Baseball lost one of its greatest ambassadors last Thursday when Sparky Anderson passed away at the age of 76.
“This game has taken a lot of guys over the years who would have had to work in factories and gas stations, and made them prominent people,” Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1975.
“I only had a high school education and, believe me, I had to cheat to get that!
“There isn’t a college in the world that would have taken me, and yet, in this business you can walk into a room with millionaires, doctors, professional people, and get more attention than they get. I don’t know any other business where you can do that.”
George Lee Anderson was born on February 22, 1934 in Bridgewater, S.D. His father, LeRoy, worked painting silos and farmhouses. Needless to say, there wasn’t much painting going on in South Dakota in winter. The family of seven lived in a house without an indoor toilet, and LeRoy had to put cardboard over the windows to try to keep out some of the winter cold.
When Anderson was eight, the family moved to Los Angeles, and he discovered baseball. He became a bat boy for Southern Cal’s baseball team, under the guidance of legendary coach Rod Dedeaux.
He always remembered those days fondly. “I can’t believe they pay us to play baseball,” he recalled to the Detroit News in 1999. “Something we did for free as kids.”
After negotiating his way through high school, Anderson signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His fiery style of play and combustible temper quickly earned him the nickname “Sparky.”
He reached the majors for one season. In 1959, he was the regular second baseman for the Phillies. He hit only .218 with no home runs for the last place team, thus playing his way back into the minors.
Realizing his limitations as a player, Sparky began managing. Along the way he caught the eye of Bob Howsam, the general manager of the Cardinals. After the 1969 season Howsam, now the general manager of the Reds, needed a manager.
His choice was the unknown Anderson, which led the Cincinnati Enquirer to headline, “Sparky Who?” But Sparky won over the clubhouse immediately.
“My rookie year was his first year,” pitcher Don Gullett told the Cincinnati Post in 2000. “Here was a guy coming right out of the minor leagues, and when that happens, there’s always a question whether he can handle major leaguers.
“But I knew from spring training on that he could do it. And he proved it when he won 102 games his first year. He knew his personnel, knew how to motivate, how to discipline, how to push all the right buttons.”
Ah, there’s that phrase. Throughout the ‘70’s, Anderson was known derisively as a “push-button manager.” The Reds had such a great lineup, many felt that all Sparky had to do was fill out the lineup card and let ‘em play.
I’ve always disagreed with that assessment. Look at the personalities in that lineup: Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, John Bench, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, and Cesar Geronimo. You think it was easy to get all that talent, all those egos, on the same page? To make them all willing to sublimate their individualism for the good of the team?
I don’t recall ever hearing a word of dissension emanate from the Reds clubhouse. That was undoubtedly Sparky’s workmanship. As a result, the ‘70’s Reds won four pennants, and World Series titles in ‘75 and ‘76. The Big Red Machine is fondly recalled today as one of baseball’s greatest teams.
Sparky also earned the sobriquet “Captain Hook” for his penchant for quickly removing pitchers. Truth is the Reds never had pitching as good as their lineup. The staff required constant juggling. In essence, Sparky was 20 years ahead of his time. The way he handled the Reds staff of the ‘70’s is the way all staffs are managed today.
In 1978, Dick Wagner succeeded Howsam as the Reds general manager. After a second straight second place finish, he created a furor in Cincinnati by firing Sparky.
By June 1979, Sparky was back in uniform, managing the Tigers. “It’s a terrible thing to have to tell your fans, who have waited like Detroit’s have, that their team won’t win it this year,” he told Sports Illustrated that summer. “But it’s better than lying to them.”
Sparky wasn’t lying in spring training 1984 either, when he said, “We’re not good, we’re great!” The Tigers roared out of the gate to a record 35-5 start, and won the World Series.
That made Anderson the first manager to win the Series from both leagues, a feat matched by Tony LaRussa in 2006. He also became the first manager to win 100 games in a season in both leagues. He remains the only manager to post the most career wins for two different teams. He joined baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
He had retired after the 1995 season with a 26-year record of 2,194-1,834. At the time, he trailed only Connie Mack and John McGraw in career wins. He’s since been passed by LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
But he’s never been passed in his love for the game of baseball, as evidenced by this quote posted at baseball-almanac.com:
“Those of us lucky enough to be part of the game have a tremendous responsibility. We’re charged with giving back to the game all the good things the game has given us.”
Not many gave back more than Sparky.