Published July 13, 2019
Les Moss probably deserved a better fate. Yet he found himself in the right place at the wrong time.
It happened 40 years ago last month.
The retrospective in recent days over the 40th anniversary of the notorious Disco Demolition Night promotion involving the Tigers and the Chicago White Sox on July 12, 1979 got me to thinking about Sparky Anderson, who at the time was just one month into what would be a 17-year run as Bengals skipper. Which got me to thinking about Les Moss. That’s how my brain works.
Moss’ crime was that he wasn’t Sparky Anderson. That pretty much sums it up.
For the young folks, Moss was the Tigers manager when he was summarily dismissed by GM Jim Campbell so the team could hire Sparky, who had been shockingly let go by the Cincinnati Reds the previous November.
It wasn’t all that popular to feel sorry for Moss at the time. It still isn’t an emotion that is necessarily evoked some 40 years later.
Yet there are some baseball folks who were outraged about what the Tigers did to Moss, and the oldtimers who are still around will wrinkle their nose today at the recollection.
An unexpected ziggy
Before we dive too deep into Moss, let’s turn the clock back further, to that November day in 1978.
Sparky’s Big Red Machine was only two years removed from back-to-back World Series titles. Some baseball experts ranked the 1975-76 Reds among the best teams in the history of the game.
What followed were two straight second place finishes behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. No crime in that. The Dodgers won the NL pennant in both of those years.
Yet a month after the 1978 World Series, Sparky was called to a meeting with Reds GM Dick Wagner at a hotel not far from the Cincinnati airport. It was there that Wagner gave Sparky, who could have been the mayor of the town, the ziggy.
The baseball world was stunned, but no more than Sparky himself.
“I never knew this was coming,” Sparky told the press. “I guess maybe I’m not smart enough to figure it out.” Later, Sparky would sarcastically say, “I’ll never make the mistake of finishing in second place again.”
Wagner offered a cryptic reason for the move. Then again, most reasons for why coaches are fired, are cryptic.
“It’s time to make a change,” Wagner said. “The past two seasons have been good ones for most clubs, but we are determined to meet a higher standard . . . the situation today calls for a new approach.”
Sparky to the Cubs? Not so fast
Fast forward to June 1979. If you’re looking for someone to blame for what happened to Les Moss, maybe start with Don Drysdale and George Kell.
The Tigers were out west playing the Angels. Sparky was spending part of his first summer outside of big league baseball since 1968 doing some part-time TV work for Angels home games. It was convenient, as Anaheim Stadium wasn’t far from Sparky’s home in Thousand Oaks.
Drysdale was broadcasting Angels games at the time. Before one of the tilts against the Tigers, he and Kell, the iconic Tigers announcer, were having a meal in the press box. Drysdale casually mentioned that Sparky was itching to manage again, and that the Cubs were showing interest. The North Siders were aiming to have Sparky take over in 1980.
Kell almost immediately sought out Campbell. “The Cubs are going to hire Sparky for 1980,” Kell told the Tigers GM.
Campbell started to get some ideas.
The unsexy Les Moss
Les Moss was an Oklahoman whose path to becoming a big league manager was one traveled by so many in baseball: He was a backup catcher as a player, forging a 13-year MLB career.
Moss had a stint as the White Sox skipper in 1968, going 12-24 on an interim basis, between Eddie Stanky and Al Lopez. But by 1978, Moss was entrenched as a manager in the Tigers’ minor league system, leading such future stars as Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish et al.
When Ralph Houk retired after the 1978 season, Campbell basically hired Moss—the reigning Minor League Manager of the Year—to replace him without interviewing anyone else. To the press, it made sense. Moss was familiar with the young Tigers at the big league level, and they with him. To the fans, it wasn’t a sexy hire. With the Tigers finishing 86-76 in 1978 and with their stock rising, the fans felt that a bigger “name” manager with years of MLB skippering, would have been a better choice.
