There’s a good chance that Sparky Anderson’s personal code of ethics ruined his career as a baseball manager.
Memories of Sparky have taken on the rose-colored tinge of time, with his number being retired by the Detroit Tigers after his death, and celebrated with a sleeve patch. He is now considered one of the all-time greats, and our website’s very name is a nod to his memoir about the 1984 victory season (though the “Bless you boys” phrase, of course, originated with broadcaster Al Ackerman). None of this is to say Anderson doesn’t deserve all his accolades — he certainly does — but the end of his career with the Tigers was very much a direct result of his actions during the 1994 strike season.
Here in 2018, we’re coming to the end of the tunnel on one of the longest and darkest offseasons in history. Nearly 100 free agents remain unsigned, and there is an ongoing battle of online insults being bandied about between agents, the Commissioner’s office, and players who feel that they are being colluded against. It’s a mess. And it’s making people think that another strike may be looming when the current CBA expires. The ghosts of the lost 1994 season are back, and their chilling presence is enough to scare the most seasoned baseball fan.
It was a depressing time to be a fan. Personally, I was nine years old at the time, and the loss of a full season was enough to disrupt my budding baseball fandom. Losing baseball just as the height of summer excitement was upon us, and ultimately seeing the cancellation of the ‘94 World Series, was a huge blow. The Montreal Expos, considered sure-bets for the World Series, felt cursed. Giants’ slugger Matt Williams would not be able to beat the single season home run record. The Indians had their first season at Jacobs Field cut short.
The players felt the owners were colluding in free agent signing. There was a tainted air of mistrust between players and ownership. This should all sound very familiar.
As the 1995 season loomed, there were questions of how the game could proceed, even if the players refused to agree to terms. Replacement players were suggested, men who would make $5,000 to come to spring training, and $5,000 more if they were on field for opening day. Desperate times, it seemed, called for desperate measures. The season would be slashed to 144 games.
Sparky Anderson, having then been the manager for the Tigers since 1979, was having none of it. Once a player himself, though mostly in the minor leagues, he couldn’t stomach the idea of managing a team of replacement players. Rather than agree to coach the scab team, Anderson took a leave of absence, saying he wouldn’t return until the regular players did. “Please let’s don’t think of such a horror story that we’re going to have baseball with replacement players,” he declared. “I don’t like my intelligence insulted by telling me this is the Detroit Tigers.”
Having stated he would decline his salary — an at the time very impressive $1.2 million — he seemed unconcerned about his career prospects, telling his wife, “I’m the first manager ever to win the World Series with a team in both leagues, we can always get a job.”
His stand would ultimately prove unnecessary, as the strike came to an end on April 2, 1995, prior to Opening Day. Anderson managed the 1995 Tigers for an abbreviated 144 game season. The team went 60-84, finishing fourth in the AL East.
On October 2nd, 1995, Sparky Anderson retired, and in spite of his pre-season boasts, he would never manage another game. It seemed that the events of the 1994 strike, and the behind-the-scenes strife it created between him and the Tigers, was enough to sour Anderson on managing altogether. During an interview with WJR radio he admitted that after the season he told his wife, “If this is what the game has become, it don’t need me no more.”
As spring training looms closer, and there are discussions of a free agent training camp in the air — which has happened in the past — it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the fallout of these kinds of events.
Anderson was one of the best managers in baseball history, ending his career with a 2,194-1,834 record. He won three World Series titles. There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. And to realize that his storied career ended as a direct result of the stand he took in 1995, is a sad testament to the damage that can be done by these types of disputes.
Anderson stood his ground, and at the end of the day he paid the price for it. It would be another fifteen years, and his passing at the age of 76, before the Tigers finally recognized him and the tremendous impact he had on the team.