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The Wit and Wisdom of Sparky Anderson

By Matt Schudel
Matt Schudel

The great baseball manager Sparky Anderson, who died Thursday (Nov. 4) at age 76, was a throwback, even when he began managing in 1970.

Anderson already had silver hair when he was hired by the Cincinnati Reds at 35 -- isn't it interesting how Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre still haven't gone gray as they approach 70? -- and took his young team to the National League title in his first season.

The Reds came to dominate the National League in the 1970s, winning four pennants and two World Series, and the team came to be known as the Big Red Machine. At the time, Sparky probably didn't get the credit he deserved for managing a team with outsized personalities (Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench) and with continually shaky pitching.

The Reds had exactly one 20-game winner during Sparky's nine years as manager: the otherwise forgettable Jim Merritt, who won 20 games in 1970, then only seven more after that. The team's top pitchers were Jack Billingham (who twice won 19 games) and Gary Nolan, followed by a bunch of guys who would go 14-8 or 12-10. That's one of the reasons Sparky was forced to become an innovator by relying on his bullpen, which contained Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon and a rotating cast of characters who never pitched as well before or after Sparky was their manager.

"Ain't it funny how the same managers always seem to be so lucky?" Sparky told ...

the Post's extraordinary baseball writer Thomas Boswell in 1984. (Boswell noted that Sparky had a biography of Casey Stengel -- a manager he resembed in manner and success -- "conspicuously on his desk" during the Detroit Tigers' remarkable championship season in 1984.

"Yeah, Casey sure was lucky," Sparky went on. "Some people can stand in front of trees and don't even know it's a forest. Other people know what they're looking at . . . but they're (called) lucky."

Sparky got "lucky" again in 1984, when he managed a Tigers team that had Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in the infield, Lance Parrish behind the plate and Jack Morris, Dan Petry and reliever Willie Hernandez on the pitching staff. No one on the team had 100 runs batted in that year, no pitcher won 20 games, but the Tigers ran away with the American League with a fast start of 35-5 and led the season from start to finish, demolishing the San Diego Padres in the World Series.

Sparky's connection with Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees to seven world titles, was hardly accidental. Sparky had a deep appreciation of baseball's history and was well aware of Stengel's reputation for baffling interviewers with nonsense -- beating opponents with his shrewdness.

Writer Leonard Koppett in his book "The Man in the Dugout," a terrific history of baseball managers, wrote: "More than most managers, Anderson has a sense of baseball history and baseball's place in the culture, in the emotional niche it fills for the people who follow it."

I managed to get a few of Sparky's choice witticisms, marked by his mangled syntax and Yogi Berra-like kernels of wisdom into the obituary, including the priceless: "My mother, I love her. But she don't pitch for me."

Sparky was a sportswriter's dream. Every day, he had a fresh set of marvelously quotable comments. After games, he'd talk about the night's action in two shifts -- and give different quotes to each group of sportswriters.

He rivaled Stengel and Berra for his colorful comments about baseball and life. When he went to the mound to remove a pitcher from the game, there was no chitchat and no second-guessing his decision.

"I didn't want no conversation," he said. "They're not happy. I'm not happy with what I'm seeing. There's no sense for conversation."

Talking about how a manager cannot become sentimental and fall in love with his players, Sparky said, "Always remember this: Your eyes tell you everyting. Your heart tells you nothing. Your heart gets you in trouble."

Even if he was cleareyed about what he saw on the field, Sparky was known for hyping his players, predicting Hall of Fame careers for rookies who looked good in spring training and saying that Kirk Gibson -- a decent outfielder who is now manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks -- would be the next Mickey Mantle.

"Sparky would go to great lengths to make sure I understood what it meant to be a big leaguer," Gibson once said, "and how to appraoch the game on a daily basis. His words were that if I didn't do it, 'I'll send you home crying to momma.'"

Sparky is the only member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who was born in South Dakota, a state he left when he was 9. He was later named to the South Dakota Hall of Fame, and with typical hyperbole he said that was a greater honor than being in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2000, he said:
"You look around, you say to yourself, 'My goodness ... how could a young man from Bridgewater, South Dakota, 600 people, and couldn't play ever be in front of a microphone, and they're talking about third-winningest manager?"

Upon returning to his South Dakota hometown, he said, "When I went back there, I still knew where things were -- but they weren't there no more."

Sparky grew up poor -- his father was a house painter with a third-grade education -- and never took on the airs of someone who thought of himself as "big league." He made his players learn the name of their bus driver so they would address him by his proper name instead of the standard "Bussy."

"If you know where you come from," Sparky said, "you'll always now where you're going."

By Matt Schudel  | November 5, 2010; 11:58 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

How old do I feel today?

As a young boy and burgeoning baseball player and fan growing up in Southern Indiana, I idolized The Big Red Machine. Of course, all Big Red machine fans loved Rose, Bench, Perez, Morgan and Concepcion(Where's his HOF plaque, by the way?)but we also knew who the glue of that team was, and it was Sparky. When the Red's fired him , I cried because I knew it was all over for the Big Red Machine, and my grief turned to anger toward the Red's mgmnt.

I recall the great glee I felt when I saw Sparky's bit on WKRP, which I perceived through my young eyes as a backhand to the Red's organization and their GM Dick Wagner. The real backhand to the Red's organization came a few years later when he lead the Tigers to the Series title. For one year I gave up my then semi-reluctant love for the Reds and became a closet Tigers fan. After that 1984 World Series, Tigers fans became aware, as Red's fans allready knew, who the glue of their team was.

RIP Mr. Anderson, and thanks for helping spark a lifetime love for the greatest game ever played.

Posted by: rcupps | November 5, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

How old do I feel today?

As a young boy and burgeoning baseball player and fan growing up in Southern Indiana, I idolized The Big Red Machine. Of course, all Big Red machine fans loved Rose, Bench, Perez, Morgan and Concepcion(Where's his HOF plaque, by the way?)but we also knew who the glue of that team was, and it was Sparky. When the Red's fired him , I cried because I knew it was all over for the Big Red Machine, and my grief turned to anger toward the Red's mgmnt.

I recall the great glee I felt when I saw Sparky's bit on WKRP, which I perceived through my young eyes as a backhand to the Red's organization and their GM Dick Wagner. The real backhand to the Red's organization came a few years later when he lead the Tigers to the Series title. For one year I gave up my then semi-reluctant love for the Reds and became a closet Tigers fan. After that 1984 World Series, Tigers fans became aware, as Red's fans allready knew, who the glue of their team was.

RIP Mr. Anderson, and thanks for helping spark a lifetime love for the greatest game ever played.

Posted by: rcupps | November 5, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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