Joe Sparma had superb timing for the Tigers

Years of observing and studying baseball cards have taught me a number of lessons about basic photography and our National Pastime. One of them is the following: ballplayers are often not ready to have their picture taken.

Joe Sparma’s 1967 Topps card provides us with a good example. Sparma’s Detroit Tigers cap looks a little loose on his head, as if he didn’t have a chance to pull it down over his forehead. Sparma is also trying to feign a pitching motion for the Topps cameraman, but Sparma’s pantomime isn’t too convincing. Sparma is looking in one direction (toward the photographer) but is stepping in another direction entirely. His legs also appear to be hunched too close to the ground. This certainly doesn’t look like a natural pitching motion.

If Sparma’s awkward moment is bothering him, he certainly isn’t showing it. He appears to be having a good time, smiling for the cameraman on this sunny day in the spring of 1966. It’s as if he isn’t taking any of this baseball card-making process too seriously. He is enjoying himself, and that is the way that it should be, especially during the low-pressure days of spring training.

Sparma’s card brings sadness, too. In some ways, it’s difficult to see him smiling and laughing, knowing that he would become a tragic figure, one who would pass away long before his time.

While Tigers fans of younger generations might find Sparma’s name unfamiliar, anyone who remembers the summers of 1967 and ’68 will remember him—and do so fondly. Those were two of the best seasons of his career, when he won a combined 26 games and earned a world championship ring for his contributions in the latter season. Sparma had some very good seasons for the Tigers in the 1960s, before a profound inability to throw strikes wrecked his career and forced him into an early retirement—all by the time he turned 30.

Signed as an amateur free agent prior to the 1963 season, Sparma chose the Tigers over football. He had played well at quarterback for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, but inconsistent playing time convinced him to leave college and pursue a baseball career. Once signed by the Tigers, Sparma moved up quickly within the ranks. By 1964, the power-armed right-hander was deemed ready of a recall. Sparma became a spot starter and long reliever for manager Chuck Dressen, who liked Sparma’s two main pitches: an overpowering fastball and a tough overhand curve ball. Dressen considered Sparma’s repertoire more than satisfactory for a major league starter.

Summoned to the major leagues in May of 1964, Sparma struggled with wildness at times but pitched well for the most part, delivering an ERA of 3.00 with 71 strikeouts in 84 innings. He became a fulltime starter in 1965, logging 167 innings for two managers, Dressen and Bob Swift. Sparma maintained his strikeout rate while also lessening his rate of walks. Spurred on by improvement in his control, Sparma won 13 of 21 decisions and put up an ERA of 3.18.

Then came a downturn in 1966. In spring training, Sparma hurt his index finger while closing his car door. The injury affected his performance all summer long; he won only two games and saw his ERA balloon to 5.30. It became a lost season.

In 1967, the Tigers added Johnny Sain as pitching coach. Sain would have a profound influence on Sparma. Sain suggested that Sparma add a slider to his repertoire. He also simplified Sparma’s pitching motion, which had long been criticized for being overly complicated. Sparma responded beautifully to the challenge of change, winning 16 games and compiling five shutouts along the way.

In 1968, Sparma opened the season as part of the Tigers’ regular four-man rotation. But his status would change. Sparma’s first-half ineffectiveness forced manager Mayo Smith to remove him from the rotation. Sparma never forgave Smith for that slight, telling legendary Detroit writer that the manager “had no respect for him; didn’t like him, didn’t trust him.” For his part, Smith publicly bemoaned the situation, wondering aloud how he could use such a wild pitcher, even in a relief role. So Sparma became a little-used part of the pitching staff. Smith compounded the problem by failing to communicate with his right-hander.

On September 17, moments before game time, Earl Wilson came down with a sore shoulder. Needing an emergency starter, Smith called on Sparma to make the start against the New York Yankees. The fans greeted Sparma’s introduction with boos, but he quickly changed the mood of Tiger Stadium. Sparma pitched beautifully, winning a 2-1 decision over New York and clinching the pennant for the Tigers. For a moment, Sparma became an important Tiger once again.

Sparma again fell into disuse in the postseason, but that was understandable as Smith concentrated most of his World Series innings onto the arms of Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich. Sparma made just one brief appearance in relief, but could take satisfaction in bringing home a world championship.

Sparma pitched ineffectively the following season, plagued by wildness. He walked 77 batters in only 92 innings. Sparma had no arm problems, but simply could not throw strikes with any regularity, a trait that was noticed by fellow pitcher John Hiller. “You couldn’t even play catch with the guy,” Hiller said many years later. “He never knew where the ball was going to wind up. It was all mental with him. When he was on, he had better stuff than Nolan Ryan. He just never figured out how to harness it.”

The wildness, along with a late-season bullpen fight with reliever Fred Lasher, prompted the Tigers to trade him in the winter of 1969. In December, the Tigers sent him to the expansion Montreal Expos for a younger pitcher, a right-hander named Jerry Robertson. Sparma reacted to the trade with bitterness, aiming most of his vitriol at his former manager. “Mayo has no idea how to put a pitching staff together,” Sparma said bluntly. “We might have blown two or three pennants in a row [because of him].”

On paper, joining an expansion team, one that badly needed pitching, figured to help Sparma. But he never gained a foothold in Canada. Appearing in nine games for the Expos, he struggled mightily, losing all four decisions and posting an ERA of 7.06. His control problems had only worsened, as evidenced by 25 walks in 29 innings. Not wanting to give up on Sparma entirely, the Expos sent him out to Triple-A in 1970. The results proved disastrous. With his ERA rising to 8.22, he lost 13 out of 16 decisions. Sparma’s control was a huge factor. He walked 92 batters in 116 innings, an unacceptable number for any pitcher. He also unleashed 19 wild pitches, the most in the International League.

Sparma thought about retirement, but the Expos told him to hang on, as they attempted to find a taker in a trade. To no one’s surprise, few teams showed interest. In February of 1971, the Tigers settled for a cash deal, sending Sparma back to the Tigers. Once again assigned to Triple-A, Sparma pitched better for Toledo than he had in Montreal’s system, but his ERA remained near 6.00. More to the point, his control showed no improvement, reflected by 72 walks in 58 innings. Although Sparma’s arm and velocity remained sound, it became obvious that it was time to retire.

Out of baseball after his playing days, Sparma found success working in sales and marketing. He became the vice president of a steel company in Ohio. Life seemed to be going well for the former Tiger.

In May of 1986, Sparma’s health suddenly took a turn for the worse. A heavy smoker for much of his life, Sparma suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors determined that he needed triple bypass surgery. Sparma underwent the procedure, but complications ensued during his recovery process. On May 14, 10 days after initially suffering the heart attack, Sparma died. He was only 44 years old.

Sparma’s name is rarely mentioned any more, which is the kind of thing that happens when a journeyman player dies so young. Perhaps Sparma is forgotten now, but at one time, he had as good an arm as a Lolich or a McLain, and enjoyed at least a smattering of success before it all came apart. And of course, he will always remain a part of a beloved world championship team. That will never change.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.