Many in baseball are perplexed by his dying wish that his passing go without traditional observance. Understanding the reason begins with recognizing that Sparky Anderson and George Anderson — Sparky’s given name — were vastly different sides of the same person. George administered last rites to Sparky years ago.
When he and his wife visited a dying friend in a hospital, a priest dropped in to comfort the friend but saw the familiar face sitting across the room and excitedly began talking baseball. George was mortified. He’d been a devout Catholic his entire life, often rising at daybreak to attend Mass. But he decided then and there: no church service when he passed.
George was committed to putting his family first. Sparky was folksy and friendly and a diamond icon as manager of the Reds from 1970 to 1978 and Tigers from 1979 to 1995, but at a cost familiar to many who make baseball a career. He was immersed in the season nine months a year and unable to say no to charity organizers, writers, friends and former players the other three.
Sometimes nothing was left by the time he got home, sometimes he barely recognized who his children had become and they could barely stand who he’d become. But once he took off the uniform for the last time and left the broadcast booth for good, he morphed back into George. He found sturdy common ground with his two sons and daughter, and relished time with his grandchildren, nephews and nieces. As he lay dying Nov. 4, 2010, even through the thick haze of dementia, he knew who he wanted to be in death.
He’d go as George Anderson.
The intent of the Rod Dedeaux Award dinner last week was noble, and giving the honor to Anderson wasn’t contrived: The late Dedeaux — who won 11 national titles as USC baseball coach — had been Sparky’s childhood mentor, and proceeds went to the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy. But the event confirmed that George made the right decision for his family.
Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Doug Harvey, Vin Scully and others reminisced about Sparky, the nickname George took on as a hot-tempered minor league manager in the 1960s and his persona until he retired as one of the most successful big league skippers of all time.
A funeral and memorial would have included a parade of well-meaning baseball people paying homage to Sparky — the Dedeaux Award dinner by a factor of 10. They would have thought they were doing the right thing. They wouldn’t have known better. It would have been miserable for George’s wife of 57 years, Carol, and the kids.
George’s final days were all about family. By his side was his oldest son, Lee, whose long hair and rebelliousness at a time his conservative father enforced strict grooming rules on the Reds in the 1970s was described in Joe Posnanski’s excellent book The Machine.
Lee Anderson, a successful concrete contractor and man of integrity, still wears his hair beyond shoulder length at age 52. George not only learned to accept it, he came to love it dearly because his son’s locks were the same gleaming blast of premature white as his own.
My insight into the Andersons comes from being their neighbors since the 1960s. I played on a 12-year-old team with Lee. My mom and Carol Anderson sold baked goods together to raise money for the Little League. Later I coached Lee’s younger brother, Albert, and their cousin Mike Sheehan, who has remained a lifelong friend. I observed George and I observed Sparky. Then I observed George again.
Throughout our 40-year acquaintance I addressed him only as Mr. Anderson. I’ve been a sportswriter my entire career and never wrote a story about him until now. I didn’t tell him what I did for a living; why complicate a perfectly good friendship with that sort of information? To Mr. Anderson, I was the local guy he called Stevie who coached teenagers year after year as a volunteer. That was something he could respect.
After the infrequent seasons when his team didn’t make the playoffs, he would help out with our fall league. He’d show up in paint-splotched pants, hit mile-high fungoes and give the kids funny nicknames. I’d recklessly wave a runner around second while basecoaching, and after the inning he’d shake his head and say, “Never make the third out of an inning at third base, Stevie. Never.”
The kids would pile into his wood-paneled station wagon and we’d drive to the farm communities of Oxnard and Fillmore for games. Opposing teams would see us approach the field and blink hard: The man with the white hair was instantly recognizable, and the kids would form a single-file line to have him autograph their gloves before we’d play ball.
Days like that blurred the line between George and Sparky. He was there for the love of his son and a love of the game. Nobody called him Captain Hook and nobody expected him to run away with the pennant. Baseball can be a simple pleasure, and Mr. Anderson enjoyed reminding himself of that out of the spotlight in Thousand Oaks.
Home openers at Detroit and Cincinnati this season were odes to both cities’ most successful manager. The Tigers raised a flag with his name on it at Comerica Park and will retire his No. 11 on June 26. The Reds had retired his No. 10 in 2005. Both teams are wearing patches on their jerseys that say “Sparky.”
All are fitting nods to a manager whose 2,194 victories ranks sixth all-time. While he was alive, the ceremony Anderson most cherished besides his Hall-of-Fame induction came Jan. 29, 2006, at a small private school a block from his home. California Lutheran University christened its new baseball stadium the George “Sparky” Anderson field. It was appropriate because his 40-plus year relationship with the school was an effective blend of George and Sparky.
George took brisk early morning walks around the university track with matronly school secretaries and nerdy professors. Sparky held a celebrity golf tournament each year that raised money for the baseball program.
George occasionally sat quietly in the corner of the dugout during practice, and he’d pull aside marginally talented Division III players and whisper sage advice. Sparky would show up at a Cal Lutheran game in February before heading to spring training and sign autographs until the sun dropped behind the Santa Monica Mountains.
Dennis Gilbert, a Chicago White Sox executive and former superagent to Barry Bonds and others, surveyed the well-heeled throng sipping cocktails before taking their seats at the Dedeaux Award dinner. He was disappointed no one from Anderson’s family had come, but he understood.
“Sparky felt uncomfortable at places like this,” Gilbert said. “He’d say, ‘I don’t want to be a greenfly.’ ”
That would have been George talking. Ridding his backyard garden of those plant-sucking greenflies, or aphids, was a challenge he took seriously. Sparky would have had the Dedeaux Award crowd eating out of his hand; George would have avoided it with a polite wave of the same hand.
Sparky was an entertaining speaker, unsophisticated yet insightful, ungrammatical yet pointed. He was best off-script, talking not about baseball but about life. It was then that George’s sensibility sneaked into the message.
A son of Lance Parrish, who caught for the Tigers under Anderson from 1979 through 1986, played at Biola University, another small private Southern California school. Anderson came to the team’s banquet at Parrish’s invitation a few years ago and the coach asked him if he’d say a few words.
“He jumped at the opportunity, which kind of surprised me because he wasn’t asked to do it in advance,” Parrish told The Sporting News. “He poured his heart out to everybody. He talked about the importance of being a good person and caring about people and doing the right thing.
“I don’t think he talked about baseball one sentence, but he let everybody know what was on his heart. It was just a great night.”
One of Anderson’s favorite pieces of wisdom was simply to be nice. “It doesn’t cost a nickel to be nice to people,” he’d say. “It’s something you can give away for free and it means more than a million dollars.”
Since his death, that’s all anyone wanted to express. His former players and friends needed a place and time to say nice things about a man they admired: the great manager Sparky Anderson. A few were able to do so thanks to the Dedeaux family, who knew well the story of the big-eared 14-year-old kid in 1948 that lived a block from the USC campus asking Dedeaux if he could serve as the Trojans’ bat boy.
Dedeaux called him what his mother called him: Georgie. Along the way he became Sparky, an iconic figure who belonged to baseball first and family second. He retired at 61, young for a manager, giving him ample time to adjust his priorities.
The Andersons didn’t need a funeral or a memorial service to convey any of that. Their strength was ensuring that Sparky went quietly. George Anderson rests in peace.