Today we wrap up our entries into Motor City Bengals All-Time Detroit Tigers team. Last week, we wrapped up the players (view the slideshow to read all of our entries on the team laid out below), but where would we be without a competent manager to lead this team of Hall-of-Famers, should-be Hall-of-Famers, and future Hall-of-Famers?
None other than a Hall-of-Fame manager: George “Sparky” Anderson.
1B: Hank Greenberg
SS: Alan Trammell
3B: Miguel Cabrera
C: Bill Freehan
LF: Willie Horton
CF: Ty Cobb
RF: Al Kaline
SP: Justin Verlander
RP: Aurelio Lopez
Closer: Willie Hernandez
DH: Victor Martinez
Bench: Gates Brown
Born in South Dakota in 1934, George Anderson’s baseball skills took him to the minor leagues, but his lack of skills kept him mostly stranded there. It was during time spent with a AA team in the Texas League in 1955, that the nickname “Sparky” was given to him by a radio announcer who used it to describe his feisty play. The name stuck the rest of his life, but for close friends—Sparky was always called “George.”
Sparky did manage to play one season at the big league level, 1959, but he hit just .218 in 152 games and never appeared as a player in the majors again. After four more years in the minors, Jack Kent Cooke (who would later own the NFL’s Washington Redskins) recognized that his player’s skills did not translate to playing, but understood he exhibited strong leadership traits and made him the manager of his AAA team in Toronto in 1964.
After time in the minors as manager and on big league clubs as a coach, the Cincinnati Reds came calling in 1970. The Big Red Machine under Anderson’s watch began to fuel up in 1972. They were annually in the postseason, becoming World Series champions in 1975, repeating in ’76. Incredibly, when the Reds failed to qualify for the postseason in 1977 and ’78, Sparky was fired.
He would not be unemployed for long.
The Detroit Tigers started their 1979 season with Les Moss at the helm, but lurking in the weeds was Sparky Anderson. The Tigers had a young nucleus of players on the team or in the high minors that seemed on the cusp—much like the Reds a decade before.
Sparky came aboard in June 1979 and promised a pennant within five years. They competed in 1983, but finished second to Baltimore in the AL East before putting everything together in 1984. The Tigers began the year with nine straight wins and an incredible 35-5 start, which has never been approached to start a season since.
The Tigers breezed through the postseason, losing only once in two rounds, and clinched the franchise’s fourth, and most recent, World Series title. In the process, Sparky became the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues and delivered on his five-year promise.
Like Sparky’s prior team, the Tigers aged relatively quickly and rapidly fell back to the pack in 1985 and 1986. They nabbed a divisional title in 1987, but were quickly ousted from the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins.
His teams never seriously contended after that. The Tigers held first place in the AL East for several months in 1993, but were ultimately overtaken by the eventual World Champion Toronto Blue Jays.
With baseball coming back after a strike that wiped out half of the 1994 regular season, playoffs, and World Series—Anderson refused to manager a group of replacement players put together by the owners in an attempt to bust the union in Spring Training 1995. Eventually sides agreed to end the strike and regular players and Sparky returned.
But the damage was done. New Tigers’ owner Mike Illitch was said to have been livid with Sparky for that refusal. When Sparky stepped away from the Tigers after the 1995 season, many thought the 61-year-old would get another opportunity to manage, likely for the Angels who were near his hometown in California, but that chance never came.
Some claim that Sparky had been blackballed from managing by owners angry he turned on them during the strike.
The contentiousness between Sparky and the Tigers never seemed to abate during his lifetime. He rarely came back to Detroit—even missing out on the final game at Tiger Stadium in 1999 and entered the Hall-of-Fame as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, although he stated many times while in Detroit that he’d enter as a Tiger.
It wasn’t until after Sparky’s death in 2010 that the franchise finally retired his number 11.
Some knock Sparky’s legacy with Detroit because he only won one World Series and had only two postseason appearances in 17 seasons with the club. It’s worth noting that on the four World Series champions the Tigers have had in their history (’35, ’45, ’68 and ’84) each had a different manager and only Mickey Cochrane won a World Series and took the team to the postseason another year (World Series loss in ’34).
Ultimately, Sparky edged Jim Leyland by one vote for franchise best manager. Although Jim never brought a World Championship to Detroit, fans who remember what this team was prior to his arrival will be forever thankful for the role he played.
Honorable mention goes to Cochrane and Mayo Smith.
Take one final spin through the All-Time Detroit Tigers team by viewing the slideshow. Did we miss anyone? Let us know!