04 November 2010

Legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson dies at 76

The Detroit Free Press

Sparky Anderson, the all-time leader among Tigers managers in victories, visibility and inimitable quotations, died today at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 76.

Anderson’s death came one day after the family announced that he was receiving hospice care at his home because of complications from dementia. The family said that at Anderson’s request, there will be no funeral or memorial service.

Anderson managed the Tigers from the middle of the 1979 season through 1995. His 17 seasons are most in club history. The runner-up is Hughie Jennings, who managed Ty Cobb’s Tigers for 14 seasons in the first part of the 20th Century. Anderson beat Jennings’ record for most victories by a Tigers manager by 200 (1,331-1,131).

Throughout his years near or at the top of baseball through his 2000 election to the Hall of Fame, Anderson rejected the airs of celebrity, no matter how prominent he became. He forever seemed as happy to see people he knew — and didn’t know — as they did to see him.

On trips to New York, he didn’t eat breakfast at the Tigers’ fancy hotel. He’d go across the street to Howard Johnson, where he would address his waiter by name as a friend. In countless such gestures, he succeeded in a mission he once imparted to his Hall of Fame catcher in Cincinnati, Johnny Bench: “As long as you remember where you are from, you will always know where you are going.”

Anderson, born in South Dakota during the Great Depression, said “thank you” to people for whom he signed autographs. He often quoted his father’s words to him: “Being nice to people is the only thing in life that will never cost you a dime. Treat them nice and they’ll treat you the same.”

A sign hung in Anderson’s mostly unadorned office at Tiger Stadium: “Every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.”

Anderson’s run with the Tigers was the second act of a two-act managing career. In nine seasons with the Reds (1970-78), Anderson produced five National League West championships, four NL pennants and two World Series championships.

The Reds stunned the baseball world when they fired Anderson after the 1978 season, and the Tigers produced a coup the next June when they signed him to a five-year contract. Several other clubs had courted Anderson, and he later wrote that he had decided to manage the Chicago Cubs when the Tigers snagged him.

Anderson strongly implied upon his arrival in Detroit that the Tigers would win the World Series within five years. And in 1984 they did, starting 35-5 en route to a five-game victory over San Diego in the Series.
A sterling reputation

As with most of baseball’s foremost managers, Anderson didn’t go out on top. The Tigers didn’t finish first in his final eight seasons, and they contended for first place in only a few of those years. In his final season, as the club rebuilt with youth, it finished fourth at 60-84 in a strike-shortened season.

Despite these fruitless seasons, Anderson’s reputation remained virtually undiminished. He had had so much success and became such a spoken authority on success that the Tigers’ decline was widely attributed to a lack of a talent, not to Anderson having lost his touch. Late in Anderson’s career, he received the highest compliment of all from baseball writer and columnist Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Reusse saluted Anderson by using the manager’s famous fractured vernacular: “Ain’t never been no better manager.”

There was a case for this. When Anderson resigned following the 1995 season, he stood third all-time in victories with 2,194. The only managers ahead of him were figures of long ago — Connie Mack and John McGraw.

Mack owned the club he managed, the Philadelphia A’s, and wasn’t in jeopardy of being fired despite a long string of losing seasons.

McGraw, who died three days after Anderson was born, didn’t deal with many of the variables that made Anderson’s job tough: players on rich, long-term contracts, coast-to-coast travel, late-game maneuvering of a bullpen and a scrutinizing media.

In 2005, Anderson surrendered third place on the victories list to Tony La Russa. As a young manager with the Chicago White Sox, La Russa frequently sought out Anderson and absorbed his wisdom before their teams played.

Anderson’s advice to La Russa was typical of his boil-it-down, common-sense approach. It included the recommendation to use position players according to their strengths and to avoid putting them in spots that would expose their weaknesses. “Those tips he gave me saved my baseball life,” La Russa said in 2005.

In 2006, La Russa’s Cardinals beat the Tigers in the World Series. That made La Russa the only manager besides Anderson to win the World Series in the American League and National League. “It’s such a great honor — he really should have this alone,” La Russa said the night the Cardinals won the ’06 Series. In the same answer, La Russa said, “I have such a respect and affection for Sparky that I believe he’s one of the greatest, not just managers, but baseball men, ambassadors for the game.”

