Sparky and Me

My Friendship with Sparky Anderson and the Lessons He Shared About Baseball and Life

Daniel Ewald

Thomas Dunne Books

1
 
“Daniel, My Boy”
 
 
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the first lesson I learned from Sparky occurred during our initial meeting more than 40 years ago. I, of course, was well aware of his reputation. He, in turn, had no idea who I was.
But as our brief encounter progressed, that didn’t matter to him.
No one forgets the thrill of his first meeting with Sparky. No player. No manager. No celebrity. No member of the media. And certainly no wide-eyed, tongue-tied fan.
While memories of countless subsequent events with Sparky have blurred through the passing of so many years, our first meeting remains incredibly fresh. I can still recall it quicker than retrieving a filed computer document.
At the time of our first acquaintance, I was a bottom-of-the-totem-pole Detroit News sportswriter primarily covering high school sports. Any pipe dream of working for Sparky eight years later was as remote as the chance of watching one of my golf drives trickle into the cup.
It was early Sunday evening, July 11, 1971, with a hot summer sun still hanging over the city. Only four short years had passed since Detroit was stained by the hideous, historic race riot that shamed the nation. It took lives, leveled large pockets of the city, and planted the seeds of disintegration that Detroit still struggles to overcome today.
Once more the nation’s eyes were squarely focused on Detroit. Rather than watching destruction, however, this time the country watched a celebration of success.
Baseball’s All-Star Game was scheduled for two nights later at historic Tiger Stadium, a few short blocks up from the newspaper on Michigan Avenue, on the western edge of the heart of downtown.
This was the site where a century earlier Tigers legend Ty Cobb flashed his spikes and compiled the highest lifetime batting average in history. This was the site where Babe Ruth hit a gargantuan home run that left the park and didn’t stop rolling until it was 612 feet from home plate. And this was the site where Yankees immortal Lou Gehrig ended his record-setting streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.
This was also the site to which I often walked when I was a kid. I lived in the old neighborhood just west of the park, which was known at the time as Briggs Stadium. I learned to love the Tigers there. It also was the site where I learned to hate the New York Yankees.
I loved to watch the majesty of Mickey Mantle and that quirky batting stroke of Yogi Berra. But nobody could love any other American League team without hating the Yankees. Except for when they represented the American League in the World Series. And that was almost every year.
Now the best of both leagues convened in Detroit to make more history at the park that lay almost down the street from where I had been raised. History certainly was written with one monstrous swing of the bat by the then young Reggie Jackson, whose now-famous home run crashed into the light tower above right-center field a nanosecond after his bat crunched the ball.
Had the light tower not interfered with the flight of the ball, it might have landed in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on the opposite bank of the Detroit River. The sight was majestic. The sound of bat on ball was furiously frightening.
“I thought someone had shot off a rifle when that ball was popped,” Sparky told me several years later. “I was standing in the dugout and ducked my head a little. I thought the American Leaguers were takin’ the game real serious and started to shoot at me.”
As manager of the 1970 National League champion Cincinnati Reds, Sparky was honored to serve as his league’s manager. Unlike some players and even managers who prefer to use the All-Star break as a three-day vacation away from the park, throughout his career Sparky relished any opportunity to participate in the game.
“That’s a privilege no man should try to duck,” he always maintained. “There’s plenty of time for vacations once the career is over.”
I was assigned to write a feature story on Sparky, the hottest young manager in either league, who had led the Reds to the pennant in his rookie year when he was only 36 years old.
The meeting occurred on fashionable Washington Boulevard just outside of the old Book-Cadillac Hotel, where the All-Star players and league representatives were housed.
The high-rent stores of downtown lined both sides of Washington Boulevard. With theaters, restaurants, hotels, shopping, taxis, buses, streetcars, and an endless stream of locally made automobiles congesting almost every street, Detroit was a vibrant antithesis to the image it bears today.
Despite its creeping demise, the blue-collar city was proud of its rich sports tradition, and the All-Star Game couldn’t have enjoyed a finer setting.
My fondest memories of growing up in the shadow of the ballpark still center on baseball. Detroit was a scrappy newspaper town, and I devoured each word written about each game in all of the three dailies operating at the time.
Then, the Tigers had such memorable players as Jim Bunning, Harvey Kuenn, Norm Cash, and Ray Boone. Of course, Al Kaline was the centerpiece of all those teams. He became the youngest American League player in history to win a batting title with a .340 average in 1955 at the age of 20. He played forever and wound up in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Working for the Tigers at the time of his 1979 induction, I was privileged to write his induction speech.
