Sparky Anderson becomes first manager to win 600 games in both leagues

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Alex Coffey

In 1951, a dark-haired kid named George and his teammates on Post 715 traveled from their home in Los Angeles to Briggs Stadium in Detroit to compete against Post 135 of New York in the American Legion World Series. Post 715 prevailed, and it turned out to be a prophetic moment for young George.

George’s last name was Anderson. But the world knows him better as Sparky. Thirty-five years after his teenage celebration in Briggs Stadium – on June 29, 1986 – Sparky Anderson, his hair having turned as white as snow, was celebrating again on the same field, having become the first big-league manager to win 600 games in both leagues.

“I would be lying to you if I told you it wasn’t nice,” Anderson told the Pittsburgh Press. “That’s something nobody else has done in the history of the game.”

That fleeting moment of self-congratulation was rare for Anderson, a man who refused to step into the Hall of Fame until 2000, the year he was inducted, because he felt “unworthy.” It was that self-effacing nature of his that drove him to a historic 26-year managerial career. But after more than 2,000 victories and three World Series titles, most would agree that Anderson was more than deserving.

Much of Anderson’s success stemmed from his ability to communicate with his team effectively, on a personal level. He himself had played second base for the Philadelphia Phillies – albeit only one season –batting .218 before bouncing around the minor leagues for a couple of years. He understood the pressure his players felt to prove their worth, and made sure they knew that.

“He was a people person,” Joe Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman, told The Associated Press. “I don’t think anybody else could have managed that team nearly as well as he did. We had a lot of different personalities. Sparky was able to deal with all of us on an individual basis but also collectively as a team. Because he was close to you and cared about you as a person, you were always willing to do more for him than you were for somebody else. I never thought of him as my manager. I thought of him as part of my family.”

Anderson’s career took off when general manager Bob Howsam decided to hand him the keys to the soon-to-be “Big Red Machine” in 1969. Although Reds fans were skeptical of a 35-year old newcomer taking the helm of one of the best teams in baseball, he quickly became a household name. Anderson won 102 games his first year, and would win 863 with the Reds through nine seasons, on top of four National League pennants and back-to- back World Series Championships in 1975 and 1976.

But after Howsam turned over the role to Dick Wagner, things changed. The Reds had “suffered” two second-place finishes in 1977 and 1978, and since winning was expected in Cincinnati, Anderson was fired. He soon found work as manager of the Detroit Tigers, where he made history again as the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues, in 1984. When he retired in 1995, he had accumulated an overall record of 2,194-1,834 – the third-winningest record in baseball history at the time.

Anderson giving his Hall of Fame Induction speech, in which he insisted that he “got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot and then just hung around for 26 years.” (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Even after he had cemented his name in the history books, Anderson still went to work every day knowing full well he had his dream job – and that it was a privilege, not a right. Throughout his career, he would undersell the role of a manager, crediting his players for his success.

“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.
But whether he was willing to admit it or not, Sparky Anderson was brilliant at what he did.

“It’s a lot like a chess game,” Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench once remarked. “And Sparky was a chess master.”

Alex Coffey was the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series