In 2007, another of Anderson’s favorites, Bobby Cox, also passed him on the managerial list. Cox did the bulk of his work with Atlanta, but managed the Toronto club that gave the ’84 Tigers a midseason run for first place and then displaced them as East champs in ’85. In 2006, Anderson said La Russa or Cox was the best manager of all time.
The two sides of Sparky

Anderson was an extrovert wrapped around an introvert. With his unceasing flow of wisdom and humor, he dominated news conferences as few could. He loved doing interviews, and he was the Tigers’ foremost personality throughout his tenure. “The one member of the Detroit Tigers you would recognize if he came walking up your driveway,” wrote Jayson Stark of the Philadelphia Inquirer as the Tigers blazed through the 1984 playoffs.

Yet Anderson continually claimed he was shy. It wasn’t a contradiction. When he wasn’t filling his role as manager-spokesman, he didn’t seek attention. By the time he reached Detroit, he probably could have made a fortune on the off-season banquet and speaking circuit. Yet in the off-season, he retreated to his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. — the same home he lived in throughout his rise in the majors. He could have afforded a far more lavish place, but he never sought one.

Throughout those off-seasons in California, his mind apparently never strayed far from baseball. Reporters who called him in the off-season would instantly find him at full blast, dispensing quotes as if it were July. Except for Yogi Berra, perhaps no other Hall of Famer is so well known for his one-liners. A sampling of Anderson’s best:

• On the chiseled physique of Oakland’s Jose Canseco: “He looks like a Greek goddess.”

• On a struggling player: “He wants to do so good so bad.”

• On his fondness for issuing intentional walks: “Don’t let Superman beat you.”

• On his theology: “I believe in the Big Guy.”

• On how any team could survive the loss of a star player or two: “You can go to the cemetery and see where Babe Ruth is buried.”

• On an unheralded pitcher for whom Anderson incorrectly predicted stardom: “If you don’t like him, you don’t like ice cream.”

Like many managers, Anderson was better at his immediate duties — running the game, the pitching staff and the clubhouse — than he was at projecting how good players could become. In his most memorable miss, he rushed minor-leaguer Torey Lovullo into the starting lineup for the 1989 season. Lovullo was back in the minors within weeks and never made an impact in the majors.

The Lovullo episode was a reminder that Anderson deserved the same assessment a friend once gave Winston Churchill: “You’re usually right, but when you’re wrong, well, my God.”

Earning his nickname

Anderson was known throughout baseball as Sparky. Some longtime friends and acquaintances might not have known his real first name. He was born George Lee Anderson in Bridgewater, S.D., on Feb. 22, 1934. He was one of five children who lived in a house without an indoor toilet or sufficient heat. In the winter, Anderson’s father put cardboard over the windows to block the cold.

By the time Anderson was 10, his family moved to Los Angeles, but he always seemed more rooted in the humble soil of South Dakota. As Anderson consistently declined the perks and privileges of celebrity, it was as if he remembered that small, cold house in Bridgewater and remained grateful for how baseball had given him a life of unimaginable blessings. He remembered where he was from and thus knew where he was going, and thereby he kept his common touch no matter how often fame gave him the chance to abandon it.

Anderson signed as an infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The only notable thing about his playing career was that it produced the name by which everyone came to know George Anderson.

“The name ‘Sparky’ started simply as a joke,” Anderson said in 1990 in his book titled, of course, “Sparky.” He continued: “Sparky was created in 1955 when I played at Ft. Worth, Texas, in my third year of pro ball. I didn’t have a lot of talent, so I tried to make up for it with spit and vinegar. I spent more time arguing with umpires than I spent on the bases.

“There was an old radio announcer whose name I don’t remember. ‘The sparks are flying tonight,’ he’d say after I charged another umpire. Then I’d do it the next night. And the next. Finally he got to saying, ‘And here comes Sparky racing toward the umpire again.’

“The name stuck. At first I was embarrassed. Eventually I got used to it.”

