Sparky and his daddy

Sparky Anderson In 1984, the Detroit Tigers were off to the strongest start in baseball history. On May 16, manager Sparky Anderson appeared on the CBS Morning News with owner Tom Monaghan. It wasn’t their first national interview: ever since Jack Morris no-noed the White Sox in Chicago live on NBC to go 4-0, everyone had wanted to talk to Sparky.

“Again the same questions,” Sparky complained. “That’s all right, though; the nation is getting to know the Detroit Tigers.”

Sparky presciently kept a daily diary for the 1984 season, which was published as Bless You Boys after the Tigers won the World Series. On May 16, after the news interview, the Tigers beat the Mariners 10-1 to go 29-5 for the season. It wasn’t just the winning that made the team special, but the combination of grace and tenacity with which they played. Center fielder Chet Lemon coined a saying in April that became the team’s motto: “We mad and they don’t even know it.”

On the 16th, Sparky writes about Alan Trammell’s sore shoulder and Milt Wilcox’s pitching, how Aurelio Lopez and Willie Hernandez brought it home. But he also writes that he “couldn’t really enjoy the game”:

My daughter, Shirlee, called to tell me about Daddy. There’s a large tumor on his lung. She cried like a baby on the phone. I told Shirlee to say a prayer to herself and somehow, Grandpa will know.

I have to admit I felt like crying myself. I know why I love Daddy so much. He had no education and he was only a laborer, but everything he did, he did for his family.

Here I am on top of the baseball mountain, but without this one man who never went to school and never had any money, I would never be where I am.

His father would have an operation to remove the tumor from his lung the next day: 11AM in California, 2PM in Detroit. Sparky closes the day’s diary entry with “Please, God, help the doctors work this out.”

***

Sparky Anderson was 50 years old when he wrote that. The year before, on April 6, his son Albert was in a horrible accident. Sparky writes about that, too, on its anniversary:

It was on this day in 1983 when my son, Albert, drove off a cliff and fell 800 feet to the bottom of a canyon back home in California. He was unconscious for nine hours. Then, miraculously, he woke up and walked home. He had a broken sternum and cuts all over his body, but we were thankful he suffered no brain damage or internal injuries.

There’s no way he should be here now—but God saved him. I told Albert that April sixth changed his daddy’s life. I went home and looked down that canyon. I remember looking up and saying, “God, I don’t know why you spared him, but I tell You this has changed my life.”

I want to win as much as anyone. But nothing about this game will ever bother me after that. I get upset over a loss now, but only for the moment. I think I’m a much stronger person for that.

The Tigers beat the White Sox in the Sox’s home opener that day—in those first nine games, they beat everyone in their home opener—and Morris no-hit them the next day.

***

On May 17, the Tigers were off. Sparky waited for word from California about his father.

What do you think about when your Daddy is dying? How do you keep your mind on anything else?

It’s the best entry in the book.

I thought about playing ball across the street when Ralph’s Market parking lot was the best stadium in the world. I remember how Daddy threw to me on the lawn and pulled so hard for us when we played American Legion ball. I even remembered when we lived in Bridgewater, South Dakota, next to the jail that was never locked.

The two o’clock operation never came. Instead there was a phone call from Mama. The sound of her voice told the whole story. Before the operation began, Daddy’s heart gave out. He fell back on the table. He didn’t suffer at all, and that would have made him happy. Daddy didn’t want anyone to worry about him.

He never hurt a soul. He always told me, “Be nice to people. It’ll never cost you a dime. Courtesy and honesty are free.”

I’ll never forget that lesson. I’ll never be able to talk with Daddy or see his face again. But I’ll never lose him.

Daddy is dead. He was 74.

Sparky and his wife Carol flew to California that night, leaving the team in the hands of pitching coach Roger Craig. They went 3-0 against the Oakland A’s in Detroit, with the first game cut short because of rain and the second two decided by just one run each. Sparky writes, “I checked on the Tiger score, just to see who won. We beat the A’s, and I knew Daddy would have liked that.”

Sparky joined the team in Anaheim, where they won three straight against the Angels to go 35-5. In between, the Tigers played Sparky’s old team, the Reds, in an AL-NL exhibition game. He won two titles with the Big Red Machine, and then was fired, and he was still mad about it. Detroit played all backup players and won 3-2; instead of gloating, he quietly observes, “That sure shows our depth.”

***

In between, too, was his father’s funeral. Sparky’s dad was buried in a Detroit shirt with a blue Tiger emblem and a championship ring he’d worn since 1949. Sparky had received it for being batboy on the Hollywood Stars’ Pacific Coast League championship team.

In the 30s and 40s, long before the American and National Leagues came to California, the Pacific Coast League was amazing, producing stars
like Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, and others. Without the PCL, Sparky would never have played ball in the parking lot at Ralph’s, would never have played for the Stars’ archrival Los Angeles Angels, and never would have dreamed that he would eventually play a year of Major League Baseball, starting at second base for the Philadelphia Phillies, before returning to the minors and then coaching. He wouldn’t have even been Sparky—he would have only been George. The name his father gave him, by which everyone outside of baseball knew him.

At the funeral, Sparky’s mother (who he calls Mama) whispered to his father, “I’m going to miss you, Ole Pal.” Sparky reports this and writes, “I knew what friendship was all about.”

***
Sparky Anderson died today, in California. He was 76 years old.

Sparky won his second back-to-back championship with the Reds in 1976. He liked finding little parallels like that. They made him feel lucky. They made him feel comforted. They made him feel sure.

We’re going to miss you, Ole Pal.

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