There are few things that can be taken for granted in the ever-changing world of Minor League Baseball, but here's one of them: if the Toledo Mud Hens are playing, then Jim Weber will be calling the action.
Weber has been broadcasting for the Mud Hens since 1975, when Gerald Ford was president and Jaws reigned supreme at the box office. On the day that this writer talked to him, he was preparing for his 5,647th consecutive game on the airwaves.
When Weber began his streak, the Mud Hens were -- as they are today -- a member of the Triple-A International League. But back then, the IL had eight teams (as opposed to the current 14) and the Mud Hens were an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1987, after nine seasons with the Minnesota Twins, the Mud Hens began an affiliation with the Detroit Tigers that continues to this day. Over his 44 seasons, Weber has seen more than his share of rising stars come through Toledo.
"[I've seen] in the vicinity of about 1,100 [Mud Hens players]. We're talking about the Kirby Pucketts of the world," Weber said. "There've been some big names come through. I went through our all-time list, and if I saw a name and it was 1975 or later, I had to count. Man, that took me like two days."
2018 Road Trip
The Mud Hens, an organization whose roots stretch back to the 19th century, returned to Toledo in 1965 after a 10-year hiatus. They operated out of Ned Skeldon Stadium, a far cry from the team's current downtown home of Fifth Third Field. Ned Skeldon Stadium was located in nearby Maumee, Ohio, on the grounds of a converted racetrack. Weber was living in Maumee at the time, and said that he went to games "here and there."
"I lived close by but I didn't go a whole lot. Back in those days, I was the drummer in a band and all this stuff," Weber said. "[The Mud Hens] had radio for a little while, from '65 to '70, and then they couldn't get a deal. So in '75, I had already done radio for six years, but not baseball. So I submitted a proposal to [Mud Hens general manager Charlie Senger], and I knew he didn't have a deal. He said, 'Well, come over and let's hear what you got.' So I got us signed here in '75, a partial schedule [on WTUU] just to get it on."
Weber had never called a baseball game at the time, but, he said, "I played the game and I figured, how hard can it be?"
His gamble paid off, and the next season he secured a deal with WSPD, a far more powerful local AM station. After five years of broadcasting a partial schedule, he reached an agreement to broadcast all of the team's games in 1981. His streak of over 5,600 games includes every game he has called since 1975, as there has never been a Mud Hens game aired since that time that he has not been a part of. For over two decades, Weber partnered with Toledo broadcasting legend Frank Gilhooley. He currently works alongside Matt Melzak, with the games simulcast on TV and radio.
Through the decades, Weber has witnessed a dramatic evolution in the world of Minor League Baseball.
"Most of us had old ballparks. I mean old," Weber said. "Some of the places, if I had to work in them now, I'd say 'Well, I'm going back to the dumps.' Ours was at the rec center, a converted racetrack, but if I would go to Richmond or Syracuse or down to Tidewater, which is now Norfolk, they were all pretty old ballparks. Now, of course, we have the amenities now that Major League Baseball has. ... I've seen it come a long ways facility-wise, and back when I started, radio was the big thing. No cell phones, no computers, no high-tech stuff at all."
In addition to broadcasting, Weber has coordinated the Mud Hens' travel schedule for the past 35 years.
"I do that over the winter, making sure the buses and hotels are lined up and getting all the airline reservations in. We're trying to fly 30, 32 people, which is getting tougher because there's more regional jets now," he said. "We used to fly everywhere, back before 9/11. All these airports had USAir back then, and we would all leave our cities and we'd meet in Pittsburgh. It was funny, sometimes you'd see all eight teams in there. Some were coming home and some were going to where they were going.
"I remember getting on the buses in the old days, nobody had ear plugs or headsets," he continued. "You'd hear all this music blasting through the bus. None of it matched. You'd have the Spanish music going and there'd be two or three guys having a holy hour in the back who were religious, and then somebody up here was a rocker. It was funny. Some of the managers, they'd tell 'em, 'Alright, after 10 o'clock, I don't want to hear none of that crap no more! For the rest of the night!'"
Of the 1,100-plus Mud Hens that Weber has seen take the field, including rockers and holy rollers, one of his all-time favorites was pitcher Jose Lima, who passed away at age 37 in 2010. Lima suited up for the Mud Hens during portions of the 1994, '95 and '96 campaigns.
"We hung out together all the time, and I felt so bad when he passed away," said Weber. "So this is in '94. Obviously, I was 20-some years younger then. But we could be in Denver, we could be anywhere, he'd call me up at 2 in the morning to go play pool or we'd go to some night spot and close it down. All kinds of stuff. And in '94, when he pitched a near-perfect game, it was the best game I'd ever seen at this level."
The Mud Hens teams of which Lima was a part hovered at or below the .500 mark, an occurrence to which Weber has become accustomed. While Toledo is currently in first place in the International League West, it has not enjoyed a winning season since 2009.
"If things aren't going well, I'll start some kind of crap, you know. Get everybody laughing," he said. "People want to know how I can go through so many bad years. I mean, at one point there were, like, 15 or 20 in a row when we didn't win anything. Eh, we still have fun. You find the good stuff and there's always stories. ... I'm just trying to keep it interesting. Find the humor and have fun with it."
Amid the good times, Weber has received his share of accolades. Most notably, he was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2014. (Weber, a longtime league Hall of Fame voter, swears that he had no idea he would be on the ballot and that, more importantly, he did not vote for himself.) Meanwhile, there are more milestones that potentially await. Six thousand consecutive games on the air? Fifty seasons? Weber, while taking nothing for granted, plans to keep doing what he's been doing for as long as he can.
"People say all the time, 'When are you going to retire?' My answer is 'Retire from what? Watching baseball?'" he said. "Yeah, I'll just keep rolling."