With the passing of Sparky Anderson at age 76 last November, baseball lost one of the game’s greatest managers and one of the most well liked and respected individuals in the history of the national pastime.
Although it has been long overdue, finally the Detroit Tigers are retiring his number on Sunday in pregame ceremonies at Comerica Park.
Few would have guessed (including Anderson) that he had managed his last game on October 1, 1995 in a 4-0 loss at Baltimore.
Anderson’s stellar managerial record stands for itself and was formally recognized when in his first year of eligibility in 2000 he became the 16th manager inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In nine seasons as skipper of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine”, (1970-1978) he won four NL pennants and two world championships (1975 and 1976) and then captured another title with the Tigers in 1984 when he became the first manager to win world championships in both leagues. He is still the only man to have the most career victories for two franchises, 863 with Cincinnati (1970-1978) and 1,331 with Detroit. (1979 to 1995.)
However Anderson would also experience what he later described as his “proudest moment in baseball” even though it probably cost him his managing career.
As the 1994 player strike continued into the 1995 spring training, the major league clubs hired replacement players and threatened to commence the regular season with castoffs that were hardly major league caliber.
Sparky would have none of it.
Anderson became the only big league manager to challenge the owners when he refused to manage replacement players in spring training.
He was then placed on an unpaid leave of absence by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch who reportedly was talked out of firing the popular skipper. The move cost Anderson $150,000 in salary, and even though he returned when the season started without replacement players, he never received the money back.
Sparky shared his position in his 1998 memoir, They Call Me Sparky by Sparky Anderson and Dan Ewald.
“Strange, but it was the proudest moment of my career. I couldn’t believe grown men who are supposed to have common sense could actually come up with the idea of using replacement players. They were actually going to bring in some guys who never played in eight to ten years and call it major league baseball! What about the history of the game? What about integrity? We were willing to sacrifice our history and everything we believed in all on account of money! Well not me! If the owners thought I betrayed them they missed the whole point. That wasn’t the case at all. The only thing I wouldn’t do was betray baseball. I wasn’t going to try to fool the fans who pay for the games.”
Knowing that Ilitch did not want him back and having become disillusioned with ownership, Anderson held a news conference the day after the last game of the 1995 season and announced that he was quitting the Tigers.
However Sparky made it clear to reporters that he wanted to manage again. He told the Detroit Free Press:
“I don’t want to go to any rebuilding project. Oh, no. No more. I’d like to go back to winning some games but I would only manage again under my conditions. I have complete say in my coaches, that’s number one. I keep who I want on my team and I don’t have to keep nobody I don’t want. Also, nobody interferes with my clubhouse.”
Despite being only 61-years-old, third in all time victories for a manager, and a media darling with five pennants and three world championships under his belt, the call never came.
It has been speculated by some observers including author Mark Frost in his book Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime (Hyperion 2009) that because Anderson stood up against the owners and refused to manage replacement players that he may have been blackballed by major league baseball.
If that was in fact the case, how pathetic is that?
Sparky Anderson was a great manager but an even greater person. The work he did for his favorite charity, the Detroit-based CATCH was unbelievable as he raised thousands of dollars to help children with medical problems.
On Sunday let’s all celebrate the retirement of George Anderson’s number 11 and fondly remember a legend.