The news came across Thursday afternoon that former manager Sparky Anderson had died in hospice care at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. because of the affects of dementia. Anderson was 76.
It was sad to learn about Anderson’s demise not only because he was one of the true gentlemen in baseball/life and a hallmark of the era of baseball many of us grew up following, but also because dementia and Alzheimer’s diseases hit all of us. If we don’t know someone with one of these diseases or a friend with a family member suffering from them, we will. It’s particularly frustrating and sad when someone as sharp as Sparky Anderson goes through this. The man lived to talk and share whatever it was he saw and experienced with everyone. It’s a damn shame.
So for those who weren’t old enough to remember Sparky Anderson or forget some of his extraordinary life, this is for you.
Rod Dedeaux, the mentor and developer of so many well-know major leaguers, also gets credit for “discovering” one of the greatest managers in major league history. As the story is told, most magnificently by author Mark Frost in his book, Game Six, George Anderson’s personality and ethics were in place even when he was a nine-year-old boy running around on the campus of USC with his friends looking for a spot in which to play ball.
See, a baseball—a regular old hardball—was not something every kid had in the 1930s as the Great Depression spread. Even today, baseballs are still hand-stitched, one at a time, in an austere plant in Costa Rica and remain cost prohibitive for a lot of kids. Even though approximately 900,000 baseballs are made each year, and it costs roughly $1 to produce one ball, a decent ball still costs about $10.
In other words, if a baseball is found in a park or grassy field somewhere, chances are it’s going to be picked up.
But hardened by the impecuniousness of the Depression and steadfast in his principles of right and wrong, young George Anderson stood up to his companions when they leapt at the misplaced ball near an outfield fence where the USC team was practicing.
“It ain’t ours,” Anderson said as Frost wrote. “We gotta give it back.”
That’s how Sparky Anderson and Rod Dedeaux met. Anderson wrangled the ball away from his friends and returned it back to the coach as he supervised his team’s practice. After a brief conversation with the coach, Anderson was offered a job as the USC batboy and his life in baseball took off.
Part of that was because of Dedeaux’s influence. Long coveted by major league clubs as a manager or coach, Dedeaux stayed at USC where he worked for a token $1 salary from 1942 to 1986 where he won the college World Series 10 times. The list of players he coached at USC reads like a list of Academy Award winners that includes 59 major leaguers highlighted by names like Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn, Rich Dauer, Mark McGwire, Bill Lee and a left-handed pitcher named Pat Gillick.
Moreover, Dedeaux’s mentor was the legendary and fabled Casey Stengel. It was Stengel who signed Dedeaux out of USC to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and when he made his playing debut in 1935, Stengel was the manager. Making his home in Southern California, Stengel spent winters with Dedeaux at the USC field where he would talk baseball while young Sparky soaked it all in.
How’s that for a pedigree? Dedeaux and Stengel are like Socrates and Aristotle. From that, it’s no wonder Sparky Anderson won 102 games and went to the World Series in 1970 in his first season as manager of the Cincinnati Reds at age 36. In fact, Anderson went to the World Series twice and the NLCS three times before he was 40. In 1975 and 1976, Anderson kept the Big Red Machine running smoothly to become the first (and last) National League team to win the World Series in consecutive years since the 1921-22 New York Giants.
The Reds did it with an offense that featured three Hall of Famers (Bench, Perez, Morgan), the all-time hit king (Rose), the best fielding shortstop of the ‘70s (Concepcion), an NL MVP and member of the 50-HR club (Foster), and an All-Star Game MVP (Griffey), and a veritable no-name pitching staff that was worked so often and interchangeably that Anderson was called, “Captain Hook.” In fact, closer Rawley Eastwick pitched the fewest innings on the staff and he went 90 innings. By contrast, the save leader of 2010, Brian Wilson, has never come close to sniffing 90 innings in a season.
When he retired, Anderson won more games as a manager than anyone except for Connie Mack and John McGraw and that earned him election to the Hall of Fame in 2000. But it wasn’t so much about the wins with Anderson than it was about the idiosyncrasies, the character and the dignity. When the Reds hired him before the ’70 season, very few people had heard of Anderson outside of Southern California or baseball circles. After all, he played just one season in the majors where he was a light-hitting second baseman for the last-place Phillies in 1959. Actually, it was the strangest thing… manager Eddie Sawyer put the 25-year-old Anderson into the lineup on Opening Day and kept him there for all but two games for the entire season. Sawyer did so even though Anderson batted just .218 with 12 extra-base hits and a .282 on-base percentage. The only offensive categories he showed up in at the end of the season where in grounded into double plays (15 for 10th) and caught stealing (9 for 5th).
