Hall of Fame skipper Anderson dies at 76
Won titles with Big Red Machine in '70s, roaring Tigers in '84
The white-haired genius who helped make red the pre-eminent color in the National League in the '70s and directed the American League team that roared loudest in '80s has passed. Sparky Anderson, the chatty Hall of Famer given to outrageous success and outlandish predictions, joined the great majority Thursday, three days after he was admitted to a hospice in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he had spent most of his adult life. Death came at age 76 for a man who had spent 42 years in professional baseball, 30 as a manager, including four in the Minors.
Readily identified throughout the game simply by his nickname, George Lee Anderson was a genuine baseball character whose passion for the game was as conspicuous as his Q-tip image. He enjoyed all parts of his life. As Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench once said, "If you see him and there's no smile on his face, he's probably asleep."
Anderson was the first man to manage a World Series champion in each league. He steered the Big Red Machine to victory against the Red Sox in the wonderful and rain-protracted seven-game Series in 1975 and to a sweep of the Yankees the following October. Eight years later, his Tigers team won 35 of its first 40 games, led the American League East wire to wire and won seven of eight postseason games. The '76 Reds remain the only team in the divisional play era to sweep the postseason.
His family announced Wednesday that he had been placed in hospice care due to complications from dementia. He hadn't been well for some time, but he had remained content, grateful and generous even in the face of severe illness.
Commissioner Bud Selig spoke for a saddened baseball nation Thursday when he said, in a statement, "All of Baseball has lost a dear friend. Sparky was a gentleman, a great baseball man and a superb ambassador for the game ... I recall with great fondness the many hours we would spend together when his Tigers came to Milwaukee. Sparky was a loyal friend, and whenever I would be dealing with difficult situations as Commissioner, he would lift my spirits, telling me to keep my head up and that I was doing the right thing.
"On behalf of our game, I send my deepest condolences to Sparky's wife, Carol, his three children, his nine grandchildren, and to all of his fans in Cincinnati, Detroit and throughout Baseball who were touched by this great man."
Anderson left the game following the 1995 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame -- he is depicted on his plaque wearing a Reds cap -- in the summer of 2000. His 2,194 regular-season victories rank sixth all-time, his .545 winning percentage fifth all-time among those who have managed at least 3,000 games. His Reds won at least 92 games in seven of nine seasons, producing 210 victories in 1975-76. His Tigers teams averaged 91 victories from 1982-88. The '84 team won 104 games before its postseason rampage.
He finished his career with seven division championships, four pennants, a .631 winning percentage in postseason and with this distinction: he was the only man to have the most career victories for two franchises (863 with Cincinnati, 1,331 in Detroit). His career in the dugout was far more successful than his brief run as a player -- one season, 1959, with the last-place Phillies in which he batted .218 with 34 runs batted in and 12 extra-base hits -- no home runs -- in 477 at-bats. One of his doubles came against Sandy Koufax, and it reached the wall. Anderson would offer that information every so often, always neglecting to mention that, in 1959, Koufax wasn't yet Koufax.
Traveling had become a chore for him in recent years. There were many moments when he looked and sounded his age, but flashes of the sharp-eyed manager were evident at times, too. He made it to Dodger Stadium in May when the Tigers were playing an Interleague series there. It was a rare ballpark visit for him. He wanted to make the trip to see two other legendary managers, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre, as well as one of his former players, Tom Brookens. Anderson said he considered Brookens managerial timber.
At one point, he stared out onto a field and later looked into the eyes of a young player, Tigers rookie Austin Jackson. He called Jackson over in the dugout. Jackson might not have known much about the older gentleman, and vice versa, but for a few moments, the two bridged generations as managers and players do.
"There's something about him that makes him bright," Anderson said of Jackson. "Look at that face. Can he play? Oh, he can play."
His final on-field appearance in Detroit was in 2009, during ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of his World Series champion team. Nearly all his players made it back, many of them -- from Kirk Gibson to Alan Trammell to Lance Parrish to Jack Morris to Brookens -- returning to see fans show their appreciation for the former manager.
"It was a journey of a life experience for a lot of us," Morris said. "We came up as young kids out of high school and college who had a dream but didn't know how to put that dream together. Sparky was kind of the bond that knew how to put it together. He taught us how to play the game, how to win. We ultimately did that, and now we get to share the memories."
More recently, Parrish said: "He was always pushing and cracking the whip. He just pushed the right buttons all the time. If there was ever, in my collection of my baseball career, a guy who always seemed to know the buttons to push or things to say, he did it. It's a real tribute to him as a manager, but he seemed to know the personality of everybody on the team and who to delegate what to, when to put the right guy in the right situation. Everything worked out."
