Not all men are meant to play baseball.
The former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Dale Petrosky, used to love to articulate the numbers of how many boys started playing Little League baseball, shaving that number down, level by level, all the way to the hallowed few actually enshrined in Cooperstown.
George “Sparky” Anderson made it further along the path than most players do. As a second baseman, he spent most of his career in the minors before one precious year in the big leagues with the 1959 Philadelphia Phillies. He hit for a .218 average over 152 games and committed only 12 errors in the field.
And while he never again played in the majors beyond that year, Sparky had only scratched the surface of what would become his indelible mark on the game.
In his diminutive frame, Sparky packed a passion for baseball that drove him to become one of the greatest managers in the history of the game. He sat at the helm of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s winning two World Series with the Cincinnati Reds. Later in 1984, his Detroit Tigers roared out of the gate to a 35-5 start and never looked back as wire-to-wire champions, making Sparky the first manager to win a World Series in both the American and National Leagues.
His small stature and hyper competitiveness gave him an air of feistiness that would have given his disagreements with umpires a comical appearance if not for the bulging veins in his forehead.
Yet everyone on his team, especially the pitchers, knew who was in charge when the little white-haired man would make a slow walk to the mound, gingerly step over the third base line and insist on the ball from his pitcher. Those frequent walks and short leashes with his pitchers earned him the second nickname of “Captain Hook.”
The intensity that Sparky brought to the game finally caught up with him in 1989. Losses started to pile up and his obsession with winning became an overwhelming and inescapable vortex. He finally agreed to take a month long leave of absence, but once he returned, he was never the same. The Tigers finished over .500 only twice in his remaining six years as manager.
Despite his inner turmoil, Sparky will be remembered by many (though perhaps not umpires or relief pitchers) as one of the great gentlemen of the game. He could talk endlessly in his unique cobbled dialect about the game he loved, and it came across as a humble appreciation of the fans and the game.
Managers like Bobby Cox and Joe Torre have already passed Sparky on the all-time wins list, and others will follow them. But Sparky set the standard for a modern day manager, both in his demand for excellence and as an ambassador for baseball.
Not all men are meant to play baseball, but few live with it in their veins like Sparky Anderson did.