Although at the time I had never met any of those players, I had once caddied for long-ago Tigers manager Jimmie Dykes when I was a kid. Never did I dare to imagine, however, that one day I would be assigned to interview Sparky Anderson before an All-Star Game.
And get paid for the privilege!
Even before all of his hair turned toothpaste white, Sparky had the jagged facial features that made it impossible for him to blend into a crowd. Upon seeing him step out of the cab he had taken from the airport, a swarm of kids and a few adults surrounded Sparky, begging for his autograph. I decided to slip inside of the lobby and wait until he was finished.
I watched him closely and noticed that despite the hassle, a smile never left his face. Suddenly, the circle of autograph hounds bolted toward a cab that stopped slightly up the street. Out of a back door emerged Hank Aaron, leaving Sparky free to enter the hotel.
“I gotta use that trick more often,” Sparky joked to the bellman. “Kinda funny how small someone gets when Henry comes around.”
As Sparky was walking toward the front desk, I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to ask if he would be willing to answer a few quick questions before retiring to his room.
My stomach was doing double-time jumping jacks, and he must have sensed the apprehension bubbling in my gut. Over the years I discovered how compassionate Sparky always was to every member of the media. Representatives from dailies, weeklies, or battery-assisted radio stations were all treated the same.
Gently he led the conversation just enough to allow me to recover some semblance of control.
The interview was brief, and I’ve forgotten almost all we talked about. One significant memory of the occasion, however, remains forever fresh in my mind. Throughout the interview, he repeatedly referred to me by name, almost as if he had known me for several years instead of from the moment when I introduced myself.
“Daniel, my boy,” he started. He enjoyed using my full first name throughout our years together. “You gotta know somethin’ before we even start. You got the most beautiful ballpark right up the street from here. This is what a big-league ballpark is supposed to look like. And don’t you ever forget it. It’s the best one around.”
I already knew that. It didn’t matter at the time that the only other major-league park I had ever personally seen was Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. In retrospect, however, I now realize what he had done.
With just a smile and a few kind words about the park I had loved since being a kid, he had taken control of the situation. As always with the media, he was the man in charge.
He then told the story about when he was 18 years old and his Los Angeles American Legion baseball team won the 1953 national championship at the park when it was called Briggs Stadium. “We got the chance to meet Joe Louis,” he said proudly. The heavyweight champion who captured America’s heart with his knockout of German Max Schmeling had been raised in Detroit. “I never was the kind to idolize any particular athlete,” Sparky continued. “But Joe Louis was special. Besides my father, Joe Louis was probably the only man I ever idolized. That made Detroit very special to me.”
I remember no other specifics of the meeting other than the fact that Sparky was the closest thing to Ozzie Nelson I had ever met. He was reassuring without any hint of presumption. He thanked me for the interview for which I still remain grateful.
Our next meeting occurred in March 1973. Sparky was still busy putting together all the parts of what came to be known as the Big Red Machine. I was a rookie baseball writer covering my first spring training.
The Tigers were playing Cincinnati in Tampa, and we met in the Reds’ clubhouse before the game. Once more I introduced myself, and again he was the gracious diplomat. He spent as much time answering questions for me as he did for a longtime veteran from the New York Times, or even for a writer from one of the two Cincinnati dailies.
I thought about how fortunate those two beat writers were to cover a manager as graciously cooperative as Sparky day after day. The manager of the Tigers was Billy Martin. Billy was a fiery and competent manager. But his personality was never mistaken for Sparky’s … and certainly not Ozzie Nelson’s.
“Who cares about what a paper’s circulation is?” Sparky often asked. “Shouldn’t the guy from a small paper be treated with the same respect as somebody from one of the high rollers? Do the so-called big guys know more words? They both got the same job. Sometimes the little guys know more about the game than those big-city hotshots. I listen to what they ask and what they say. Ain’t nobody foolin’ me when it comes to somethin’ like that.”
And that’s the way he operated throughout his entire career.
Sparky was close to obsessive about attaching the right name to the right face. He had a gift for remembering names and worked hard never to slip.
“Sometimes people are crazy,” he used to say. “They’re afraid to call someone by his name. What are they afraid of? Do they think they’re better than the other guy? Do they think that using his name is some silly sign of weakness? Don’t the other guy deserve the same respect that he gives to me?”
Sparky’s courtesy stretched far beyond the media, the politicians, and all the captains of industry he felt privileged to meet. He took just as much pleasure spending time with the guy working the midnight shift in one of the auto factories. He loved to share his optimism and peppy zest for life with everyone he met.
While managing in Detroit, Sparky started his daily ballpark rounds with a visit to general manager Jim Campbell’s office. Once in a while they talked about club matters. Once in a while they merely swapped stories that only two baseball lifers could fully appreciate.