For all he did for the Tigers, Anderson felt a debt of gratitude to the Reds and, in particular, former club president Bob Howsam, who hired him to manage in 1970, shortly after Anderson had accepted a job as a coach with the Angels in the offseason. He had five years' experience as a manager, all in the Minor Leagues. Hence, his preference to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Red.
Anderson is a member of the Reds' Hall of Fame, and the No. 10 uniform he wore from 1970-78 has been retired in his honor.
He is beloved in The Queen City. "He never has a harsh word for anyone. He was always gracious to the fans. He's a very special person in how he relates to people and how they relate to him," longtime Reds announcer Marty Brennaman said Wednesday after learning of Anderson's failing condition. "I compare him to Joe Nuxhall, eminently successful people with no ego at all. Their popularity is off the charts because they were so good to people.
"Sparky would look you in the eye, answer all your questions. It was as if you were the most important person in the world to him. Knowing him for 37 years, it was not an act. People could wonder if it wasn't the real George Anderson, but it was. He loves people. He laughs easily and has a great sense of humor. He's just the kind of person that anybody with a semblance of celebrity would aspire to be like."
As a manager, Anderson was "one of the all-time greats," Brennaman said. "I laugh at anyone who says they could have managed those Reds teams. The hell they could.
"There were a lot of egos in that clubhouse. They had to find a way to make it work before they got on the field. There were players like [Pete] Rose, [Johnny] Bench, [Tony] Perez and [Joe] Morgan -- all superstars. They made it work. He could manipulate a pitching staff better than anybody around. The proof is in the pudding. After he left Cincinnati, he won in Detroit."
The way Anderson handled his pitching staff prompted good-natured ridicule. Never one to hesitate summoning his bullpen, he was nicknamed "Captain Hook." Some consider Anderson the innovator of the way bullpens are used today. He cackled about his "hook," once saying he was the polar opposite of the real Captain Hook's antagonist, Peter Pan. "That SOB never got old," Anderson said. "I've never looked young."
Anderson's hair had turned gray by the time he took over the Reds in 1970, but he had it dyed black before he was introduced as their skipper. He was 36. His locks returned to gray before the season ended, then to silver, then white. But he declined to consider himself distinguished-looking. "I'm just an old skipper from South Dakota," he said during one of his many moments with the media during the '75 World Series. Games 5 and 6 were separated by four days of rain. Anderson seldom took a breath. He could fill a notebook while hitting fungoes. And his tales were good and well presented, even though the grammar was flawed.
Anderson was direct when he thought he needed to be.
He insulted Yankees catcher Thurman Munson after the Reds' sweep in 1976. "Don't embarrass someone by comparing him to Johnny Bench," he said. Munson had batted .529 with two RBIs in the four games.
"If I hear Bowie Kuhn say just once more he's doing something for the betterment of baseball, I'm going to throw up." (April, 1988).
"It's a terrible thing to have to tell your fans, who have waited like Detroit's have, that their team won't win it this year. But it's better than lying to them." (July, 1979)
"Problem with [John] Wockenfuss getting on base is that it takes three doubles to score him."
Anderson suffered a nervous breakdown in 1989 when the Tigers floundered. He took a three-week leave of absence, saying he was "completely worn out, completely exhausted."
He and fellow Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, a contemporary, were two of the game's foremost dugout characters in the '70s and beyond. Anderson was known for his hyperbole and less-than-perfect grammar. His wife, Carol, urged him to take grammar classes in the mid-'70s when the Reds were a regular television attraction. "I told her it ain't gonna help me," he once said. "Or should I say, 'It ain't gonna help me none?'"
A double negative was twice as good as a single, right?
His predictions for Kirk Gibson, Don Gullett, Mike Laga and Barbaro Garbey were historic.
"Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle."
"Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame."
"Mike Laga will make you forget about every power hitter that ever lived."
"Barbaro Garbey is another Roberto Clemente."
"People learned not to take me too serious," he once said during Spring Training in the late '80s. "I wanted my players to know I believed in them." But opponents always took Anderson's teams quite seriously. They often were loaded with talent. Morgan and Bench (twice each), Pete Rose, George Foster and Willie Hernandez won Most Valuable Player Awards for teams Anderson managed.
The manager's gift of gab and unwavering support of his players hardly hurt the candidates' chances. Sparky had influence, and his teams' successes enhanced the players' chances as well. "There's nothing like success to bring more success," he said before the '76 World Series.
Ray Shore, the Reds advance scout at the time, had publicly stated he would be surprised if the favored Reds didn't sweep the Yankees. And Anderson didn't back away from that statement. He said, "I can't say I'd be surprised. We're good."
Anderson is survived by his wife, Carol; sons Lee and Albert; daughter Shirley Englebrecht; and nine grandchildren.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.