Was Sparky Anderson blackballed by Major League Baseball?

With the whispers surrounding  manager Brad Ausmus, writers and fans have been speculating on who is the best candidate to lead Mike Ilitch’s team in the coming seasons should Ausmus get then axe.

Will it be someone who has led a team to the World Series or will the Detroit Tigers take a chance with another young baseball mind without any managerial experience?

More than 20 years ago the Tigers accepted the “resignation” of their Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson who had led the team for 16+ seasons while capturing the franchise’s last World Championship in 1984.

Was only 61 when he left the Tigers

The Tigers replaced the beloved manager with Buddy Bell who had never managed in the big leagues.

However, the hiring of the unproven former third baseman was not nearly as surprising as the fact that Anderson was never offered another managerial position. Not one.

When Sparky Anderson announced on October 2, 1995 that he would not return as the Detroit skipper, the then third-winningest manager in baseball history was only 61 years old.

Hired by Cincinnati in October, 1969 at age 35, and without any major league managerial experience, George “Sparky”Anderson led the “Big Red Machine” to four national league pennants and two world championships in just nine seasons. When he led Detroit to the World Championship in 1984 he became the first manager in baseball history to win titles in both leagues.

Few would have guessed (including Anderson) that he had managed his last game on October 1, 1995 in a 4-0 loss at Baltimore.

His 2,194 career wins at the time was third on the all-time career list behind Connie Mack and John McGraw and 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.)

Sparky was also a dream for any team’s PR department as he developed a close relationship with fans and was by all accounts a “media darling” for being so accessible to the press while willing to provide wonderful quotes that helped sell newspapers.

Sparky wouldn’t manage replacement players

So why wasn’t Sparky Anderson ever hired again by a major league team?

Simply put, it has been strongly speculated that Anderson was blackballed by the baseball establishment for committing what became his “sin” but one that he said was the proudest thing he ever did in baseball.

As a player strike continued into the 1995 spring training, the major league clubs hired replacement players and threatened to begin 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 Tiger owner Mike Ilitch who reportedly was talked out of firing the popular skipper by team president John McHale who knew it would be a public relations fiasco especially since the team was struggling to obtain public financing for a new baseball stadium. The move would 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 written with Dan Ewald, They Call Me Sparky (Sleeping Bear Press):

“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.”

Renowned baseball writer Tom Boswell predicted that Sparky Anderson would be blackballed in his February 21, 1995 Washington Post column, penned during Anderson’s walk out from the franchise. Boswell wrote in part:

“… A future Hall of Famer has crossed baseball’s imaginary picket line: Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. However, to the owner’s amazed and infuriated embarrassment, Sparky went the wrong way! He didn’t come in. He went out. To his lasting credit, the most famous, colorful, and respected manager in the game refused to run a scab team. This is a moral fable that will grow in time. In 2095 fans will still tell the tale of the manager who jeopardized his job — and risked being blackballed out of a chance to break the all-time record for wins by a manager, rather than disrespect the game he loved. By taking no stand, Anderson would have remained baseball’s honorary Good Old Boy No. 1 indefinitely. As the game’s modern day Stengel, he could always have found some team, somewhere, glad to have him, if only to boost public relations. Now, unless baseball’s venomous backroom politics change overnight, Sparky’s employment chances have shrunk by 50 to 99%.”

Quit rather than be fired

Knowing that Ilitch did not want him back and having become disillusioned, Anderson held a news conference the day after the last game of the 1995 season and announced that he was quitting the Tigers.

But though he was exiting the Tigers, 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.”

The call never came.

In 1995 there were managerial openings with the Yankees, Athletics, Cardinals, Orioles, and Reds but Anderson never received a phone call.

The idea that the baseball establishment would collude to never hire the “recalcitrant” Sparky Anderson is not at all far fetched when you consider that a few years earlier the owners were found to have colluded in not signing free agents, eventually paying damages of $280 million.

Author Mark Frost in his book Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime (Hyperion 2009) wrote that because Anderson stood up against the owners and refused to manage replacement players that he may have been blackballed by major league baseball.

“I was certainly surprised that Sparky was never offered another managerial position because it didn’t make sense,” Dan Ewald, Anderson’s co-author, closest friend, and adviser told me in an interview for Baseball Digest a couple of years ago. “We didn’t talk a lot about it after the initial surprise and we couldn’t comprehend it so why try?”

