On returning from his daily (except Sunday) four-mile morning walk on this chilly day in May, George (Sparky) Anderson seemed, as always, chipper and refreshed. At the same time there was a suggestion of sadness about him. This was most unusual, for there are few humans this side of Mr. Rogers less inclined toward melancholy than the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Ordinarily, Sparky uses his matinal excursions to ruminate on the ball club, and with it in first place in the American League East and winning games at a record-breaking pace, there surely could have been little there to induce melancholy. What had happened, he explained, was that in thinking pleasurably of where he would situate his various sluggers in the batting order for that night's virtually assured victory, his normally disciplined mind had somehow wandered off into the mists of memory.
"I started thinking about my old friend Milton Blish," Sparky said. "Uncle Miltie. That man kept me alive when I didn't have a nickel. He managed a Rambler dealership on Olympic Boulevard in L.A., and I'd work for him in the off season when I was a player. I was excellent until it came to closing a sale. Then I'd end up saying to somebody without much money, 'Hey, you can't afford one of our cars.' That would drive Uncle Miltie crazy. 'George,' he'd say to me, 'you know damn well those people are now gonna walk out of here and go right down the street and buy a car they can't afford from someone else.' And he'd laugh. It's a good thing I was a ballplayer and he loved sports so much. He was a great Tigers fan, and I was thinking about that on my walk today. It made me kind of sad. Uncle Miltie died in 1976. Oh how he would've loved to be alive today and see this great club of ours. A great club managed by that dumb salesman of his back in the '50s."
This little reminiscence is instructive for Sparky-watchers. It's self-deprecatory, and for all his self-assurance in the dugout, Anderson entertains few illusions about his true value to society. "I may not be the smartest man in the world," he says, "but I do understand the Peter Principle and I never go beyond that. I can only be me. I couldn't be different if I tried." And he never forgets a friend. One of his coaches, Billy Consolo, has known him since grammar school days in Los Angeles. They live near each other now; Anderson lives in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks and Consolo lives in Westlake Village. Consolo stays in the Anderson condo in suburban Detroit with Sparky and his wife, Carol, during the season. Carol and Sparky will celebrate their 31st anniversary this October. They have known each other since the fifth grade, and, according to Consolo, Sparky has never even been out with another girl.
Sparky goes to his Dorsey High School (Los Angeles) class reunions, and every Thanksgiving he and a bunch of his old classmates get together for what they call the Turkey Bowl, to have breakfast, play touch football and "tell lies to each other." He never went to college—"there wasn't a one in the world that would have me"—but he grew up a block and a half from the USC campus and for five years was the bat boy for Coach Rod Dedeaux' crack Trojan baseball teams of the late '40s. He and Dedeaux, it goes without saying, are the closest of friends to this day—"Rod and my mother are the only people on earth who call me 'Georgie.' " Sparky also helped shag punts for the SC football team and he retrieved basketball star Bill Sharman's practice free throws—"he'd shoot as many as a hundred at a time." So Sparky is, in effect, a Southern Cal alumnus. He is surely as fervent in his support of SC teams as any died-in-the-wool old Trojan. Indeed, he is a winner of a "Tommy Trojan" award for distinguished service to the university—"it's my greatest honor." And he tries to make reunions of the baseball teams he served. "He's been a great and loyal Trojan," says Dedeaux. "I remember him giving Freddie Lynn [an SC alum] a pep talk, from one Trojan to another, before the '75 World Series. And Freddie was playing against Georgie's team."
There is a rock-ribbed stability to this determinedly ordinary man. Although most baseball people still consider him a National Leaguer, Anderson, now in his sixth year as skipper of the Tigers, is the dean of American League managers. He managed the Cincinnati Reds for nine years, as long as anyone else ever has, and he hopes to surpass Hughie Jennings' 14-year (1907-21) record tenure with the Tigers. Sparky has been fired only once in his professional life—by the Reds in 1978—and it left him, a man of exceptional loyalty, stunned and bewildered. He had led the Reds to back-to-back World Series championships in '75 and '76, managing teams often compared with the greatest in baseball history. He knows that the odds of a manager escaping the ax, no matter how successful he has been, are slim to none, but he's determined, nevertheless, to beat them and retire from the Tigers unfired.
Sparky even looks the picture of stability. He is a short, squarely built man with granitic features and hair that turned white when he was young. He looked a responsible 50 when he took over as manager of the Reds 14 years ago. He actually turned 50 last Feb. 22, and because he doesn't appear appreciably older now then he did when he was 35, it would seem his age is finally catching up with his looks.
He may have lived most of his life in Southern California, but his roots are in the Midwest and his speech is heartland plain and peppered with ungrammatical homilies. Although he's capable of a certain eloquence. Sparky leads both leagues in double negatives. His politics are solidly Republican, founded on his father's as yet unproven economic theory that "the more millionaires there are, the better it is for us." In baseball, of course, Sparky finds himself bossing millionaires every day.
His personality is a model of consistency. "He hasn't changed a bit since high school," says Console Anderson would accept this as the highest compliment, for if there is any person who'll earn his everlasting contempt—and their numbers are few—it's the nouveau riche star who puts on airs and grows too big for his britches. "You ain't no star to me if you're not a nice person," Anderson says. "It's so important to remember where you came from. I used to have that joke with Johnny Bench. He was born in Binger, Oklahoma, and I was born in Bridgewater, South Dakota. 'Don't forget where you came from,' I'd yell at him, and he'd yell it right back at me. Baseball guys are mostly people from poor families, and they should never forget it. My daddy taught me something when I was 11 years old: There is one thing in this world that'll never cost you a dime, and that's being nice."
A baseball guy should also remember "how quickly they forget," Sparky cautions. "I know that when I'm through with baseball, my phone's not going to ring and nobody will be asking for my autograph. Right now I've got two phones in my house, and if nobody calls me, I'll pick up one phone and call myself on the other one. I'm going to miss all this fun when it's over. So as long as I'm here, I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. I need baseball. It don't need me. Look at Walter Alston. He was in a class by himself, but he never changed. He was always the same person. He knew where he'd come "from. Now I see players two years out of the minors who won't walk across the street to go to a Boy Scout meeting unless they get paid a thousand dollars. And what's all this BS about hiding in the trainer's room after a game. If you've been bad, you ought to be man enough to admit it. And if you've been good, you ought to be humble enough to share your success with the public. I think we ought to thank every kid out there who thinks enough of us to ask for an autograph. We owe them a dream."
If, as some ballplayers say, a team will assume the personality of its manager, then the Tigers are truly Sparky's team. "Wander in there," says the manager, indicating his clubhouse, "and you'll never talk to a bunch of nicer people. The guys on this team remind me of '50s players. You tell them and they go out and do it. I told Gene Mauch—I call him The General—that he'd love managing these kids. He'd be in his element." The current Tigers are also reminiscent, in their calm acceptance of victory (they've had plenty of practice, Lord knows) and their shrugging acknowledgment of defeat, of Sparky's great Cincinnati teams. "We have a quiet clubhouse," says Sparky.