George “Sparky” Anderson (1934-2010)

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A couple of quick thoughts on the sudden passing of Sparky Anderson:

One of my more prized possessions is an autographed copy of “They Call Me Sparky,” which he wrote with longtime friend Dan Ewald in 1998. Any chance to talk to Sparky was great. I’d give him a call at his home in Thousand Oaks, his wife Carol would answer, and then, holding the phone, yell out, “George, it’s for you!”

For that book review, I wrote:

In the introduction to his autobiography, Sparky Anderson offers an apology.

“I don’t always get the right word in the right place at the right time,” he writes.

Except in 256 pages of “They Call Me Sparky,”‘ (with Dan Ewald, Sleeping Bear Press, $24.95), the future Hall of Fame baseball manager gets his point across so succinctly, it’s perfectly elegant.

Far from a collection of as-told-to zany stories from his days screaming at umpires, the essence of Anderson’s work is captured in just 11 words from page 5 – “I ain’t no better than anybody else. And neither are you.”

He then explains why that’s so.

Anderson seems most disturbed by those who’ve set themselves apart from others because of their accumulated wealth. But the other virtues he wants to emphasis – discipline, determination, staying true to oneself, taking time to understand others, honesty and humor – are all made in relation to how they’ve come up in his life experiences.

The most telling chapter is how he decided not to manage replacement players during the spring of 1995, which leads a discussion about loyalty. The most revealing chapter about his personality is in one called “A Bogey and A Smile,” about how he plays golf with his pals at the Sunset Hills Country Club, about five miles from the Thousand Oaks home he’s lived in with his wife, Carol, for the last 30 years.

The book alternates between chapters where Anderson’s voice is the narration and where co-author Ewald, the former Detroit Tigers’ publicist, summarizes points in Anderson’s career. Those chapters are supplemented with interviews/testimonials from many of Anderson’s former Cincinnati Reds and Tigers players, as well as friends like former President Gerald Ford.

If the striking black-and-white portrait of Anderson on the jacket cover isn’t suitable enough for framing then the final italicized paragraph – a quote from Anderson – should be. He says:

“All I ask of all you young people is that you never make money your one goal in life. Make people your life. And I promise you what a wonderful life it will be. Love life . . . and it will love you.’”

No need to apologize for that.

Sparky later signed a copy of the book for me:

To “Tom”
Thank you for writing a piece about me. This was an honest book and thanks for knowing that. Good luck with everything you do in the years ahead.
Sparky.

Note, the quotes were around my name and not his.

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In the mid ’90s, he was hired by Prime Sports to work as an Angels game analyst with Steve Physioc. Many didn’t remember that Anderson agreed to be a coach with the Angels in 1970 under manager Lefty Phillips, who once signed him to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract, but then the Cincinnati Reds offered him their managerial job, which he took at age 36.

Physioc, doing the play-by-play, would show up to the games with all kinds of paperwork, press guides and clips. Sparky would show up with a pipe, a leather pouch full of tobacco and a lighter. He was never going to second-guess the Angels manager, who at the time was Marcel Lachemann, one of his childhood friends from Dorsey High School.

He gave me these answers to some questions about his role as a broadcaster:

== “I don’t look like an announcer. I’m not a broadcaster. And I understand the Peter Principle very well. When you get out of your league, and you think you know, you get hammered. When we think people can just walk in from my field and truly be a professional broadcaster, that can’t be. Those people all went to school, studied it. When you have to do play-by-play . . . to me, that’s tough.”

== On his prep work: “I don’t prepare for anything. I think you have to answer what you see, not what you prepare for. If you have to prepare, it’s a Broadway show.”

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== On his syntax: “My English is very poor. I don’t try to kid anyone, but I don’t try to change it because that’s who I am. I think what I see. I’m not always right, but if it’s what you think, it’s what you have to do.”

== On second-guessing a manager: “If people want to hear it, they won’t hear it from me. (A manager) knows his club. Say, Jimmy Smith, we’ll use, don’t like to pitch in the eighth inning. I can’t tell that to the media. I’d ruin him forever. But I had many players who didn’t want to be part of the action (in key situations). What a manager chooses to do will be right because that’s his feeling. I’d possibly go the other way, but that wouldn’t make me any righter than him.’”

== On whether Anderson was a modern-day version of Casey Stengel in the booth, and trying to figure out how Stengel-ese would work on TV: “Knowing Casey, he’d over-talk. I hope I don’t make that mistake.”

One thing did, however, come back on him. Sparky once referred to a base-running play that looked like “a Chinese fire drill.” He really didn’t see how it could be interpreted as offensive, but he understood that some where, and he apologized.

He stayed with the Angels’ gig for a couple of years and was even talked about as a possible managerial candidate. A heart bypass operation in 1999 seemed to quiet those talks.

I’d see him at some local charity golf events — most recently at the one Ross Porter Jr. did for his Stillpoint Family Resources event at Calabasas Country Club. But the funniest moment was having him in a group I played with at Riviera Country Club, for Jim Hill’s charity event. Sparky, who has for years been hard of hearing, was in a cart with Bill Sharman, the former Lakers coach who for years has had trouble with his voice.

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Watching the two of them trying to hold a conversation was priceless.

Just listening to Sparky was even better.

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