Sparky Anderson, Hall of Fame manager of Reds and Tigers, dies at 76

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:04 PM

Sparky Anderson, 76, one of baseball's greatest managers, who led the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine" dynasty of the 1970s to two World Series championships and won a third in 1984 with the Detroit Tigers, died Nov. 4 at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He had dementia.

Mr. Anderson, the first manager to win the World Series in both the National and American leagues, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of eligibility. When he retired from baseball in 1995, his 2,194 victories were the third most in history, behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw.

With his prematurely white hair and craggy face, Mr. Anderson had the classic look of a wise old baseball manager even when he was in his 30s. He often comically butchered the language when talking about his teams, but few managers were more astute in their understanding of the game between the lines - and between the ears.

Rather than impose a certain style of play, he managed according to the strengths of his players. In Cincinnati, where his Reds won four National League pennants and two World Series championships in the 1970s, Mr. Anderson had a hard-hitting team led by Pete Rose and Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.

When Mr. Anderson managed in Detroit, his team was built more around pitching and finesse. His 1984 Tigers started the season at 35-5, won 104 games and beat the San Diego Padres in five games in the World Series.

Even after he was elected to the Hall of Fame, Mr. Anderson played down his own importance as a manager, preferring to praise his players.

"A baseball manager is a necessary evil," he said in 2005. "Baseball is a simple game. If you have good players and keep them in the right frame of mind, you are a success."

When Mr. Anderson came to Cincinnati in 1970, he was an unknown 35-year-old who had never managed in the major leagues.

"Sparky Who?" one headline read.

But he quickly won the confidence of a young team with eight rookies and predicted that the Reds would win their division by 10 games. He was wrong - they won by 14½ games.

After losing the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in 1970 and to the Oakland A's in 1972, the Big Red Machine hit its peak in 1975, winning 108 games.

In a dramatic World Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Reds lost the sixth game in 12 innings when Carlton Fisk hit one of the most storied home runs in baseball history. The next night, however, Mr. Anderson's Reds came back to defeat the Red Sox, 4-3, when Morgan drove in the winning run in the ninth inning.

A year later, the Reds plowed through the New York Yankees in four games to claim their second World Series under Mr. Anderson.

Besides solid hitting and fielding, Mr. Anderson's teams were known for their stellar bullpens. He helped lead a change in the way baseball is played by bringing in the fresh arms of relief pitchers when his starters began to falter.

The practice was not popular among starting pitchers, but he didn't mind.

"My mother, I love her," Mr. Anderson said. "But she don't pitch for me."

He became known as "Captain Hook" for his quick decisions to remove a pitcher from the game without any small talk.

Mr. Anderson could be a stern disciplinarian, particularly when he enforced Cincinnati's austere dress code and no-facial-hair policy of the 1970s. In Detroit, he was appalled when his players went on the road wearing jeans and running shoes.

"This is Sunday," he told his players. "On Tuesday, I better see everybody in slacks, shirt and jacket."

When one player complained that he didn't own a jacket, Mr. Anderson replied, "You do now."

Mr. Anderson said that "a good manager is never liked," but over time, fans and players came to have a deep admiration for him.

"With Sparky, it was never just about baseball," his star shortstop with the Tigers, Alan Trammell, said in 2000. "He helped make us better people, as well as players. He was another father figure."

George Lee Anderson was born Feb. 22, 1934, in Bridgewater, S.D., and moved to Los Angeles when he was 9. His father was a house painter and postal worker.

The young Mr. Anderson became a batboy for the baseball team at the University of Southern California and joined the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor-league system as an infielder at 19. Two years later, he acquired his nickname Sparky for his fiery arguments with umpires.

He played one season in the major leagues, as a light-hitting second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959, before returning to the minors. He began managing in 1964 and coached for the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969 before being named the Reds' manager in 1970.

After getting in a scuffle with a minor-league umpire, Mr. Anderson became known for his distinctive way of walking on the field with his hands in his back pockets. He was also careful never to step on the foul line as he walked on and off the field.

Survivors include his wife, Carol Valle Anderson; three children; and nine grandchildren.

In Cincinnati, Mr. Anderson was fired in 1978 after two consecutive second-place finishes. A year later, after he had become the manager of the Tigers, he appeared on the TV comedy "WKRP in Cincinnati" as the host of a sports call-in show.

When he lost his fictional job, Mr. Anderson quipped, "Every time I come to this town, I get fired."

At his Hall of Fame induction, Mr. Anderson received a standing ovation but quieted the crowd by putting his reception in perspective.

"Please sit down," he said. "At ballparks, when they stand up, they're getting ready to boo. So just set it on down."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company