November 5, 2010


George and Sparky (Joe Posnanski, 11/05/10)

He was, like many men, two men. The big difference is that in addition to being two men he also had two names. He was George Anderson, Georgie to friends who liked gardening, watching the news on television and sleeping in the sun. George was the son of a hard-edged housepainter in inner city Los Angeles. George dreamed about baseball, but he sold cars, and not especially well. He was a soft touch. He never could sell cars to people who he knew could not afford it. His boss, Milt Blish, used to funnel a few dollars his way, just to keep him afloat.

Yes, he was George Anderson, the kind of man who could not send back a steak because he did not want to be a bother, the kind of man who would read the Bible sometimes as he tried to make sense of the world around him, the kind of man who would not write notes, not ever, because he felt embarrassed by his spelling and a little bit empty because he didn’t learn much in school. “I only had a high school education,” George used to say, “And believe me, I had to cheat to get that.”

No. Wait. It wasn’t George Anderson who said that. No … that’s Sparky.

Yes, that was Sparky Anderson — baseball manager, entertainer, leader, conservative, comedian, psychologist, enemy of pitchers, teller of tall tales, botcher of the Queen’s English, defender of the game … no one description could possibly contain all the energy and force and contradictions of Sparky Anderson, though a ballplayer name Lee May tried to sum him up on a bus in 1970.

“You,” May said, “are a minor-league mother——.” Everyone on the bus howled. Anderson set his jaw. And he coaxed and threatened and inspired that very team to the World Series.

A radio man nicknamed George Anderson “Sparky” way back in the early 1950s, in the minor leagues, back when George was doing what he always did — screaming at an umpire and getting himself tossed out of the game. The radio man said: “Look at the sparks fly! That’s one sparky fella!” George was out of control then — all spark and no plug. He only wanted to be a ballplayer, and he had no idea what would happen to him if he did not become a ballplayer. When he was growing up in California, he joined a local team just so he could steal equipment for the boys to use in the neighborhood games. He could not imagine his life without baseball, and the hard truth was so painful that he could barely consider it: He wasn’t good enough at baseball. He could field but he could not hit. And so, George Anderson became Sparky. [...]

He was the youngest manager in baseball — he turned 36 during his first spring training. And, already, his hair was shock white. He carried a can of black hair dye with him on those first few road trips, before he came to realize that it didn’t much matter, he wasn’t really fooling anybody. The hair, like the optimism, like the exaggerations, like the malapropisms, like the inconsiderate pulling of pitchers (they called him Captain Hook), like the winning, would all become a part of Sparky Anderson’s persona. In 1972, Johnny Bench began calling Sparky’s overbearing spring training schedule “Stalag 13.”

“But we still like Sparky,” Bench said.

“Why?” a reporter asked.

“Because … we just do,” Bench said.

Some played for his approval. Some played to spite him. Some played to live up to the ludicrous expectations he had placed on them.* Some played to prove him wrong. Before spring training in 1975, he gathered his team together and told them that there were four stars on the team — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez — and the rest of them were turds. That was the word he used. Turds. The stars played like stars. The others had T-shirts made with “Turds” on the front and, most of them, they also played like stars. And the Reds won 108 games and probably the greatest World Series ever played.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 5, 2010 3:13 PM
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