The sign on Sparky Anderson's office wall always read: "Cruel World."

To some, those words seemed almost cynically ironic, since Anderson had one of baseball's plushest jobs as manager of the automatic pilot Cincinnati Reds.

Who was Old Sparky kidding? In his closests were 100 suits of clothes, complete with shoes. The dapper, fanatically fit, snowy-haired Anderson was the best-dressed, best tanned and perhaps best-liked skipper in baseball.

Yet Anderson's sign was apt. He never totally forgot that cruel world, though he had glimpsed it only once, and then just for a few months. But it marked him, and helped make him one of the most unusual and estimable men in his sport.

Had he been an ordinary fellow, Anderson would have spent yesterday mad at the Reds, mad at the world, feeling sorry for himself.

He - the man with the second-best managing record (596) of the 20th Century - had been summarily fired without warning and without explanation.

Instead, Anderson spent the day on the telephone - answering calls from every newshound, personal friend, well-wisher, crackpot or just-plain Joe Blow who had left a message. Anderson's California home phone number, you see, always has been in the phone book.

"I been on the phone for goin' on 36 hours," said the hoarse Anderson," ever since Joe Morgan called me crying at 6:20 a.m. yesterday morning. I've just been trying to make everybody feel better. Get 'em to stop worryin.'"

That is the essential Sparky - worrying about others; doing his duty, then going beyond; mixing a salty ungrammatical snap-your-head-back candor with an old-fashioned preacher's message of simple decency.

"I know I'm a good person," said Anderson matter of factly. "Iknow people say, 'What a nice guy that Sparky is.'"

"work for it. I want people to sense what's worthwhile in me, and I think they do."

However, Anderson could not think about his current crisis - which is no real crisis at all, without thinking back on the other time he was fired.

"My life has a clear line of demarcation," said Anderson yesterday. "The last time I was fired - 14 years ago - it changed my life."

In 1964 when Anderson was 30, he was washed up, his playing career a fizzle, and his one-year tryout as a manager a fiasco of Sparky temper tantrums.

"I was the orneriest, cookiest, meanest guy imaginable," he said, "and maybe the scaredest.

"It was me against life . . . what an overmatch. I felt like a walking nervous breakdown. I was out of work for months (with a wife and three young children). I canceled two insurance policies to stay afloat.

"That fear of being on the outside, of being a grown man who was totally unwanted, was the strongest thing I ever felt.

"I vowed that I had to change. I had tried to play and manage in the middle of fear, either feeling it myself, or trying to dish it out to other people.

"I swore that no matter what happened, no one around me was ever going to feel that kind of fear again."

Few baseball men, often coddled from the signing of their first bonus contract, have experienced a case of the philosophical heebie-jeebies - "looking into the abyss," the novelists call it.

Anderson, if he never looked down, got pretty close to the edge. It made him more interesting as a dugout moralist than as a manager.

"I'm no angel. I've made plenty of mistakes even with my own family . . . I cut my own son off from me for a whole year over a little thing like long hair. I was ashamed of myself. I was being the child. He was being the man.

"I'm not one of the gifted people. I know it. But I'll never tell you a lie if you ask me a direct question. If I can't tell the truth, I'll just shut up."

The Reds called Anderson "The Preacher," because of his strict discipline on and off the field, his tendency to see every win or loss as a reflection of character or lack of it.

"I always told Johnny Bench that nobody can take your 'class' away from you. That's something that a person can only lose by giving it away," said Anderson.

In the end, Anderson's honesty, his admonitions and his strictness may have precipitated his firing.

"With the years, Sparky's fuse got a little shorter," said one baseball general manager. "His problem wasn't too little discipline, but too much. I don't know how much he was willing to bend with the times."

"How can I fine a player who's making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?" asked Anderson two years ago. "They just laugh at me."

As the Reds lost some of their close-orderdrill snap, Anderson despaired of keeping a tight reign.

"We aren't the old Reds," he said repeatedly this year. "I'd like to think I see signs of the old intensity, but I can't say I do. We're fat and lackadaisical too often.

If Anderson, as Bench said, "seemed to withdraw from everything," it was because he had reached the bottom of his friends, and they already had heard his whole repertoire.

Anderson insists he does not know why he was fired. "I'd like to see 'em make a statement about 'why,'" he said. "If they'd done it after the season when other jobs were open, I'd be in a new town by now. But now every job is full. It looks like I'll be out of the game a whole year before I can find an appropriate spot. And soon all my coaches will be scattered every place. I'll never get 'em back. That's the thing that kills me."

Anderson will endorse only one tentative theory of his firing.

"They know now that they're not going to sign Pete (Rose)," said Anderson. "I've heard it said that the front office has decided it's time for a big shakeup, trade some of the big names. Go with youth.

"The first step would be to fire the old manager and bring in someone like (John) McNamara who has a reputation of being good at rebuilding with young players.

"That's just what I hear, but it could be the right answer. It sure could."

Anderson's many fans need not worry for an instant about him. "In the long run I gotta admits this is prob'ly gonna benefit me in dollars," he said. "I would never at no time have quit the Reds, no matter what. It relieves me of that burden . . . I'll be sittin' in another office before too long, and it'll be one that just suits me, one that I pick. I won't jump for the first thing."

Until Anderson returns to the dugout, baseball, not just the haughty and ungrateful Reds' front office, will be the loser.

In Cincinnati the howling has already started. "Have the Reds gone bananas?" the mayor asked yesterday.

"The only person I ever heard say anything good about (General Manager) Dick Wagner was Sparky Anderson, and look what he gets," said one matronly Cincinnati fan, hanging a Wagner effigy from her front porch. "First Pete, now Sparky. It's time to hang the bum."

Meanwhile, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Anderson looked out his window. "Got four TV crews out there," he said. "What a madhouse. Didn't think they could find North Verde Valley Vista Drive."

Then Anderson paused, fearing that his exphonious address might depress some poorer person living in the cruel world. "Aw," said Anderson, "it ain't as fancy as it sounds."