Each year, the Lehman High School Foundation hosts a fundraising banquet. Typically there is a featured speaker who would not normally pass through the area, the presence of whom helps enable the sale of tickets for the evening’s affair.
Over the years there have been speakers representing various fields. Treasurer of the United States Katherine Ortega, football coaching legends W.W. “Woody” Hayes and G.E. “Bo” Schembechler, Army General Barry McCaffrey, Navy Admiral Thomas Lynch, White House Correspondent Helen Thomas and a host of others all spoke at the event during my tenure at the school.
Frequently I would pick them up at the airport, deliver them to the Holiday Inn where Tom and Sandy Shoemaker would treat them like royalty, later pick them up for the banquet and the following morning, return them to the airport. One of my favorite speakers was the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda.
An inveterate story teller, there were the stories he told during the banquet, and those that were related when I was the only one in the room. Some of my favorites included a story that he related about a three-game series that was played in Cincinnati during the years of the “Big Red Machine”.
“The problem with baseball is that there is just too much free time,” Tommy began. “Players and managers can and do get in all kinds of trouble because you wake up in the morning, are in a strange city, don’t have to be at the ball park sometimes for hours, and you have lots of time to kill.”
“One of the things I found that helped me was going to daily Mass,” he told me. “It was a good way for me to start the day, and heaven knows, I need all the help with the Good Lord that I can get.”
“I always sit in the back of the church with the sinners,” he continued, “and on the first day of that particular Cincinnati home-stand, I’ll be darned if Sparky (Anderson) wasn’t sitting right down front in the same church. In a town with more than a couple of dozen Catholic churches – what are the odds?”
“So when Mass was over, I was still on my knees saying my prayers. Like I said, I need all the help I can get with the Good Lord. But, I couldn’t help but notice that Sparky left his pew, walked over to the side altar, lit a candle in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, knelt in prayer and when he finished praying, exited the church.”
“I finished my prayers,” Tommy continued, “walked up to the front of the church, blew out his candle, lit three of my own, said a quick Hail Mary and you know, we won all three games!”
Tommy then related a story about Sparky’s conversion to Catholicism. At the end of the story, he concluded by saying that, “I’m sure it was my good example that caused him to convert.”
There were lots of other stories, but in the interest of time, I mention those two in particular because a few years later, we asked Sparky Anderson to speak, and he agreed to do so. Unfortunately, he had to travel back to Ohio on a snowy February Saturday for the banquet. His flight was twice delayed, and he didn’t arrive in Dayton until about 2 p.m.
Once we had reached the safety of the Holiday Inn, the restaurant had long since closed for lunch. Knowing that Sparky had not had anything to eat (he had counted on food being available on the flight, and there was none), I asked Doug Steinke if he might prepare a turkey sandwich for Sparky to eat.
Doug told Sparky that he was not very skilled in the kitchen, but if he didn’t want anything too difficult, he could probably take care of making him a sandwich. “I just want a plain turkey sandwich,” Sparky stated. “A slice of white bread, some turkey, and another slice of white bread – period!”
Doug soon returned with the sandwich and Sparky began eating. I was sitting across the table in one of the booths in the Country Squire Restaurant and Sparky began to ravenously devour the sandwich. I related to him the story about Tommy blowing out his candle and lighting three of his own.
I was ill-prepared for what happened next.
I was showered with half eaten bread and turkey as Sparky exclaimed: “That damned SOB! I could never figure out how we were beaten three games in a row by a team that couldn’t have beaten a team fielded by the Little Sisters of the Poor. That damned SOB! That’s just not fair!”
Probably at that point, I should have not pressed my luck, but I asked about his conversion to Catholicism relating the fact that Tommy had stated that he was sure it was his “good example” that was responsible.
“His good example? His good example?” Sparky nearly screamed “If I had waited on his good example, I’d still be a damned heathen!”
A couple of years later, I had tickets to an afternoon Reds v. Dodgers game. I took my son and decided to go down early and watch batting practice.
We stood aside the dugout and watched Tommy working with a player who was having a great deal of difficulty holding the bat the way Tommy wanted him to hold it. Despite Tommy’s best efforts, the batter continued to hold his bat and swing at the ball in the same way for more than twenty minutes. .
All the while at the opposite end of the dugout was an individual who had already had far too much to drink. He kept yelling at Tommy, wanting an autograph. Tommy ignored him, despite the fact that the drunk was becoming increasingly loud and using language so offensive that it would have caused sailors to cringe. Eventually, the drunk yelled: “Hey you damed Spick – I told you I want an autograph!”
Tommy whirled on his heel, turning a bit too far. Our eyes met, and my heart sunk. I was afraid that he would think that I was the foul-mouthed drunk.
I should not have worried. Tommy trotted over to the fence, reached up and grabbed my hand, and shaking it vigorously said: “Mike, it is so good to see you!”
“And I you!” I exclaimed surprised that he remembered me. “Tommy, you have to meet thousands of people every year – and it’s been what three or four years. How in the world could you have remembered my name?” I asked.
“Mike, I don’t remember everyone I meet but I had such a good time at Lehman, there’s no way I could forget you.”
I introduced him to my son Tom. He commented on our excellent choice of names. He grabbed a baseball and signed it, handed it to my son, and we talked for some time. I apologized for the drunk and he replied, “There’s no need for you to apologize. There’s almost always at least one at every game – they just can’t help themselves.”
While Tommy was in Sidney, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask both he and Sparky the same question: “If you could put together a team with players you’ve had the opportunity to see play during your lifetime, who would be on your perfect team?”
“I’d have to pick Sandy Kofax as pitcher, with Don (Drysdale) in reserve, and I’d use Roy Campannella as my catcher. But you know, Johnny Bench could slide in there too. I’d probably put Lou Gehrig or Stan Musial at first base, I’d have to put Jackie Robinson at second for a whole lot of reasons, I’d probably put Muray Wills at shortstop, and at third base, I’d either put Brooks Robinson or Sal Bando. Outfield is a little trickier. I’d probably put Hank Aaron in right field, Joe DiMaggio in center, and probably put Ted Williams in left field. I’d probably want to use Mickey Mantle too.”
“The thing is, I’ve seen a whole lot of players, and there have been some good ones – Hall of Famers. If I were to just look at the Dodgers, Orel Hershiser is an outstanding pitcher and so is Pedro Guerrero. I’d put them on my team any day! You’ve got Steve Garvey – I could go on and on but you see my problem – I’ve seen so many good players that it’s tough to point out just one for each position.”
Tommy told so many stories that it’s impossible to recount them all. One favorite is him telling me about reading a story in the Cincinnati Enquirer featuring an aged convent across the river in Kentucky that was going to have to close because the fire inspectors had determined that it was a fire hazard. He used some of his “spare time” to help raise enough money to build the sisters a new one.
In Lehman’s case, he did not charge his usual speaker’s fee; the only cost we had was a first-class ticket from Dayton to New York City, where he was speaking at another Catholic charity as he made his way to spring training.
I’d like to think he did enough good deeds throughout his lifetime to make up for extinguishing Sparky’s candles, and he’s managing a baseball team (by his own admission, he was “not a very good player”) in the heavens. With someone with such a big heart, it was no surprise when I learned that he died of a heart attack.
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.