As he kept the victories, quotes and charisma coming, he became one of those rare baseball figures known by his nickname. It became such universal currency that it provided the title for both of his books. The second was “They Call Me Sparky” in 1998, and like its forerunner “Sparky,” it was co-written by Dan Ewald, the club’s longtime director of public relations.

Anderson played in the majors in one season, 1959. He was the starting second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. He hit .218 and never hit a home run. Well into his managing career, he said, “I like when they took my playing record off my baseball card and put on my managing record.”
The Tigers' coup

When 1978 ended, Anderson’s Reds had gone back-to-back years without finishing first. Management wanted Anderson to fire one or more coaches, and he refused. Several weeks later, he was fired.

Anderson decided to sit out the 1979 season and return in 1980. He later wrote that of the six clubs that showed interest in him to manage in ’80, he had picked the Cubs. Then Tigers president and general manager Jim Campbell contacted Anderson in June 1979, and offered him the manager’s job if he would take it immediately.

Anderson did. Campbell fired first-year manager Les Moss to hire Anderson. On the day the Tigers announced his hiring, Anderson told the Free Press: “I began to wonder if I would ever get the opportunity to work with as good a group of people as they have in Detroit, if I would ever get the opportunity to work with talent that good, and if I would ever get a five-year contract.”

Years later, he wrote: “I don’t know exactly why the Detroit offer seemed so right. The Tigers met my conditions, but it wasn’t just the money.

“I remembered the Tigers from spring training. I remembered all those fine young players. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were just coming up. So were Jack Morris and Lance Parrish. And I remembered Kirk Gibson hitting a ball over the scoreboard that must have gone nine miles. He followed that with a routine ground ball that he beat out for a hit.

“I think the real thing that convinced me was the Tiger organization. The Tigers are tradition. The Tigers are baseball history.”

Anderson received the five-year contract he sought from the Tigers. At his introductory news conference in Detroit, he said he had promised Campbell and owner John Fetzer that the Tigers would win the World Series on his watch, and he strongly implied they would do it by the final year of his contract, 1984.

As in Cincinnati, Anderson inherited a young core of talent. Starting with 1979, the Tigers posted a winning record for 10 straight seasons, and by 1983 they climbed to a second-place finish in the American League East. As the 1984 season was about to begin, Anderson told a visitor in spring training, “We’re not good. We’re great.”

The Tigers team that won the World Series in 1984 could not deliver Anderson a dynasty like he had in Cincinnati. The Tigers had one more first-place finish under Anderson after ’84. It came in ’87, and it was the reverse of 1984 — the team started poorly but passed Toronto at season’s end.

As in ’84, the Tigers led the majors in victories, and as in ’84, Anderson was voted AL manager of the year. The ’87 Tigers lost decisively to Minnesota in the playoffs.

By 1989, the farm system had failed, and the Tigers were in last place May 19 when Anderson left the club with what it announced was exhaustion. For the first time in 18 years, Anderson was faced with a team that would finish with a losing record. “A nosedive crash into reality,” he called it.

“Physically, I could not have made it through another day,” Anderson wrote. “My nerves were shot.”

He spent the next 2 1/2 weeks recovering at home in California. He returned to the Tigers and said he would try to enjoy baseball more and not let his mood be so tied to wins and losses. Yet losses robbed him of his joy of conversation. His news conferences in his office after defeats tended to be filled with short, uninformative answers. Late in his career, he said he regretted that he always took losses too hard.
His big regret

Anderson had tremendous job security because he had the respect and friendship of Campbell, who was the club’s chief executive for Anderson’s first 14 seasons in Detroit. Campbell’s reign ended during the 1992 season when owner Tom Monaghan fired him and president Bo Schembechler. Monaghan did so as he was in the process of selling the club to Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesars magnate and owner of the Red Wings.

Anderson, who rarely admitted error, wrote in his memoir that he made a mistake that he didn’t voluntarily leave the Tigers with Campbell and Schembechler.

“I’ve always felt guilty that I stuck around after what happened to them,” Anderson wrote. “I have always maintained that when the people who were so close to you were ever mistreated, you go with them.

