There’s a man who owns a lumber yard across the street from what used to be Tiger Stadium. All that’s there now is a vacant lot, one of far too many vacant lots in Detroit, and the flagpole.
If you ever went to a game there, you remember the immense flagpole, which stood in what used to be center field. The man at the lumber yard recently put a light on his roof to shine on the flag at night, to help people see it, and remember.
They are remembering Sparky Anderson today. Remembering him charging out of the dugout to argue with an umpire or remove a pitcher, jug ears, lined leather face, and that thatch of white hair.
All across Michigan, they are remembering Sparky and 1984, when the team won its very first game, won thirty-five of its first forty games, and stayed in first place every single day.
They won the playoffs and World Series easily, and set off a round of badly needed rejoicing. Detroit then was in some ways in worse shape than now. The restoration of the theatre district had yet to happen. There was great hostility between city and suburbs.
Yet baseball served, if only temporarily, to bring people together, and Sparky Anderson was the spirit of that team.
He stayed around for many years after that, longer than he should, some said, managing dreadful teams.
Some years it seemed the only reason to go to the ballpark was to see Sparky, just as the only reason to listen to the games was his friend Ernie Harwell, the Tigers‘ equally iconic radio announcer.
I only met Sparky once, at some kind of a charity event or a book signing for Harwell, who introduced me, saying I was a professor. Sparky seemed uncharacteristically shy that night; he was hanging back, smoking with a few of his ballplayers.
“I only had a high school education, and I had to cheat to get that,” he said. He liked to say that, though there was something professorial about him in a zany sort of way.
Baseball, more than any other sport, is all about memory and characters and nostalgia. I thought of Sparky Anderson as sort of our own version of Casey Stengel, baseball’s original mad professor.
Casey died thirty-five years ago, during what I think was the greatest World Series ever played, the epic contest between The Boston Red Sox and Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds.
I’ll never forget the look of awe, shock and disgust on Sparky’s face when Carleton Fisk hit perhaps the most famous home run in history in the twelfth inning of Game Six. The next night, when his Reds came from behind to win it all, he simply beamed.
When the Tigers were on the road, Sparky would go walking for exercise every morning with Harwell, who looked younger than Sparky but was almost old enough to be his father.
They swapped stories and bucked each other up. Ernie died this year too, six months to the day before Sparky, and last year they tore their old ballpark down. Baseball will go on, with new memories and new heroes. But in Michigan, it will never be quite the same.