But Sparky Anderson wasn’t available when Campbell hired Moss.
Moss’ Tigers got off to a rocky start in 1979. Around Memorial Day, the team was teetering at 16-21. That only fueled the fans’ ire over hiring a “minor league manager.”
But then the Tigers got hot, rattling off 11 wins in their next 16 games.
Jim Campbell’s dilemma
Campbell heard what Kell said about Sparky and the Cubs and began to deliberate. The chance to hire someone of Sparky’s name value and experience (and success) didn’t come along very often. Campbell, correctly, saw the young Tigers as being on the brink of stardom and what better man to pilot such a team than Anderson, who took over the Reds in 1970 just when that club was on the verge of great success.
Campbell called Sparky and floated the idea to him of managing the Tigers instead of the Cubs. Sparky was reluctant, but said that even if he did choose Detroit, it wouldn’t be until 1980.
This is when Les Moss suddenly found himself at the right place at the wrong time—unbeknownst to him.
“I can’t look Les Moss in the eye, knowing that I’m going to fire him at the end of the season,” Campbell told Sparky.
Then, Sparky told Campbell that the Tigers wouldn’t want any part of what his salary demands would be.
“Try me,” Campbell said.
The Tigers flew home from California at 27-26 and feeling good about themselves. They were still in fifth place and eight games behind, but what looked like a highly disappointing season was turning around.
Then a bombshell hit the Motor City.
The Tigers announced that they had fired Moss. And, in his place, would be the white-haired skipper, Sparky Anderson. Just in time for a seven-game homestand.
Rough start in Motown
The fans’ excitement over the idea of a legend like Sparky managing the Tigers far outweighed any sentiment they may have had for Les Moss, who was seen as collateral damage.
Coach Dick Tracewski managed the Tigers for two games, winning them both, while the team waited for Sparky to get his affairs in order.
Sparky bounded into town, talking about catching “lightning in a bottle” with the young Tigers. He raved about the catcher, Parrish, and his double play combo—Trammell and Whitaker. He even mentioned retired Tiger and broadcaster Al Kaline.
“If I can’t figure out how to tap into Al’s knowledge of the game, then shame on me,” Sparky said.
As for Moss, he was the definition of a “good soldier.” He went gently into the night, with nary a word of bitterness. At least he knew that his dismissal wasn’t performance-related. Right place, wrong time.
The Tigers didn’t catch lightning in a bottle after Sparky arrived. The team lost nine of their first 11 games under Anderson. It didn’t portend of a 17-year run.
The right move, sentiment be damned
Many baseball people were aghast at what the Tigers did to Les Moss. As an oldtimer myself, I see their point, but this isn’t Little League. This is professional sports, where sentiment is often brushed aside. It’s big business and often requires big decisions. It’s virtually impossible to make such decisions without someone getting hurt.
It may have been untoward, but as Jim Campbell said, it would have been worse to lead Moss along for the entire season if the intention was to fire him anyhow.
The Tigers did the right thing. Moss was a fine man who deserved the chance that he got to manage the Tigers. And no, his performance didn’t warrant his dismissal. But he wasn’t Sparky Anderson. That wasn’t his fault, and nor was it the Tigers’.
Would the Tigers have had the same success under Moss as they did playing for Sparky? We’ll never know. But Campbell was vindicated. The Tigers won the World Series in 1984 and the AL East in 1987. Sparky ultimately delivered.
As for Moss, he resurfaced as the Houston Astros’ pitching coach, serving in that role from 1982-89, a stint that was highlighted by Mike Scott winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1986.
Jim Campbell wasn’t exactly beloved during his long career in the Tigers’ front office—by the players or the fans. He was, in many ways, the Tigers’ version of the Lions’ Russ Thomas when it came to being miserly and humorless. But I’m not killing him for the Anderson over Moss move. It wasn’t like Les Moss was kicked into the street, homeless.
Forty years ago. My, my.