When Sparky Anderson “retired”* after the 1995 season there was a void in the Detroit clubhouse that was impossible to fill. Anyone who followed Sparky would be scrutinized and vilified no matter what they did. Into that void stepped Buddy Bell, a man who the Tigers had once pursued for about a decade.
David Gus Bell was born on August 27, 1951, in Pittsburgh. Why Pittsburgh? Because his father, Gus Bell, was playing for the Pirates that year. So Bell was born with baseball flowing through his blood. Very early on he earned the nickname “Buddy” to differentiate him from a family member named David and because his Dad called him that.
18 years later, Buddy was drafted by Cleveland and three years after that he was in the big leagues with the Indians. The following season he was an All-Star and on his way to a fine career as one of baseball’s best third basemen. He won six straight Gold Glove awards at the hot corner and was a ballplayer with no real weakness. He could hit, hit for power, field, run the bases, and throw. He wasn’t a a superstar, but Bell was well respected in the game and a leader on his teams. Unfortunately he spent his first 14 years playing for the Indians and the Rangers, which were basically the Siberia of Major League Baseball in that era. In his time with the Tribe and the Rangers, Bell’s teams finished higher than fourth just once. As a result, Bell was famous for being a great player on bad teams. How good was Bell? He earned MVP votes five different times and this was when he was playing for really mediocre teams.
From 1979 to the late 1980s, Sparky Anderson coveted Bell. He could close his eyes and see Bell at third base for his Tigers. The Tigers had great players at many positions, but they had seemed to struggle to fill the third base spot for a long time. Sure, Tommy Brookens was a scrappy player and a likable guy, but he wasn’t an All-Star. Bell was an excellent player, an All-Star, a Gold Glover. The Tigers wanted him, and Sparky implored general manager Jim Campbell to get him every chance he could. But Campbell never got his man, and there’s little evidence that the Indians or the Rangers ever considered a deal with Detroit. Had they entered into negotiations with the Tigers they probably would have wanted one of their young stars like Alan Trammell or Kirk Gibson, or maybe catcher Lance Parrish. The Tigers just didn’t have the pieces to trade for Bell or they were unwilling to part with the blue chips they had. Then they won the ’84 World Series title and didn’t feel they needed a veteran like Bell.
In the middle of the 1984 season, Buddy switched leagues and went to the Cincinnati Reds, and he kept being really good. He wrapped up his playing career in 1989 back with the Rangers, concluding a 17-year career that saw him amass 2,514 hits, 201 home runs, and a .279 batting average. He was regarded by those who saw him as one of the two or three best defensive third basemen of the 1970s and 1980s. His only competition would be Mike Schmidt and Graig Nettles. But Buddy had a big hole in his career accomplishments — he never got to the postseason, not once.
In December of 1995 the Tigers finally got Bell when they hired him to replace Sparky as manager. Bell couldn’t win. He was destined to failure having to follow Anderson, and he also had a really bad team. In his first season the Tigers lost 109 games, the worst season in franchise history. The next season he improved the team record by 26 games (briefly even toying with a .500 record) but with Detroit mired in last place and on their way too 100 losses again he was fired in August of 1998. He managed parts of three seasons for the Colorado Rockies and parts of three more for the Royals, with only one winning season to his credit.
Bell’s tenure as skipper of the Tigers was largely forgettable. Just as he had been when he was a player, Bell was a quiet, hardworking manager. He didn’t make headlines, he didn’t make waves, he didn’t really inspire any passion at all, be it from the media, the fans, or apparently his players. There were two or three times when Buddy came snorting out of the dugout to argue a point and lost his temper, but that sort of fire was rarely evident during his time in Detroit. Most people said this about Buddy Bell: “A great guy, sure, but not a winner.”
Of course that wasn’t completely fair. Bell couldn’t control that he played for poor teams during much of his career. He couldn’t magically make the team he managed better either.
While he never won as a player or as a manager, Bell’s legacy is strengthened a bit through the careers of his kids. David spent a dozen years in the big leagues as a useful middle infielder, even making it to the World Series with the Giants in 2002. Younger brother Mike spent a brief spell with the Reds in 2000, playing his Dad’s position at third. The Bells are one of the few families with three generations to make The Show.
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After refusing to manage replacement players during the lockout in 1995, Sparky Anderson was allowed to manage that regular season when the regular players returned, but he was forced out by the Detroit front office when the season was over.