During his Hall of Fame managerial career, Sparky Anderson was one of the most quotable, most vicarious, and entertaining characters in the sport. He gave countless interviews and filled reporter’s notebooks with his stories and quotations.
Sparky was a marketable star for the National Pastime, and in 1981 he made a memorable appearance on an iconic program aimed at young fans of the sport, The Baseball Bunch.
“The producers called me up and they said ‘We want to shoot this again. We think it’s a little dry for kids to be watching this. A lot of good baseball information, but not enough color to it, so can you come in and just improvise around what we’ve done, and we’ll re-shoot the whole thing.’ I did that, and suddenly they had magic in the can, and they sold the show.”
The Baseball Bunch starring Johnny Bench
In the late 1970s, Major League Baseball’s popularity was sagging. From 1969 to 1977, when the league expanded to 26 teams, attendance was leveling off as fans started to flock to the excitement of pro football and other distractions. For decades, MLB had assumed they would always sit at the top of the hill in professional sports, but stagnant marketing had nearly lost a generation of fans and threatened the popularity of the sport. That’s when the league decided to try some new things.
In 1978, MLB introduced their first nationwide marketing effort with the “Baseball Fever: Catch It” campaigns on television broadcasts. Using what was then state-of-the-art graphics and ear-catching music behind dynamic highlights from big league action, the campaign was clearly aimed to foment excitement in the product. It proved to be tremendously successful, but the league felt that more was needed to reach young fans.
In 1977, spurred by suggestions from Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, the league formed a committee to report to Major League Baseball Productions, with the goal of creating programming aimed at children and teens.
The series that became The Baseball Bunch came from the mind of Doug Schustek, a former TV producer from the east coast. Though Schustek shepherded the idea to MLB Productions he apparently was never an employee of the league, and once his brainstorm went into production he was no longer associated with the project.
Cincinnati catcher Johnny Bench was recruited to be the host of the program. Bench was one of the most popular players in baseball, and a gregarious man who often toured the country as a lounge singer in the off-season. MLB convinced Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda to be a special guest contributor in a role called “The Dugout Wizard.”
“I don’t know that it would have been the same thing with a host who was a broadcaster,” Bench told Sports Illustrated years later. “I think I gave it a lot credibility. I certainly had those friendships and relationships. I think they felt that I was going to give them a fair shake. We were going to utilize them to do everything and get all the information and let them be the star. That was the whole idea: we were trying to make them the star. We’d play the buffoon ourselves. It was just a hoot, I mean, it really was.”
Major League players were flattered to be asked to appear on the show, which ran from 1980 to 1985, and was shot in Arizona or Florida during the early weeks of spring training so as to accommodate schedules.
“It was pretty prestigious to get on The Baseball Bunch,” Dusty Baker remembers. “The only games that were on TV were the Saturday Game of the Week, I think Monday Night Baseball, and, if you were fortunate enough to be on a team that got there, the playoffs and World Series. If you were even asked to be on the show, that meant you were a pretty good player, because the public wouldn’t have known you if you weren’t. To be on The Baseball Bunch, that was pretty cool.
The Baseball Bunch had a writing staff that tried to focus the show on the two E’s: education and entertainment, with a taste of humor. The Famous Chicken (formerly known as The San Diego Chicken) was the most famous mascot in sports at the time, and he was brought in to add much-needed lightheartedness and zaniness to the program.
“You cannot get better instruction,” Bench remembers. “It was well-run, well-designed, and definitely well-taped. And the scripts were wonderful. It was really just a great time. The cast of characters were fabulous.”
The cast included several young kids, ranging in age from seven to 14, most of them from the Phoenix area little league program, where The Baseball Bunch was filmed for most of its run.
Sparky teaches Coaching and Defensive Drills
Players were paid just $1,000 to appear on the show, making it basically an act of charity, something that wasn’t lost on Sparky Anderson when he was approached to make an appearance in the first full season of the program.
“I didn’t know what was supposed to happen,” Sparky said in an interview with the author in 2004. “Johnny asked me to come, and I did.”
In the first segment of Sparky’s appearance the grey-haired manager focused on the teaching and practice of defensive fundamentals like hitting the cutoff man and backing up plays on the diamond. Later in the episode, Sparky (wearing his nice-fitting Detroit uniform) showed the kids a few hand signals used by third base coaches. He also revealed a series of signs to teach the young ballplayers how to pick up things from coaches. As a comedic aside, The Famous Chicken mimicked Sparky.
In his guest appearance on the show, Sparky shared the secret to having a winning team: “Have good players, hard work, and willingness to practice and practice hard,” the Hall of Fame manager said.
In 1975 and 1976, Sparky led the Reds to the World Series title, and in 1984, only three years after pairing with Bench on “The Baseball Bunch,” Anderson won his third championship, this time with Detroit.
Anderson was the first manager to win the World Series in both leagues, and also the first to lead teams to 100 wins in both. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.