Anderson addressed the issue in his memoir with a somewhat ambiguous answer:

“First of all, I ain’t been blackballed. People are free to think whatever they want. All I know is I spent 43 years in the greatest game God ever gave us. If that ain’t enough to be grateful for then somebody better tell me what I missed. Even if it was true, what difference does it make? I couldn’t change it anyway so what’s the sense in worrying?”

Anderson’s stellar managerial record stands for itself and he 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.

Despite Anderson’s impressive career statistics and World Championships, we should all agree with Sparky’s self assessment that his proudest moment was standing up to the baseball establishment by not managing replacement players in order to protect the integrity of the game.

For that he paid the price with what may very well be one of baseball’s darkest and dirtiest little secrets.

24 replies on “Was Sparky Anderson blackballed by Major League Baseball?

  • Rick Bak

    I don’t believe Sparky was blackballed at all. He was already 61 years old and had a reputation as a diva, despite his carefully honed homespun persona. I don’t think there was a blacklist as much as a consensus opinion among owners that Anderson had bitten the hand that had fed him (and fed him very well) throughout his entire MLB career. From their point of view, why hire some guy who has just demonstrated that he can turn on his employer? It’s hard to believe that if Anderson didn’t want to manage “scabs,” he couldn’t have quietly worked out a leave of absence or retirement or some kind of bullshit excuse not to manage (his kitchen needed painting!) behind closed doors. Instead he chose to publicly embarrass his boss. Not a very smart move, no matter what profession you’re in.

    Sparky was a public relations bonanza for MLB for much of his career. However, it wasn’t a one-way street. If not for MLB, Anderson would’ve been an obscure housepainter known only for his ability to trim a sash with a 4-inch brush and his ungodly consumption of coffee. Instead he grew rich and famous while uttering such profundities as “He ain’t got no fastball no more.”

    I don’t think Sparky “quit” at all. If I had to bet on it, I’d say he was fired but for the sake of appearances, the Ilitches let him go out on his own terms. I’ve sometimes wondered if Anderson didn’t use the issue of scab players to engineer his own departure from the Tigers. The club was going nowhere, he disliked the Ilitches because they had gotten rid of a lot of longtime club employees (Sparky’s friends) after buying the team, and he was looking forward to a fresh challenge after so many years in Detroit.

    It’s worthwhile to note that Anderson himself is on record as saying that he didn’t think he was blacklisted. If he doesn’t think he was, why should we?

    Reply
  • Kenny Lindsay

    Dear Mr. Dow,

    This is a very insightful and compelling article to say the least. I believe that you did a remarkable job of putting the puzzle pieces together to make cents as to why our beloved George ‘Sparky’ Anderson didn’t return to the game of baseball.

    “It’s worthwhile to note that Anderson himself is on record as saying that he didn’t think he was blacklisted. If he doesn’t think he was, why should we?” – Richard Bak

    First of all, the evidence speaks for itself and I do not believe Sparky’s quote is enough to contradict the facts.

    I speculate that Sparky went on record saying he didn’t think he was blacklisted because he didn’t want to be on ‘record’ as being blacklisted. Not a single MLB official made such a statement and Sparky was not going to be the one to essentially let the cat out of the bag. In short, I think it was a ‘don’t ask. don’t tell’ type of situation.

    Sparky had 43 years in the game of baseball and an induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. Sparky had integrity and respect for the game and I suspect the last thing he wanted was his legacy to be tarnished with making accusations that he was blacklisted from the game.

    It’s also important to note that Sparky was suffering and ultimately passed away in 2010 from complications due to dementia. Therefore, any quotes or even assertions that he made just a year or two before his death should be scrutinized.

    The evidence speaks for itself. Sparky Anderson was blackballed from baseball and his dislike for the Ilitch family was exhibited when Sparky asked that he be represented as a Cincinnati Reds on his Hall of Fame plaque.

    Reply
  • Rick Bak

    @Sandra

    Most baseball fans know Anderson painted, both for a paycheck early in life and for pleasure (odd hobby, but what the hell).

    I’ve worked for myself for 23 of the last 25 years. I’m also ex-UAW (worked the line at Dodge Truck and the Rouge) and come from a family of autoworkers and cops. I also didn’t cross the picket line at the Snooze and Freep, though I sure would’ve loved one of those writing jobs. So keep your management digs to yourself.

    Reply
  • Jeffrey W

    “a consensus opinion among owners that Anderson had bitten the hand that had fed him (and fed him very well) throughout his entire MLB career. From their point of view, why hire some guy who has just demonstrated that he can turn on his employer?”

    In other words BLACKBALLED.
    You wrote it Rick Bak….Not me.

    Reply
  • George Vecsey

    This is a very thoughtful piece. I don’t know about blackballed, but I do know Anderson was an independent cuss who made a move from conscience. As a kid, he learned from Rod Dedeaux and Casey Stengel. Casey used to proclaim, “I can make a living telling the truth.” Sparky surely heard that a time or two. He refused to manage players that my newspaper-guild-organizer parents would have scorned for walking across the line. All I know is that he was a joy to cover because he loved the game and chattered about it, like Casey. Now Leyland is gone. Managers don’t sit around and chatter. Maybe it’s the fault of the tweet generation. Something’s been lost. GV

    Reply
  • Greg Giniel

    Rick, If you don’t stand for what you believe in then you don’t believe what you stand for!
    I have been self employed for the last 28 years and have learned that my employees can and do offer ideas and suggestions that I differ with…on the surface, but after careful examination I find that many times they are correct and I make the change even if it cost my company! I truly think that is one of the reasons the United States of America is the best country on the planet!
    If everyone keeps their mouths shut then we should have Putin as our President!

    Reply
  • John Sheets

    Uh, this news and speculation about Anderson has been talked about since the mid 90’s. It’s hardly a ‘dark dirty secret’. It’s about as much a secret as JFK cheating on Jackie was. What’s next? Gonna blow the lid off of Watergate?

    Reply
  • Bill Dow

    Dear John:
    You said speculation on Sparky has been discussed since the mid Nineties? Please give me one example where a Detroit baseball beat writer or columnist has ever written about Sparky being possibly blackballed.

    Reply
  • John Sheets

    Dear Bill –
    I am not going to go back and dig through the 1990’s to support my statement. If you want to call me a liar, be my guest. It was talked about on radio, and I know I read it in print. If you want to believe this is some scoop – go ahead. The reasons you give were also frequently given (blackballed) for Sparky’s number not being retired until after his death. Think about it Bill, if Sparky was DENYING it to WRITERS – it was obviously being WRITTEN. What exactly was Sparky denying if he wasn’t denying reports of being blackballed?? But let’s see… here’s an article by the AP that reported on Sparky possibly being blackballed. I’m pretty sure this AP story was picked up in the Detroit papers and written about – or do you think it was ignored?? Sheesh.

    http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1996/Anderson-Dismisses-Suggestion-He-Has-Been-Blackballed-by-Owners/id-963f8268543ae9b6f102bc2202aad75a

    Reply
  • Mary Dec

    Dear Bill, I also would like to know the answer to Greg Eno’s question. Why did you put “resignation” in quote marks regarding Leyland’s exit?

    Reply
  • John Sheets

    Bill – are you trying to say Leyland was FORCED out and didn’t resign? If not – why is “RESIGNATION” in quote marks regarding Jim Leyland right up front in the article’s very first sentence?

    (With the “resignation” of Tiger manager Jim Leyland)

    Several people have asked – can you elaborate?

    Reply
  • Rick

    Did anyone notice that Anderson said he didn’t want another rebuilding job? Huh, when did he EVER rebuild anything? Let’s see he was given a team in Cincinnati with 3 hof’ers (4 if you count Pete Rose and you should)and then when he couldn’t managed them past a lesser talented team(hey sounds like Leyland) he was showed the door. THEN, he was given a team that had all young stars. Some worthy of hof consideration. Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish and Morris. So again I ask what did he EVER rebuild? What he WAS good at was convincing people he was good. Like Leyland one of the MOST over rated manager’s in history. For him to be in the hof just shows how little you have to accomplish as a manager to get there. Wow he won 3 W.S. Two with a team whose half of their everyday kine up were hof’ers and one where he had more luck in one year then most get in 10! But, as with Leyland you either like or dislike Anderson. I choose to dislike both as I believe they were scam artists and were fortunate enough to work in a city so desperate for a winner people fell in love with them.

