May 11, 2010
It was one of those cold winter days that you get in Ohio, the wind blowing out from Cleveland, through Columbus and into Cincinnati, the memory on this day of a World Series lost to the Baltimore Orioles by the newly-christened Big Red Machine dimming with each passing day. It was one of those quiet days in the offices of the Cincinnati Enquirer, where everyone was waiting for 1970 to turn into 1971.
The mail arrived in the department in the morning, but the reporters didn’t start to tumble in until mid-afternoon. It was the time of year when the Christmas cards would come in, this being in the days before computers, where cards actually made of paper and were hand-signed. One that arrived that afternoon had us all stumped though, for it carried warm Christmas greetings from George Anderson.
George Anderson? Who the hell is George Anderson, we all thought? You know a George Anderson? No? We mused over the matter for about 30 minutes and couldn’t place him.
Then, all of a sudden, someone said, “Hey, what’s Sparky’s first name?” And there it was.
Sparky Anderson, the manager of the hometown Reds, the man who had won a pennant and 70 of his first 100 games as a major-league manager had sent a Christmas card, and it took the geniuses in the local sports department, including the guy who had just covered all 162 games, all the National League Championship Series in a sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the World Series to figure out that he signed his card with his given name.
No one other than his wife calls him George. You know, you get intimate and the last thing you want to do is call the man there alongside you “Sparky.” But on the baseball field, he could only be Sparky.
What a wonderful hire he was by Bob Howsam, the general manager. So what if he greeted with headlines that read “Sparky Who?” when he came to town, and so what if he had dyed his prematurely gray hair because when he let it go natural he looked more like Casey Stengel than any 36-year-old had a right to look.
He was the perfect fit for a team about to explode into one of baseball’s greatest, a man who could charm the pants off the media with his own version of the English language, one who was part Stengelese and the rest just pure Sparky.
For almost a decade he found a way to keep the focus of a group of players who were so good that winning could have become boring, of managing to allow Johnny Bench and Pete Rose and Joe Morgan and Tony Perez to exist in the same clubhouse, each as a superstar, each in what should have been a Hall of Fame career.
He handled the sometimes moody David Concepcion perfectly, let some of baseball’s flakiest characters in Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, Bernie Carbo, and Rawly Eastwick do their thing while squeezing the baseball juice out of them without them ever knowing they were being squeezed. And all the while he was just Sparky.
His playing career left something to be desired, that something being an occasional base hit. He was the worst player on the worst team in baseball, lasting only one season in the big leagues, playing for Eddie Sawyer and the 1959 Philadelphia Phillies.
He enjoyed recalling the meeting Sawyer had just before breaking camp in spring training, gathering his team around him in the center of the diamond and telling them they were the worst team in baseball.
“Imagine the manager telling you that you were the worst team in baseball and you hadn’t even played a game,” Anderson would marvel.
When Anderson’s year in the major leagues ended, he had firmly entrenched his name in the record books, possessing at the time the lowest batting average at .218 and having collected the fewest hits of any player to play 150 or more games in a season. It was a record until Dal Maxvill, the St. Louis Cardinals' good-field, no-hit shortstop, put together an even worse season to steal Anderson’s thunder. But Sparky Anderson used to like to point out that he had done something Maxvill had never done.
“I doubled off the wall off Sandy Koufax,” he loved to crow.
He didn’t say it, but he could have—you could look it up. I did, and sure enough, on Aug. 24, 1959, Sparky Anderson doubled off Koufax during an 8-2 loss. What Anderson neglected to note what that Koufax wasn’t yet the pitcher who would dominate baseball, going just 8-6 that year with a 4.05 ERA. Of course, considering that Anderson never hit the wall off any other pitcher and finished with just 12 extra-base hits, none of them home runs, it was a Herculean feat by a Lilliputian of a hitter.
Dealing with Anderson as a manager was a joy. Not that covering the Reds you were ever at a loss for things to write about, but all you had to do with Anderson was walk up and say, “Hey, Spark, need an off-day story” and he’d fill the room with tales of his one major-league season.
And how could go wrong writing about the “Dalton Gang,” which took the young rookie under its wing… not that that was a terribly good thing. See, the Dalton Gang of the 1959 Phillies got its name because it ran at night and was always looking for trouble.
Today’s fans have forgotten about Dick Farrell, who was the Turk; Jim Owens, known as the Bear, and Seth Morehead, to be replaced after he was traded the next year by Jack Meyer, nicknamed the Bird long before anyone ever heard of Mark Fidrych. This one of the greatest fun-loving, hard-drinking, wild-living group of carousers who wore a pair of baseball knickers.
Anderson’s stories were endless about how they broke all the mirrors one night in a San Francisco hotel and how Farrell, who became a mean-spirited boozer after losing, broke a mirror in a Milwaukee bar, explaining later “I looked in the mirror, didn’t like what I saw, so I threw a punch.”
One night, after they beat up a bartender, general manager John Quinn levied a healthy fine at them for “being unsober,” which was a wonderful euphemism.
As amazing as it still seems, Anderson managed the Reds until 1978 when he committed the sin of finishing second, winning “only” 92 games. Discovering that he was fired was something of a story in itself, for I had called Anderson that offseason on a totally unconnected matter, talking to him for about 20 minutes.
He never let on that he had just met earlier that day at a Los Angeles hotel with Dick Wagner, Howsam’s right-hand man, and had been fired, but I picked up on that for first time ever as he spoke about the team he kept calling “they.”
Hanging up the phone, I said to those in the office, “You’re not going to believe this, but I think Sparky has been fired.”
Turned out he wasn’t through managing, joining the Detroit Tigers fans and media for 17 more years, winning 1,331 more games to finish a Hall of Fame career with 2,194 victories. That’s a lot of games won, but believe it or not, he was a bigger winner as a person.
Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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