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From Obscurity To Immortality: The Story Of Sparky Anderson

Jun 14, 2019

George Lee Anderson of Bridgewater, South Dakota, might well have turned out to be one of the most obscure people to have ever put on the uniform of a Major League Baseball team.

You know him as Sparky, a nickname given to him by a minor league radio broadcaster because young George was something of a firecracker.

And, if you are a Reds fan, you know him as one of the most beloved figures in the history of the franchise.

At Baseball-Reference.com, the most thorough compilation of the 20,000 or so men who have played at least one major league game, Anderson, the five-foot, nine-inch second baseman, merits one line as a major league player:

1959, Philadelphia Phillies, 152 games, 477 at bats, 0 home runs, 34 RBI, .218 batting average.

But search out Sparky Anderson in the Baseball-Reference.com section on Major League managers and obscurity and mediocrity are the last things you will find.

There you will find 26 years of managing two very good baseball teams – the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and the Detroit Tigers of the 1980s. There you will find that he managed his clubs to three World Series championships: Cincinnati (1975, 1976) and Detroit (1984).

Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson and catcher Johnny Bench celebrate their victory with Champagne in the crowded dressing room at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 23, 1975.
Credit AP

The man who became known as "The Main Spark" is set apart from the rest. When he won with the Tigers in 1984, he became the only manager to win World Series titles in both the American and National leagues. Since then, Tony LaRussa has done it, but Sparky was the first.

And it is one of many reasons why today, if you go to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., you will find Sparky Anderson's plaque on the wall – and, on his bronze image, he is wearing a cap with the Reds' wishbone C, not the old English script D of the Tigers.

In Cincinnati, Sparky managed one of the greatest teams ever to set foot on a baseball diamond. He could walk out to home plate before every game and hand the umpires a line-up card that was just stunning in its talent level from top to bottom.

It included three players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame (catcher Johnny Bench, second baseman Joe Morgan and first baseman Tony Perez), a fourth, Pete Rose, who would be in the Hall of Fame if he could have controlled his impulse to bet on baseball; a fifth whom many baseball scribes believe should  be in the Hall (shortstop David Concepcion) and an incredibly talented cast of All Star outfielders (Ken Griffey, Cesar Geronimo and George Foster).

"People say I am some kind of baseball genius,'' Sparky said over and over again during his Cincinnati years. "I'm no genius. All I had to do was write those eight names down on a line-up card and then get out of their way."

Sounded good, but not true. Sparky was a baseball genius – a psychologist, a father figure, a baseball man who had the uncanny ability to bring the best out of his players, including guys who rode the bench until it was time to spell one of the superstars.

How did this mediocre player become a Reds legend and a Hall of Famer?

After the 1959 season, Anderson ended up spending the 1960 through 1963 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After the 1963 season, it was clear to Anderson that his playing career was over, but he believed he could make a living as a manager. His playing days behind him, he became manager of Toronto in 1964 at the age of 30, and then managed four different minor league teams to pennants over the next four seasons.

Sparky, who had a family to support, couldn't make ends meet managing minor league ball clubs, so he went to work in his spare time at various odd jobs, including stocking the shelves at a Sears store. Several times, he spent the off-season selling used cars.

Then, Sparky got his big break.

Reds manager Dave Bristol, who, with general manager Bob Howsam, had a lot to do with laying the groundwork for what would become the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. But Bristol left after the 1969 season to manage a new team, the Milwaukee Brewers.

In 1969, Sparky landed a job on the coaching staff of the San Diego Padres. At the end of the season, he left the Padres to take a coaching job with the California Angels.

But he never worked a day for the Angels.

Howsam had called California general manager Dick Walsh, asking for permission to talk to Sparky about the Cincinnati managing job.

Sparky, at the age of 35, with his hair already turning white, leapt at the chance.

He was named the manager for the 1970 season. Immediately, on editorial pages and in coffee shop conversations all over Cincinnati, there was one question from Reds fans:

Sparky who?

Nobody knew anything about this new skipper and Sparky knew it would take a lot to prove himself to fans.

One of the first things he did was name Rose the team's captain.

Rose, a popular hometown boy, would deliver the line-up card to the umpires before each game, taking some of the glare off the new manager. It was a stroke of genius.

In his first year as manager, Anderson's team won a whopping 102 games. The Reds ran away with the National League West title and then swept the Pirates in the NL championship series. The Reds lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in five games, but it was an impressive start for the new manager.

The question of Sparky who? was fading away.

