What a coup: 35 years ago the Tigers hired Sparky Anderson

First game

Sparky Anderson acknowledges the crowd at Tiger Stadium before his first game as manager of the Detroit Tigers, on June 14, 1979. 

It will always go down as one of the shrewdest moves ever made by the Detroit Tigers.

35 years ago this coming June 12th, Tiger President and General Manager Jim Campbell shocked the baseball world by announcing the firing of first year manager Les Moss and the hiring of 45-year old George “Sparky” Anderson, the former colorful skipper of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” who had led the Reds to four National League pennants and two world championships in nine seasons.

Simply put, Les Moss became the victim of circumstances, as it had nothing to do with him.

It had everything to do about Sparky Anderson.

Moss – the first year major league manager who had replaced Ralph Houk – wasn’t even on the hot seat.

Although the team had a 27-26 record, the Tigers had won 11 of its last 16 games and management was pleased to have at the helm the reigning The Sporting News and American Association’s Minor League Manager of the Year.

The 54-year old Moss had joined the Tiger organization in 1975 and then led the Montgomery Rebels to two Southern League championships (1975 and ’76) before being promoted to Triple-A Evansville. The former major league catcher had helped tutor farmhands Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish, Dan Petry, Dave Rozema, Jason Thompson, and Steve Kemp who were with the big league club.

As revealed in the 1998 book, They Call Me Sparky (Sparky Anderson with Dan Ewald, Sleeping Bear Press) this is how it all came down.

Just a few days before the big announcement, the Tigers were playing in Anaheim when Campbell ran into Sparky in the media lunchroom where he introduced the former manager to Tiger television broadcaster George Kell.

Anderson, who in an even more shocking move was fired by the Reds six months earlier, had already turned down six offers to manage and decided to sit out the year to work as a features sports reporter for the Los Angeles ABC television affiliate.

Later that evening Angel broadcaster Don Drysdale asked Anderson if he was going to manage again. Sparky told him that within the next ten days he was going to make a decision but that it wouldn’t take effect until after the season. (In fact, Sparky had decided to manage the Chicago Cubs though he had yet to sign a contract.)

Drysdale then shared the information with George Kell who then quickly passed it along to Jim Campbell.

The next day, Campbell called Anderson several times to make the best pitch of his life, finally convincing Sparky to join the Tigers right away. Sparky was just too good for Campbell to let him slip away to another team.

Anderson, who was once told by Ralph Houk that “if you ever get the chance to work for Jim Campbell take it,” later said, “I remembered from our spring training games that the Tigers had a young up-and-coming club and there was never anything I enjoyed more than teaching young players and helping them grow. I think the real thing that convinced me was the Tiger organization. The Tigers are tradition. The Tigers are baseball history.”

Campbell told reporters, “We knew we had a good young team coming along and Sparky is the man who can take it to the top.”

Remarkably, even though he was the same age as Detroit’s current manager Brad Ausmus, the silver haired Anderson looked and sounded like his managerial hero Casey Stengel. He was already one of the game’s best and most popular managers and was also every reporter’s dream because he was a quote machine who always made himself available to the media.

After signing a five-year contract, the longest ever given to a Tiger manager, Anderson boldly told the media that the Tigers would win a world championship in five years.

As we all know, he was dead on.

In his first meeting with the team, Anderson laid down the law insisting that players shave off any facial hair (a demand eventually rescinded) and that they wear a coat and tie when traveling.

Jack Morris, who would become the ace of Sparky’s pitching staff for 12 seasons once shared this memory with me:

“In our first meetings he was very blunt and let everyone know who was in control by saying ‘it’s either my way or the highway and we’re going to weed out the rats’.”

I was so excited with the hiring of Sparky Anderson that at the last minute I joined my friend Dennis Procailo and raced down to Tiger Stadium to witness his first game as the Tiger skipper.

On June 14, 1979, while sitting in the left field lower deck stands, I first laid eyes on Sparky when he walked from the dugout to exchange line up cards before the game against the Seattle Mariners who featured Willie Horton as their designated hitter.

Although there was a buzz in the stands for Sparky’s debut, 21,957 fans went home disappointed.

Tied 2-2 with two outs in the top of the 8th, former Tiger Leon Roberts stood on third base after a pinch-hit triple.

I will then never forget seeing an easy ground ball hit to the usually reliable third sacker Aurelio Rodriguez. The ball unbelievably went between his legs into left field as Roberts scored what turned out to be the winning run and the Tigers lost 3-2.

32 years later almost to the day, on June 26, 2011, I sat with my son and daughter in the right field stands at Comerica Park to witness the long overdue retirement of Sparky’s number 11.

George Anderson left a wonderful legacy in Detroit and was a class act both in the dugout and off the field with his charity work for CATCH (Caring Athletes Team for Children’s & Henry Ford Hospitals).

Not only did he lead the Tigers to their last world title in 1984 as he became the first manager to win world championships in both leagues, he courageously stood up against the baseball establishment when out of the principle of protecting the integrity of the game, he became the only manager to refuse to manage replacement players during the players’ strike during spring training in 1995.

When Anderson quit the Tigers at age 61 following the 1995 season with 2,194 wins, he was third on the all-time career list behind Connie Mack and John McGraw.

Anderson’s stellar managerial record stands for itself and he was formally recognized when he became the 16th manager inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of eligibility.

We should all give thanks to the late Jim Campbell for having the guts and wherewithal to make that bold move 35 years ago.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.