Faithful soldier Moss stepped aside for Sparky in ’79

Les Moss managed the Tigers for just 53 games in 1979 before being replaced by Sparky Anderson.

When you have a chance to get a manager who’s won multiple World Series titles and seems destined for the Hall of Fame, you can’t afford to hesitate. Even if it means you have to shove aside a loyal employee.

That was the scenario for Detroit Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell in June of 1979. Sparky Anderson, fired unceremoniously the previous off-season by the Cincinnati Reds, was on the open market. The California Angels and San Diego Padres were hot in pursuit, but when Campbell got a whiff of that, he jumped into action. Quickly, Campbell was able to get Sparky to agree to come to Detroit, under one condition: the grey-haired manager wanted a long-term deal. It came in the form of a five-year contract. But first, Campbell would have to get rid of his current manager, a proud baseball man with more than 35 years in the game, but who had been skipper of the Tigers for just two months.

Les Moss had earned his shot at a big league job. In 1978 he had been named the Manager of the Year in the American Association, and The Sporting News also named him Minor League Manager of the Year. In seven years as a manager in the minor leagues (all with the Angels and Tigers organizations), Moss had never finished lower than third and had won a pair of pennants. He’d also managed for 12 seasons in the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, managing eight championship clubs.

In September of 1978, when Ralph Houk announced he would retire in the off-season, Moss was Campbell’s top choice to fill the vacancy. He’d paid his dues, proved he was a winner, and was a loyal organization man. One scribe called Moss “a faithful soldier.” Moss was brought in to take over a young and emerging Tigers team that featured young players like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jason Thompson, Dave Rozema, Steve Kemp, Jack Morris, and Lance Parrish. This was the core of what would become a championship club in the 1980s.

But Moss would not be there to see the young Tigers win, in fact he’d only preside over 27 Detroit victories in his nine weeks at the helm. The club was 27-26 on June 12 when Campbell made the stunning announcement that Sparky was coming to Detroit. The news shocked the baseball world: few experts thought Anderson would be back on the bench in 1979, thinking he’d sit out one year to weigh his options, ultimately taking a high profile job. The Tigers, though young and promising, were not the big market that most thought Sparky would want to go to.

But Anderson liked what he saw on the Detroit roster and he liked Jim Campbell. He also liked the five-year guaranteed deal. Sparky was still stinging from his firing at the hands of the Reds. “I’ll never make the mistake of finishing second again,” he’d said sarcastically after he was exiled from Cincinnati, where he’d won four pennants and World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 during a nine-year run.

By all accounts, Moss took his firing like the professional that he was. A no-nonsense disciplinarian, in his short stint with Detroit his players had given him the nickname “Sieg Heil” behind his back. Moss ran a tight ship, and the Tigers would soon learn that Sparky did too. But they hardly got to know Moss in Detroit before he was gone. He’d managed many of the young Tigers in the minors, but only for a year or so before they moved on. Now, Moss was out of a job in baseball for the first time since he signed his first contract as a heralded 17-year old catcher out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1941. He spent 13 seasons in the big leagues as a useful catcher, known for his defense, though he did hit as many as 14 homers in a season. He spent most of his career with the St. Louis Browns.

With his successful record as a minor league manager and pitching coach, Moss wasn’t unemployed for long. In July he was hired to be the minor league pitching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs, serving with that organization for three seasons. He then spent nine years with the Houston Astros, most of them as the pitching coach at the major league level. He worked his final season in baseball as a minor league instructor for the San Francisco Giants in 1995 – it was his 55th season in baseball. Moss turns 87 tomorrow.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.