Was Sparky Anderson blackballed by Major League Baseball?

With the whispers surrounding  manager Brad Ausmus, writers and fans have been speculating on who is the best candidate to lead Mike Ilitch’s team in the coming seasons should Ausmus get then axe.

Will it be someone who has led a team to the World Series or will the Detroit Tigers take a chance with another young baseball mind without any managerial experience?

More than 20 years ago the Tigers accepted the “resignation” of their Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson who had led the team for 16+ seasons while capturing the franchise’s last World Championship in 1984.

Was only 61 when he left the Tigers

The Tigers replaced the beloved manager with Buddy Bell who had never managed in the big leagues.

However, the hiring of the unproven former third baseman was not nearly as surprising as the fact that Anderson was never offered another managerial position. Not one.

When Sparky Anderson announced on October 2, 1995 that he would not return as the Detroit skipper, the then third-winningest manager in baseball history was only 61 years old.

Hired by Cincinnati in October, 1969 at age 35, and without any major league managerial experience, George “Sparky”Anderson led the “Big Red Machine” to four national league pennants and two world championships in just nine seasons. When he led Detroit to the World Championship in 1984 he became the first manager in baseball history to win titles in both leagues.

Few would have guessed (including Anderson) that he had managed his last game on October 1, 1995 in a 4-0 loss at Baltimore.

His 2,194 career wins at the time was third on the all-time career list behind Connie Mack and John McGraw and he is still the only man to have the most career victories for two franchises, 863 with Cincinnati (1970-1978) and 1,331 with Detroit. (1979 to 1995.)

Sparky was also a dream for any team’s PR department as he developed a close relationship with fans and was by all accounts a “media darling” for being so accessible to the press while willing to provide wonderful quotes that helped sell newspapers.

Sparky wouldn’t manage replacement players

So why wasn’t Sparky Anderson ever hired again by a major league team?

Simply put, it has been strongly speculated that Anderson was blackballed by the baseball establishment for committing what became his “sin” but one that he said was the proudest thing he ever did in baseball.

As a player strike continued into the 1995 spring training, the major league clubs hired replacement players and threatened to begin the regular season with castoffs that were hardly major league caliber.

Sparky would have none of it.

Anderson became the only big league manager to challenge the owners when he refused to manage replacement players in spring training.

He was then placed on an unpaid leave of absence by Tiger owner Mike Ilitch who reportedly was talked out of firing the popular skipper by team president John McHale who knew it would be a public relations fiasco especially since the team was struggling to obtain public financing for a new baseball stadium. The move would cost Anderson $150,000 in salary, and even though he returned when the season started without replacement players, he never received the money back.

Sparky shared his position in his 1998 memoir written with Dan Ewald, They Call Me Sparky (Sleeping Bear Press):

“Strange, but it was the proudest moment of my career. I couldn’t believe grown men who are supposed to have common sense could actually come up with the idea of using replacement players. They were actually going to bring in some guys who never played in eight to ten years and call it major league baseball! What about the history of the game? What about integrity? We were willing to sacrifice our history and everything we believed in all on account of money! Well not me! If the owners thought I betrayed them they missed the whole point. That wasn’t the case at all. The only thing I wouldn’t do was betray baseball. I wasn’t going to try to fool the fans who pay for the games.”

Renowned baseball writer Tom Boswell predicted that Sparky Anderson would be blackballed in his February 21, 1995 Washington Post column, penned during Anderson’s walk out from the franchise. Boswell wrote in part:

“… A future Hall of Famer has crossed baseball’s imaginary picket line: Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. However, to the owner’s amazed and infuriated embarrassment, Sparky went the wrong way! He didn’t come in. He went out. To his lasting credit, the most famous, colorful, and respected manager in the game refused to run a scab team. This is a moral fable that will grow in time. In 2095 fans will still tell the tale of the manager who jeopardized his job — and risked being blackballed out of a chance to break the all-time record for wins by a manager, rather than disrespect the game he loved. By taking no stand, Anderson would have remained baseball’s honorary Good Old Boy No. 1 indefinitely. As the game’s modern day Stengel, he could always have found some team, somewhere, glad to have him, if only to boost public relations. Now, unless baseball’s venomous backroom politics change overnight, Sparky’s employment chances have shrunk by 50 to 99%.”

Quit rather than be fired

Knowing that Ilitch did not want him back and having become disillusioned, Anderson held a news conference the day after the last game of the 1995 season and announced that he was quitting the Tigers.

But though he was exiting the Tigers, Sparky made it clear to reporters that he wanted to manage again. He told the Detroit Free Press:

“I don’t want to go to any rebuilding project. Oh, no. No more. I’d like to go back to winning some games but I would only manage again under my conditions. I have complete say in my coaches, that’s number one. I keep who I want on my team and I don’t have to keep nobody I don’t want. Also, nobody interferes with my clubhouse.”

The call never came.

In 1995 there were managerial openings with the Yankees, Athletics, Cardinals, Orioles, and Reds but Anderson never received a phone call.

The idea that the baseball establishment would collude to never hire the “recalcitrant” Sparky Anderson is not at all far fetched when you consider that a few years earlier the owners were found to have colluded in not signing free agents, eventually paying damages of $280 million.

Author Mark Frost in his book Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime (Hyperion 2009) wrote that because Anderson stood up against the owners and refused to manage replacement players that he may have been blackballed by major league baseball.

“I was certainly surprised that Sparky was never offered another managerial position because it didn’t make sense,” Dan Ewald, Anderson’s co-author, closest friend, and adviser told me in an interview for Baseball Digest a couple of years ago. “We didn’t talk a lot about it after the initial surprise and we couldn’t comprehend it so why try?”

Anderson addressed the issue in his memoir with a somewhat ambiguous answer:

“First of all, I ain’t been blackballed. People are free to think whatever they want. All I know is I spent 43 years in the greatest game God ever gave us. If that ain’t enough to be grateful for then somebody better tell me what I missed. Even if it was true, what difference does it make? I couldn’t change it anyway so what’s the sense in worrying?”

Anderson’s stellar managerial record stands for itself and he was formally recognized when in his first year of eligibility in 2000 he became the 16th manager inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Despite Anderson’s impressive career statistics and World Championships, we should all agree with Sparky’s self assessment that his proudest moment was standing up to the baseball establishment by not managing replacement players in order to protect the integrity of the game.

For that he paid the price with what may very well be one of baseball’s darkest and dirtiest little secrets.



About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.