Few baseball men – if any – respected the game more than Sparky Anderson. Though he had a passion for winning that fueled his career as a big league skipper and belied his genial, smiling demeanor, above all Sparky had great respect for the national pastime.
There was one time when Sparky blew his top when he thought a team was making a mockery of the game. It involved the fastest and most daring base stealer in baseball, and one of the cockiest and most disliked managers the game has ever seen. When the incident occurred, all three of them were in the middle of a storm of cussing and finger-pointing.
It was 1982 and the Tigers were playing out the string in late August, idling along with a record just over .500 in the middle of the pack in the AL East. On this Tuesday afternoon they were at Oakland Alameda County Stadium to play the Athletics in the finale of a two-game series in the middle of a nine-game west coast road trip. Both teams were out of the playoff chase and had a day off the following day. They wanted nothing more than a clean, quick ballgame so they could get started on a 24-hour respite. But three of the biggest names in the ballpark were destined to collide that afternoon.
The A’s pounced in the first inning when Henderson, their flashy 23-year old leadoff man, drew a walk from Tiger starter Jerry Ujdur. Rickey promptly stole second base, and one batter later he swiped third base too on the back end of a double steal. Rattled, Ujdur uncorked a wild pitch and Henderson raced home. A walk, another stolen base, a ground out, and a fly ball produced two more runs and the A’s had a 3-0 lead without having collected a hit.
The style of play was right out of the playbook of Oakland manager Billy Martin, who had guided his club to one of the best records in baseball the previous year behind Henderson and a formidable pitching rotation. Playing their brand of “Billy Ball,” the daring A’s had three players who would steal at least 25 bases that season.
Martin allowed Henderson to run free, giving him the green light to swipe a bag whenever he chose. Rickey took the liberty to heart, and after stealing those two bases in the first inning against Ujdur he had an incredible 117 for the season. The single-season record was well within his sight: 118 by Lou Brock. Henderson desperately wanted that record, and he hoped to break it at home. The weekday afternoon game against the Tigers was his final chance to break Brock’s mark before the A’s embarked on an 11-day road trip. Martin was well aware of this fact, of course, and encouraged his speedster to let it all hang out.
In his next two at-bats, Henderson flied out. Ujdur settled down and started to mow through the Oakland batting order. The game was still 3-0 and Ujdur had allowed just two scratch singles as the A’s came to the plate for their half of the 8th. Fred Stanley led off with a walk and Henderson followed with a single to left field that advanced Stanley to second. This late in the game it was apparent that this might be Henderson’s last chance to steal the two bases he needed to set the record in front of his hometown fans. Stanley, a frail looking fellow who was nicknamed “The Chicken” because of his odd walk and skinny torso, danced off second base. Ujdur quickly realized that Stanley was way too far off the bag and fired to shortstop Alan Trammell. Stanley bolted to third but Trammell tossed the ball to Enos Cabell, who chased Stanley back to second where Lou Whitaker took the final thrown and applied a tag on the Oakland runner. Meanwhile, Henderson stood perched on his bag. There was now one out with Henderson on first. Good news for the Tigers, right? Not so fast.
Before the tag was applied to Stanley, the Tiger manager was already on the top step of the visitors’ dugout hollering across the diamond. Who was Sparky yelling at? Anyone who would listen. He pointed at Stanley, gestured at the umpires, and screamed every foul word he knew at Martin.
The Oakland manager pulled his best “Who me?” act as he started his way up the dugout steps. The two managers proceeded to trade insults across the diamond, while Stanley, Henderson, and the players on the field looked on in confusion.
Sparky was furious at what he saw as a deliberate attempt by Stanley and the A’s to clear the bases in front of Henderson so he could try to set a record. Martin and Stanley had broken an unwritten rule of baseball: don’t show up your opponent. It made the white-haired Tiger skipper hopping mad.
Eventually, Sparky was guided back to his dugout seat by a pair of umpires, but his face was still fire engine red. It might have curled into a grin after what happened next.
A few pitches later, Henderson sprung and dashed his way to second base, seeking stolen base #118 and a tie with Brock. Ujdur delivered his pitch to catcher Bill Fahey (filling in for starter Lance Parrish that day), who bolted out of his crouch and fired the ball to Trammell. The peg was there in plenty of time and Trammell slapped the ball on Henderson.
Sparky was delighted. Martin, Henderson, and the A’s were foiled. Rickey would have to break the record another day. Though the drama was over in a game that finished with Oakland winning 3-0, Detroit’s manager was still bristling after the final out.
“That man [Stanley], should be run out of the game,’ Sparky said to reporters. “There’s no place in the game of baseball for that sort of thing. [I’ve] been in this game too long to let something like that go, and he [Martin] knows it.”
Martin didn’t have anything printable to say to Sparky that afternoon. His team had won a meaningless game, but his star player had been denied a chance to break a record in his home park, in spite of the devious efforts of the manager and one of his teammates.
For Sparky Anderson it was justice. One of baseball’s unwritten rules had been threatened, but in the end the integrity of the game had been upheld.