Last September I took a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was the week after Labor Day, and too long since I’d taken a baseball vacation. The Great Sabaugh waited in New York City, my oldest friend and a fellow baseball connoisseur. This was our second trip to Cooperstown, my third overall.
So I drove from Detroit to Times Square to meet up with the old man, crash for the night and make the 3 hour trek to Cooperstown come morning. To call his apartment small is to stretch the word to the point of laughable. Prison holding cells have more square footage, and nearly as much charm. It would do for one night on each end of the trip. The quaint comfort of the Mohican Motel waited for us in Cooperstown, highly recommended by the way.
When most high school kids were out doing high school kid things, Sabaugh and I would occupy the back booth in a Big Boy Restaurant talking baseball. A typical night meant a pot of coffee, a pack of cigarettes and about 18 bookmarks added to my Baseball Encyclopedia. I’m talking about the old fashioned 8 pounder with the hard green cover and tissue paper pages.
We skipped classes to catch day games at Tiger Stadium, always found a way to get to Opening Day, loved Sparky Anderson and spent our spare time researching complex trivia questions designed to stump the other. I’ll give the ladies a moment to gather their composure.
We spent two days in the Hall. Take my advice, don’t try to see it all in one day. You can’t, at least you can’t appreciate it. The first day we covered the 2nd and 3rd floors, which have been updated significantly in the last decade. There’s a litany of touchable history, classic video and audio on demand, and an interactive touch screen all-time leaders board – it’s spectacular.
We saved the plaque gallery, the heart of the Hall, for day two. There are 297 plaques in total, and each one is a handcrafted piece of art. It is the holiest of holy’s in the baseball world, and should be enjoyed leisurely.
We took a tour of the plaque gallery and library, hosted by Julie from the wonderful Hall of Fame staff. Everyone there was outstanding – welcoming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. She walked us through the history of the gallery, the election and induction process, renovations and additions to the Hall, the works. Among the many questions was the subject of how it is decided which hat a Hall of Famer will wear on his or her plaque (yes, there are women members).
For a long time my father had a grudge against Sparky Anderson. When he left Cincinnati and came to Detroit Sparky was outspoken on his former club. He wanted nothing to do with them in fact, and made no bones about it. He embraced Detroit and often spoke of going into the Hall as a Tiger. Yet on his plaque, there sits a Reds cap. It was always assumed he wanted it that way.
While the common perception is that the Inductee chooses the team affiliation, this is not the case. The Hall of Fame Executive Committee decides, and their decisions are final. Sparky was diplomatic on the subject in interviews I’ve read, stating he was just happy to be in, whatever hat he was wearing. His case was unique, and I can understand how fans of both the Reds and Tigers would have been disappointed to see the other claim that honor.
After the tour I thanked Julie for her work and made a comment about Sparky and my fathers grudge and thanked her for giving me the facts to put that to rest. She smiled as soon as I said his name and told us he was one of her favorites. And then she told us the story of his last visit to Cooperstown. I have many memories from that trip, but her story is my favorite by a mile.
It was the summer of 2010. Each year during the festivities surrounding induction weekend the Hall of Fame hosts a dinner for all living Hall of Fame members. Most come every year, until health prevents it. Sparky was like most. Julie reminisced about Sparky with a respectful sincerity that can’t be manufactured. He was a peach, and a prune at the same time. A storyteller and a bragger and a joker and the guy with the laugh that toppled everyone else’s.
The summer of 2010 wasn’t kind to Sparky. He’d been sick for some time, and he didn’t get around long without a wheel chair, which he hated. There was speculation he wouldn’t make it, and he almost didn’t. He had lost weight, slumped a bit more and the shine in his eyes that was a constant for decades now came and went. But he was still Sparky. Those were her words. He could still tell the stories, he was sharp and bright and charismatic. His body had betrayed him, his mind was starting to, but he was still winning the war.
During the evening Sparky let the staff know he wasn’t feeling well and he would have to leave early. Julie and other staff arranged for a car to be brought around, and helped Sparky walk out of the Hall of Fame. He knew it was his last visit, and he’d be damned if he was going to roll out those doors in a chair. And so took place the delicate act of helping a man walk without letting it look like you’re helping a man walk.
Sparky thanked the staff repeatedly, who were flattered by the praise and gratitude he always showed them. As Julie and another staffer lowered him into the backseat, Sparky told her he needed a favor before leaving. Anything. Anything for Sparky.
He motioned her to lean in a bit closer, and he told her:
Go back in there and tell Yogi Berra I said he’s the ugliest son of a bitch on earth
And with that he pulled the door shut, the driver let off the brake and drove George Anderson away. That was goodbye, in his own way. If ever there were a baseball version of riding off into the sunset, this was that.
On November 4th, 2010, Sparky succumbed to Dementia and other ailments in his home in Thousand Oaks, California. He knew it was coming, we knew it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier. For two kids from Detroit born in the middle 70′s Sparky Anderson was everything we knew about a big league manager, and he was larger than life. From his constant hyperbolic praise of every prospect the Tigers called up to his hat launching profane soliloquies that saw him ejected, and even in saying goodbye without actually saying it – he was never short on words, or style, even at the end.
If you haven’t been to the Baseball Hall of Fame, you’re missing a national treasure. You can learn more about visiting the Hall here.
J. Ellet Lambie writes about the Detroit Tigers for Motor City Bengals, and covers fantasy baseball and card collecting for Full Spectrum Baseball. You can follow him on twitter @lembeck451