Obituary: Ed Sprague Sr. (1945-2020)

RIP to Ed Sprague Sr., a relief pitcher who was a part of the original Oakland A’s teams. The A’s reported on January 10 that he had died at the age of 74. Sprague pitched for the Athletics (1968-69), Cincinnati Reds (1971-73), St. Louis Cardinals (1973) and Milwaukee Brewers (1973-76). His son, Ed Jr., was an All-Star third baseman and presently serves as the director of player development for the A’s. His granddaughter, Payton, is the partnership marketing manager for Oakland.

The team released a statement that read: “The A’s organization is deeply saddened by the passing` of Ed Sprague Sr., an original member of the 1968 Oakland A’s team and the 1969 club. He was the first of three generations to be part of the A’s family, and our condolences are with Ed Jr., granddaughter Payton, and the entire Sprague family during this difficult time.”

Ed Sprague was born in Boston on September 16, 1945. Baseball wasn’t a big part of his youth growing up in Hayward, Calif. He attended Sunset High School but never pitched for the school baseball team. He was too busy after school working in a furniture store to play sports, he explained years later. He eventually tried out for the team with a week left in the season, so his high school baseball experience amounted to one game as a right fielder. After high school, he enlisted in March 1964 and served for two years as a paratrooper with the 509th Airborne Division, according to a 1967 article in the Oakland Tribune.

“I played some softball for our company team in Germany,” he said, “and there was a bird-dog scout in the company who umpired some games. He thought I could play professional baseball and in June of 1965 I received a letter inviting me to attend Dick Howser’s Baseball School in Florida.”

Source: Oakland Tribune, November 28, 1967

After he was discharged in 1966, the 20-year-old Sprague attended the camp, and within four days he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. His first organization was in Rock Hill, S.C. The pitcher who’d never thrown an inning in competitive baseball went 1-1 with a 1.64 ERA and was moved to the Eugene Emeralds. He had a 2-5 record and 2.88 ERA.

In 1967, Sprague won 11 games for the Class-A Modesto Reds in 36 games, 22 of which were starts. He had a fine 3.12 ERA and struck out 108 batters in 156 innings. He threw four shutouts. When asked, Sprague said that his best pitch was a sidearm sinker, along with a curve and a change-up.

Sprague was eligible to be picked in the 1967 Rule V draft, held November 28 in Mexico City. The Athletics, just about to move to their new home in Oakland, drafted first and picked Sprague. Less than two years after entering professional ball, he was on his way to the majors.

“This was the best guy on the draft list,” said A’s executive vice president Joe DiMaggio, “and we just couldn’t let him go by. He has a good, strong arm and a lot of desire. He will help us right now.”

Sprague came into spring training in 1968 with a virtually guaranteed spot on the 25-man roster. He had an excellent spring and earned his place in the bullpen. As an added bonus, Oakland Coliseum was only about 10 minutes away from his home in Heyward.

As a Rule V pick and a pretty inexperienced player, Sprague was protected somewhat, appearing in just 47 games in his rookie year. But the sidearmer made the most of his opportunities and had a 3-4 record with 4 saves and a 3.28 ERA. He got into 12 games in the month of June and allowed just 1 earned run in 18 innings. He was good enough that the city of Heyward honored him with an Ed Sprague Night at the Coliseum. City merchants gave him gifts that included a Pontiac Firebird. He’d been in the majors for about three months at that point.

Right after Ed Sprague Day was announced, the rookie had a terrible performance, prompting one of his teammates to shout, “Hey Stickman, after today, they’re going to give you a ’48 Volkswagen with one wheel!”

(The nickname “Stickman” came from the fact that Sprague stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 185 pounds.)

Sprague raised some eyebrows in 1969 when he reported to spring training in the midst of a players’ strike over a pension dispute. He was joined by A’s pitchers Tony Pierce and Blue Moon Odom. Sprague explained that, as a player with one year in the majors, he had an obligation to the team and his family, and he needed the extra work to keep his spot on the team.

Sprague started the ’69 season back in the bullpen, and while he pitched well enough, he still ended up shuttling between the majors and AAA Iowa. He made 27 appearances out of the A’s pen and ended the year with a 1-1 record, 2 saves and a 4.47 ERA. He spent all of 1970 with the Iowa Oaks, and when he resurfaced back in the majors in 1971, it was in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.

The Reds bought Sprague’s contract in late October 1970. It was a reunion, as Reds manager Sparky Anderson was Sprague’s skipper in 1967 with Modesto. He toiled away in 1971 in AAA Indianapolis until September, when he was promoted to the majors. In 7 games, he threw 11 scoreless innings, allowing just 2 unearned runs. He won a job on the Reds pitching staff for 1972 and made 33 appearances, including 1 emergency start. He pitched 6 strong innings against the Padres on July 1 and came away with a 3-2 win. He was used sparingly all season, and he didn’t log any postseason work as the Reds lost the World Series to the A’s.

Sprague moved between three different teams in 1973. He started the season with the Reds and went 1-3 with a 5.28 ERA. He was traded to the Cardinals for infielder Ed Crosby on July 27. The Cardinals barely used him (8 games, 2.25 ERA in 8 innings), sent him to the minors briefly and then sold his contract to Milwaukee. Sprague pitched poorly with the Brewers to close out the 1973 season, but his his best season in the majors was coming.

Sprague was so frustrated by his whirlwind season that he seriously thought about quitting baseball. Up to that point, he’d been used primarily as a seldom-used mop-up reliever.

“I’ve been working maybe 50-60 innings a year,” he said. “Last year was so bad for me, all I wanted to do was get it over. I went to winter ball and figured either I’d better do something or baseball would forget about me.”

That winter, Brewers manager Del Crandall and pitching coach Al Widmar changed his delivery from sidearm to a 3/4 delivery and thought him a breaking ball. Given his late start in baseball, Sprague had made it as far as he did on arm strength. Having learned a little finesse, he became one of the best pitchers on the Brewers staff in 1974. He did so well in his initial relief appearances that Crandall began using him as a starter. He won his first two starts and threw his first complete game in the majors on June 26. The only thing that marred his season was a knee injury in mid-July that kept him out for about a month and a half. Injury aside, Sprague had a 7-2 record and 2.39 ERA in 20 games, including 10 starts.

“It was simply a matter of having someone believe in me,” Sprague said.

Unfortunately for Sprague, the knee injury required offseason surgery, and then he re-aggravated it on July 24, 1975, and was placed on the 60-day disabled list. He had a second surgery days later, ending a disappointing season. He won just 1 game and lost 7 with a 4.68 ERA. The injury impacted his control, as he walked a career-high 40 batters.

By May 1976, Sprague felt that his surgically rebuilt knee was ready to go. Brewers manager Alex Grammas didn’t agree, and the pitcher was relegated to throwing batting practice.

Source: The Sheboygan Press, June 21, 1974.

“I could pitch right now,” Sprague said. “I don’t know if I could come back right away and pitch like I did two years ago, but I don’t think it would take long.”

“Ed had made excellent progress, but I think he still has an awful long way to go,” Grammas maintained.

In the end, Sprague was activated off the DL and made 3 relief appearances. He was tagged with 2 losses and allowed 6 runs in 7-2/3 innings. The Brewers tried to send him to AAA, but he refused the assignment and went back home to Oakland, ending his playing career.

In 8 seasons in the majors, Sprague had a 17-23 record, with a 3.84 ERA in 198 appearances. He started 23 games and recorded 9 saves out of the bullpen. He fanned 188 batters while walking 206 in 408 innings.

Sprague received a workman’s compensation settlement over his injured knee, and he invested it in minor-league baseball teams. He first acquired the Stockton Ports minor-league franchise. The Sprague family added a second team, as his late wife Michelle bought a Dodgers farm club in Lodi and served as its president. It was a friendly rivalry, he said.

Sprague owned the Ports throughout the 1980s and frequently worked with their young pitchers. According to this article in the Stockton Record, he was a highly regarded owner.

“They don’t make them like Ed anymore,” said Don Miller, a former Ports general manager. “First and foremost, he was a gentleman. He treated people the way you wanted be treated. He had a way about him that made everybody around him feel like a million dollars.”

The name “Ed Sprague” carried on in the majors with distinction when Ed Jr. played from 1991-2001. Starting as a backup catcher, Sprague became an All-Star third baseman and hit 152 homers in his career, spent mostly with the Blue Jays.

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