George Lee “Sparky” Anderson has died at age 76. He was a baseball star in 2 major league cities, Montreal and Toronto. Problem was, they were minor league cities at the time. In the majors, he played just 1 season, with the 1959 Philadelphia Phillies. Batting average, .218. On-base, .282. Slugging, .249. OPS+, 43. RBIs, 34. Home runs, zero. So why mention him?
Because he was one of baseball’s greatest managers. In his rookie season as a manager, just 36 years old (but already with white hair), he led the Cincinnati Reds to the 1970 National League Pennant. This was the start of the Big Red Machine, with Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and George Foster hitting the snot out of the ball. The Reds won the Pennant under Sparky again in 1972, won the N.L. West in 1973, then won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976.
In 1979, Sparky moved on to the Detroit Tigers, and, with Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson, led them to the World Series in 1984, making him the first manager ever to win the Series in both Leagues. (Tony LaRussa has joined him.) He also got the Tigers to an American League East title in 1987.
Sparky never had a great starting rotation, not in Cincinnati (though he did have Don Gullett) and not in Detroit (though he did have Jack Morris). But he built great bullpens, pulling pitchers so often he was called Captain Hook. In a lot of ways, that bullpen management made him the prototype for today’s managers – for better or for worse. If God is a baseball fan, then there's going to be a bit of a meeting today, because of how Sparky set the tone for today’s manager who babies his starters and sends in pitchers to pitch to only one batter, exhausting the bullpen and wearing the team down over a season. He won 7 Division titles, 5 Pennants and 3 World Series, but with the talent he had, he should have won a few more.
Still, his pens had Clay Carroll, Will McEnaney, Rawly Eastwick and Willie Hernandez. If you didn’t beat Sparky’s team in the first 6 innings, chances were you weren’t going to beat them.
Sparky managed the Reds from 1970 to 1978, and the Tigers from 1979 to 1995. He is the all-time winningest manager for both teams – the only man for whom that’s true of 2 MLB teams. He won 2,194 games, 6th all-time, against 1,834 losses. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000. The Reds retired his Number 10, and while the Tigers have not retired the Number 11 he wore with them, neither have they returned it to circulation.
After the 1976 World Series, in which Johnny Bench hit 2 homers in the clinching Game 4 against the Yankees, but Thurman Munson got hits in his last 6 at-bats, a reporter asked Sparky to compare the two. He said, "Don't embarrass someone by comparing him to Johnny Bench." That really pissed Thurman off, and he had a point: While he will never join Bench in the Hall of Fame, from 1975 to 1978 – by that last year, injuries had taken their toll on both men to the point where they were playing other positions after that, and of course Thurman was killed the next year – he was every bit as good as Bench.
What did Bench have to say about Sparky? "If you see him and there's no smile on his face, he's probably asleep."
Sparky also had a habit of predicting stardom for certain players:
* Don Gullett, before Game 7 of the 1975 World Series: “No matter who wins tonight’s game, my starting pitcher’s going to the Hall of Fame.” Gullett got hurt 2 years later, and couldn’t fulfill Sparky’s prediction. But he did help the Reds win that Game 7.
* “Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle.” Well, he did hit a walkoff homer in a World Series game, and he did get hurt a lot.
* “Mike Laga will make you forget about every power hitter that ever lived.” Only from shaking your head so much that your memory cuts out on you. He did hit a ball completely out of Busch Memorial Stadium, but by that point, he was with the St. Louis Cardinals – and it was a foul ball, anyway.
* “Barbaro Garbey is another Roberto Clemente.” Well, he did play more games than Roberto Clemente Jr.
Still, Sparky earned my respect for a slap at the man who was arguably baseball’s worst Commissioner, a lawyer and a stooge for the owners who always said his whacked-out decisions were “to preserve the integrity of the game.”
Sparky didn’t quite get the words right, but he sure as hell got the sentiment right: “If I hear Bowie Kuhn say just once more he’s doing something for the betterment of baseball, I’m going to throw up.”
Sparky’s death leaves 64 living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 5 of them who were (or could have been) elected as managers: Red Schoendienst, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda and Whitey Herzog.