The 1971 season, though, was a disaster. But in the off-season, the Reds pulled off a trade that made the Big Red Machine complete and has gone down in history as possibly the best trade the team ever made.

Two popular Reds, Lee May and Tommy Helms, were sent to Houston along with utility player Jimmy Stewart in exchange for second baseman Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham, Geronimo and Ed Armbrister.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among fans about losing May, "The Big Bopper," but Morgan made it clear early on he was one of the elite players in the game.

Morgan won back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards in 1975 and 1976.

It is no coincidence that those are the two years the Big Red Machine won the World Series – in seven games in 1975, in what many believe is the greatest World Series ever; and in 1976, when the Reds simply demolished the New York Yankees in four straight games.

There were many reasons for Sparky's success, and most of them had to do with the man's personality.

He always kept good relations with the media covering his team, and encouraged his players to do the same. It was not difficult for Sparky because he simply liked to talk – even though some saw him as a latter-day Casey Stengel because his syntax sometimes got mixed up.

Sparky was never very popular among many of the Reds' pitchers. They didn't believe he understood or cared about pitching.

And one of his other nicknames was "Captain Hook'' because of the frequency with which he would trudge slowly to the mound (always carefully avoiding stepping on the white chalk line; he was very superstitious that way) and yank them out of a game at the first sign of trouble.

"When I come out here,'' Sparky would tell the pitchers. "I don't want to hear a word from you. I want you to treat the ball as if it were a delicate egg and place it carefully in my hand. Then go to the showers."

He was also fiercely protective of his players – particularly his superstars – and not above bragging to the scribes about the talent he had at his command.

During the 1976 World Series, a sportswriter asked Sparky to compare his catcher to the Yankees' Thurman Munson.

"Don't ever embarrass nobody by comparing him to Johnny Bench,'' Anderson said in a much quoted-line.

Sparky felt bad about it afterwards – he had meant it as a general statement, not a pot-shot at Munson. So, in the off-season, from his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sparky wrote Munson a letter of apology.

One of the difficulties of managing the Big Red Machine was that there were some big egos to contend with.

And Sparky himself had something of a caste system. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski, formerly of NBC Sports and Sports Illustrated, published a book in 2009 called The Machine: A Hot Team, A Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series, about the Reds and the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series.

Posnanski, a former sportswriter for the Cincinnati Post, wrote that, although players might recall Sparky's spring training speech differently, they all remembered his main point.

He announced that the Machine was made up of two kinds of players. First, there were the superstars. To be more specific, Sparky said there were four superstars – Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. Those four made their own rules. Those four had no curfew. Those four had special privileges. "The rest of you," Sparky said, "are turds."

The implication was that if you played like those four, maybe you, too, could be clubhouse royalty.

GM Howsam had a rule for the Cincinnati Reds – that they would be a clean-cut bunch, with no facial hair, no long hair and suit jackets for traveling from city to city. He did not want his team looking like those long-haired, mustachioed hippies with the Oakland A's, who defeated the Reds in the 1972 World Series.

Sparky was the enforcer for those rules, and a true believer in them. Self-discipline, Sparky believed, led to better teamwork.

Sparky's last two seasons with the Reds were in 1977 and 1978, when they finished second behind the Dodgers. Howsam had retired and the Big Red Machine was being dismantled – Perez was already gone; Rose had one foot out the door.

Anderson was fired late in 1978.

Many of the Reds' players and most Reds fans were furious. Sparky who? had become a beloved figure.

He was out of work for a while. It was during that time that he showed up on the popular TV show, WKRP in Cincinnati – playing himself, of course.

But in 1979, Sparky was hired to manage the Tigers.

In typical Sparky fashion, he made a prediction at the press conference announcing his hiring – he said that the Tigers would win a world championship in five years.

Which is exactly what they did. Detroit Tigers, World Champions, 1984.

Anderson stayed through 1995, mostly managing mediocre Tiger teams.

But by the time he retired, he was a legend in two cities.

His retired uniform numbers – 10 in Cincinnati, 11 in Detroit – hang on the walls at Great American Ball Park and Comerica Park.

In retirement, Sparky would make appearances here, mostly when his former players were being honored. One of his last appearances was in Detroit, for the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1984 Tigers. People said he looked very frail.  

A year later, after the 2010 World Series, his family said that Sparky was in hospice, suffering from dementia. Two days later, at the age of 76, Sparky died.

But Hall of Famers never really die. In Cooperstown, they are immortal.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Reds At 150" here.