I can clearly remember the bright June day in 1979 when the Tigers fired their manager of only two months, Les Moss, and replaced him with Sparky Anderson, who was fired from the Reds the previous winter.
Upon hearing the news on WJR I ran over to the playground where my brother was playing basketball to tell him the news. He wasn’t as excited as I was, but he was happy the Tigers went after a big-name manager. In fact, Sparky was the first star coach or manager hired by any Detroit team.
By hiring Sparky, at least to my then 11-year-old mind, the Tigers were going to be good at last. Finally, I told my Dad, a good manager. He was quick to remind me that a manager is only as good as his players and that the Tigers “didn’t have the horses” to compete in the American League East.
Long-time first-base coach Dick Tracewski managed the Tigers for a few days until Sparky would arrive. Through some twist of fate I can’t recall, I ended up attending Sparky’s first game with the Tigers — sitting in the deepest part of the upper deck in right field. When Sparky ran out with the lineup card he received a standing ovation.
For the first few games in a Tigers uniform, he wore number seven but soon changed it to 11 because he said that seven was Mickey Mantle‘s number and added, “I ain’t no Mickey Mantle.”
(To this day it’s a crime that the Tigers haven’t retired his number. But Ian makes this case better than I.)
The 1984 season will always be remembered as Sparky’s enduring gift to Detroit and to Tigers fans everywhere. But for me, the 1987 season was just as thrilling in many ways. After 30 games the club was just 11-19 and looked tired. Then they woke up and hung around the top of the A.L. East before sweeping the Blue Jays during the final weekend of the season to win the division.
A few years later I sneaked into the Tigers’ Winter Caravan in Kalamazoo and asked Sparky about that ’87 team. “Of all the teams I’ve managed, that’s the one I’m most proud of,” he said. “No one gave us a chance and we shocked them all.”
People say that by winning the World Series in ’84 Sparky got a lifetime pass in Detroit. There’s probably some truth to that. After all, the Tigers’ record from 1985-95 was just 852-864 — not dazzling but not enough to get Sparky Anderson fired. That just wasn’t going to happen in Detroit.
When he left Detroit, I suspected Sparky would have one more managerial job. I thought maybe the Dodgers or Angels or Padres would call at some point. They didn’t and as a result he enjoyed his retirement in Thousand Oaks, Calif., playing golf and, as he always said, being in his pajamas by 7 p.m.
Since he was hired in 1979, Detroit has had many star coaches — Chuck Daly, Scotty Bowman, Steve Mariucci, Larry Brown, Jacques Demers — but none were brighter nor beloved more than the first.