More Behind-the-Scenes Moments with Sparky Anderson

1) I took the opportunity once, during a break in the taping of Tiger Trivia commercial features for Channel 4, to ask Sparky a ‘fan’ question about baseball and the Tigers. Normally I was careful not to step outside my bounds as a writer and producer for Sparky’s broadcast adventures. But I took the rare chance. I questioned him about an unusual on-field playing habit often exhibited by one of the Tigers’ veteran stars. My query was direct: Why does he do that? Sparky’s answer was classic.

“Tommy, you dunno why he does that, do you?” Well, no. “Now, lemme tell ya, _I_ dunno why he does it. But most of all, I can guarantee ya … he dunno why he does it.”

2) Imagine hanging around, during those down times, breaks in our shooting schedule, with Sparky and Al Kaline and George Kell. We normally taped their features in what was referred to as “Mr. Fetzer’s Booth,” the fabulous enclosed owner’s box that hung just to the third base side at the top of the lower deck at Tiger Stadium. Some Tiger players once were taking casual batting practice down on the field. A ‘promising’ youngster who had been cited by the front office and the media as a future Tigers star, a so-called ‘can’t-miss’ prospect, was taking some swings in the batting cage. “Ya know Sparky,” Kaline said casually to the Tigers manager, “that kid is never going to make it as a big league hitter. Everybody’s worked with him, but he’s never going to correct that habit of stepping in the bucket up here.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Sparky, kind of absent-mindedly agreeing with the Tigers legend as they watched the action. Sure enough, the heralded prospect never did make it in the big leagues. He faded after a few training camp successes over the coming years, and I never heard of him again.

3) Channel 4, looking to capitalize on Sparky’s popularity around town and to help energize his CATCH charity for the kids at Children’s Hospital, was searching for a television special that could feature the Tigers skipper and help raise money for his charity. We finally settled on a concept for a prime-time hour that would highlight the Sparkster sitting and talking with BIG stars — he was a nationally known guy, after all — about life, showbiz, politics, and the infield fly rule. We kicked around the names of major celebs, one of the great fantasies of being a TV producer. Paul Newman, George C. Scott (native Detroiter and lifelong Tigers fan), Tom Selleck (ditto), Madonna (honest), Henry Kissinger (swear to Madonna) … those were the kinds of names getting dropped around the WDIV offices in the late 1980s. The show would feature Sparky interviewing them, kind of like baseball’s broken-English answer to Barbara Walters. We finally settled on Selleck and Bo and Millie Schembechler. But we couldn’t find the one HUGE star, the can’t-miss attraction that would make for a memorable and profitable special. Plans for the show dragged on, weeks turned to months, 1988 to 1989. Still no super-duper star for the Sparky Special.

Then, in the spring of ‘89, Richard Nixon spoke at the Economic Club downtown to a capacity luncheon crowd. Sparky happened to drop by Channel 4 later that same day, and when he overheard some station executives discussing the former President, Sparky casually mentioned — in his classic understated style, to no one in particular — “Oh, that Nixon … he loves me.” Say what? It turned out that the former President was a great fan and friend of Sparky, and the two spent hours together discussing baseball (“He’s a nut about the importance of defense to a baseball team,” Sparky reported) whenever the Tigers visited Anaheim, near Nixon’s Southern California home.

Thus was “The Sparky Special” set into motion. Some months later, in response to many calls and a written request, Nixon’s office invited our production team to the former President’s New Jersey office for an Anderson–Nixon summit. We showed up with a full staff and two cameras for the interview. The show aired later that year, and garnered attention from all ‘round the planet. Published in Newsweek, for example, was a color picture of Sparky and Tricky tackling the problems of modern civilization. The highlight of the show for me? It came when Sparky assured his guest that “Mr. President, I can promise you … that our country is, and always WILL be … Number One in the entire world … in show business.” I thought I felt a perceptible sigh of relief come from Richard Nixon upon hearing Sparky’s guarantee.

4) A last showbiz memory of Sparky Anderson. We shot a local sitcom at Channel 4 in 1987, a Detroit-based half-hour pilot that I wrote called “East Side,” which was later changed by station execs to “Hamtramck,” which caused, um, some problems. Sparky agreed to do a star turn in the show, suddenly emerging from the kitchen at a family dinner to settle a baseball argument, with a wink and a wagging finger.

We filmed the comedy in a neighborhood in Hamtramck, and Sparky’s appearance at the shoot caused the greatest excitement outside the local home. What I recall was how he — as always –treated every kid who showed up at that house like a pal. Following his day’s work, after he had signed autographs and tousled hair and wise-cracked with the gathered kids … he selected one distant child on the edge of the crowd. Sparky went to the boy, “Hey, c’mere!” and walked down the sidewalk with the kid. It was the coolest thing. He bent over, and whispered to the boy for a few minutes … speaking intimately the whole time. When he straightened up, he said — again behind that wagging finger — “Now don’t tell nobody … you promised!”

After Sparky drove off, the kid wouldn’t tell a soul of the secret they had shared. And now he was the new celebrity in his neighborhood … and I’m sure that was exactly what Sparky had in mind for that boy, on that day. I’m sure the kid never forgot the moment. And neither did I.