Reds pay tribute to leader of Big Red Machine

Reds pay tribute to leader of Big Red Machine

CINCINNATI -- Sure, George Anderson was born in South Dakota, spent most of his life living in Southern California and had a successful managerial run in Detroit, but to Reds fans, Sparky Anderson belonged to Cincinnati.

Anderson, the Hall of Fame manager who died Thursday at the age of 76 following complications from dementia, had his iconic career begin with the Reds. From 1970-78, there was no one in the game that was better. After all, this was the man who helmed the Big Red Machine -- one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history.

"One of the all-time greats," Reds Hall of Fame radio voice Marty Brennaman said Wednesday when word came that Anderson was in hospice care. "I laugh at anyone that says they could have managed those Reds teams. The hell they could. There were a lot of egos in that clubhouse. They had to find a way to make it work before they got on the field."

Those clubs included Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez and included greats Pete Rose, George Foster and Davey Concepcion. Under Anderson, the Reds won five division titles, four National League pennants and back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and '76.

Sparky Include

"Baseball lost an ambassador today," Rose said in a statement. "Sparky was, by far, the best manager I ever played for. He understood people better than anyone I ever met. His players loved him, he loved his players, and he loved the game of baseball. There isn't another person in baseball like Sparky Anderson. He gave his whole life to the game."

"All of baseball mourns the passing of one of the game's all-time great managers and ambassadors," Reds president/CEO Bob Castellini said in a statement. "In one way or another, he touched the life of every Reds fan. Every person who visits our ballpark and Hall of Fame is reminded of his contribution to the success of this proud franchise. We offer our prayers and support to Sparky's friends and family during this difficult time."

Although already silver haired, Anderson arrived in Cincinnati as a 36-year-old with one season as a marginal Major League player on his resume and many years in the Minors as both a player and manager. But he immediately commanded the respect of his players.

"When he came to Cincinnati, he was up from the Minor Leagues. He took over like he had managed 10 years in the big leagues," Perez said by phone on Wednesday. "He told us what he wanted to do and we followed him. That's why we won so many games. Before he was there, we could hit but struggled with our pitching. After he took over, he really took care of the pitching staff."

In that first season in 1970, the Reds won 102 games under Anderson but lost to the Orioles in the World Series. He would become their all-time wins leader with an 863-586 record (.596). Overall, he amassed 2,194 wins -- good for sixth all time.

Perez and Foster credited Anderson with helping them take their games to another level.

"I was a good player and a good hitter, but he taught me how to be confident," Perez said. "The way Sparky talked to you and all of the guys, he gave you confidence to go and do your best for the club. He was always thinking about the ballclub first."

"He gave me the opportunity to play on a regular basis and confidence," Foster said. "He encouraged me to improve my game. He would tell me I'm better than that or to be all I could be."

But the humble Anderson never took credit for the club's success.

"The players make the manager, it's never the other way," Anderson was renowned for saying.

But this manager underrated himself in many ways. His often shrewd way of handling pitchers created an era of higher bullpen use and situational relievers that still exists today.

"Sparky and I had quite a few conversations about pitching philosophy, and the way he used his bullpen was the key to his success," former Reds pitcher Gary Nolan said. "He was like a father to the guys on the team, a heck of a leader and a great baseball mind."

Anderson earned the nickname "Captain Hook" for not giving his starters a long leash when things got tough.

"He didn't realize the importance of his role, like being willing to take pitchers out," Foster said. "Guys today might be afraid to hurt some feelings. He was out there to win a ballgame. He took advantage of his players and coaches. He was in tune with everybody and didn't feel like he knew it all."

Under Anderson, the Reds had only one losing season -- 79-83 in 1971 -- and it was with a club beat up by injuries. After that, the club won at least 95 games in each of the next five seasons. Cincinnati was back in the World Series by '72, but it lost to Oakland.

The World Series wins of 1975-76 cemented Anderson's legend in Cincinnati and made his departure all the more tortured for the city. Following a 92-win, second-place season in '78, Anderson was dismissed by general manager Dick Wagner. An unpopular executive, Wagner loathed the rise of free agency and dismantled the Big Red Machine. In the process, he jettisoned the real leader that made them go.

"I think there was conflict between the manager and general manager," Foster recalled. "Dick Wagner didn't want Sparky to be bigger than him."

By then, Anderson was already a star manager and it didn't take long for him to become a pop culture attraction. In 1979, he appeared as a guest on "WKRP in Cincinnati" as himself. The fictional radio station landed him as a sports talk show host.

Unlike the Reds, Sparky's "show" didn't work out or last very long. By the end of the episode, he was let go, again -- this time by bumbling station boss Arthur Carlson.

"I must be nuts," Anderson told Carlson. "Every time I come into this town, I get fired."

Anderson confirmed his stature in the game when his Tigers club won the World Series in 1984. At the time, he was the first manager to win World Series in both the American and National Leagues. He would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, five years after his 1995 retirement.

As great of a manager as Anderson was, his beloved popularity in Cincinnati was as much about quality of the person. Often smiling and enthusiastic, he had a reputation for being an everyman for everybody that was never too busy to talk.

"He was a communicator and communicated with his players," Foster said. "Off the field, it didn't stop. He was a communicator in everyday life. In crowds, everyone gravitated towards him."

"Sparky was a gentleman, especially with the fans and the people around him," Perez said. "He knew he needed all those people to be successful. What he did was great."

Brennaman was a first-time, big-time big league broadcaster when he joined the Reds in 1974, replacing Al Michaels. He recalled a good working and personal relationship that formed because of the way Anderson treated him.

"He never has a harsh word for anyone," Brennaman said. "He was always gracious to the fans. He's a very special person in how he relates to people and how they relate to him. I compare him to [former radio partner] Joe Nuxhall, eminently successful people with no ego at all. Their popularity is off the charts because they were so good to people.

"He would look you in the eye, answer all your questions. It was as if you were the most important person in the world to him. Knowing him for 37 years, it was not an act. People could wonder if it wasn't the real George Anderson but it was. He loves people. He laughs easily and has a great sense of humor. He's just the kind of person that anybody with a semblance of celebrity would aspire to be like."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.