Sparky Anderson – Hall of Fame manager of the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers – passed away this past week. In the past it has been noted that NBA coaches don’t generally alter player performance. And I have heard that some research indicates the same for baseball managers. Although this may be true, I can report that Sparky had an impact on my childhood memories.
Back in 1979 the Detroit Tigers began the season with Les Moss as their new manager. However, after 53 games (of which the Tigers won 27), the managerial career of Moss was ended and the Detroit Tigers hired Sparky Anderson. At the time I was nine years old and living in Detroit. All I knew about Sparky at the time is that he led the famous Big Red Machine (I can still name the starting line-up of this team off the top of my head) to two World Series titles. And all I knew about the Tigers is that they were generally losers.
My earliest memory of the Tigers was the 1975 season, when the Tigers lost 102 games. The next year brought Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (who passed away last year). The Tigers, though, still finished with a losing record. In 1977 the Tigers also finished with a losing record (and also lost Fidrych to injury). The next season the Tigers had a winning record, but when your team finishes in 4th place it is hard to believe a championship is right around the corner.
A similar story could be told about the other Detroit teams. The Lions, Pistons, and Red Wings were not title contenders in the late 1970s. In fact, my friends in Detroit seemed to root for two teams in each sport. Of course we followed a Detroit team. But we also followed some other team that contended for a title (for example, in football I followed the Lions and Steelers while my best friend followed the Lions and Cowboys).
When Sparky came to town, though, it was expected that this was going to change. Sparky had won two World Series titles. So I fully expected the Tigers to instantly become contenders.
When I say “instantly” I mean that I expected the Tigers to start winning the moment Sparky arrived. As a nine-year old I tuned into the first game with Sparky as manager (my family didn’t have a television, so that means I was listening on the radio). The Tigers, though, lost. And I recall being very upset. How could the Tigers not win for Sparky? Again, I really thought having Sparky on the bench would instantly change everything.
Of course, eventually everything did change. The Tigers finished the 1979 season with a winning record. And they continued to have a winning record in each of the next ten seasons. Along the way fans of the Tigers got to see the magical 1984 season, where the team started 35-5 and went on to win the World Series. And in 1987 the Tigers finished with the best record in baseball (but were eliminated by the Twins in the league championship series).
After 1988, though, losing started to happen again. Across the next seven years the Tigers only had two winning seasons. And after the 1995 season, the career of Sparky Anderson – the career leader in managerial wins for the Tigers – came to an end.
From 1996 to 2005, the Tigers employed four different managers. All four failed to bring a winning record back to Detroit. That means from 1975 to 2005, the only managers who led the Tigers to a winning record was Sparky Anderson (eleven times and parts of a 12th), Les Moss (part of the 1979 season), and Ralph Houk (1978). In other words, for much of the first thirty years I followed the Tigers, Sparky was the only manager who seemed to get the Tigers to win consistently.
So although that first game with Sparky didn’t work out so well, he ultimately led the Tigers to a number of wonderful seasons and many, many wins. Now were these wins all about Sparky? Well, maybe not. But Sparky is a big part of the memories I have of these teams.