“Of course. We all have to lead more than one life.”
— Robert Frost, A Visit With Robert Frost
* * *
He was, like many men, two men. The big difference is that in addition to being two men he also had two names. He was George Anderson, Georgie to friends who liked gardening, watching the news on television and sleeping in the sun. George was the son of a hard-edged housepainter in inner city Los Angeles. George dreamed about baseball, but he sold cars and not especially well. He was a soft touch. He never could sell cars to people who he knew could not afford it. His boss. Milt Blish used to funnel a few dollars his way, just to keep him afloat.
Yes, he was George Anderson, the kind of man who could not send back a steak because he did not want to be a bother, the kind of man who would read the Bible sometimes as he tried to make sense of the world around him, the kind of man who would not write notes, not ever, because he felt embarrassed by his spelling and a little bit empty because he didn’t learn much in school. “I only had a high school education,” George used to say, “And believe me, I had to cheat to get that.”
No. Wait. It wasn’t George Anderson who said that. No … that’s Sparky.
Yes, that was Sparky Anderson — baseball manager, entertainer, leader, conservative, comedian, psychologist, enemy of pitchers, teller of tall-tales, botcher of the Queen’s English, defender of the game … no one description could possible contain all the energy and force and contradictions of Sparky Anderson, though a ballplayer name Lee May tried to sum up on a bus in 1970.
“You,” May said, “are a minor-league mother——.” Everyone on the bus howled. Anderson set his jaw. And he coaxed and threatened and inspired that very team to the World Series.
A radio man nicknamed George Anderson “Sparky” way back in early 1950s, in the minor leagues, back when George was doing what he always did — screaming at an umpire and getting himself tossed out of the game. The radio man said: “Look at the sparks fly! That’s one sparky fella!” George was out of control then — all spark and no plug. He only wanted to be a ballplayer, and he had no idea what would happen to him if he did not become a ballplayer. When he was growing up in California, he joined a local team just so he could steal equipment for the boys to use in the neighborhood games. He could not imagine his life without baseball, and the hard truth was so painful he could barely consider it: He wasn’t good enough at player baseball. He could field but he could not hit. And so, George Anderson became Sparky. And he raged.
Over time, though, Sparky became something more than spit and fury. Well, first he got himself booted out of the game. He was not entirely a a minor leaguer — he played a full year for Philadelphia. He never once hit a ball that hit the wall (“Not even on a roll,” he would say). He went back to the minor leagues, but nobody had much need for a no-hit second baseman who had no control over his temper. That’s when Sparky became George again, went home, sold cars for Milt Blish. He didn’t expect to get another chance in baseball. But he knew how he would change if he did get another chance, knew just how he could adjust the volume on Sparky, make him more likable, less crazy, more of a storyteller, less of a tyrant, more of a leader of men. Sparky would not lose his edge — he could not lose his edge — but he would bring the best out of talented young men. He could do that!
Sparky Anderson got another chance. He made the kids winners in minor league towns like St. Petersburg, Fla., and Modesto, Calif., and Asheville, N.C. The kids feared him and they liked him too. Not that it mattered. “A player doesn’t have to like the manger,” Sparky would say, “and a player doesn’t have to respect the manager. All the player has to do is obey the manager.” He became a coach in San Diego. He got offered a coaching job with the California Angels. The day he took that job, he was called to be manager of the Cincinnati Reds for the 1970 season. “Sparky Who?” it said in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
He was the youngest manager in baseball — he turned 36 during his first spring training. And, already, his hair was shock white. He carried a can of black hair dye with him on those first few road trips before he came to realize that it didn’t much matter, he wasn’t really fooling anybody. The hair, like the optimism, like the exaggerations, like the malapropisms, like the inconsiderate pulling of pitchers (they called him Captain Hook), like the winning would all become a part of Sparky Anderson persona. In 1972, Johnny Bench began calling Sparky’s overbearing spring training schedule “Stalag 13.”
“But we still like Sparky,” Bench said.
“Why?” a reporter asked.
“Because … we just do,” Bench said.
Some played for his approval. Some played to spite him. Some played to live up to the ludicrous expectations he had placed on them.* Some played to prove him wrong. Before spring training in 1975, he gathered his team together and told them that there were four stars on the team — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez — and the rest of them were turds. That was the word he used. Turds. The stars played like stars. The others had T-shirts made with “Turds” on the front and, most of them, they also played like stars. And the Reds won 108 games and probably the greatest World Series ever played.
1. “Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame.”
2. “Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle.”
3. “Chris Pittaro is going to be a great ballplayer, and that’s etched in cement.”
4. “Barbaro Garbey is another Roberto Clemente.”
5. “Mike Laga will make you forget ever power hitter that ever lived.”
6. “We’ve got some great hitters in Cincinnati, and Dan Driessen might be the best of them all.”
