If you are reading this, chances are you believe in “The Church of Baseball. “ So did Sparky Anderson.
One of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s most unique artifacts is a baseball signed by Pope John Paul II to Sparky. The story behind the ball is told in Dan Ewald’s wonderful 2012 book “Sparky and Me: My Friendship With Sparky Anderson and the Lessons He Shared About Baseball and Life.”
Sparky was a devoted follower of Catholicism who attended Mass whenever his baseball schedule permitted. He was also friends with Detroit Archbishop Edmund Szoka, a big Tigers fan. In 1987, Archbishop Szoka helped arrange a papal visit by John Paul II to the heavily Polish community of Hamtramck, near Detroit.
The massive crowd exploded with cheers, Ewald says, when Sparky was brought on stage to meet the Pope. Szoka explained to the Pope that Sparky managed the local baseball team, and “was a beloved figure in the community.” The Pope later presented Sparky with a baseball, which Ewald notes is “probably the first baseball ever signed by a Pope.”
The inscription reads “To Sparky, #11, cum benedictione, Joanes Paules II,” along with the date on which it was signed in 1993. (The Tigers lost to the Red Sox that day, 13-4 at Fenway Park.) The Latin inscription translates as “with benediction.”
Sparky Anderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, and gave the Museum this ball shortly thereafter.
Anderson was humbled by meeting the Pope, and later told his good friend Ewald “This sounds crazy, but I never saw nothin’ in my life like the look in the Pope’s eyes. I can’t explain it, but his eyes really did twinkle. It was the most peaceful look I ever saw in my life.”
Tim Wiles is the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum