Sparky Anderson managed with a dark secret that threatened to end his career

He’s reached cult-like status in Detroit. Almost as if he was more than just a man, as the years have passed, Sparky Anderson, like Buddha, has taken on a more iconic place in history.

But as great as Sparky was — and he was one of the greatest to ever manage a baseball club — it could have fallen apart at any time because he went to work every day with the possibility that his secret nightmare would take him down.

In 1979 when Sparky Anderson was hired to manage the Tigers, he was anxious — no, it would be more accurate to say thrilled — to be back in the game. There was a pilot light burning white hot under Sparky. Ever since the Cincinnati Reds had fired him after the ’78 season, Sparky had been itching to prove his old employers wrong. Just 44 years old, Sparky was a young man, but he feared that his dismissal by the Reds might keep him out of the game long enough to make teams doubt him. He heard the rumors: “Sparky’s a push-button manager,” and “Anyone could have won with the Reds’ lineup,” and “Give him a young team of unproven players and he won’t know what to do.” Deep down, way down there, Sparky had doubts himself. His ego had been bruised when he was fired, though he didn’t want anyone to know.

History shows that Sparky proved his critics wrong, and he regained his confidence. Five years after taking the helm of the Tigers, he became the first skipper to win the World Series in both leagues and the first manager to win 100 games in both leagues. As he smoked a victory cigar and chatted with President Reagan in the Tiger Stadium clubhouse after Game Five of the ’84 World Series, Sparky was on top of the baseball world. But, as he himself pointed out in one of his Sparkyisms: “Every day the earth turns over on a guy who’s sitting on top of the world.”

And that was the seed of his deepest secret.

Sparky Anderson didn’t know how to handle losing. He digested every defeat, choking it down like a meal of regret. The losses piled on him like a stack of bricks, and there were times when they threatened to bury him in a mound of anxiety.

“I don’t believe there has ever been an individual … that would take losses harder and keep them inside longer than I do,” Sparky said once. And it was true. Though he won far more than he lost, guiding The Big Red Machine as the Team of the ’70s and the Tigers to the best season of any team in the 1980s, Sparky couldn’t stand losing. His friendly, enthusiastic demeanor belied the fact that inside, Anderson hated losing.

One of Sparky’s closest friends in Detroit was Ernie Harwell, who frequently walked with the Tiger manager during the regular season. Ernie knew that if the Tigers had won the night before, Sparky could be counted for chit-chat, but if they had been on the wrong end of the score, stone silence would prevail.

“There wasn’t anything that could get Sparky’s mind off a bad game,” Ernie remembered later on. “He wore each defeat on his heart.”

At times during his career, Sparky had been told to relax, to learn how to handle the inevitable defeats better. Close friend Billy Consolo, who coached under Sparky for 15 seasons, tried to soothe Sparky’s fragile psyche. But it never really worked. At the end of each season, when Sparky returned to his wife and family in California, it would take a few weeks for Anderson to get back to being “George.” The grind of the long season took time to wash off.

What was amazing about Sparky was how he remained so positive with the media and the fans throughout his years in baseball. Ask Cincinnati and Detroit fans about Sparky and they’ll probably tell you how much fun it was to have him as the manager of their favorite team, how he knew how to handle the players and the press, and to be a great ambassador of the game. His smile was famous in the city of Detroit, it endeared him to Tiger fans forever. But underneath it was his aversion to losing, the unhealthy way in which he processed the downs in the up-and-down game of baseball.

In 1989 it caught up with Sparky. After 19 seasons, he finally had a miserable team. Losing became more than just an occasional nuisance, it became commonplace. That season the Tigers languished in last place, by far the worst position Sparky had ever been in. In the middle of the summer, with temperatures rising and his team sinking further into the abyss, Sparky had had enough. He couldn’t take it anymore, and he fell apart. The losing was too much. After a poor road trip, he called his wife and told her he was coming home. He wasn’t sure if he’d manage again, but he knew he couldn’t manage right then. Losing had made him a wreck. Emotionally and physically he was exhausted. The Tigers told him to take a leave of absence, that his job would be waiting for him when he was ready to return.

“Inside I die a thousand deaths, people do not realize how hard that is on you and how hard that is on your nerves,” Sparky explained. But he couldn’t live that way anymore. At the age of 55 the white-haired skipper looked at least 10 years older. His body was frail and unhealthy. His nerves were shot. He stayed away for more than two weeks, recharging his battery while learning that he needed to manage disappointment better. When he came back to his team, he was more calm, but his team was no better — they lost 103 times, the first time he had ever managed a team that lost 100 games. But after his hiatus, Sparky took the losses a little better.

Sparky stayed for another six seasons, and he brought the Tigers back to respectability for a short time. He was a different manager, a little less intense, a little less serious about winning. But he still had the stuff we all loved: his personality, his love and respect for the game, his baseball IQ.

“I didn’t know I could lose,” Sparky said. “I thought I shouldn’t ever lose, but you learn that there’s no one bigger than this game. This game will be here long after we are all gone, and there isn’t anything we can do to stop that.”

10 replies on “Sparky Anderson managed with a dark secret that threatened to end his career

  • Ted Beede

    This Is Why, I Dont Like Tigers Logo. Of The D With Tiger Walking Through It. 120 Losses Mike Maroth Our Ace. Great Guy, But Not A Picher, 20 Losses. Bury That Logo.

  • Dan Holmes

    Ted – they got rid of the “Tiger walking” logo in 2006, and the team went to the World Series. Coincidence?

  • Chuck Poulsen

    Very interesting… hmmm… I met Sparky and chatted with him in Cooperstown few years before his death, he looked calm and relaxed before he signed an autograph on my both photo and ball. I asked him about how much did he enjoyed managing both teams in a hotel where mostly former Reds players were signing…. he whispered to me that Tigers were his best team that he had managed.

  • Rick

    Hey Dan nice article but for me Sparky will always be the most hyped and over rated manager of all-time. He was given a team loaded with hof’ers in Cincy and then was given another team on the cusp of turning things around. And after the way the Tiger’s treated Les Moss who had bought all the kids along in the minor’s to be fired 50 games into the season was wrong! If you remember Sparky promised a title within 5 years. Well if he hadn’t received ridiculous career year’s from so many player’s and hadn’t gotten off to the 35 – 5 start it wouldn’t have happened. The Tiger’s were blessed with an all time lucky team that year. Not true? How many made the hof? How many deserved the hof? I would never dispute that Sparky was a terrific human being and did a ton of good for Detroit but as a manager I don’t see him in the top 10 by any stretch. Like Leyland one of his biggest faults was he was in love with HIS knowledge.

  • Ken

    Sparky Anderson was one of the worst managers in Tigers history and proved it over many years. He inherited a team destined for greatness and led them to only one World Series. Sparky couln’t work well with the young talent either as the Tigers had developed a strong farm system. I am surprised to read Dan’s statement that Sparky reached cult-like status. Nothing could be more misinterpreted.

  • Dan Holmes


    Based on the overwhelming positive response that Sparky’s memory receives in Detroit and throughout baseball, I stand by my assertion that he achieved cult-like status. Sure, he had his warts (hyperbole being one of them), but his managerial record speaks for itself. Yes, he had very talented teams in Cincinnati, but he had his work cut out for him in Detroit. There was young talent, yes, but I watched those years (I am thinking of 1979-1983) and those teams weren’t loaded with mature talent. They could have easily lost 85-90 games in ’79 and ’80, and there was no guarantee in the competitive AL East that they would get where they did when they did. The Brewers, for example, had a very talented team in that era, and they didn’t enjoy the success that Sparky’s teams did.

    Also, though Sparky came along at a time when the Tigers were producing an amazing string of young players through their own farm system (historically so), I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it that he just came to Detroit and had a stable of talent. he taught those guys (Trammell, Whitaker, Gibson, etc.) how to be big leaguers. Just ask them. Later, after about 1982, the Tiger farm system dried up, in fact for about a decade they produced only one position player (Glenn Wilson) who had anything like a long career. Matt Nokes was another guy who came up in the 1980s, and that was it until Travis Fryman. Yet, he still kept the team above the .500 mark almost every season. His handling of the ’87 team was his best work, in my opinion.

    Sparky wasn’t perfect (I hated how he fell in love with a young player every spring who quite obviously wasn’t big league material), but he was a good in-game manager (especially the pitching staff), and his record in big games and the postseason is one of the best of his era.

  • Dan Holmes


    Someone still had to manage the Reds, it wasn’t like you could just throw the gloves out there and roll over everyone else. That team didn’t have a very good pitching staff, they were always short of arms due to injury or lack of depth. In response, Sparky deftly managed the bullpen, becoming one of the first managers to use his relievers early and often (hence the nickname Captain Hook). He probably made more relievers into ace closers than any other manager before Tony LaRussa.

    You need to revisit the ’84 season. The Tiger regulars DID NOT have career years. The starting nine had good seasons, but not great ones. The reason that team dominated from beginning to end was the amazing performance of their bench. The bench players were shuttled in and used in perfect situations by Sparky. He deserves credit for Barbaro Garbey, Rusty Kuntz, Ruppert Jones, even Marty Castillo, being such great contributors that season. In fact, if you look at the ’85 team, the regulars had the same or better seasons, it was the drop off by the bench that made a big difference that season, the players didn’t perform as well. Sparky handled his bench very well (something Leyland doesn’t do, IMO), and he showed that especially in ’87, when he juggled several pieces in and out (Bergman, Madlock, etc.) and guided the Tigers to the best record in baseball for the second time in four years. Only the Yankees won more games than the Tigers in the ’80s.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Gary Steinke soon to be Gary S

    I think any pro should take losing hard. Once you accept losing, I think you become a loser. Hell, I want every Detroit team to win every game. Right now I could care less about the Pistons because they’re losers. The Lions have been hard to watch my whole life, because they’re losers. The Wings have been the best Detroit team for almost 25 years now and are easy to enjoy. The tough one for me is the Tigers because I love baseball so much, and will watch them no matter how they play, and the past 7 years have been great. Done boring everyone. Another good one Dan, keep it up. (You should be writing for The News or Free Press, you’re way better then that “Bless You Boys” writer The News has once a week)

Comments are closed.