“I truly believe the only reason I stayed with the Tigers was because … I allowed my high salary to keep me there. For that, I am probably more ashamed of myself than for anything I have ever done in baseball.”

The Tigers finished with a winning record in 1993, the first season Ilitch owned the club. But despite a high payroll and many veterans, the Tigers were last in the AL East in 1994 when a players’ strike hit in mid-August and canceled the season.

The strike was still going when spring training was due to start in 1995. Teams hired replacement players, opened spring training and implicitly threatened to begin the regular season with the substitutes. Anderson wouldn’t go along with the idea. He refused to manage the replacement team in spring training, and thus he ruptured his relationship with Ilitch. The two apparently never repaired the rift, and many observers believe it is why the Tigers haven’t retired Anderson’s No. 11.

Anderson seldom mentioned the names of people he didn’t like. If he had to refer to them, he would do so vaguely. He wrote of life under Ilitch: “I really didn’t have a job no more, anyway. It was totally different.” And in his 1998 memoir, Anderson said this about the immediate aftermath of his announcement that he wouldn’t manage the replacement players: “I already heard the rumors about the owner wanting me fired.”

But nowhere in the book does Anderson mention Ilitch by name.

Anderson sensed that his refusal to manage the replacement players ended any chance he would be rehired for 1996. The real major leaguers came back in time for an almost full-length 1995 season, and Anderson resigned after the Tigers finished that year 60-84, in fourth place, 26 games behind Boston.

No other manager dared to walk out away from managing the replacement players. Yet Anderson’s abdication that spring wasn’t a shock. He’d long before established that he had the courage to do what he felt was right regardless of the reaction.

“For Sparky, this was not a political matter,” wrote co-author Ewald in Anderson’s 1998 book. “His decision was based on something much simpler. It was integrity.

“He believed the use of make-believe major-leaguers threatened the moral conscience of the game.”
Words of a master

Anderson might have picked the right time to leave. Life in the majors was coming to include heavy doses of statistical analysis and video study, and Anderson never showed fondness for either. He trusted his experience, instinct and guts.

Those same methods led to the idea he got in 1987 in his hotel room on a Tigers trip to Seattle. He would start a children’s charity at two Detroit hospitals. He immediately had the name: CATCH (Caring Athletes Team for Children’s and Henry Ford Hospital). In his memoir, the chapter on the charity is titled, “Sparky’s Greatest Gift.”

As Ilitch continued to own the Tigers throughout Anderson’s retirement, Detroit saw little of its most famous manager. The club asked Anderson to a game at Comerica Park in 2000 to salute his Hall of Fame induction.

He returned to Detroit for the 2006 World Series, the Tigers’ first since his team won it in 1984.

He also returned in September 2009 for the 25th reunion of the ’84 champs. Twenty-four members gathered together for a few days, even posed for a team photo with the World Series trophy. Trammell. Parish. Gibson. Darrell Evans. Jack Morris. But it was their 75-year-old manager who received the biggest ovation from the fans in Comerica Park.

“It was great to see Sparky so excited,” Gibson said. “That was the one thing that struck us all at the dinner.”

Typical of his shyness, during his 2006 World Series visit, Anderson refused manager Jim Leyland’s invitation to visit the clubhouse. But typical of his showmanship, Anderson gave a rousing pregame news conference that reminded many sportswriters how much they missed him. A few highlights:

• On his career: “I managed 26 years and found out when I retired I didn’t own the game. I thought I owned it when I was managing all those years. You can climb to the top of the mountain, get down on your knees and kiss the ground, because you’ll never own that mountain. That mountain is only owned by one single person, and he’ll never give it up. That’s the way baseball is.”

• On the popularity of baseball: “The commissioner needs a tremendous bouquet for what he’s done. He stepped in there now, and they’re drawing all over. … I got a kick out of them when they used to say baseball is dying, and football is No. 1. I hate to break the sad news to football, but nothing will ever take the place of baseball. When it goes bad, call me, because I won’t be around, but I can be reached under the ground.”

• On his life: “I was so lucky that I almost at times … feel ashamed that you could be that lucky, all the things that happened for me.”

No comments: