On returning from his daily (except Sunday) four-mile morning walk on this chilly day in May, George (Sparky) Anderson seemed, as always, chipper and refreshed. At the same time there was a suggestion of sadness about him. This was most unusual, for there are few humans this side of Mr. Rogers less inclined toward melancholy than the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Ordinarily, Sparky uses his matinal excursions to ruminate on the ball club, and with it in first place in the American League East and winning games at a record-breaking pace, there surely could have been little there to induce melancholy. What had happened, he explained, was that in thinking pleasurably of where he would situate his various sluggers in the batting order for that night's virtually assured victory, his normally disciplined mind had somehow wandered off into the mists of memory.
"I started thinking about my old friend Milton Blish," Sparky said. "Uncle Miltie. That man kept me alive when I didn't have a nickel. He managed a Rambler dealership on Olympic Boulevard in L.A., and I'd work for him in the off season when I was a player. I was excellent until it came to closing a sale. Then I'd end up saying to somebody without much money, 'Hey, you can't afford one of our cars.' That would drive Uncle Miltie crazy. 'George,' he'd say to me, 'you know damn well those people are now gonna walk out of here and go right down the street and buy a car they can't afford from someone else.' And he'd laugh. It's a good thing I was a ballplayer and he loved sports so much. He was a great Tigers fan, and I was thinking about that on my walk today. It made me kind of sad. Uncle Miltie died in 1976. Oh how he would've loved to be alive today and see this great club of ours. A great club managed by that dumb salesman of his back in the '50s."
This little reminiscence is instructive for Sparky-watchers. It's self-deprecatory, and for all his self-assurance in the dugout, Anderson entertains few illusions about his true value to society. "I may not be the smartest man in the world," he says, "but I do understand the Peter Principle and I never go beyond that. I can only be me. I couldn't be different if I tried." And he never forgets a friend. One of his coaches, Billy Consolo, has known him since grammar school days in Los Angeles. They live near each other now; Anderson lives in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks and Consolo lives in Westlake Village. Consolo stays in the Anderson condo in suburban Detroit with Sparky and his wife, Carol, during the season. Carol and Sparky will celebrate their 31st anniversary this October. They have known each other since the fifth grade, and, according to Consolo, Sparky has never even been out with another girl.
Sparky goes to his Dorsey High School (Los Angeles) class reunions, and every Thanksgiving he and a bunch of his old classmates get together for what they call the Turkey Bowl, to have breakfast, play touch football and "tell lies to each other." He never went to college—"there wasn't a one in the world that would have me"—but he grew up a block and a half from the USC campus and for five years was the bat boy for Coach Rod Dedeaux' crack Trojan baseball teams of the late '40s. He and Dedeaux, it goes without saying, are the closest of friends to this day—"Rod and my mother are the only people on earth who call me 'Georgie.' " Sparky also helped shag punts for the SC football team and he retrieved basketball star Bill Sharman's practice free throws—"he'd shoot as many as a hundred at a time." So Sparky is, in effect, a Southern Cal alumnus. He is surely as fervent in his support of SC teams as any died-in-the-wool old Trojan. Indeed, he is a winner of a "Tommy Trojan" award for distinguished service to the university—"it's my greatest honor." And he tries to make reunions of the baseball teams he served. "He's been a great and loyal Trojan," says Dedeaux. "I remember him giving Freddie Lynn [an SC alum] a pep talk, from one Trojan to another, before the '75 World Series. And Freddie was playing against Georgie's team."
June 10, 1984
There is a rock-ribbed stability to this determinedly ordinary man. Although most baseball people still consider him a National Leaguer, Anderson, now in his sixth year as skipper of the Tigers, is the dean of American League managers. He managed the Cincinnati Reds for nine years, as long as anyone else ever has, and he hopes to surpass Hughie Jennings' 14-year (1907-21) record tenure with the Tigers. Sparky has been fired only once in his professional life—by the Reds in 1978—and it left him, a man of exceptional loyalty, stunned and bewildered. He had led the Reds to back-to-back World Series championships in '75 and '76, managing teams often compared with the greatest in baseball history. He knows that the odds of a manager escaping the ax, no matter how successful he has been, are slim to none, but he's determined, nevertheless, to beat them and retire from the Tigers unfired.
Sparky even looks the picture of stability. He is a short, squarely built man with granitic features and hair that turned white when he was young. He looked a responsible 50 when he took over as manager of the Reds 14 years ago. He actually turned 50 last Feb. 22, and because he doesn't appear appreciably older now then he did when he was 35, it would seem his age is finally catching up with his looks.
He may have lived most of his life in Southern California, but his roots are in the Midwest and his speech is heartland plain and peppered with ungrammatical homilies. Although he's capable of a certain eloquence. Sparky leads both leagues in double negatives. His politics are solidly Republican, founded on his father's as yet unproven economic theory that "the more millionaires there are, the better it is for us." In baseball, of course, Sparky finds himself bossing millionaires every day.
His personality is a model of consistency. "He hasn't changed a bit since high school," says Console Anderson would accept this as the highest compliment, for if there is any person who'll earn his everlasting contempt—and their numbers are few—it's the nouveau riche star who puts on airs and grows too big for his britches. "You ain't no star to me if you're not a nice person," Anderson says. "It's so important to remember where you came from. I used to have that joke with Johnny Bench. He was born in Binger, Oklahoma, and I was born in Bridgewater, South Dakota. 'Don't forget where you came from,' I'd yell at him, and he'd yell it right back at me. Baseball guys are mostly people from poor families, and they should never forget it. My daddy taught me something when I was 11 years old: There is one thing in this world that'll never cost you a dime, and that's being nice."
A baseball guy should also remember "how quickly they forget," Sparky cautions. "I know that when I'm through with baseball, my phone's not going to ring and nobody will be asking for my autograph. Right now I've got two phones in my house, and if nobody calls me, I'll pick up one phone and call myself on the other one. I'm going to miss all this fun when it's over. So as long as I'm here, I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. I need baseball. It don't need me. Look at Walter Alston. He was in a class by himself, but he never changed. He was always the same person. He knew where he'd come "from. Now I see players two years out of the minors who won't walk across the street to go to a Boy Scout meeting unless they get paid a thousand dollars. And what's all this BS about hiding in the trainer's room after a game. If you've been bad, you ought to be man enough to admit it. And if you've been good, you ought to be humble enough to share your success with the public. I think we ought to thank every kid out there who thinks enough of us to ask for an autograph. We owe them a dream."
If, as some ballplayers say, a team will assume the personality of its manager, then the Tigers are truly Sparky's team. "Wander in there," says the manager, indicating his clubhouse, "and you'll never talk to a bunch of nicer people. The guys on this team remind me of '50s players. You tell them and they go out and do it. I told Gene Mauch—I call him The General—that he'd love managing these kids. He'd be in his element." The current Tigers are also reminiscent, in their calm acceptance of victory (they've had plenty of practice, Lord knows) and their shrugging acknowledgment of defeat, of Sparky's great Cincinnati teams. "We have a quiet clubhouse," says Sparky.
The Tiger players accept without protest Sparky's injunction that they wear sports coats and slacks to the ball park on road trips. "He wants us to look, as well as play, like major leaguers," says star centerfielder Chet Lemon. "Most people might say that's old fashioned in the light of our times, but Skip is a firm believer in doing everything as a team. And I think people like the image we give them. I like the dress code. I think people treat you differently when you make a good appearance." Anderson is prepared to impose his notion of what constitutes proper appearance on opponents as well as on his own players. When the Red Sox visited Tiger Stadium in early May, the Tigers manager was appalled, he said, to see Boston third baseman Wade Boggs sporting a beard. "Wade Boggs isn't a beard," says Sparky. "I went up to him and said. 'Don't change on me now just because you have a name. Don't be who you aren't." Boggs admitted he was only fooling around and was clean-shaven for the next game.
Anderson's players must look neat and they must be on time. "I won't tolerate lateness," says Sparky, and even his stars obey. "No one is treated differently on this team," says All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker. "I got scratched from the lineup one game for showing up late." Says Sparky, "Lance Parrish, who's one of the great catchers, and Dwight Lowry, who's a rookie catcher, wear the same uniform, so they must obey the same rules. Their salaries might be different, but that doesn't mean a thing to me." Another hard and fast rule: "Don't miss a sign unless you're legally blind."
Anderson calls few clubhouse meetings—"the more you stand up there, the better chance they have of finding out how dumb you are"—but he isn't above staging supposedly spontaneous demonstrations of disapproval before the team. "To get the right effect," he says, "you need props. I try to get things set up so that when I want to knock something over in a rage, it'll be there when I need it. I've had good luck with plastic trash cans in the past. All that trash knocked on the floor seems to attract a lot of attention."
The presumably overwrought trash can trasher is, says Anderson, someone named Sparky. A guy named George will probably come around to clean up the mess. "There are really two people in my life," says Anderson. "George Anderson and Sparky Anderson. George is real. Sparky is a fake. I'm really George Anderson all the time. Sparky is the show-biz side. Of course, I truly enjoy the showman part of the game. It's the fun part. I've always said that if you don't enjoy being on stage you shouldn't be in sports. I'm a showman and I know it. Most people think I'm Sparky, but people who really know me call me George. People still phone me and say, 'You wouldn't by any chance be the George Anderson who went to Dorsey High in L.A., would you?' Well, I am and I always will be."
There have been, however, some understandable instances of mistaken identity. At Dorsey High's 25th reunion, Consolo insists he had to explain to many of his classmates that their old friend George was in fact the same Sparky Anderson who's a big league manager. "Forty million baseball fans knew him as Sparky," says Consolo. "One hundred and fifty-three of us knew him as George."
This year, at her home in Riverside, Calif., Anderson's 72-year-old mother, Shirley, watched her sweet Georgie transform himself, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, into fiery Sparky on the Game of the Week on, of all days, the Saturday before Mother's Day. Sparky was ejected from the game after a cap-tossing, arm-grabbing argument with umpires Ted Hendry and Jim Evans over a base-path interference call against the Tigers' Larry Herndon. "I kept wishing Georgie would just go sit down," said Mrs. Anderson afterward. "He does do quite a bit of talking, you know. I guess he's earned that nickname of his. They called Herndon for interference and I guess Georgie didn't see it that way. Well, as long as he's willing to take the consequences, I won't scold him when he calls me tomorrow."
On Mother's Day, George Anderson met with the umpires before the game and quietly apologized for Sparky.
Anderson didn't acquire his now famous sobriquet until 1955, his third year in professional baseball. He was playing for Fort Worth of the Texas League and, as he explains it, "There was a radio announcer there who used to take a snifter from time to time. I guess I spent a lot of time arguing with umpires then, and this guy would always say something like 'The sparks are really flying out there.' Finally, he'd just say, 'Here comes old Sparky again.' The writers picked up on it and the name stuck. I went to Montreal the next year and the name followed me there. I was embarrassed. It took me a while to get used to it. In fact, my first two years as manager at Cincinnati I'd sign baseballs George Anderson. Finally, the p.r. department got on me and said, 'People don't know who George Anderson is.' So I started signing Sparky. I'm used to that name now, but I'll be honest with you, as much as I enjoy being Sparky, I'm really George. That's who I see when I look in the mirror. In the summer, it's a lot of fun being Sparky Anderson. But in the winter, I want to go home to Thousand Oaks and just be plain old George Anderson."
The manager, dressed in a light gray plaid sports coat, black slacks and black sport shirt, assumes his seat, the seat of honor, in the front row of the bus that will take his Tigers straight from Gate B of their ball park to the Bond Court Hotel in Cleveland. The Red Sox have just beaten his team for the second day in a row, a losing streak unprecedented so far in a season of virtually uninterrupted success. Sparky is unconcerned. O.K., maybe he's concerned, but he definitely isn't worried. He leans his not so old gray head against the back of the seat and closes his eyes for a second, putting the ball game behind him. It isn't yet six in the afternoon, but it's pitch dark outside. Rain begins to fall as the bus pulls away from Tiger Stadium.
"My family moved from South Dakota to L.A. in November of 1942," he says when asked to recall his childhood. "I wasn't quite nine years old. Bridgewater was just a little town—630 people. My grandpa, Oscar, came over from the old country, Norway. My daddy was born in South Dakota. Both of them were house painters, although my daddy also worked on the WPA, since you could only paint in the summer. I can shut my eyes and see the little school I went to there. The jail was right next door. The cells were never locked. And down the street there was a hatchery. You could hear the chicks. The baseball field was right across from the train station.
"We moved west so the men in the family could work in the war plants. Our house was at 1087 West 35th Street, off Vermont. A rough neighborhood. My grandpa and grandma lived with us, and there were five of us children. That's nine of us in a two-bedroom house. We were at 1087 West 35th and my uncle Elmer was at 1087½, and he had four kids. We were a crowd. My grandma did all the sewing for us kids. She made all my shirts and pajamas until I was 25 years old. My mother did the baking. It's funny, but a child don't know he's poor if he's loved. And we always had clothes. Our house was right near USC. The house is gone now, but it was exactly where the rightfield foul pole is at Dedeaux Field, where the baseball team plays now. I'd go by old Bovard Field, where they played then, on my way to grammar school. One day a ball came by and landed in the bushes. The student manager couldn't find it, but after he left, I looked for it and found it. I ran back in there and asked who the boss was. What did I know? I was just a little kid from South Dakota. Well, the boss turned out to be Rod Dedeaux. He took a liking to me and asked me if I wanted to be the bat boy. I only lived a block and a half away, so it was easy to get there. I was thrilled. I had the run of the campus after that. There wasn't a building I couldn't get into.
"I came from a baseball family. Daddy was a catcher and Uncle Elmer was a pitcher. Elmer got as far as Class D ball. That was his claim to fame, but he got homesick and that was that. My daddy loved baseball and we played catch every day he could. I'd go to SC every day, anyway, and not come home until dark. I was always outside. To this day I don't go in the house much. I'll work outside or go over to one of the kids' houses. All three of my children—George Jr. (we call him Lee), who's 26; Shirlee, who's 23; and Albert, who's 22—live within 15 minutes of us in the L.A. area. I've got a grandson who's four. He's George III, but I tell him just because you got that fancy name don't mean you're going to be rich."
Billy Consolo, sitting behind Sparky, dozes through most of the nearly four-hour bus ride, but every so often something his old friend says will trigger a memory and he'll mumble something. The years seem to be rolling back as the bus rushes through the storm. "When my kids were in school, they never admitted they were Sparky Anderson's kids," the manager goes on. "They wanted their friends to be their own friends and not because of something else. My wife calls it our two worlds. Met her in the fifth grade."
Consolo laughs, and says: "He got her one of those rings back then that you get out of penny candy machines."
"I flunked the fifth grade so she got ahead of me for a while," Anderson says. "Until the seventh grade she was bigger than me, anyway. I don't think she's gained an ounce since high school. Can't weigh much more than 90 pounds." He produces a photograph of a teenage couple dressed to the nines in '50s finery, ^seated at a dinner table. "She looks just the same now." Sparky doesn't; his hair was coal-black then. "I've still got that boutonniere. My wife was born in Southern California, and she won't even go to a game until it's at least 80 degrees. She's never asked anyone for anything. She's very quiet. She's never caused me one problem, and that's unusual for a baseball wife. She's my equilibrium."
"Hey, Skip," Lemon shouts from the back of the bus. "How about making a little food stop?"
"Anybody who knows George expects me to be totally different from what I am," says Carol Anderson, sitting primly in the living room of the Anderson condo in West Bloomfield, Mich. She is a small. pretty woman, with a shy, almost withdrawn, manner. "I'm just me, that's all." She has steadfastly stayed out of the limelight her husband basks in, and she prefers the solitude of her own home to the ball park hubbub. "I see the games on the radio pretty well," she says, meaning just that. "I was raised listening to games on the radio. You learn to see them that way. I can see them just as well while I'm playing solitaire or reading."
She's clearly her own woman. To her husband's immense surprise and no little embarrassment, she started working five years ago at the Thrifty drug store near their home in Thousand Oaks during the off-season. She missed last year because the Andersons were redecorating their house, but she'll be back on the job again this year. Not that the family needs the extra money. "No, it's just for me," she says. "I call it my therapy. I don't think George understood what I was doing at first. It embarrassed him. Then it dawned on him that it was for me. Others thought I was crazy, too—the kids, neighbors, baseball wives—but they're not me. I've never been much of a housekeeper. That's not one of my greater joys. I was an insurance secretary before we were married, and I also sold shoes and jewelry. I always said that when the kids got out of school, I'd go back to work. I did. I've been clerking in candy, tobacco, greeting cards and cigarettes. I started at $2.90 an hour and got up to $6.45. The other employees didn't know who I was at first. And I threatened George within an inch of his life not to come in there. But he did come in one night for ice cream, and I waited on him. The boss said to me after he left, 'Do you know who that was?' and I said, 'Oh, he comes in here all the time.' Then one of the clerks saw me get into the car with him and, with my name and all, they put it together."
The Dorsey High team Anderson and Consolo played on and Carol rooted for won 42 straight games in an area where perhaps the best high school baseball was being played. Anderson, the shortstop, signed with the Dodgers after his senior year for $3,000, a sum that included his first year's salary with Santa Barbara in the Class C California State League. Consolo, the Dorsey third baseman, signed for $65,000 with the Red Sox as one of the first Bonus Babies. "Billy could play," says Sparky. "Me, I had a terrible arm. After that first year in Santa Barbara they moved me from short to second. Lefty Phillips, who signed me for the Dodgers, said to me, 'You're an Eddie Stanky player. Everything you do will come hard.' He told me the truth."
After six years in the minors, Anderson played one full season with the Phillies (the Dodgers traded him in 1958), hitting .218 in '59 for a last-place team. "We played the Dodgers that year in Los Angeles at the Coliseum, and I'm the big shot, coming home with a major league team," Anderson recalls, laughing. "It was my daddy's first major league game, and, of course, we got slaughtered. Afterward he came up to me and asks, 'Son, is that really a big league team you're on?' I had to admit it didn't look much like one."
Anderson was back in the minors the next year with Toronto. It was Charlie Dressen, under whom he played in 1962, who planted a seed. "He'd always whistle at you," says Sparky. "So this one day he whistled for me and I ran over. 'Little Man,' he said—he always called me Little Man, and that's what I called Joe Morgan—'Little Man, you ain't never missed a sign. Someday you'll be a manager.' Coming from him that was quite a compliment. The man had six eyes."
Anderson managed in the minors for five years before an old friend, Preston Gomez, then managing San Diego, hired him as a coach in 1969. At the end of the season he had agreed to join the coaching staff of an even older friend, Lefty Phillips, then managing the Angels, when he received a surprise call from Cincinnati general manager Bob Howsam. Anderson had managed in the Cincinnati system in the minors, and Howsam saw something in him that Anderson himself wasn't yet sure he had—the ability to extract the best from talented players. Would he become manager of the Reds, Howsam asked.
"I was shocked," says Anderson, "but I'd seen that club the year before, and I didn't think they could miss winning. Still, I was just a 35-year-old guy with no real major league experience. Nobody knew me from nothing. I thought Bob Howsam was taking a terrible gamble." So did the Cincinnati press, which reveled in "Sparky Who?" headlines. Howsam thought otherwise. "I'll always gamble," he says now, "if I believe in the man I'm gambling on. I knew Sparky was honest and forthright. I needed a leader, somebody to get all that ability out. He did."
A manager can do worse than start his major league career with the Cincinnati Reds of 1970. Among the players on that roster were Pete Rose, Bench, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Bobby Tolan, Lee May and Hal McRae. The new manager worked them as if he expected to enter them in the Olympic marathon. "They thought I was crazy," says Anderson. "I ran them and ran them. I had them doing everything but pick rocks out of the infield. I managed them the same way I managed minor league clubs. I didn't know any better. I didn't have the sense to realize I was dealing with Hall of Famers. Bench called that camp Stalag 17. But whether they agreed with me or not, they never questioned me. They just went ahead and did it. I knew then I had something."
In his rookie year as manager, the Reds won 70 of their first 100 games and 102 for the season. They won the NL West by 14½ games and swept the Pirates in the playoffs, losing finally, four games to one, to the Orioles in the Series. Sparky was named National League Manager of the Year. It was only the beginning. Joe Morgan joined the team in 72, and the Reds were back in the Series. They lost this time to the A's, four games to three, six of the seven games being decided by one run. "Dick Williams outmanaged me in that Series," says Anderson. "I felt we should've won, but he beat us four times by one run. You win four one-run games and you're doing something right. These were two excellent teams playing each other. I truly felt he was the difference." Anderson wouldn't lose another Series. The Reds beat the Red Sox four games to three in 75, a Series that ranks with the most exciting in history, and he swept the Yankees in 76.
The now familiar Sparky persona was also emerging in these years—the unquenchable optimism, the blue-collar work ethic, the unashamed press agentry for his players. His boosterism created at least one embarrassing moment in a World Series. At the conclusion of the 76 Series, Anderson was rhapsodizing in the postgame interview room on the apparently limitless talent of Bench, who had hit .533 in the four games and been named Series MVP. It was impossible to compare Bench with any other catcher, Anderson advised reporters, because there was no one playing who could even approach such a demigod. The newsmen squirmed during this paean, because, seated directly behind Anderson on the podium and taking in every word, was Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, who had had a fair Series himself, batting .529. Munson, a prickly sort even on his good days, was fuming at what he interpreted as a calculated insult. Sparky nodded politely and walked off. Anderson genuinely hates hurting anyone's feelings. At the same time, he was so convinced of the wisdom of his monologue that he felt no lasting remorse.
Anderson was riding the crest in those days, the manager of a baseball dynasty. It looked as if he and his entire team would enter the Hall of Fame. But the Reds finished a disappointed second in the NL West in 77 and 78, and new team president Dick Wagner was becoming increasingly impatient. Anderson and the ball club had just completed a triumphant goodwill tour of Japan when he was summoned to meet Wagner on Nov. 28, 1978 in Room 1118 of the airport Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles. "I thought he wanted an opinion on Lee Lacy, a player we were considering," says Anderson. Instead, he was fired. After five division championships, four National League pennants and two World Series victories, he had gotten the ax.
"When I got home, my youngest, Albert, was the only one in the house," he recalls. " 'Your daddy just got fired,' I told him. He looked up and said something like 'O.K.,' and left. I was there by myself. I went over to a neighbor's house, but nobody was there, either. Then my wife and my older son and his wife came in with a real estate lady. My son and I were supposed to sign some papers on his new house. I thought that real estate lady would never leave. When she did, I got the family together and told them I'd been fired. I felt terrible. I didn't want to take any calls, but somehow word got out. Joe Morgan was the first guy on the team to call. That's like him. Then he started to cry on me, and I was having trouble, too. What really bothers me is the way they did it. They let me go on that trip to Japan knowing I was going to be fired. They wanted to use me for public relations. If they were going to fire me, why didn't they do it at the end of the season? I kept saying to myself, 'How could this be?' I felt used. I never dreamed I'd manage anyplace else. I'd built up such a sentimental attachment to the team. Hell, I'm not bitter about being fired, but I'll never get over the way they handled it."
Anderson had a year to go on his contract, so he decided not to look for another managing job. "I told my son Albert, 'Now your daddy's going to show you how to turn defeat into victory.' Anderson went into broadcasting, and he was pretty good at it. His knowledge, enthusiasm and energy more than compensated for his syntactical shortcomings—in full verbal flight, Sparky can make Junior Sample sound like Sir John Gielgud. He did interview shows for an L.A. station, worked as a television color man with Dick Enberg and worked the World Series on radio with Vin Scully, the esteemed baseball announcer whose broadcasting progeny (sorry imitations, most of them) now overwhelm the airwaves. Typically, Anderson downgraded his own contributions: "A color man can be an idiot. After all, he's just talking about a game he's supposed to know anyway." Also typically, Scully joined the already crowded Sparky pantheon, which includes his entire family, virtually every baseball manager extant, all of the old Reds, every current Tiger and such deities from other sports as John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Don Shula and Chuck Noll. "The man is a professional with class," says Anderson of Scully. "I asked him once what success meant to him, and he said, 'Nothing except the moment' In all those years with the Dodgers, Vin Scully never asked the team for a single special favor. Class people get where they are not by being babies. You don't achieve what he has by being a jerk. And you talk about preparation...that man does his homework. 'Course one time he tricked me and gave me a commercial to read, and I ain't never done that before. Man, did he laugh after that."
It was merely a matter of time before Anderson would get back into the game. "Old Sparky's just sitting at home waiting for one of us to falter," Whitey Herzog told an assemblage of his fellow managers at the 1978 baseball meetings. Les Moss at Detroit did falter, and Sparky replaced him on June 14, 1979, 55 games into the season. He signed a five-year contract (since extended through 1986) and promised to bring Detroit a pennant before it expired. "It was crazy," he says now. "But I knew people wanted to hear something like that. To tell you the truth, I never dreamed that in five years we'd have a club this good." Now, predictably, he wants everyone to know exactly how good they are. "I want them to be nationally famous," he says. "I want them recognized by people in every airport across the country."
This year's Tigers are so good that not even Anderson, who slyly insists he never makes comparisons, can resist measuring them alongside the stellar outfits he had "over there" in Cincinnati. "No team I ever managed over there had a [Jack] Morris or a [Dan] Petry pitching," he says. "We'd use seven or eight guys starting and then go to our bullpen. But even those bullpens weren't as deep as the one we've got now with Willie Hernandez, Aurelio Lopez and Doug Bair. Overall, this club is better defensively, and benchwise there's no comparison. Over there we just had fill-in guys. This club is deep. Over there we really only had one club to beat, and that was the Dodgers. We knew if we finished ahead of them, we'd win. This club has it a lot harder. We've got five good teams to beat. But it's hard to compare. When you talk about those teams, you're talking about Bench, Rose and Morgan, Hall of Famers, guys who put years together I never expect to see again in my lifetime. That's a team they're comparing to the '27 Yankees—except for pitching.
"How lucky can you be to have had both those teams? How many managers can have two catchers like Bench and Parrish, two shortstops like Concepcion and [Alan] Trammell, two second basemen like Morgan and Whitaker, two centerfielders like [Cesar] Geronimo and Lemon, two leftfielders like [George] Foster and Herndon, and two rightfielders like [Ken] Griffey and [Kirk] Gibson. And, of course, over there I also had Tony Perez, another alltime great. I think it's amazing to be that lucky. I'm just a guy who's been in the right place at the right time."
But, as Sparky has said himself, good luck always seems to follow the Woodens, the Shulas and the Alstons of this world. Can it be that he's had something to do with his own success? Anderson has built the team he wanted in Detroit, weeding out people who didn't fit his idea of what a player should be, and bringing in a Darrell Evans to be his designated hitter, a position, if that's what it's called, occupied by no fewer than 13 players last year. It was Anderson who persuaded the gifted but difficult Gibson to stop pouting and learn how to play rightfield. It was Anderson who told general manager Bill Lajoie that the team badly needed lefthanded help in the bullpen. Now Hernandez fills the need. It was Anderson who saw that Barbaro Garbey was something more than just a Cuban refugee, that he was better at first base than third and that, if used judiciously—against lefthanded pitching primarily—he could be a .300 hitter. Anderson himself gives credit to Lajoie and club president Jim Campbell for the team's revival. "Bill's a workaholic," he says, "and years ago Ralph Houk told me that if I ever got a chance to work for Jim Campbell I should take it. He was right. Those two front office men have gotten me everything I've asked for—or at least they've tried."
In a calculated attempt to give his reserves playing time during the long early-season winning streak, Anderson put some unusual lineups on the field, playing catchers in the infield, using rookies liberally and playing people named Rusty Kuntz in the outfield. But whatever he did, the Tigers kept winning. And in the meantime the reserves were getting the playing experience that could prove invaluable in late season when the veterans will require rest. Anderson, of course, has his critics. In Cincinnati, he was known as Captain Hook for pulling his starters in the early innings. But many people in the game look at him in a different light. "He's an outstanding manager," says Cleveland manager Pat Corrales. "He has confidence in himself and in his players. He's always looking for young players, and he'll use them." More significantly, his players, old and new, are ardent supporters.
"He's the best I ever played for," says Morgan. "It isn't strategy or being the smartest that makes him good. It's that he knows his personnel better. He knows everyone's strong and weak points and knows how to deal with them. He won't ask you to do something you're not capable of. If someone can't handle the fastball, he won't be left in to face a Goose Gossage. If he has trouble with the curve, he won't be in there against a Bert Blyleven. He always says that strategies and 'moves' are overrated. To him. the key element is always having the right player in certain situations. Sparky points 25 guys toward one thing—winning. He makes sure everyone knows that's all that matters—not who drives in the winning run or gets the most hits. Everything he does is for the good of the team. I remember in the seventh game of the 1975 World Series, we were down 3-2 in the seventh inning. Everyone looked down the bench at Sparky to see how he was reacting. If you could see panic in him, then you would start to panic. Instead, he was sitting there calmly. He said, 'Now don't everyone try to hit homers up there. We have nine outs, and if we use them wisely, we'll win.' That helped all of us and we did go on to win"—to win, it should be added, on a ninth inning RBI single by Morgan.
"I think you can only know so much baseball," says Rose. "Sparky has a tremendous way with people. He's like a psychologist. Because of that he's probably got all those guys over there thinking one thing—win. A lot of times certain players show their confidence through their manager and vice versa. Sparky just tries to make it fun to go out there and play. He's great public relations-wise. He just sells the team and he sells the players. He knows how to handle people, and that's really what managing boils down to. He tries to get into the guys' personalities, to get to know what makes them tick. That way he can get the best out of them. He'll be the first to tell you he's been blessed with good players all these years, but there's been a lot of teams with good players that don't win."
"Skip is a confidence builder," says Lemon. "He'll get the most out of every player. His positive attitude filters down. Wherever he is, players always excel."
George Anderson is, on the whole, a lucky man, as he says, but not because he's Sparky Anderson, the famous baseball manager. He's lucky because he's achieved a rare sense of self, a sense that the world, for all of his success, is hardly his oyster, that George Anderson is just an ordinary guy. "All you finally have," he says, "is family. Others like or dislike you with the wind. They don't even know you."
Carol and Sparky Anderson nearly lost their son Albert a little more than a year ago when the boy's car plummeted 800 feet down a cliff near his home. Fortunately, he came away from the accident with relatively minor injuries. The father was deeply shaken by the experience. He also learned from it. "I haven't been confused about what's really important in life since then," he says. "If I never go to another World Series, it'll never bother me."
On May 16 of this year, his 74-year-old father, Leroy, died at his home in Riverside, Calif. Some time ago, Anderson told the older man, "Dad, you've done more than I've ever done. You raised five children in tough times. You can hold your head high."
George Anderson has been faithful to his father's advice on niceness and on never trying to be what you are not. It's held him in good stead, for he can say of himself now, without embarrassment, "I'm a nice man. I like myself."