Originally published on Torontoist on November 5, 2010.
1960 Topps baseball card of Sparky Anderson, the year he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a player.
George “Sparky” Anderson, who died yesterday, will be remembered in the baseball world for many things. The pennants he won as a manager with the “Big Red Machine” in Cincinnati during the 1970s and with the Detroit Tigers in the 1980s. His colourful and creative interpretation of the English language that helped sportswriters fill columns. The feisty, entertaining spirit he brought to the game that endeared him to fans, including many in southwestern Ontario who followed the Tigers.
His leadership abilities were evident during his playing days with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, who offered him his first opportunity to demonstrate his managerial skills.
Following his sole stint as a player in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959, Anderson’s contract was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league club in early 1960. He spent the next four seasons as the team’s second baseman. General Manager Frank Pollock noted the high number of “smartest player in the league” awards Anderson had received from rival managers and, with the player’s prospects of returning to the majors growing dimmer, intended to offer him the manager’s post for the 1963 season.
However, the team had entered into a relationship with the Milwaukee Braves and were assigned Bill Adair as manager, so Anderson continued on as a player and was given additional coaching duties to test his potential. Adair moved on to Denver after the season and many observers figured that Anderson, who had won a Silver Glove Award for his fielding, would fill the vacancy. That the prematurely greying twenty-nine-year-old kept his family in Toronto over the winter only fuelled speculation.
Sparky Anderson as a Maple Leaf. Image courtesy of Mop Up Duty.
The suspense ended on January 7, 1964. Anderson’s hiring was announced amid uncertainty surrounding the team’s ownership after Jack Kent Cooke put the franchise up for sale (the buyers wound up being a local group). When asked if he would continue to guard second base, Anderson replied “I’d rather manage than try to play and manage, and perhaps do both badly.” On the faith management had shown him over the past year, Anderson said “Pollock shows a lot of guts in hiring me even now. After all, I’m a rookie manager moving in at a Triple A level instead of apprenticing in the lower minors.” However, he felt confident in his own abilities, boasting “I think I’m going to be a good manager, even outstanding. We won’t know until September. If we don’t win the pennant then this team will have a new manager next year.”
One of Anderson’s first tasks was to raise sagging morale and increase dwindling attendance. “I want to have a running club,” he said. “We’ll go for the hit and run and stolen base rather than sticking with stodgy, stereotyped play. It’s my opinion that we can get fans back in the park if we entertain them with a daring team that’s ready to run the opposition out of the park.”
His efforts paid off early, as overall attendance nearly doubled for the team’s first dozen home games compared to 1963. Community outreach efforts such as regular Saturday morning coaching clinics at Maple Leaf Stadium—whenever the team was at home—helped boost those numbers. Anderson offered his assistance to local baseball leagues through occasional clinics or, in the case of the Kingsway Baseball Association, serving as an honorary official. As one league secretary in Scarborough told the Globe and Mail that June, “Sparky’s never too busy to help the kids. He’s in a tough pennant race, but he took time recently to talk to our atoms and peewees. You have to go with a pro who has time for kids.”
The 1964 season ultimately proved a disappointment for the team. A series of mid-season slumps seemed to rule them out of contention for a playoff spot and earned Anderson criticism from the team brass. A late surge offered hope, but the team’s playoff dreams were dashed on the final day of the season with a loss to the Rochester Red Wings. Despite the team’s winning record (82 wins, 70 losses), a fifth-place finish resulted in rumours about Anderson’s imminent demise. The manager remained upbeat and thanked Pollock for the opportunity. He admitted that “Toronto has almost become a home for me and my family. We’ve had five wonderful years up here. And we have made many fine friends where we live in Scarboro.”
Sparky’s prediction at the start of the season came true on November 27, when he was fired. Pollock resigned the same day. Before his departure, Pollock predicted that, despite the season just passed, Anderson would be a major league manager within five years. He wasn’t far off the mark: in 1970, Anderson marked his first season in the big time by leading the Cincinnati Reds to the National League pennant.
Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media, 1977) and the January 7, 1964, February 18, 1964, and September 15, 1964 editions of the Globe and Mail.
BEHIND THE SCENES
“Sitting on fence: Sparky Anderson, manager of Detroit Tigers, isn’t willing to bet on Astros-Mets.” Photo by Doug Griffin, 1979. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.
Sparky Anderson was the first major league baseball manager I was aware of. I began following the sport soon after the Detroit Tigers hired him in 1979. His face graced the scorebooks my Dad brought home from the annual teacher outing to Tiger Stadium, and I’d see him on the pre-game show or local TV ads. His presence in the Tigers dugout was a constant during my formative years, and it seemed like he’d be there forever–elementary school, high school, university. His departure from Detroit in 1995 coincided with my declining interest in the game.
When he died in 2010, I figured my familiarity with the latter half of his career would help me appreciate his first managerial job in Toronto. It also helped it was a slow day at my office job, so I spent the afternoon quickly grabbing archival stories. My speed at this sort of thing came in handy over the years, turning around such pieces within a day or less. I’ve occasionally made pre-emptive moves when famous people with Toronto ties have been in grave health (there are several musicians I have decent files on), but being that prepared feels ghoulish.