When Sparky Anderson arrived in Detroit in 1979 to take the helm of the Detroit Tigers, he arrived to a stable of talented young players. The Tiger farm system produced an astounding number of excellent players in the 1970s, several of them going on to long careers in the big leagues. In fact, few organizations have ever had that many quality players come up through their system in such a short stretch of time.
Lance Parrish was a tall, muscular infielder when he was drafted by the Tigers in the first round of the 1974 draft. He was born in Pennsylvania but he grew up in California, where he was a standout in high school in two sports: baseball and football. He was heavily recruited as a linebacker, but chose to sign a contract with the Tigers.
In the minor leagues, Parrish was originally slotted at third base, a position where the big league club needed a bat. But the team also needed a replacement for Bill Freehan, who was winding down his stellar career in the mid-1970s. Parrish was converted to catcher where his size (6’3, 210 pounds) was initially an obstacle. Parrish was so tall and so thick in the upper body that he played a little stiff behind the plate, lacking the flexibility to reach balls in the dirt. He also needed to learn to block the plate, a skill Freehan was expert at.
Helped by Freehan in spring training and minor league coaches, Parrish improved rapidly. By late 1977 he was in Detroit making his major league debut. In 1978, the 22-year old was sharing catching duties with veteran Milt May, a solid defensive backstop who lacked Parrish’s punch at the plate. In 1979, Sparky was hired in mid-season, bringing his winning attitude from Cincinnati.
Once he was in Motown, Sparky quickly identified the players he thought could be the backbone of a winner. Parrish was one of those players, with one problem: Sparky wanted the young Parrish to cut back on his weight training. A product of the old school, Sparky didn’t think a baseball player should be beefy. And Parrish was beefy. When he was in his Detroit uniform, Parrish look more like Arnold Schwarzeneggar than Al Kaline.
“[Parrish] has to spend less time on those weights and more time in the batting cage,” Sparky told the Detroit media in 1980. But Parrish’s success on the field soon shut Sparky up. That season, playing full-time behind the dish, Parrish hit 24 homers, drove in 82 runs, and made the All-Star team. In 1982, Parrish set a league record with 32 homers for a catcher. The following year he drove in 114 runs and won his first Gold Glove Award. He was not only muscular and beefy, he was also the best defensive catcher in the league. Enemy runners respected his throwing arm, especially after he threw out three of the National League’s fastest runners in the All-Star Game.
By 1984, when Parrish was the cleanup man for the Tigers’ World Series championship team, any talk of him shunning the weights had been long silenced. Sparky even wrote in his diary of that season that Parrish “is an amazing physical specimen who is the closest thing to Superman we have on this team.”
Parrish’s obsessive nurturing of his body paid off: he played 19 seasons in the big leagues, 10 of them with Detroit. He caught 1,818 games and belted 324 homers (299 as a catcher – fifth all-time). He remains one of the most popular players from the 1984 team, and if you see Parrish today you’ll still see an impressive upper body and strong arms on old #13.