Former big league umpire Al Clark waged a one-man crusade. It was a losing battle but Clark fought it anyway.
Clark’s secret war? He wasn’t about to call George Anderson by his universally-known nickname.
“I refuse,” Clark once said, “to call a grown man Sparky.”
Maybe Clark should have hung around the legendary baseball manager during the off-season, for it was then when Sparky assumed the persona of plain old George Anderson.
There were two Andersons, the white-haired skipper loved to remind folks.
“During the baseball season I’m Sparky,” he used to say. “But back in Thousand Oaks (California, his home), I’m just George.”
George “Sparky” Anderson, one of the great ambassadors baseball has ever known, is dead. He passed away, at age 76, in Thousand Oaks from complications of dementia, according to a statement released by his family.
I hope God isn’t busy for the next couple of days, because he’s going to get an earful.
I hope the Almighty One is ready to hear about how there was no catcher like Johnny Bench, why pain don’t hurt, the art of the intentional walk, why Kirk Gibson was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle, and how Sparky feared his own hanging.
About that last one…
It was sometime in the summer of 1984, that most magical summer if you’re a Tigers fan, and Sparky was bending the ear of some reporters before a game.
“See that flagpole out there?” Sparky said, nodding to the towering pole in deep center field at Tiger Stadium. The reporters looked at it, then looked back at Sparky, because they knew they were about to hear a gem.
“If we don’t win this thing, these fans here are going to string me up that pole.”
Sparky hated 1984. Or, at the very least, he didn’t enjoy it. It was the summer of 35-5 and wire-to-wire and “Dancin’ in the Streets” and “Bless You Boys,” yet Sparky’s stomach was in knots all season.
One thought and one thought only kept running through his restless mind.
What if we lose this?
The Tigers’ lead that year in the AL East rarely dipped below seven games from June on, but that didn’t soothe Sparky. All he could think of was what would happen if his team somehow blew it. And there was no Wild Card to fall back on in 1984.
Well, the Tigers didn’t blow it, obviously. They cruised to a 15-game margin of victory for the division, then burned through the playoffs and World Series, losing just one game. Sparky became the first manager in big league history to win a World Series in each league, having already won two with the Cincinnati Reds.
Ahh, but 1987—now THERE was a year.
Sparky’s boys stumbled to an 11-19 start. All-Star catcher Lance Parrish had fled to Philadelphia via free agency. The team looked bad and the future appeared bleak.
In late-May, Sparky went on the Tigers’ pre-game TV show and declared that his 11-19 squad wasn’t all that bad. In fact, he said, wearing a headset and looking straight into the camera, the Tigers just might surprise us all in the end.
That’s Sparky for you, we all said. The same man who called Gibby Mantle and who said Chris Pittaro was so good, Lou Whitaker would have to cede second base and play third.
In early-June, the Tigers signed a former batting champ off the scrap heap.
Bill Madlock was with the Dodgers and looking old. But the Tigers took him off the Dodgers’ hands anyway.
Madlock joined the Tigers and before long, Sparky’s words turned out to be prophetic.
The Tigers went 87-45 over their last 132 games and won the division on the last day of the season—Madlock being a key component to the resurgence.
1987 was, in Sparky’s own words, his most satisfying season of them all. Much more so than 1984, and the ’87 team didn’t even make it out of the ALCS.
“They gave me all they could give,” Sparky said of his players in the wake of the Tigers’ five-game loss to the Minnesota Twins. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Sparky didn’t want to manage the Tigers, at least not at first.
He was still stinging from his firing at the hands of the Reds after the 1978 season, doing TV work for the California Angels at the beginning of the 1979 season.
The Chicago Cubs contacted Sparky’s agent early in the season and a deal was brokered: Sparky would manage the Cubs, starting in 1980. But it was all a family secret and kept hush-hush.
Meanwhile, Tigers TV announcer George Kell was having a pregame meal in the press box in Anaheim in June 1979. He sat down at a table. Sparky soon joined him.
Before long, Sparky let the cat out of the bag about managing the Cubs in 1980.
Kell finished his meal and made a beeline for Tigers GM Jim Campbell.
“Sparky is managing the Cubs next year,” Kell told Campbell.
This intrigued Campbell, who admired Sparky for years, from both close and afar. The Reds used to visit Tiger Stadium every year for an exhibition for charity.
“Are you sure?” Campbell said.
Kell said he had gotten it from Sparky himself.
Kell suggested to Campbell that maybe Sparky could be had; 1980 was still a long ways away. Plus, the Tigers’ young talent was every bit as good, if not better, than what the Cubs possessed.
Campbell placed a call to Sparky. The manager said thanks but no thanks; he had given the Cubs his word. Campbell called back. Sparky again rebuffed the Tigers GM.
Campbell called a third time.
Slightly exasperated, Sparky said he’d look at the Tigers roster. After doing so, he told Campbell he might come, but not until 1980.
Campbell said, “There’s no way I could look Les Moss in the eye all season, knowing I’m firing him after the last game.” Moss was in his first year as Tigers manager.
Finally, Campbell lowered the boom.
“Would you come now?”
Sparky, in his book They Call Me Sparky, said he admired Campbell’s persistence.
“OK,” Sparky told Campbell. “I’ll come now.”
The news of Sparky’s hiring rocked Detroit. The Tigers hadn’t had a manager with Sparky’s star power since Billy Martin (1971-73), and Billy made news for a lot of the wrong reasons.
Campbell gave Sparky a couple days to get his affairs in order, and Anderson debuted at Tiger Stadium in late-June.
The Tigers, playing reasonably well under Moss, promptly went into a 2-9 funk after Sparky took over.
But there was a whole lot more winning than losing for the Tigers under Sparky. In his 17 years as Tigers manager, the team finished with a losing record just five times.
It wasn’t a rose garden without thorns; Sparky weeded out several good players. His doghouse was almost as famous as his propensity to lift starting pitchers—hence his other nickname, Captain Hook.
Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Jason Thompson, Howard Johnson, Glenn Wilson. All good ballplayers, all run out of town by Sparky, who early in his Detroit career said things would be “his way or the highway.”
Pitchers knew the drill when Sparky came out to get them. You were to do nothing other than place the ball in Sparky’s hand, “like an egg,” the manager said. Then you were to walk off the mound without speaking a word.
Even Jack Morris, who had the countenance of a bear awoken early from hibernation, knew better than to violate that rule.
One pitcher who didn’t get lifted was Milt Wilcox, in Chicago in 1983 on the night he retired the first 26 batters, one out away from a perfect game.
The White Sox’s Jerry Hairston, pinch-hitting, broke it up with a solid single.
As the Tigers headed for their clubhouse after the win, Sparky said to some reporters who were hangers on about the near-perfect game, “That’s too bad. I ain’t never managed one of them before.”
George Anderson was Sparky during the baseball season and that meant a gumball machine of quotes and stories. It meant there would be no dull moments from April through September. It meant that even if the team wasn’t in contention, the manager would keep things interesting.
I learned after a few years to take what Sparky said with a canister of salt. Lots of people never got that, though, and their lives were immeasurably more frustrated and annoyed because of it.
With the Tigers, Sparky took a collection of young, impressionable men who thought they knew a lot and was able to, at the same time, both remind them that they knew precious little, as well as turn them into champions. He also made them into men in the process, even if they didn’t know it at the time.
They know it now. Upon the news yesterday that Sparky had been placed into hospice care, one by one his former players spoke of how much he taught them about baseball and about life.
Pain don’t hurt, Sparky once said.
But his death sure does.