Next he stuck his head into the office of everyone else on the third floor. It was just a quick hello, but everyone waited to see his smile each day. From there he made his second-floor route, with his final stop at my office.
“I trust you’re gonna give me some of your precious time in my office before the game,” he would say sarcastically, and then he’d wink as he walked out the door.
Finally, he was ready to make his tour through the concourse of the stadium on the way to his clubhouse office. That was a show itself.
Along the way, he waved to and chatted with all of the concessionaires, who were busy preparing hot dogs, popcorn, and the regular menu of baseball staples for another game in the stadium Sparky loved more than any he had ever seen. And he greeted each worker by first name.
All the workers smiled and waved. Some who lived in the neighborhood had worked at the park for more than 40 years. They thanked him for being the first manager to extend so much courtesy.
“We love you, Sparky,” some of the older ladies would say. “Thanks for all you do for us. Please don’t ever leave. Please stay here forever.”
Some of the early-arriving players who happened to witness Sparky’s regular routine asked him how he got to know all the names of so many workers.
“It’s really hard to do,” he said with obvious sarcasm. “I asked them. And then I wasn’t afraid to use those names. They’re all mothers and fathers and grandparents, too, you know. They got families just like us. They gotta work to feed their kids. Why don’t you try askin’ ’em sometime? It might make you feel good.”
Sparky accidentally discovered that another baseball legend who just may have been history’s purest hitter shared his proclivity for using first names.
That discovery occurred before a Tigers exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox in Winter Haven, Florida. Sparky was standing near the batting cage watching the Tigers take batting practice. He was holding court with the media when a uniformed visitor sneaked up from behind him. The captivating figure put both hands on Sparky’s shoulders to spin him around.
“Ted Williams,” the visitor said as he extended his right hand. “How ya doin’, Sparky?”
Pontificating to the writers about any subject they threw at him screeched to a stop. And maybe for the first time in his life, Sparky stood mute as a mime.
“My God,” Sparky finally said in awe. “You don’t have to tell me who you are. The pope all the way over in that place where he lives knows who you are.”
Williams smiled and wrapped his long arms around Sparky’s shoulders. “Just makin’ sure, Sparky,” Williams said. “You never know how a person is gonna react. Better to get it over with so nobody gets embarrassed.”
The only other trait the two legends shared was that each had a pair of arms and legs. Obviously, as a player, Williams made more out of his two pair than did Sparky.
Williams, of course, started to talk about hitting. Sparky listened like an honor roll schoolboy. No one ever said a word when Williams talked about hitting. On that particular matter, he enjoyed papal infallibility.
“Just tell me one thing, Ted,” Sparky joked. “If I understand everything you’re sayin’, how come I couldn’t hit like you?”
Williams broke into one of his bottom-of-the-gut laughs that made everyone within hearing distance feel part of the conversation.
“’Cause you’re just a little sawed-off twig that probably chased the first pitch you thought you could hit,” Williams cracked back. “You didn’t know how to wait for the pitch you knew you could hit. I told you so many times that pitchers are dumb. Just wait.… They’ll give you something to hit.”
The two legends jabbered until it was time for the grounds crew to haul the batting cage away. The writers scribbled notes as fast as their fingers could move. Sparky and Williams together was the opportunity for a spring-training holiday. With a story like this, nobody cared what happened in a meaningless game.
“I’m gonna see you in the Hall of Fame when you finally take off that uniform, you little squirt,” Williams said before heading to the Boston clubhouse.
Sparky smiled and probably was blushing behind those chiseled lines on his face. “Not because I hit like you,” he managed to spit out.
“Well, goddamn it,” Williams countered. “Check out my managerial record. How in the hell do you keep doing it year after year after year?”
Sparky had a gift for making every visitor feel special, from Ted Williams to the rawest rookie on the roster, from the president of the Ford Motor Company to the grease-stained hourly worker on the line. For just that moment, Sparky made a visitor feel as if he were the most important person in the world. Chances are, they would never meet again. For that one precious moment, though, Sparky was that person’s best friend.
“It all goes back to the greatest lesson my daddy ever taught me,” Sparky explained. “He never had much money, so he couldn’t give me much. But he gave me the most valuable lesson any father could give a son.
“He taught me that it don’t cost a dime to be nice to people. In fact, it’s easier to be nice than thinking up a new way to be a jackass. What’s wrong with making another person smile? Maybe that’s the only one he’ll get the whole day.”
Sparky smiled often. He loved to share his warmth with others. And he always started by calling someone by his name.
Is anything more precious to anyone than a name? Sparky made the lesson easy to understand.
As I grow older, it’s becoming more difficult to remember the names of all the good people I am fortunate to have met. But I still try. Sparky made sure of that.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Dan Ewald