I interviewed Sparky Anderson in the Detroit Tigers dugout in 1986 before a game. Our conversation centered on his eight year managerial career with the Reds instead of the Tigers. Dan Ewald, then the PR Director for the Tigers set it up.
Sparky and I talked for 25 minutes about all sorts of things. There was a lot to cover. Sparky was relaxed and laughing. He talked about his barber in Cincinnati. He reflected how he liked to get to Riverfront Stadium early and sit in his office in his T-Shirt and underwear and talk to his coaches about that night’s game. He talked about “Young Don Gullett “ and “David Concepcion”. And he went on and on and on about Johnny Bench and shook his head in amazement about what a great catcher his was.
Tiger players walked by us while we spoke. Alan Trammel, Jack Morris, to name a couple. But Sparky was talking about his past and he loved talking about his time with the Cincinnati Reds, both the good and the bad.
“I’ll tell you what,” Sparky said to me, “whenever I’m in Los Angeles and I’m with somebody and we go by the Marriott Hotel, I point to that building and say ‘hey, that’s where I got fired.’
“It happens to all of us at some time or another,” said Sparky.
What an eight year span that was for the Cincinnati Reds when they were managed by George Lee Anderson.
Two World Championships. Four National League pennants. Six Western Division titles. All of that in just eight years. Think about that for a minute.
Were we spoiled back then or not?
When Reds GM Bob Howsam hired Sparky after the 1969 season, headlines in Cincinnati newspapers were “Sparky Who?”
Howsam knew who Sparky Anderson was. He was certain of that. Anderson coached for him in the minor leagues. Howsam knew Anderson was a fiery, spirited manager coming off a failed major league career as a player where he was a good field/no hit infielder for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Anderson’s name came up in a roundtable discussion of Reds management after the 1969 season had concluded. Howsam had fired Dave Bristol. Names were brought up. Leo Durocher and Dick Williams were a couple. Nothing inspired Howsam.
“Has anyone,” said Reds PR Director Tom Seeburg, “thought about Georgie Anderson?”
Howsam smiled. The deal was made. Anderson had just been named third base coach for Lefty Phillips’ California Angels. Howsam called for an interview. At the end, Howsam asked what Sparky wanted for a salary.
“I took a deep breath,” said Anderson, “and I asked for $35,000.”
He didn’t get that much. Too much for a first-year manager, said Howsam. But Sparky Anderson was named manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
Very early in 1970, Sparky Anderson made some cold, calculated decisions about his Reds: (1) He named Pete Rose as a captain; (2) he brought Don Gullett and Wayne Simpson north from Tampa out of spring training; one was a 19-year old rookie, the other a mediocre Triple A pitcher; (3) he brought a lanky, raw shortstop named Dave Concepcion north as well; (4) he named Jim Merritt Opening Day starter despite Merritt’s falling off a roof during the winter and breaking an arm; and (5) he platooned Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae in left field.
The Reds started off on a mission, winning 70 wins of their first 100 games. Merritt won Opening Day by a 5-1 score over Montreal. Carbo and McRae were solid. Simpson was 14-1 and the best pitcher in baseball before getting hurt. Gullett was dynamite out of the bullpen. Concepcion was brilliant at times but inconsistent. Anderson kept him on the team.
Sparky was refreshing in interviews. He praised his players. He believed in them. But he had lots of rules.
“I was told before going to the Reds to get a haircut and report to Sparky when I got in Cincinnati,” said Reds hurler Pat Darcy, who was called up in the 1975 season. “I did what I was told and got a haircut. So I go into Sparky’s office and he tells me the rules and what he expected of me. He’s calling me ‘Patrick.’ If he pulls me out of the game, just to hand the ball to him and walk to the dugout. He’s finished and I get up to leave and he says, ‘Patrick, go get a haircut.’”