What’s strange about that isn’t just because the stats were so poor, after all, Pat Burrell batted .209 in 600 plate appearances in 2003 and manager Larry Bowa kept sending him out there, and, of course, the infamous “Mendoza Line” was named for Mario Mendoza for a reason. What’s weird is that Anderson played all but two games of the major league season at age 25 and never got another sniff of playing in the big leagues.
It didn’t take Anderson long to figure out his days as a player were numbered. He was just 30 when he got a job managing the Triple-A farm club for the Milwaukee Braves. In 1968 he managed the Reds’ Double-A club in Asheville to an 86-54 record before jumping to San Diego to be the Padres’ third-base coach. Meanwhile, before the California Angels could snap up Anderson as manager for the 1970 season, the Reds swooped in and put him in charge of the Big Red Machine.
That’s what they said in Cincinnati when Anderson was hired. And to his credit, the young manager was right there with the naysayers. Still, at 36 he was already a baseball lifer and it didn’t hurt that his trademarked white hair made him look much older. It also helped that Anderson made it his task to get to know all of his players and their families, further proving that he was ahead of his time.
“You don’t have to like me. You don’t have to respect me. I’m here to earn your respect,” was how Anderson answered the doubters.
Perhaps his ability to be a leader without ego and a progressive thinking man in an age where those management traits weren’t popular will be Anderson’s legacy. It wasn’t about him, Anderson always pointed out. He made sure to drive that point home during his Hall of Fame induction speech:
I want you to take a look at the people behind me and put it in your brain when you look at ‘em; the people that came before them, and these people, and the people that will come after them. That is baseball. All that other stuff you’ve heard about baseball is just makeup. Those people made this game and those people will protect this game, and I hope every manager that follows me will listen very carefully: Players earn this by their skills. Managers come here, as I did, on their backs, for what they did for me. My father never went past the third grade, but there ain’t a guy who went to Harvard as smart as my daddy. My daddy said this: “I’m gonna give you a gift. It’s the greatest gift to take all the way through your life. And if you with this gift, everything will work out perfect, and it will never cost you a dime, and that gift is this: If every day of your life , with every person you meet, you will just be nice to that person, and treat that person like they are someone.
Guess what? It worked. When news of his failing health spread, the outpouring was overwhelming to read. The amazing part about some of the stories about Anderson was that his former players still kept in touch with him decades later.
"I call him every Christmas season," former Tigers' pitcher Dan Petry told the Detroit News. "I can tell you that he did more to prepare me for life after baseball, for the real world."He prepared me to be a person, rather than an ex-ballplayer."
Long-time Tigers coach and player Dick Tracewski echoed those sentiments in an interview with the Detroit News.
"But I have to say this about Sparky, and it probably is the reason many of them love him to this day: I've never known a manager at any level who liked his players as much as Sparky did. I'm not just talking about the players who could play, I'm talking about all the players. He never wanted to hear a comment from us coaches that so-and-so couldn't cut it."
By the end of the 1970s, the Reds were viewed as one of the all-time great teams and Anderson had become one of the most recognizable (and approachable) characters in the game, willing to talk about baseball non-stop with fans, writers, players and regular folks. On top of that, in an era that produced some of the best and well-known managers in baseball history, with names like Whitey, Earl, Billy, Tommy and even Yogi, Sparky won more games, more World Series and more pennants.
That didn’t make it easy, of course. Baseball is a game where failure is the most prevalent outcome and that goes for managers, too. The Reds fired Anderson before the 1979 season, but he quickly found work with the youthful Detroit Tigers with players like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson, who were just making their way in the big leagues. But by 1984, Anderson turned the Tigers into the fiercest team in baseball.
The ’84 Tigers jumped out to a 35-5 record, whipped out the Royals in a sweep in the ALCS before taking apart the Padres in five games to make Anderson the first man to win the World Series in both leagues. He went on with the Tigers for 17 seasons and was pushed into retirement before the 1995 season because he refused to manage replacement players after the ’94 strike. It wasn’t right, he felt, so he wouldn’t do it.
In retirement Anderson continued to talk about baseball and sing the praises of all his former players, coaches and competitors. He truly loved it all and it unmistakable.
“The game is bigger than all of us,” Anderson said during his Hall of Fame induction.
Indeed it is, but Sparky Anderson helped make that so.