George "Sparky" Anderson, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, died yesterday at his home in California at the age of 76. He was a more important figure in my adolescence than I thought at the time, as he managed the "Big Red Machine" edition of the Reds from 1970 through 1978 and was unceremoniously fired after finishing second to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second straight year in 1978.
Prior to that, though, he presided over the single best period of any Reds team (and likely any National League team at that) in history, winning two World Series, four National League pennants, and five National League Western Division championships. But, at the time, "the Main Spark" didn't impress me all that much, as I had no clue about how difficult it often is to manage people (I know now, from professional but non-baseball experience) and thought that the great players on that team would have been equally successful without Sparky.
Boy, was I wrong.
Certainly, the Reds went on to another divisional championship the year after Sparky's departure, but began a slide into the cellar the next couple of years (although they did post baseball's best record in 1981 but got nothing to show for it, as that was the season that was actually two seasons, and the winners in each "half" went to the playoffs. The Reds finished second in both segments, if memory serves, but were locked out of the postseason). Sparky, though, became the manager of the Detroit Tigers just after leaving the Reds and within a couple of years had them in contention, ultimately winning the World Series in 1984 and the American League Eastern Division a couple of years later.
Sparky was a true original. In the latter stages of his career he began to remind a lot of people of Casey Stengel, the successful Yankee manager who concluded his career leading the hapless New York Mets in their early years. Like Casey, Sparky had a unique way with the English language, but was not afraid to share his opinions on, well, anything.
I always heard what a gentleman he was, and that even if he was arguing ferociously with an umpire over a bad call, Anderson was always careful not to use profanity. There's a great piece of film of him from the 1970 World Series arguing a call but his first instinct was to get his player out of the argument first.
They just don't make them like that anymore. Rest in piece, George.
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