Long before he was the gray-haired sage of Detroit, Sparky Anderson was the middle-aged, gray-haired leader of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the best team in baseball in the 1970s, and one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport.
When Tigers fans go to Cooperstown to enjoy the Baseball Hall of Fame they may find it disheartening that the plaque that bears the name George Lee “Sparky” Anderson shows the skipper in a Cincinnati cap. But fact is, Sparky built his reputation in Cincinnati at the helm of a powerful ballclub. But it wasn’t an easy job.
It’s always difficult to be the coach or manager of an immensely gifted team, a team that dominates their sport. Almost always, the leaders of those teams get stamped with the “push-button” label. “Anyone could have won with that team,” fans will bark. A few of the men who were so labeled include, in baseball: Casey Stengel, Walter Alston, Sparky, and Joe Torre; in basketball: Phil Jackson; and in football: Barry Switzer. But winning is never easy, and often when a team makes it look easy, that’s because their manager is doing exactly the right things to keep them relaxed and focused. In Cincy, Sparky ran the club in an ingenious manner and as a result the Reds rolled to two World Series titles, four pennants, and five division titles in his first seven seasons. Their success was not inevitable.
“Sparky led the club and guided us to winning,” first baseman Tony Perez recalled in an interview with the author in 2003.
That winning started almost immediately. In 1970, when the Reds hired Anderson, one Cincinnati newspaper printed the headline: “SPARKY WHO?” But it didn’t take long for the city to warm to the young manager. Sparky was only 36 years old at the time, though his frosty top made him seem a few years older. The ’70 Reds won 16 of their 22 games in April, stayed hot in May, and by the All-Star break they were 10 games ahead of everyone else in their division. That team, the first to be dubbed “The Big Red Machine,” rolled to 70 wins in their first 100 games, the most by any NL team in history. After a start like that, it was no wonder that Sparky grew accustomed to winning, and he had the team to do it.
The Reds of the 1970s had All-Stars Johnny Bench, Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, and George Foster. Between them, they won six MVP Awards in the decade. But they were not a machine that ran on autopilot.
Morgan explained that Sparky knew how to manage a clubhouse full of egos. “Sparky knew that Pete and I would be perfect together, before we knew it,” Morgan explained in his biography, Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball. Sparky placed Rose and Morgan next to each other in the Cincinnati clubhouse, knowing that their shared passion for baseball would make them bond. The manager also deftly managed the egos of superstars Bench and Perez, who like Morgan, ended up in the Hall of Fame.
While the Reds had a lineup that oozed with All-Stars and Hall of Fame caliber talent, their pitching staff was always in flux due to injuries and a lack of aces in the rotation. That’s where Sparky stepped in to establish himself as one of the first managers to juggle a bullpen to get match-ups that were to his team’s advantage. With a stable of solid relievers, Sparky earned the nickname “Captain Hook” because he was not shy to pull a starter for a relief pitcher. While in Cincinnati, Sparky created more bullpen stoppers than any other manager in baseball. His use of the pen was copied by several managers and influenced the game for years.
After winning the pennant in ’70 and ’72 only to lose the World Series, Sparky finally climbed to the top of the baseball mountain in 1975 with one of the greatest teams in baseball history. That season his Reds won 108 games and steamrolled their way to a pennant. They won the Fall Classic and were back again in ’76 when they pummeled the Yankees in four games. They became the first NL club to win consecutive world titles since 1922.
Within a few years of that triumph, Sparky was fired by the Reds in a move that shocked the city. Perez, Rose, and Morgan all left town within a short time span too, and the Big Red Machine was no more. But the architect of that juggernaut – the team of the decade – was not done making his mark on the game. He would go to Detroit, and well, we all know what he did there. Though Sparky may have seemed like a Detroit institution (which he was), he was a cherished Cincinnati institution before that. All of it is part of the legend of George Lee “Sparky” Anderson.