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Monday, November 08, 2010

So Long, Sparky

Jim Ecker        

The stories say that George “Sparky” Anderson died from complications due to dementia, a tragic and sad ending for one of the greatest managers of all time.


Anderson, 76, was placed in hospice care on Wednesday and died a day later. We don’t know the details of Sparky’s final days, but a person with severe dementia has problems with memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior. He may not recognize family matters or be able to perform basic activities such as eating, dressing and bathing.


That’s not a description we want to associate with Sparky Anderson, who was a wonderful human being and a joy to behold in a baseball uniform. He was smart, funny, a great story teller, beloved by his players, respected throughout the game, a winner everywhere he went.


He was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues, capturing two crowns with the Cincinnati Reds and one with the Detroit Tigers, but here’s something you might not know: He won four straight minor league pennants with four different teams before most people knew who he was.


He won a pennant with the Rock Hill Cardinals of the Western Carolina League in 1965, the St. Petersburg Cardinals of the Florida State League in 1966, the Modesto Reds of the California League in 1967 and the Asheville Tourists of the Southern League in 1968. Two years later he won 102 games with the 1970 Cincinnati Reds, although the Reds lost the World Series that year to Baltimore, but the “Big Red Machine” was born.


The Reds won 108 games in 1975 and beat Boston in the World Series, then won 102 games in 1976 and swept the Yankees in the Series. Anderson fell out of favor in Cincinnati and was fired after the 1978 campaign, but he quickly hooked on with Detroit and led the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title with 104 wins, including a 35-5 start.


Anderson made baseball fun. He was a “good quote,” as they say in the newspaper business, never afraid to express an opinion. He became known in Cincinnati as “Captain Hook,” because he often removed his starting pitchers at the first sign of trouble, but nobody complained when he won those two Series rings.


If you followed baseball in the 1970s, you know about the “Big Red Machine” with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, George Foster, Davey Concepcion, Ken Griffey Sr. and the gang. And George “Sparky” Anderson.


Anderson was born on Feb. 22, 1934 and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers after graduating from high school in 1953. He was not a highly educated man, but he was smart – street smart. He knew the game, and he knew his players. Eleven of his former players and coaches became big-league managers themselves, a testament to his teaching ability.


Anderson spent most of his playing career in the minor leagues, except for one full season in the majors with the Phillies in 1959. He hit .218 in 152 games and was shipped back to the minors, where he spent the rest of his playing days.


He won’t be remembered as a player, but he’ll certainly be remembered as one of the best managers of all time. They inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 2000, sporting an overall record of 2,194 wins and 1,834 losses, a winning ratio of 54.5 percent.


He’ll be greatly missed.

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