Sparky believed in the Reds to a fault. After the Reds swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970 NL playoffs, he brazenly said, “Bring on the big, bad Birds!” referring to the Baltimore Orioles, not worrying about his patched-up, banged up pitching staff.
Not that Sparky Anderson didn’t make mistakes or bad calls. He certainly did. Anderson admitted he blew the Bobby Tolan drama in 1973 that led to Tolan’s trade (some would say exile) to San Diego. He admitted he blew Game 4 of the 1972 World Series at Oakland by trusting Dave Concepcion’s judgment instead of Ray Shore’s scouting report when pinch hitter Gonzalo Marquez started a 9th inning, two-run rally with a base hit where Concepcion should have been playing; Shore said the infield should be shaded towards where Marquez would pull the ball. Sparky admitted he prodded Bob Howsam into trading Ross Grimsley because the Reds lefty was a rebel in the making and believed in black magic.
And Sparky pleaded guilty to sticking with Rawly Eastwick too long in Game 6. He initially was going to bring in left-handed reliever Will McEnaney to face Bernie Carbo. But instead, Sparky left Eastwick in and Carbo hit a game-tying three-run homer.
“I had one foot out of the dugout,” Sparky said, ‘but then I changed my mind.”
Sparky never took much heat in Cincy from either the press or the fans. Those were the days before social media, before every single lineup was scrutinized and criticized and before 24/7 sports coverage. The most criticism he took (as I recall) was his choice of starting Gary Nolan in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series instead of Don Gullett.
Others said he played favorites: the Great Eight were treated better than the rest of the team; Reds starting pitchers weren’t enamored with him because of his nickname ‘Captain Hook’ and his tendencies to pull pitchers when they started to struggle.
He put out a mini-revolt by two utility players in September 1972 when Joe Hague and Ted Uhlander refused to get haircuts. Sparky sent bench coach George Scherger to tell them to get it cut and they dismissed Scherger, calling him an “errand boy.” Anderson called them into the office, said they knew the rules and if they didn’t get a haircut they wouldn’t dress for the NL playoffs against Pittsburgh. That ended that.
But Sparky Anderson made correct important decisions, too. He stuck with Dave Concepcion when many felt that the Reds shortstop would never hit. Same with Cesar Geronimo. Before the 1972 NL playoffs against Pittsburgh, Sparky swore by his centerfielder, saying “I”ll make a man out of Geronimo in this series.” Geronimo is in the Reds Hall of Fame. Concepcion should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sparky’s the one who moved Rose to third base to cement the Big Red Machine and get George Foster in the lineup. Sparky told the clubhouse manager to assign Joe Morgan a locker next to Rose after the Reds acquired Morgan in a trade, knowing Rose’s attitude and leadership would rub off on Morgan.
When Don Gullett was injured with a broken thumb in June 1975, Anderson had lost his best starter. He didn’t sulk or blame bad luck. He went to the bullpen even more. He had Eastwick, McEnaney, Clay Carroll and rubber-armed Pedro Borbon. The Reds went on a tear without Don Gullett and eventually won 108 games.
The Reds went more than 50 games without a complete game pitched that season — unprecedented for those times when a manager had just 10 pitchers instead of 12 or 13. Pat Darcy finally broke the streak. But just before he did, Darcy and the Reds were beating the Cubs but the Reds right-hander was struggling in the 6th inning when the Reds held a 6-3 lead. Sparky walked to the mound and when he walked, the pitcher knew he was gone. Reds pitchers were told not to say a word, just to put the ball the ball in Sparky’s hand “like an egg.”
“I’d been up a few weeks and was getting confident but I knew the rules and knew when he took me out I wasn’t supposed to say anything,” said Darcy. “But I felt good. So Sparky comes to the mound and all I said was, ‘I still feel good Sparky.’”
Sparky’s reply? “You’ll feel better in the shower.”
And after Darcy gave up the Carlton Fisk home run in Game 6 in a marathon battle that captivated the nation, the photo that ran across America’s newspapers the next day was of Sparky and Darcy embracing and smiling leaving their Boston hotel going to Game 7.