Sparky had his baseball ideas, of course. He didn’t care much for the bunt. He preferred speed to power, though he liked having players who could provide both. He believed as a young man that pitchers were disposable, that if they weren’t getting outs then it was his job as manager to find someone would would. In 1975, he went 45 straight games without allowing a pitcher to complete a game, a record in those days — the nightly hooks were so shocking that people in CIncinnati booed Sparky even though the Reds were leading the division by 10 games. “If you want to stay in the game, it’s like dance steps boys,” Sparky would say. “You need to play the song in your head like a waltz — one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. Play it like that, and I’ll just sit right here in the dugout and enjoy it. But you start going one-two-three … four … five … well, we’ll see you later.”
Funny thing: As an older manager, Sparky’s Detroit Tigers led the league in complete games once and were among the leaders several other times. His explanation wasn’t that he had changed philosophies. His explanation was that his starting pitchers were better.
“I always believed Sparky hated pitchers,” his pitcher Gary Nolan said, repeating the theory often proposed by Anderson’s pitchers, “because he couldn’t hit them.”
Yes, Sparky had his baseball ideas. He had his life ideas too — he believed ballplayers should have short hair and shiny shoes and they should wear jackets and ties when away from the ballpark. The hardest defeat he suffered — he would tell friends — was when the Reds lost to the 1972 Oakland A’s. It wasn’t because the A’s weren’t great — they would go on to win three straight World Series teams. It was because the A’s wore their hair long. He could not believe his Reds — HIS REDS — lost to a team of hippies.
Most of all, Sparky Anderson success built out of the bond he created with his players. He became famous for some of his quirky sayings like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You don’t invent winning” and “I got my faults but living in the past is not one of them … there’s no future in it.” But so much of what made Sparky Anderson a successful manager was unspoken.
“I don’t know why we did the things we did for Sparky,” Pete Rose said. “But we all did. All of us. Johnny. Joe. Me. All of us.” In 1975, middle of the year, Sparky Anderson asked Pete Rose to move from the outfield to third base, a position he had not played in 10 years (and had hated when he did play there briefly). And Pete Rose moved. “We wanted to win for Sparky,” Rose said. “He just had this way about him.”
Over a lifetime of baseball, Sparky Anderson won three World Series championships — two in the National League, one in the American. He managed three of the best teams of the last half century — the 1984 Tigers and the 1975 and ’76 Reds. He coaxed the best out of men as different (and as similar) as Pete Rose and Lou Whitaker, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, Don Gullett and Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and George Foster, Rawly Eastwick and Willie Hernandez. And he did it with arrogance and modesty blended together in a way that was quite unlike any other manager. “The players make the manager,” he often said. “It’s never the other way.”
He retired in 1995, and though it seemed like he had been managing forever (he did manage 26 consecutive years), he was only 61 years old. In 2010, there were eight big league managers who were 61 or older. But Sparky Anderson had enough. He’d gone through that ridiculous strike, he’d refused to manage replacement players, he didn’t need that stuff anymore. He did some broadcasting. He’d show up now and again to speak somewhere or throw out a pitch or be with his former players at a reunion of some kind. Sometimes, he would go to Reds reunions, and he would talk about how great the players were — Rose and Bench and Morgan and the like — and former Reds pitcher Jack Billingham would be in the stands and he would shout out: “Hey Sparky, amazing how you won all those games without any pitchers on your team at all.” And they’d laugh.
Mostly, though, he went back home to Thousand Oaks, Calif., and he became George Anderson again. In the last couple of years, there were whispers about his health — often with those dreaded five words that wait at the end: “Good days and bad days.” He would show up in public every now and again, looking ever more frail. Anderson died on Thursday from complications of dementia. He was 76 years old. He spent the last months of his life with family. It was a sad ending, but it was a happy life. As Sparky Anderson often said: “I can’t believe they pay us to play baseball — something we did for free as kids.”
Over the last couple of years, in writing my book The Machine about the 1975 Reds, I talked with many players and coaches about Sparky Anderson. They all had funny stories about him. And they had different feelings about him. Some — like Rose — loved Sparky still. Others would not call their feelings for Anderson “love” or anything close. But all of them, to a man, understood that Sparky Anderson had been the driving force behind their success — as father figure, as needler, as big brother, as minor-league mother—— — and also a driving force in their lives. As one player said: “I couldn’t stand that son-of-a-bitch, but I never played better than I did for him.”
At one point during the research, I tried to reach Anderson. I suppose this was when his health had started to fade, though I had not heard anything about that yet. I had sent him a letter, I had been in contact with some of his friends, but I had been unable to reach him. It was odd: I had spoken with Sparky Anderson many times through the years, and he had always been available and helpful and joyous, and it was strange to not be able to reach him. Finally a friend gave me a telephone number — a number that looked suspiciously like the one I had called to no answer. I called, and this time a woman answered the phone.
“Hello,” I said. “I was hoping to reach Sparky Anderson.”
There was a pause on the other end. I understand that pause now. Then I heard her say — sadly, I thought — “There’s no one here by that name.” And she hung up the phone.