Les Moss would fit right in among the tintypes hanging on the walls at Cooperstown. He blends well with the furniture in hotel lobbies. His ears are floppy and he wears wire-rimmed spectacles. His skin is leathery, and there are gouges in his face. He is a former catcher; his gnarled hands reveal his old trade. He usually holds a Dixie cup in one of them to catch his sprays of liquefied snuff. He has spent 35 of his 54 summers in organized baseball, trying to get someplace. During that time he has ridden a lot of buses that made stops in Americus, Elmira, Savannah, Lynchburg, Shreveport, Montgomery and Evansville.
He caught for 13 years in the major leagues, most of them with the hapless St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox. In 1959, the year Bill Veeck's Sox won the pennant, Moss was sent back to the minors. There he spent the next two decades hoping that someday he would become a major league manager.
"Anybody who's been around as long as I have wants it," Moss says. "Some players like to get away from the game. I wanted to stay. If you want to stay in uniform, you want to manage if you can't play. Ten or 15 years ago, yes, I thought more about the major leagues. But after you've been with minor league clubs for so long, you say it'll be fine if it comes along. But you don't expect it."
Last September the Detroit Tigers unexpectedly appointed Moss as their manager for 1979. He had worked with most of the young Tigers when they played in Detroit's minor league system, and the promotion to the big league club was a reward for years of faithful service. Besides, there was a vacancy. Ralph Houk, the Tiger manager for five seasons, had quit.
Moss doesn't have an awful lot to say. After Detroit victories, all he would say to the hungry press was, "That was a dandy." And his baseball face would erupt into a sunshine smile.
Last week, after a major league managerial career of 53 games, Moss was summoned to the executive suite at Tiger Stadium. Jim Campbell, the Detroit president and general manager, told Moss he had been fired. In the tradition of managerial dismissals, Moss was offered another position in the organization. Predictably, he accepted it.
Moss, though, was not fired for the traditional reason. He had not failed. His young team had won 11 of its previous 16 games and had a 27-26 record. The unpretentious Moss was fired so the Tigers could hire the ebullient—and hugely successful—Sparky Anderson, who had been given a pink slip by Cincinnati last November.
"I got information that Sparky was ready to go to work and that he was talking to another club," Campbell says. "I don't know what team it was that wanted him as manager. I wouldn't ask him that. But when I heard he was ready to go to work, I had to act. Had Sparky not been available, we wouldn't have changed managers."
Anderson had won four pennants in nine years with the Reds, and his name is rumored to have been atop the list of possible managerial replacements in New York and San Francisco and a bunch of places in between. He says half a dozen clubs had contacted him during his exile, but he won't identify them.
"I thought I'd sit out the entire season at home in California," Anderson said after arriving in Detroit last Thursday. "It wasn't tough until the Reds came out to Los Angeles late in May. Once I was down on the field, sat in the dugout and talked with all the players, it brought a lot of things back. I began getting very itchy. By June 1st my wife could see it coming. I listened harder to the Angels' and Dodgers' games. Before, I'd listen for a few innings and go do other things. By the 18th of June, I would have made a decision whether to go with another club. I can say I had an offer. But I won't say from whom."