and even in this small park in Toledo, Jermain’s legacy is incredibly bright in the realm of golf and those who play it—especially in the city of Toledo.

#6 Toledo is home to Olympic silver-medalist Erik Kynard Jr.

Courtesy of the IAAF.

Before gaining national notoriety and even appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, Erik Kynard Jr. was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. Early in his adolescence, Kynard showed potential in the field event of high jump. As a 17 year-old at Rogers High School, Kynard qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the event. After winning the Ohio State High School Championships twice, Kynard decided to take his talents to Kansas State University where he would win the NCAA Outdoor Championships and move on to the World Championships in South Korea. The same year, Kynard would represent Team USA in London. He would take second place, winning an Olympic silver medal. At the 2013 USA Outdoor Championship, Kynard jumped a staggering seven feet nine and a quarter inches, one of only seven Americans to ever do so. Presently, Kynard remains a prominent high jumper and the greatest ever from the city of Toledo.

#7 The University of Michigan head coach and former Ohio State University head coach were both born in Toledo.

“The Game,” the Super-Bowl-caliber sporting event between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, puts Toledo on the map every single year. Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh was born at Toledo Mercy Hospital on December 23rd, 1963. Growing up in a football family, Harbaugh received an offer to play quarterback at the University of Michigan. Playing under legendary coach Bo Schembecler, Harbaugh gained invaluable expertise and landed his own coaching job. After spending time at Stanford and in the NFL, Harbaugh returned to his alma mater in 2015 with high expectations to win championships and, most importantly, to defeat Ohio State. 

Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Urban Meyer, Harbaugh’s counterpart, took a different route to his football success. Born on July 10th, 1964 at the same Toledo hospital, Meyer received a scholarship to play defensive back at the University of Cincinnati. After receiving his master’s degree in sports administration from OSU, Meyer took up several coaching jobs at Bowling Green State University and in Utah and Florida. After winning two national championships, Meyer took an offer to coach at his alma mater, The Ohio State University. In 2014, Meyer won the inaugural college football playoff to give the Buckeyes their eighth national championship. 

Harbaugh and Meyer faced off four times since taking over at their respective schools. Meyer lead the Buckeyes to four victories over “The Team Up North,” including the iconic double overtime game for a right to play in the Big Ten Championship in 2016.

#8 Toledo-Born Curtis Johnson was a member of the only undefeated team in NFL History—the Miami Dolphins.

Courtesy of CSA Shows.

Born on June 22nd, 1948 in Toledo Ohio, Curtis Johnson quickly became attracted to the game of football. While at Waite High School, Johnson became a standout cornerback. Upon graduation, he received a scholarship to play football at the University of Toledo, where he was named first team All-MAC, second team All-American and a two-time Mid-American Conference Champion. In the fourth round of the 1970 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins selected Johnson. The 1972 season was one for the record books, as Johnson helped the Dolphins to a championship and the only undefeated season in NFL history. The Dolphins would go on to win back-to-back championships with Johnson at the helm of their impenetrable defense. Curtis Johnson is a striking example of the national impact a Toledoan can have in the sports world and beyond.

#9 An international lightweight boxing champion hails from Toledo.

Weighing in at one hundred thirty five pounds, Robert Easter Jr. is one of the most dominant fighters of the current generation. Growing up in the streets of East Toledo, Easter quickly became accustomed to witnessing drug usage, gang violence and crime, but decided to transcend the problems around him by learning how to fight. The Bowsher High School graduate quickly climbed up the ladder of the boxing realm. After winning his first professional fight in 2012 by TKO, Easter would go on to claim the IBF Lightweight championship in 2016. He would hold the title for two years before losing in 2018. Easter is a true Toledo story, rising from the streets to dedicate himself to something he loves. He inspired the another generation of local boxers including Albert Bell, a super-featherweight champion.

#10 Toledo is known as the “Best Minor League Sports City.”

According to Livability.com, Toledo ranks number one as the best minor league sports city. Toledoans are consistently enthusiastic about the Mud Hens and the Walleye, filling up Fifth-Third Field and the Huntington Center each season. The Mud Hens and the Walleye are ingrained within our Toledoan DNA as these teams draw national attention.

Courtesy of SIKids.com.

In the midst of revitalization, Toledo has the potential to utilize its thriving sports environment for the betterment of the city and nationwide traction. Although Toledo is recognized as the best city for minor league sports, Toledo has also seen its fair share of national sports teams in the past, including in football and basketball. Perhaps there is one in our future?

Our rich sports history and culture also contributes to the traction and investment downtown, giving heart and soul to the city and encouraging Toledo pride. Perhaps even more importantly, Toledo’s role in sports both past and present reminds us of movements and momentous turning points in society, culture and beyond that began right here in Toledo—showing the power of individuals and the community when rallied together behind a shared vision.

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