Top Minor League Markets: A Look At No. 1 Toledo’s Sports History

SportsBusiness Journal in this week’s issue spotlights Toledo, Ohio, which ranks No. 1 in our 2013 study of the country’s Top Minor League Markets.

Armory Park was among the first permanent minor league ballparks.
All photos: COURTESY OF THE TOLEDO MUD HENS
As research director David Broughton, who spearheaded the project, noted in his story, Toledo’s present-day sports landscape features the Class AAA Mud Hens and ECHL Walleye. The city’s sports history, however, goes back more than 100 years — to 1883, specifically.

That’s when the Northwestern League Blue Stockings were formed, the first of about a dozen baseball clubs that would play in the market over the next several years. Fans flocked to the games despite unstable finances by a string of team owners and the lack of a permanent venue for the local team. But in 1897, team owner Charles J. Strobel, an oil magnate and Sandusky, Ohio, native, made a move to reflect what he saw as the market’s potential: He financed the construction of Armory Park, one of the first permanent minor league ballparks in the country.

Community support for the downtown project was visible even in the weeks before the stadium’s opening. The Toledo Blade newspaper, in an opinion piece, lauded Strobel’s efforts, stating “Strobel is going to an enormous expense in fitting up the grounds, and deserves liberal patronage for his pluck and determination.”

Once open, Strobel’s 4,000-seat ballpark was frequently bursting at its fortress-like seams. The success gave rise, in 1909, to a new ballpark for the city — one that opened on old fairgrounds property in west Toledo, a 16-minute streetcar ride from the center of the city. Detroit native William Armour had purchased the Toledo team in 1907, and it was Armour and Noah Swayne, chairman of the group that owned the club, who proceeded to privately finance construction of the new facility. The ballpark was built in a mere four months, with construction running 24 hours a day.

Swayne Field's center-field wall was 505 feet from home plate.
When it opened, the facility, known as Swayne Field, boasted the largest baseball playing field in the world, with its center-field wall 505 feet from home plate. The venue would remain the home of Toledo baseball for decades.

According to John R. Husman’s book “Baseball In Toledo,” the 1,000 upper-deck grandstand seats at the new ballpark cost $1 per ticket, there were 1,600 lower grandstand seats at 75 cents and another 3,300 at 50 cents, and 6,000 bleacher spaces at a quarter each.

Political satirist, journalist and author P.J. O’Rourke grew up about three blocks from the ballpark and attended games with his father.

“One of my very earliest memories of any kind is that I remember climbing out of my crib to go to my bedroom window to watch the searchlights swaying across the sky at Swayne Field,” O’Rourke said. “It was right after World War II, and I don’t know who they thought was going to bomb the Midwest, but the ballpark had searchlights.”

O’Rourke said despite the fact that the ballpark had begun to age less than gracefully by the time he attended games — the upper deck and parts of the concourse had been closed due to structural problems — the building was always a source of pride for the city.

In 1884, Walker joined the Mud Hens and became the first black player in professional baseball.
In 1953, 344,614 fans poured in to the facility, setting an all-time record for the market. That, however, only served to make 1955 all the more painful. The day after that season ended, officials from the Milwaukee Braves, then Toledo’s parent club, called the Mud Hens’ staff together and unexpectedly announced they were moving the team to Wichita, Kan. The news stunned the town. Days later, Swayne Field was sold to the Kroger Co., which immediately demolished the ballpark and built a supermarket.

It would take a decade before professional baseball returned to town. Local politician Ned Skeldon successfully persuaded local businesses to help fund a conversion of the former Fort Miami racetrack at the county fairgrounds in suburban Maumee, Ohio, to a ballpark. Lucas County Stadium (later known as Ned Skeldon Stadium) opened in 1965, a Mud Hens baseball team returned, and that franchise is now the longest-tenured team in the market’s history — albeit with its move to the modern-day,
Stengel managed the Mud Hens from 1926-31.
downtown Fifth Third Field in 2002.

Also from the history files: Future Hall of Fame managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel both had stints in Toledo (McCarthy from 1908-11; Stengel from 1926-31). And Moses Fleetwood Walker donned a uniform for the Toledo ball club in 1884 to become the first black player in professional baseball, more than 60 years before Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut.

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ECHL, CHL, Baseball, Finance, IBL

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