When George (Sparky) Anderson died last week, at age 76, of complications from dementia, the appreciations surrounded Sparky "the character." How could they not? He was a character, one of a kind in baseball history. He had been a scrappy and mediocre ballplayer; he was nicknamed Sparky for the sparks that flew when he argued with umpires, which is what he spent most of his time doing as a good-field, no-hit minor league second baseman.
Over time, he calmed the sparks and became one of baseball's most beloved figures. He was irredeemably optimistic, famous for his exuberant overstatements, such as the time he dubbed Barbaro Garbey the next Roberto Clemente (he wasn't) or the time he suggested that Chris Pittaro might become the greatest second baseman ever (he didn't). "I know I shouldn't say these things," Sparky said. "But I can't help myself."
He was also famous for his language, his artistic use of double negatives ("I ain't no better than anybody else and neither are you"), his bits of wisdom ("Pain don't hurt") and his vivid observations ("Me carrying a briefcase is like a hot dog wearing earrings"). He was a gentle spirit. Again and again, people remembered him as the nicest man in baseball. Longtime Dayton sportswriter Hal McCoy remembered watching Sparky give two sets of writers two diametrically different answers to the same question before the 1975 World Series. When McCoy asked, Sparky explained, "Hey, you can't give everybody the same story."
But perhaps lost in all the tributes was something simple and notable: Sparky Anderson was also one heck of a baseball manager. He was one of only 10 men to win 2,000 games, and his .545 winning percentage is better than Casey Stengel's, Joe Torre's and Tommy Lasorda's, to name three fairly prominent winners. Anderson won the World Series in both leagues—St. Louis's Tony La Russa is the only other manager to have done that. Anderson managed three of the greatest teams in baseball history.
• His 1975 Cincinnati Reds won 108 games and perhaps the best World Series ever played.
• His 1976 Reds led the league in every major offensive category—hits, doubles, triples, homers, stolen bases, runs, batting average, you name it—and swept all seven postseason games on its way to the championship.
• His 1984 Detroit Tigers won 35 of their first 40 games, took their division by 15 games, and breezed to a World Series title.
But reciting numbers and achievements might miss Anderson's remarkable feel for building teams and drawing brilliance out of his players. Consider his 1975 Cincinnati team. The Reds had been called the Big Red Machine for more than five years, but they had yet to win a World Series. They got off to a slow start that year. Anderson tried everything he knew to shake up the team—he even asked superstar outfielder Pete Rose to move to third base though Rose had not played the position in almost 10 years (and despised it). Rose loved Anderson so much that he moved to third and, over the next few weeks, the team played better.
Still, on June 16, the Reds were up only 3½ games. That night their best pitcher, Don Gullett, broke his hand trying to catch a line drive. Without Gullett, the Reds seemed doomed. Sparky's friend Jeff Ruby, who would become one of Cincinnati's most famous restaurant owners, asked the question everyone asked, "How in the heck are you going to win without Gullett?"
And, Ruby remembered, Sparky smiled and said with his famous blend of faith and self-mockery, "Now they're all going to find out what a real genius I am."
For 45 games (beginning on June 12), the Cincinnati starters did not complete a single game. Not one. This was unheard of in those days. No team had ever gone that long without a starter going the distance. It was so startling that even Reds fans booed Sparky when he walked out to the mound. Anderson used 133 pitchers to get the Reds through those 45 games. They called him Captain Hook.
But ... the Reds won 32 of the 45 games. Sparky had basically invented a new way to use a bullpen by mixing and matching talents. The pitchers hated it, the fans hissed, but by the time rookie Pat Darcy finally broke the streak with a complete game on a blistering hot July 30, the Reds led the division by a staggering 13½ games. They would clinch on Sept. 7. (So overwhelming was the heat on that July day, by the way, that fans were fainting in the stands. When told this, Darcy said, "Really? Over a complete game?")
In time, every manager would become Captain Hook. The complete game is now a precious antique—there were only 72 in more than 2,500 National League starts this year. But whenever it was suggested to Sparky that he was ahead of his time, he would wave his hand in dismissal.
"You know what makes a good manager?" he would say. "Good players." Of course, Anderson had good players. But few have ever been better at making good players great.
"He was like a psychiatrist or something," Rose said. When asked if he needed a psychiatrist when he was playing, Rose smiled and said, "All good ballplayers need a psychiatrist."
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The beloved Anderson helmed THREE OF THE GREATEST TEAMS in history.