Behind the Scenes Moments with Sparky Anderson

I always called him Captain, something I shouldn’t have done, because I was never quite sure how he took to the term. After all, one of the nicknames he had picked up in his forays through the baseball world was “Captain Hook,” a semi-critical title based on his habit of pulling starting pitchers early during hotly contested games when he managed at Cincinnati.

But that had nothing to do with my reason for using the title. Sparky Anderson was a captain; of a ship, of a team. In life. It was so natural, and seemed so right. His innate sense of leadership and command seemed to ooze from him. So “Captain” he was to me. And I always wondered if he minded my usage of it. He never said either way, so I’ll never know.

For a few years in the 1980s I was Sparky’s television producer and sometimes writer — both for specials and commercials — at Channel 4. And a better gig I never had in broadcasting. He was delightful, every time, all the time. I used to tell the brass at Channel 4 and Post Newsweek that if they wanted to field a wildly successful daily cable series — which they did — that it could be a show called “SparkyVision.” We would employ a couple of sound cameras to follow Sparky around each day, as he traveled through his colorful personal life and exciting Tigers existence. We would broadcast all of his bizarre sayings and baseball maneuverings for 18 “live” hours. Then, for the six hours Sparky slept, we’d show edited highlights from that day.

And — what the hell, I said — when he went to the bathroom we’d just quietly wait outside the door.

I wrote scripts for him at times, but they often were discarded in light of his own ad libs. We did an annual series of TV commercials called “Tiger Moments,” featuring the Sparkster and Al Kaline and George Kell. One 30-second spot called for George and Al to ask a trivia question about Sparky’s total losses as Tiger manager. The spots always concluded with some kind of gag line, and this one was to end with Sparky moaning the old bromide: “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”

When it came time to tape, Al and George performed their lines on cue, and when Sparky was to perform that last line, he instead looked into the camera and blurted, “What friends I got!”

That broke everyone up, especially Sparky, and after he promised to do his line properly on a re-take, I borrowed from his own syntax and said “No way, Captain….I can’t write ’em as good as you say ’em. We’ll leave it like that.”

My favorite Sparky line? Maybe it was the time he was talking with J.P. McCarthy on WJR radio, and when J.P. made reference to Baltimore pitcher and underwear model Jim Palmer being “handsome” … Sparky shot back “Aw, J.P….Palmer ain’t handsome … he only looks handsome.” Pure Sparky.

One year we were shooting promotional commercials for NBC and the upcoming Winter Olympics with Sparky and Isiah Thomas — an odd mixture to be sure. It was near the end of that year’s baseball season. The Tigers hadn’t qualified for the playoffs, and Sparky was speaking wistfully of returning home to “T.O” (Thousand Oaks, California, his home) to play golf over the winter. “I’m tellin’ ya, I’m goin’ to that clubhouse every morning … and I’m gonna play golf EVERY day this winter. Every single day.”

“Captain,” I asked. “What are you gonna do on days when it’s raining?”

He thought for a second and said “I’m gonna go sit in the clubhouse, and wait till it stops.”

I visited him once in his office before a crucial Tigers game, and to my surprise he was shaking like a leaf. When he noticed I noticed, he said “It’s good to be nervous, ya know Tommy? It shows you’re alive.” He was alive like few others sharing his planet.

I could list a hundred funny stories here, I could talk about the tremendous things he did for people, the phenomenal way he treated my Mom and Dad. I could cite places I went with him — even to New York, and the office of President Richard Nixon for a special prime-time TV special we shot — but space limits us, and I’ll get back to those tales some other time.

Instead I’ll finish by recalling the best taping I ever did with Sparky, and there was no need for any writing or directing from me that day. We followed him on one of his tours of the floors of Children’s Hospital. It was just Sparky, and boxes of hot pizza he was delivering to the kids, going room to room. You never saw anyone operate, communicate, love youngsters like he did that day. He was a marvel, a magician, a saint. What he did for those kids, the way he spoke to them, the way they looked at him … it was beyond the reach of most mortals. He was that special.

When I heard he was sick, I too felt sick. And when I heard he died … I felt like I’d lost my own grandfather.

Not only do they not make ’em like that anymore … to borrow a wording he might employ … in Sparky’s case, they never did.

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