The Legacy of Sparky Anderson

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.

When Anderson quit the Tigers at age 61 following the 1995 season with 2,194 wins, he was third on the all-time career list behind Connie Mack and John McGraw.

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.


3 replies on “The Legacy of Sparky Anderson

  • Steve Thomas

    When the history of Mike Ilitch’s ownership of the Detroit Tigers is written years from now, I believe many of the glaring mistakes he made will continue to surface and will be more widely recognized by Tigers fans and the media.

    No one questions his intentions: he sincerely wants to win championships. But his early decisions as the Tigers owner and the course of action he set did far more harm than good in this regard. His one-man-vision was frighteningly myopic: he was obsessively focused on regime change and getting a new ballpark at any cost.

    In the process, he single-handedly destroyed the team’s managerial lineage and the rich history of the franchise. At the time, it may have felt great to fire crusty-old Jim Campbell and to clean out the Tigers’ front office — but the reality is those folks knew how to run a Major League franchise and the Ilitch family did not.

    After Ilitch cleaned house, the Tigers front office became littered, in grand nepotistic fashion, with Ilitch’s children and family friends. They promptly began a course of destruction that literally drove the Tigers into the ground and led eventually to a string of 100-loss (or damn close) seasons and perennial last place finishes.

    Ilitch’s success with the Red Wings gave him a false sense of confidence when it came to running a ball club — and those decisions continue to haunt the Tigers organization to this day.

    Running a Major League team is a lot harder than it looks. Unfortunately, Ilitch is still learning this lesson nearly 20 years later.

    How sad to learn that Detroit’s loss of Sparky Anderson can be added to the list of mistakes made by Ilitch during his “Reign of Errors” as Tigers owner.

  • Ron

    I lived in Detroit, Highland Park to be specific from 1947 to 1957. My parents moved back to Boston where the families were from. My time at Briggs Stadium was relatively short from a July game in 1954 to the end of the 1957 season, when I was captivated by the skinny kid in rightfield and the perfect throws he made. Kaline was every kids hero that was a Tigers fan back then, and I was heartbroken to move. Never the less I went every year to fenway to see my Tigers and “The Six”. Years go by and I am working for the government, and my time meeting Sparky Anderson.
    It was back in 1983, I was at a Tigers – redsox game at fenway with Uncle Charlie and dad.
    A very thoughtful and generous lady who was a close friend of the yawkey’s had lifetime seats first row next to the redsox on deck circle. Gave me tix for this game. So it’s pregame and Sparky was hitting fungoes to the players standing maybe 25 feet from where we sat. The ball was thrown back to him and it skipped by and rolled up to us against the 3 foot wall. Sparky walked over and good old Uncle Charlie always wwith a wisecrack said, “You never let them get by you like that when you played George”. Sparky smiled and then proceeded to talk with each of us for maybe 20 minutes! He talked about the players like Gibson, he was from what he said, a bit down on him at the time, Trammell and Whitaker, I asked about Kaline and he said what everyone else has said great player and even greater person. Gates Brown was there and he waved over at us too.
    Sparky had that special quality about him, he made you feel like you were lifelong friends in just a short once in a lifetime setting.
    God Bless You Sparky and Thankyou.

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