The Cardinals gave Ed Sprague a chance to become a professional ballplayer and make a connection with Sparky Anderson.
Sprague died Jan. 10, 2020, at 74. A right-hander, he pitched for eight seasons in the major leagues with the Athletics, Reds, Cardinals and Brewers.
It took a series of career turns before Sprague pitched in a big-league game for the Cardinals in his second stint with them.
Sprague was born in Boston and went to high school in Hayward, Calif., about 15 miles south of Oakland. He didn’t play prep sports because he had a job after school at a furniture store.
In March 1964, Sprague, 18, enlisted in the Army. While stationed in Mainz, Germany, as a paratrooper, he joined the military base fast-pitch softball team as a catcher. Sprague had a strong arm and an Army colleague, former minor-leaguer Dick Holland, encouraged him to pursue a baseball career, The Sporting News reported.
After his discharge from the Army in March 1966, Sprague, 20, enrolled at a baseball school in West Palm Beach, Fla., run by big-league infielder Dick Howser.
Four days later, the school held a tryout camp attended by big-league scouts. “About 100 kids tried out that day,” Spague told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Cardinals scout Tommy Thomas made an offer and Sprague signed. “I didn’t get a bonus,” he told The Sporting News.
Relyng exclusively on a fastball, Sprague pitched in 13 games for two farm clubs in 1966 and posted a 2.66 ERA.
In 1967, Sprague, 21, was assigned to Modesto, a California League team managed by Sparky Anderson.
“He was so raw and inexperienced then that he didn’t even know how to stand correctly on the pitching rubber,” Anderson told The Sporting News. “You almost had to lead him to the mound.”
Throwing with a sidearm delivery, Sprague learned quickly and had an 11-7 record and 3.12 ERA for league champion Modesto.
After the season, Anderson joined the Reds as a minor-league manager and Sprague reported to the Cardinals’ 1967 fall Florida Instructional League team. Playing for manager George Kissell, Sprague had a 1.74 ERA in 11 starts.
Left off the Cardinals’ 40-man winter roster, Sprague was selected by the Athletics with the first pick in the Nov. 28, 1967, minor-league draft. Athletics executive vice president Joe DiMaggio made the announcement at the baseball winter meetings in Mexico City.
Finding his footing
Sprague pitched well at spring training in 1968 and earned a spot on the Athletics’ Opening Day roster. The Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland after the 1967 season, meaning Sprague would begin his big-league career with a team located a 15-minute drive from where he went to high school.
“He throws a sidearm pitch with considerable speed,” The Sporting News noted. “It sinks.”
On April 16, 1968, in his second major-league appearance, Sprague got the win with three scoreless innings in relief of starter Catfish Hunter at Yankee Stadium.
The outing started ominously when Sprague lost his balance on the second pitch he threw and fell off the mound.
“I don’t know what happened,” Sprague told The Sporting News. “All of a sudden, there I was flat on my face and everyone was laughing at me.”
Sprague regained his composure and finished the inning by getting Mickey Mantle to fly out to left.
In the ninth, the Yankees had a runner at second with two outs when Sprague sealed the win by getting his baseball school operator, Dick Howser, to ground out. Boxscore
Come and go
Sprague pitched for the Athletics in 1968 and 1969, but spent the 1970 season in the minors. The Reds, who won the National League pennant in 1970 in Sparky Anderson’s first season as manager, acquired him after the World Series.
In 1971, Sprague was assigned to the Reds’ top farm club at Indianapolis. The manager, Vern Rapp, had been in the Cardinals’ system when Sprague was there. Rapp taught Sprague how to throw a changeup and the pitch helped him achieve nine wins and five saves for Indianapolis.
The Reds called up Sprague for the last month of the 1971 season and he allowed no earned runs in 11 innings. “It’s pretty well known there are some among the Reds brass who think highly of Ed Sprague,” The Sporting News reported.
In 1972, when the Reds won the pennant, Sprague was 3-3 in 33 games. The Reds played the Athletics in the World Series, but Sprague didn’t pitch.
The next year, he was 1-3 with a 5.12 ERA when the Reds traded him to the Cardinals on July 27, 1973, for infielder Ed Crosby and catcher Gene Dusan. The Cardinals also got a player to be named, first baseman Roe Skidmore.
“My arm is fine,” Sprague told the Post-Dispatch. “My trouble has been lack of work.”
In his first appearance for the Cardinals, on July 29, 1973, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs at Chicago, Sprague relieved starter Rich Folkers with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh.
Jose Cardenal hit Sprague’s first pitch on the ground. “It looked like an easy out,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
The ball took a high hop and bounced over the head of third baseman Ken Reitz for a fluke single, tying the score at 4-4. The Cubs won, 5-4. Boxscore
“I did what I set out to do, make him hit the ball on the ground,” Sprague said.
Sprague made eight appearances for the Cardinals and was 0-0 with a 2.25 ERA when they sent him to the minor leagues, preferring to go with a left-hander, John Andrews, as a reliever.
In the genes
After three appearances with Class AAA Tulsa, Sprague’s contract was sold by the Cardinals to the Brewers on Sept. 4, 1973.
Sprague had his best big-league season in 1974 with the Brewers. He was 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA in 10 starts and 0-0 with a 2.10 ERA in 10 relief appearances.
Sprague pitched eight seasons in the majors and was 17-23 with nine saves and a 3.84 ERA.
His son Ed Sprague Jr., was a big-league third baseman for 11 seasons, mostly with the Blue Jays, and played in two World Series with Toronto.