    Reply
  • Rick

    Hey John, like most people (maybe I’m wrong) I too believe he was forced out. I believe he was told you can go out on your terms or ours. Maybe Dumbrowski didn’t do it but I believe he was asked to step down.

    Reply
  • Bill

    John,

    As you obviously know, I put quotations marks around the word resignation because I believe there are many others besides me who have speculated that possibly Jim Leyland’s departure may not have been completely voluntary. It is speculation, and yes I cannot prove it, just like I cannot prove that Sparky Anderson was blackballed.

    But please read this:

    On September 21st, just a month before his press conference announcing his resignation, and two weeks after his meeting with Dombrowski, the Detroit Free Press ran a Shawn Windsor article on Page 9B called, “Managing A ‘Dream Job.’

    It reads in part:

    ‘This is a dream job now,” he (Leyland) said. “If you want to manage and you don’t like this place, there is something wrong with you. And I’m not being corny or mushy, I’m just telling you the facts. What’s not to like? The place is packed, you got a beautiful stadium, a great owner, general manager, you’ve got good guys.” When asked if he wanted to come back for a ninth year, Leyland said he didn’t want to talk about that until after the season. “We don’t need any attention drawn to that,” he said. “My thing is a yearly thing now, and everybody knows the answer to that. We will talk about that when it’s all over.” Leyland says he feels great and still loves competing. He admits the travel isn’t as easy as it used to be, but says he is still ‘going pretty strong. I’m enjoying it”………..
    Leyland said when he finally retires he might sit back and reflect on the relevant baseball his teams have played here. “I’m sure at some point in my life I’ll sit back and think about how good it was,” he said “(but) not just yet. I like the atmosphere that’s been created here. I even like the media, to be honest with you, they are pretty reasonable here. They rip on you now and then, but I’ve been lucky.”…………
    Yet it remains a job for him if the Tigers want him back. “I’d like to think no matter what happens here we’ve had another good year, we’ve had a lot of people come to the park, we’ve given them a lot of good entertainment, we’ve disappointed them some. Overall I think it’s been pretty good.”

    To me, that does not sound like a man low on fuel who intends to resign.

    So what version are we supposed to believe?

    I have also been told that after the news conference, Tiger broadcaster Mario Impemba told his viewers that he was “shocked by the resignation” and that “ in mid-season I asked him how long he thought he might manage and that he told me ‘2 or 3 years.’

    Leyland’s quotes in the article above and what Mario Impemba says what was told to him by Leyland seem at odds with a resignation. I think that helps lead to further speculation about the true nature of his departure.

    That being said, Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski said he resigned, so ok John, we will leave it at that.

    –Bill Dow

    Reply
  • Glenn Prezocki

    Great article and banter. Kind of got into both managers. Sparky was better with his pitching staff “Captain Hook” knew when they were done and when to switch pitchers. Sparky would have loved to have had this staff. Leyland was more of a players manager and not real handy managing his pitchers. With the Reds Sparky had a ready made offense-and excelled with a slightly better than average pitching staff who were not behind in a lot of games. With the Tigers he had to work at it -this is called managing. Illich is still looking for his Scotty Bowman in baseball-I admire Sparky for what he did in the 95 season-but he is not the owner-it was Illich’s call, his manager went against management and Sparky was part of the management team. Was he later “Blackballed”? We probably will never know, unless it comes out in someone’s memoirs. Leyland had his chances couldn’t get over the hump. Illich doesn’t have much longer with us-you can’t blame him for the Leyland switch.

    Reply
  • Bill

    Sparky was the most over-rated manager in baseball history. Anyone could have managed the Reds of the 70’s and probably won more. He used to say the stupidest things all the time. “Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle” That never worked out. That’s just one example. He alienated the Reds against each other all the time. (Calling the non-stars turds) He was poison to a baseball team. And when he left Detroit, they had already started a death spiral that took ten years to pull out of. When he left the Reds in 78, after a first place finish in 79, they also went into a downward spiral that took ten years to recover, although not as bad as the Tigers. His overall record with the Tigers was .516. This turd never belonged in the hall of fame. Sportwriters loved him and put him in. He always gave them something to write about to make there jobs easier. And we all know sportswriters are fat lazy idiots. Nerds who could never make a team.

    Reply

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