The Holy Ball: Sparky and the Pope

Written by: Bill Francis

Fifteen years prior to Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, making recent worldwide news with his scheduled six-day tour through Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, a newly elected member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame made a surprising donation to the Cooperstown institution’s vast collection. And it featured the signature of one of Pope Francis' predecessors.

Longtime manager Sparky Anderson, who when he retired after the 1995 season was third all-time in wins with 2,194, was elected to baseball’s shrine by the Veterans Committee in February 2000. Two months later, the first manager to win World Series titles in each league – claiming championships with the Reds in 1975 and ’76, and with the Tigers in 1984 – was making his pre-induction orientation tour when, after entering the Plaque Gallery, he produced a plastic sandwich bag holding a Pope John Paul II autographed baseball and presented it to Head Curator Ted Spencer as a donation to the Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t want it in my house,” Anderson explained at the time, “because if my kids got down-and-out they might take it to the memorabilia shop.”

Anderson had received the rare signed baseball in February 1994 as part of a gala celebrating the manager’s 60th birthday and benefitting the St. Joseph’s School Foundation during the Tigers’ spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Anderson, a devout Catholic, had been the honorary chairman for the St. Joseph’s School Foundation benefit golf tournament for three years, so it was out of gratitude to his generosity that the pope-signed baseball idea originated.

“We decided we needed to do something really different,” said Cody Lowry, who was coordinating the birthday dinner. “This is a guy with a zillion plaques on his wall.”

In April 1993, Lowry had mailed to the Vatican a baseball, a pen and a plea for Pope John Paul II to sign the baseball, but within two weeks the response was, in effect, that the pope doesn’t autograph baseballs. But then someone remembered that Diocese of Orlando Bishop Norbert M. Dorsey was scheduled to soon report to Rome.

“We prevailed on him and asked if he could please bring the baseball,” said Rev. John P. Caulfield.

Dorsey carried the baseball in a briefcase into his meeting with Pope John Paul II. And the pontiff agreed.

Translated from its Latin, Pope John Paul II signed the ball “To Sparky, with blessing,” and dated it June 26, 1993.

“When the pope was asked to sign it, he asked, ‘What’s baseball?’” Anderson said in 2000. “When he was told, he went ahead and autographed it. I’ll guarantee you it’s the only baseball around autographed by a pope. It’s one of a kind.”

Workers prepare for Pope Paul VI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in 1965. The pope's mass service at the ballpark attracted a crowd of nearly 100,000. BL-2510-72A (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

It’s certainly the only one of its kind in the collections of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Anderson kept the signed baseball in a safety deposit box in Thousand Oaks, Calif., before donating it to the Hall of Fame.

Anderson had actually met Pope John Paul II in 1987, thanks to Detroit archbishop Edmund Szoka, when he and Tigers first-base coach Dick Tracewski went to Hamtramck, Mich., outside Detroit, to see the pope deliverer an outdoor address.

“It was amazing,” said Anderson. “When he came down to shake hands with everybody, the sun suddenly came out and the sky opened up and got brighter and brighter.

“I turned to the Sisters behind us and said, ‘This is truly the big man.”

In Dan Ewald’s 2012 book Sparky and Me, Anderson said to the author, “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.”

Years later, the skipper of the Big Red Machine said, “He’s the greatest person I had the privilege to meet.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum