Just days after the news that Sparky Anderson had entered a hospice, the legendary manager passed away at the age of 76.
George Lee “Sparky” Anderson was a career minor leaguer who played in only one major league season with the Phillies in 1959. At his best considered a poor man’s Eddie Stanky, Anderson never lived up to his limited potential as a player, but slowly made a name for himself as a coach when his playing career ended in 1963.
After several seasons as a coach with various organizations (over the course of three days in the winter of 1970, he went from being a third base coach with the Padres to a similar role with the Angels before ending up an unlikely manager of the Reds), Anderson finally got his big break with Cincinnati.
Before Sparky signed on to lead the Reds, the team had won only one NL pennant in the previous 29 seasons, underperforming what were usually high expectations. Against that back drop, the 36-year old Anderson, who always seemed to look at least 10-years older, pragmatically told reporters “That’s why I’m not on the spot. If the Reds are supposed to win the pennant and don’t, it won’t be the first time it’s happened recently”.
In case anyone was disappointed by the hiring of the relatively unknown Anderson, the Reds sought to quickly ease the transition. In December, they issued a team Christmas Card featuring a caricature of Sparky Anderson driving a tractor. “Holiday Greetings from the Big Red Machine”, the card read.
I told Clyde King [manager of the Giants] that it’d really be something , me and him going out to the plate with lineups for the game of the day one of these weeks. Nobody’d know who either of one of us is.” – Sparky Anderson, speaking about his anonymity, The Pittsburgh Press, March 31, 1970
Going into his first season, Anderson knew he wasn’t exactly as well known as Santa Claus. During his first spring training, he quipped, “I told Clyde King [manager of the Giants] that it’s really be something , me and him going out to the plate with lineups for the game of the day one of these weeks. Nobody’d know who either of one of us is.”
Those sentiments, which now seem so eerie considering the death of King and Anderson on consecutive days, quickly dissipated as the Reds won 100 games and returned to the World Series in 1970. After two more close calls in 1972 and 1973, Sparky’s Big Red Machine finally broke through with back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976, the latter resulting in a commanding sweep of the New York Yankees.
Following the 1978 season, the Reds shocked the baseball world by dismissing Anderson. At the time, Reds’ president Dick Wagner cited the team’s complacency as reason for the change, but most signs pointed toward a personality clash between the two men.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called the Reds’ decision “the biggest boo boo of the year”, leading many to speculate that Sparky’s next stop might be in the Bronx. At the time, Bob Lemon was serving as a lame duck manager during the 1979 season with Billy Martin waiting to take over in 1980. However, further indiscretions by Martin had the Yankees leery of their commitment, and rumors floated that Anderson would instead take over Lemon. As things turned out, the Yankees never got the chance because the Tigers, fearful that another team would snap him up, abruptly fired their manager in June and hired Sparky as the replacement.
“I made a bet with Sparky last January for dinner and a suit of clothes that he’d get a managing job before June 15. It looks like I won, doesn’t it”. – Reds’ pitcher Tom Seaver, speaking to AP/UPI after the Tigers hired Anderson to be their manager, June 13, 1979
Anderson slowly brought the struggling Tigers back to respectability before eventually winning it all in 1984 with a historic 35-5 start to a 104-win season, and in the process became the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues. Sparky remained with the Tigers for 11 more seasons, but only returned to the playoffs once more (in 1987) before retiring in 1995. He exited with 2,194 games won, good for sixth on the all-time list (and third at the time of his departure).
Always a character, Sparky Anderson was a true ambassador of the game. He was equal parts traditionalist, optimist and enthusiast, and always exuded a genuine sense of love for wearing a major league uniform. All of baseball is worse off for his loss, but infinitely better for his time in the game. He may have been a no-name when he first stepped onto the scene, but he departs as one of its legends.
In the early 1990s, the Yankees had become used to getting mauled by the Tigers, especially in Detroit. So, when the Yankees took a 6-0 lead in a game on May 7, 1993, Buck Showalter still wasn’t taking anything for granted. In an attempt to score a seventh run, Pat Kelly swiped second base in the top of the sixth. The Yankees’ aggressive posture with such a large lead seemed to upset Anderson, who could be seen gesticulating toward the Yankees’ bench. After the game, Sparky’s immediate response was to quote Branch Rickey’s old axiom about letting sleeping dogs lie, which seemed rather appropriate because his Tigers roared back to win the game 7-6.
Anderson eventually apologized to Showalter for his reaction, but as things turned out, the moment served as an invaluable lesson for the rookie Yankees manager. By sticking to his guns, Showalter not only earned Sparky’s respect, but raised eyebrows around the league. When Anderson eventually retired after the 1995 season, the first man he recommended as his replacement was Showalter.
Spring training has always been a haven for the optimist, and no one proved that more than Sparky Anderson. Without fail, Sparky would spend the entire camp touting one of his team’s young prospects. Whether it was Jim Walewander, Billy Bean, Scott Lusader or any number of other nondescript minor leaguers, Anderson would trumpet their ability, which usually meant they’d seldom be heard from again. The Tigers under Sparky were mostly a veteran club, but at least in March, youth was served.
Perhaps Sparky Anderson’s greatest talent as a manager was his ability to motivate, especially star players. His famous comment from the 1976 World Series about no one being comparable to Johnny Bench was often seen as a slight to Yankees backstop Thurman Munson, but the words were really meant as a tribute to his own catcher. Another classic example of motivation during the World Series occurred in game 5 of the 1984 World Series. In the eighth inning of that game, the Padres were clinging to life, trailing 5-4 with runners on second and third and Kirk Gibson coming to the plate. San Diego manager Dick Williams initially instructed Rich Gossage to walk the Tigers’ slugger, but the Goose talked him out of it. While manager and pitcher conferred, Sparky repeatedly shouted at Gibson, “He doesn’t want to walk you!” One pitch later, the ball was headed over the roof in right field and the Tigers were on their way to a World Championship.
For video of the Gibson homerun, click here.