George “Sparky” Anderson, 1934-2010

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

When Sparky Anderson took over as manager of the Cincinnati Reds on October 8th in 1969, the newspaper headlines blasted “Sparky Who?”. A year later, as the team prepared for the first of four World Series appearances under his guidance, there was little doubt as to who Sparky Anderson was in Cincinnati, Ohio. Twenty six years, over two thousand victories and three World Series titles later, there is no doubt that George “Sparky” Anderson has left his mark on Major League Baseball history.

Though just 35 years old when handed the reigns to the Reds, Anderson led one of the greatest lineups in baseball history to postseason berths five times during his nine year tenure with Cincinnati. Blessed with an ability to gain the trust of his players and coaches, Sparky Anderson guided the eventual all time leader in hits, Pete Rose, and three future Hall of Famers in Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan along with the rest of the Big Red Machine during the 1970’s.

Anderson’s first season in 1970 took the Reds to the top of the National League and to a loss against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The season set the pace for Anderson’s tenure, as they reached the World Series again in 1972 and took the Division Title in 1973. The 1975 season saw what is arguably the greatest World Series in history as the Big Red Machine took the Boston Red Sox to a 7 game finish. The 1976 season was a near repeat performance, except the New York Yankees were the victims of the Big Red Machine. Between 1975 and 1976, the Cincinnati Reds won 210 games, lost 114 and had a 14-3 postseason record against four opponents.

After being fired by the new Reds general manager Dick Wagner following consecutive seasons where the club failed to reach the playoffs with an aging lineup, it was not long before the white haired “Captain Hook” found a new home in Detroit.

Before Sparky Anderson, the Detroit Tigers were meddling near the bottom of the American League East and a great distance from the glory days of their last World Series title and the days of Billy Martin and battling the Oakland Athletics for the American League pennant in 1972. The arrival of Anderson caused a turnaround for a stumbling organization, and gave credibility to the Tigers powerhouse that was developing.

Check out a classic Baseball Digest Magazine article featuring Sparky Anderson from the October, 1984 issue!

With a 25 year old Jack Morris leading the pitching staff and double play team Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker leading the offense, Anderson’s Tigers almost immediately turned things around for the organization. By 1982 the team reached second place for the first time in more than a decade and set the stage for their first World Series title challenge since 1968.

On the backs of strong pitching, power in the lineup, and key bench players, the Detroit Tigers started out hot during the 1984 season and never let up on their way to a historic season. The World Series title answered any remaining questions to the ability of Sparky Anderson to drive a team to a championship.

Despite an evolving team with the 1988 departure of Kirk Gibson and the 1989 103 loss collapse, the additions of several newcomers like slugger Cecil Fielder over the ensuing years helped Anderson steer the club to a brief resurgence in the early 1990’s. However, by 1994 the team had changed ownership, general managers, and had fallen swiftly in the standings.

There are numerous quotes from stories of the fiery manager criticizing players or propping up his personal favorites with high praise. Whether it was pinch hitting his own player in the first inning or claiming his player was superior to another team’s player within earshot, he didn’t mince words or actions with anyone. It is worth noting that he was a player’s manager always. Sparky Anderson was the only manager in the major leagues to publicly and fiercely oppose the use of replacement players during spring training in 1995 as the player’s strike continued. Refusing to manage replacement players may have marked the beginning of the end for him in Detroit.

1995 turned out to be the final season in Anderson’s long career. He finished with a win loss record of 2,194 victories to just 1,834 losses. At retirement, he ranked third all time in victories. 15 years later, he has been surpassed by only Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Only five managers in history have won more titles than Sparky Anderson, and no manager with as many titles as him has won at least one in both leagues. It came as no surprise then in 2000 when he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.

Anderson brought a style of play to both the Reds and Tigers that became a signature unmatched. Though a number of teams have overcome great deficits to finish seasons strong, nobody did it quite like Anderson. Nor were managers able to duplicate their successes. With his 1973 Reds and 1987 Tigers, he was the only manager to lead two different teams to overcome at least an eleven game deficit to finish in first place.

After retirement Sparky Anderson stayed busy, working as a television commentator and involving himself with the charitable organization CATCH (Caring Athletes Teamed for Children’s and Henry Ford hospitals), which he founded in 1987. Many reports throughout the media indicate Anderson was a force even in his later years. He passed away due complications of dementia November 5, 2010 at the age of 76, just a day after his family announced he was entering hospice care.

Whether he is remembered as the crank of the Big Red Machine or the ageless leader during the “Bless You Boys” era and as the manager of the “Roar of ’84” Detroit Tigers, the legacy of George “Sparky” Anderson is secure in baseball lore.

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