Sparky Anderson, the white-haired Hall of Fame manager who directed Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine to back-to-back World Series championships and won another one in Detroit, died Thursday. He was 76.
Anderson died from complications from dementia, family spokesman Dan Ewald said. A day earlier, Anderson’s family said he had been placed in hospice care.
Anderson was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues and the only manager to lead two franchises in career wins.
His Reds teams featuring Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan that won crowns in 1975 and 1976 rank among the most powerful of all time. Led by Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, Anderson won with the Tigers in 1984.
Anderson’s win total of 2,194 was the third highest when he retired after the 1995 season, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw. He’s still sixth on the career list.
Always affable and ever talkative, Anderson was equally popular among players, fans and media.
“Revered and treasured by his players for his humility, humanity, eternal optimism and knowledge of the game,” his Hall of Fame plaque reads.
Jack Morris helped the Tigers win their most recent title. The rugged pitcher choked up during a phone conversation with The Associated Press from his home in the Twin Cities when he was informed of Anderson’s death.
“Wow. He died way too young. I got phone a lot of calls yesterday about the hospice and the dementia, neither of which I knew about. I wasn’t prepared for this. I don’t know what to say. I’m kind of shocked,” Morris said.
“He was a big part of my life, for sure. He had a lot to do with molding me professionally and taught me a lot about perseverance. He was a good guy,” he said. “Baseball will have very few people like Sparky. He was a unique individual. He was a character with a great passion and love for the game.”
George “Sparky” Anderson got his nickname in the minor leagues because of his spirited play. He made it to the majors for only one season, batting .218 for the Phillies in 1959.
Anderson learned to control a temper that nearly scuttled his fledgling career as a manager in the minors, and went on to become one of baseball’s best at running a team. And Anderson won with a humility that couldn’t obscure his unique ability to manage people.
“I got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot and then just hung around for 26 years,” he said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2000.
Of course, there was a lot more to him.
“To be around me, you have to be a little bit cuckoo,” Anderson said on the day he resigned from the Tigers after the 1995 season. “One day it’s written in concrete, the next day it’s written in sand. I always felt if I didn’t change my mind every 24 hours, people would find me boring.”
Ewald knew Anderson for about 35 years as a former Tigers spokesman and baseball writer for the Detroit News.
“Sparky Anderson will always be measured by his number of victories and his place in baseball’s Hall of Fame. But all of that is overshadowed by the type of person he was. Sparky not only spiked life into baseball, he gave life in general something to smile about. Never in my lifetime have I met a man as gentle, kind and courageous as Sparky,” he said.
Anderson’s win total trails only those of Mack. McGraw, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
While Anderson was often surrounded by top players, there was more to his ability than merely filling out a lineup card.
He had the right touch with superstars, and it came in handy when he led the star-studded Reds to World Series wins in 1975-76. He won four National League pennants in Cincinnati from 1970-78, then was stung when the Reds fired him after consecutive second-place finishes.
Anderson took his disappointment to the other league and won there, too, directing the Tigers to the 1984 championship and a division title in 1987. He was voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee.
Even then, he showed his usual self-deprecation. Anderson had refused to step foot inside the Hall until 2000 because he felt unworthy.
“I didn’t ever want to go into the most precious place in the world unless I belonged,” Anderson said.
For a long time, he was a long shot to make the Hall.
The only notable thing about Anderson as a player was his prematurely graying hair and his nickname. He was playing for Fort Worth in the Texas League in 1955 when a radio announcer, taken by his feisty play, started calling him Sparky.
The name stuck. He didn’t. Anderson made it to the majors in 1959 and singled home the go-ahead run on opening day in Cincinnati, which turned out to be the highlight of his playing career. A light-hitting second baseman, he had 12 extra-base hits — zero home runs — and 34 RBIs in 477 at-bats.
He was back in the minors the next year, and soon realized it was time to think about another career.
He decided to try managing.
That almost flamed out, too. His first job was managing a minor league team in Toronto in 1964. He was overly aggressive in his strategy and argued every close call with umpires, showing a short fuse that soon got him fired. Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam gave him a second chance to manage in the minors, then moved to Cincinnati to build the Reds.
When he needed a big league manager there, he decided to call Anderson, who was shocked to get the chance. The youngest manager in the majors at age 35, he signed the $28,500 contract — by far the most money he’d ever made — and set out to make himself known in a city asking: Sparky who?
“Bob Howsam either had to be nuts or have a lot of savvy,” Anderson said. “As it turns out, he had a lot of savvy.”
Howsam assembled one of the most talented teams of all time — Bench, Morgan, Rose, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster, Davey Concepcion. Anderson was charged with making it work.
Anderson’s plaque in Cooperstown calls him “the crank that turned the Big Red Machine,” and his players agree that it fit. Bench noted that Anderson treated his players respectfully and was always on top of game strategy.
“It’s a lot like a chess game, and Sparky was a chess master,” Bench said.
In Cincinnati, Anderson also got himself another nickname: Captain Hook, a reference to his habit of pulling a starting pitcher when he got into a jam late in a game. He also showed creativity in making lineup changes.
One of the most important moves: switching Rose from left field to third base on May 3, 1975, allowing Foster to play full-time in left. It was the final piece of the Machine, which beat Boston in a dramatic seven-game Series that year, then swept to another title while winning 108 games the following season.
Two second-place seasons led to a surprising firing. The Reds have won only one other NL title and World Series since he left, in 1990 under Lou Piniella. Anderson moved on to Detroit, where he had more longevity and added one more title.
He refused to manage replacement players during baseball’s labor dispute in spring training of 1995, angering owner Mike Ilitch. He resigned after a 60-win season, saying the franchise needed a new direction. He hoped to manage somewhere else, but when an offer never came along, he retired.
(© 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)