COLUMN: Sparky Anderson: SD’s shining diamond
It was about this time last year, with the World Series low on the horizon like an autumn moon, that I drove to Bridgewater to see a baseball field.
It was a warm day, but no one was on the diamond. Still, it was possible to envision a kid named George fielding ground balls and dreaming of the big leagues, just like a lot of us did on dusty South Dakota fields.
George got to live his dream, and he always credited his upbringing in Bridgewater for playing a crucial role. After he became known as Sparky Anderson, the Hall of Fame manager, he maintained a fond spot in his heart for his hometown.
Anderson and his wife, Carol, would come home for reunions, or would stop at a downtown cafe to see old friends. Sparky was a star, but in Bridgewater, he was still George, the painter’s kid, and he liked that.
Anderson died three years ago after a battle with dementia. For more than a quarter century, he was one of the most successful managers in baseball history. It seemed fitting that he waited to die until after the World Series that year.
Both teams he managed, the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers, made the playoffs this season. While Sparky managed the “Detroits,” as he called his team, more than twice as long as he ran the Reds, his heart was always with the Big Red Machine.
A wiry, hot-headed infielder, Sparky — he earned the nickname — played one year in the big leagues, hitting just .218 with no homers for a last-place Phillies team in 1959.
He was a bush league player and manager for 17 years. Sparky was a third-base coach for the Padres when he was offered the Cincinnati manager’s job. He was great from the start, as the 1970 Reds won 102 games and made the World Series.
He was the first South Dakotan to don a uniform in the Fall Classic and went back four more times. Sparky won seven division titles, five pennants and three World Series. The 1975-76 Reds, with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, won back-to-back titles and may be the greatest team ever.
The Reds fell short in 1977 and ’78, and Sparky was fired, which stunned him. But he took over the woeful Tigers in mid-1979, and said he had a five-year plan. Sure enough, Detroit started the 1984 season 35-5, and breezed to the championship.
Sparky led the Tigers for another 11 years before he retired. He then stayed home, played golf daily, and loved to retrieve lost golf balls and tell old stories about baseball.
Strangely enough, I was reading one of Sparky’s books and planning to write a story or column about him in October 2010.
I learned of his declining health through an email exchange with his best friend, writer Dan Ewald, who co-wrote two Anderson biographies and produced another book about their relationship. Ewald said Sparky remained deeply fond of his hometown, but would be unable to discuss it with me. I wish I’d tried a year or two earlier.
In Bridgewater, the native son’s face smiles on a sign by that diamond. It’s called Sparky Anderson Field.
Fourth-generation South Dakota native Tom Lawrence has been writing about the state since 1978. Write him at email@example.com, and read his blog at sdprairie.blogspot.com. His column publishes Tuesdays.