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In the tradition of Tuesdays With Morrie, Dan Ewald pens a memoir of his friendship with legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, the man who taught him not only the nuances of baseball, but the importance of life's unwritten rules.
Few sports figures, regardless of their position, have generated as much good will as Sparky Anderson, the legendary manager for the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers. Sparky met author Dan Ewald, in 1979, and thus was born a lifelong friendship not likely ever to be seen again in baseball. Along the way, Dan never took for granted the front row seat he had to watch one of history's most memorable managers' absolute mastery of baseball's nuances and intricacies.
But the most important things Sparky taught Dan were the "unwritten rules" of life, which he practiced meticulously. To Sparky, a real professional was as great away from the diamond as he was on it. His goal was for his players to be the best husbands, fathers, and community leaders they could be--he believed that was the mark of a winner, not the box score. Sparky had a gift for taking something as inane as the infield fly rule and turning it into a lecture on how to lead a more meaningful life.
In 2010, the old friends had planned a get-together before the end of the year. But Sparky's health was taking a turn for the worse, so Dan arranged a three-day visit as quickly as he could. During their last days together, the friends recalled the memories of a lifetime as each prepared silently for their final good-bye. When that weekend came to a close, Dan had grown to appreciate Sparky more than he ever thought he could. In this heartfelt memoir, Dan imparts to readers his best friend's spirit through his unforgettable life lessons and stories only the two of them shared.
"Like a wizard, Sparky Anderson was white-haired and wise, and sitting with him was like visiting with an oracle. Dan Ewald, who spent more time with Sparky than any of us, beautifully captures the magic of Sparky's wit, humor, and humanity in these pages. All baseball fans should read it." -- Mitch Albom, New York Times bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith
"No one understood Sparky better than Dan Ewald. Managing people in a scope far broader than a pennant race is a rare quality, and Sparky understood people, their insecurities, their motivations. This is a great read, a great understanding of the humanity of playing baseball." -Peter Gammons, MLB Network
"For decades, it seemed like everyone in baseball knew Sparky Anderson, and almost all of us considered him a friend. But few knew him as Dan Ewald did. Here, Dan provides a unique look at an endearing man who led a significant life both in and out of the game." -Bob Costas
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DANIEL EWALD is a sports writer who worked as the public relations director for the Detroit Tigers for eighteen years. During that time, he became close friends with Sparky Anderson, whose career he managed for thirty-two years and with whom he authored three books.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“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.
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