“He told me,” said Darcy, “not to worry about anything. That the team might need me that night.”
Dick Wagner fired Anderson after the 1978 season. Wagner had followed Howsam as the Reds GM and he wanted his own manager. To say that Dick Wagner was unpopular in Reds Country was an understatement after he fired Sparky and let Pete Rose go in free agency.
Talk about the best Reds managers in their 150 years and the consensus is Sparky, without a doubt, is in the Top 5. He has the most wins ever by a Reds manager (863) and his winning percentage was .596. Some would say the best ever was Fred Hutchinson. Pat Moran is highly rated, as is Bill McKechnie.
There’s not much debate with me. Sparky Anderson would be the best in my book, for what it’s worth. His 8-year tour of duty with the Reds was simply the best in their history. Yes, he had talented players. Yes, those were different times.
He was kind, decent and humble. He never forgot where he came from. He loved baseball and most of all, the Cincinnati Reds.
We wrapped up the interview at Tiger Stadium. I thanked Sparky Anderson for his time and courtesy. I meant it and always say that to any coach, manager or athlete I interview, regardless, or if it’s a high school kid or a professional athlete.
Sparky cocked his head and looked at me.
“John,” Sparky said, “it don’t cost a dime to be nice to someone. Not a dime.”
Years later I went to Cincinnati when the Reds were going to retire Sparky’s number. My wife and I spent the night before that game at the Netherland Hilton in downtown Cincinnati. Theresa and I waited for our elevator and it opened up and low and behold, there was Sparky and his wife, Carol. I’m sure he didn’t remember me– how could he? Our interview was years earlier. He smiled at me. I congratulated him on his number being retired and said that’s why we were in Cincinnati.
“Thank you,” Sparky replied. “That’s very nice of you.”
We shook hands. As he left, I heard Sparky say to his wife, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what he said?”
I said to my wife, “Can you believe it? Can you believe we saw Sparky Anderson the night before the Reds retire his number?”
Sparky and I were both excited. Theresa and Carol probably thought it was no big deal.
But it was to us. It was about baseball and the Cincinnati Reds.
The firing of Sparky along with trading Tony Perez and allowing Pete Rose to leave were all blunders that this franchise has never fully recovered from. The Reds were the best franchise in baseball top to bottom but in just a few short years they became one of the worst. In the forty years that have passed they have won only one WS and been to the playoffs just a handful of times. It all started with dismantling the BRM far too early including firing Sparky.
“So Sparky comes to the mound and all I said was, ‘I still feel good Sparky.’”
Sparky’s reply? “You’ll feel better in the shower.”
I hated to see him go and I decided I needed an AL team to root for too, and picked the Tigers because of him.
If this article was in Variety it would be labled BOFFO great again John
Nine-year tour of duty with the Reds, not eight; 1970 through 1978.
He was with the Tigers for 17 years, which doesn’t seem right to a Reds fan.
Thanks for the correction Ed. And you’re spot on about 17 years in the Motor City.
Thank you for this. Thoroughly enjoyed this read
“It don’t cost a dime to be nice to someone. Not a dime.” GREAT quote!
Firing him was pure stupidity.
Five Western Division titles not six. 1970, 72, 73, 75, 76. Number six in the 70s, 1979 belonged to John McNamara.
Correct MK– that was McNamara’s Band.
Really nice article, John.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard he was fired. I couldn’t believe it and I was only 11 years old Dick Wagner s name will always be mud in this town
Rojo, you’re welcome. Sparky will always have a special place in the Nation. Always.
I first become a fan as a boy living in Iowa listening to WLW. I will always remember Sparky’s tenure as the best season for the Reds. I now live in Ohio and what a dream come come true for me to move here and live in the Reds Nation. Thank you for the article.
Thanks, John. This brought tears to my eyes.
Great stuff John. I love these pieces here at RLN.