He Has Some Strong Feelings About the Good, Bad and Ugly
Sparky Anderson, manager of the Detroit Tigers, divides the world into two kinds of people, nice guys and bad guys.
And, as spring training resumes, he doesn’t mind going back to Florida this week because, as he said of the Tigers the other day, “I’ve never been around a nicer group of young men.”
That isn’t the kind of talk one hears from the average baseball manager or football coach--but Anderson isn’t average. He is unconventional, old-fashioned and probably the most successful leader in baseball today. Consider:
Under Anderson the Tigers won the World Series last October, when he became the first to manage world champions in both leagues. Having led Cincinnati to consecutive titles in the 1970s, he has been a winner in his last three World Series.
In all, Anderson has been in five Series in a 15-year career in which his regular-season winning percentage, .580, is the highest of any active manager in the majors and the seventh highest ever. What’s more, his team made the fastest start in major league history last season when the Tigers won 35 of their first 40 games.
Even more remarkable is the way Anderson wins. As perhaps the most unusual champion since Casey Stengel, he has developed a unique managerial formula that is both simple and, he said, rigidly followed. It is a four-part formula:
Each of his players must be a hard and willing worker; each must be a nice guy; each must fully subscribe to Anderson’s 1950s rules of conduct and procedures--no beards, gentlemanly dress, it’s a sin to miss a sign, etc.--and, finally, all who conform get the Anderson publicity treatment, which he calls the key item.
In any case, he thinks his most important function is to tell the world how good his players are. The talent is in them, he assumes, or they wouldn’t be wearing a big-league cap.
“All athletes react the same way to praise,” he said. “It raises their self-confidence. They tell themselves: ‘If the boss thinks I can play, I must be a good player.’ ”
Thus, to Anderson, effective managing is basically making a series of little trades with his players. Those who work hard and behave themselves will get the confidence-building endorsements that enable them to perform regularly at the peak of their ability. This is the Muhammad Ali principle--"I am the greatest"--extended to a ball club.
At Detroit, the trading off is subtly managed. Instead of taking credit, Anderson simply passes it on to his players.
Nor does he take credit for the four pennants he won in four cities in his five years as a minor-league manager--a record that prompted Cincinnati to bring him into the majors at age 35.
“I’m the luckiest guy in baseball,” Anderson said. “It’s weird--I’ve had great players everywhere I’ve managed.”
If so, it also seems likely that Anderson is a classic example of the leader who uses every tool, including psychology, to build ordinary players into good players and good players into stars. Psychology, in fact, may be his most useful tool.
Joe Morgan, who played for Anderson and is now an announcer for the Cincinnati Reds, said that a lot of people know as much about baseball as Anderson does.
“But nobody knows as much about baseball players,” he said. “Nobody.”
An outdoor man with a big, quick smile, Anderson, 51, is a short-statured, solidly built, leathery veteran of one full season of major league ball at Philadelphia, which didn’t ask him back. Instead, at 30, he was an undistinguished second baseman for a triple-A team at Toronto when the owner of the team decided suddenly to install him as manager in 1964, permanently changing the course of Anderson’s career.
The owner was Jack Kent Cooke. Asked what he saw in a young infielder who had never managed anywhere, Cooke, who now owns the Washington Redskins, said:
“He had a rare intensity of purpose and he was a rare student of the game. He had thought out every equation. And (20 years later) he hasn’t changed a jot.”
Since the 1960s, the white-maned manager and his wife, Carol, have lived in Thousand Oaks. Their three children live nearby.
Known as George to his old friends, Anderson was first called Sparky in the minor leagues by a radio announcer who said he saw “sparks flying” during the manager’s angry visits with umpires.
Asked if he is nice to everyone but umpires, Anderson said: “Well, I try to be nice to them, too.”
When he isn’t, he said in an interview, he usually apologizes the next day.
Question: Was Leo Durocher wrong when he said nice guys finish last?
Answer: If good guys always lose, how come John Wooden won? How come Don Shula wins? Chuck Noll? Tom Landry? Dean Smith? Rod Dedeaux? Casey Stengel? Walter Alston? How come Vin Scully wins?
Q: Could these just be the exceptions?
A: It don’t jive with the facts to call them exceptions. I can give you 10 good-guy winners for every bad-guy winner. And bad guys don’t last.
Q: How do you define good and bad guys in a baseball context?
A: Good persons treat other persons like they were important to them. A bad person treats others like they were nothing. A nice guy makes you feel good. A bad guy--you wonder how they’ll make you feel today.
Q: But is a team of nice guys really more likely to win?
A: I think so. People operate better in a pleasant environment than if things are unpleasant. Walk in our clubhouse and you’ll see. Our players like each other. They’re nice to the fans. They’re nice to me. In a long season, when you’re around someone every day for months, it’s hard to be effective if you don’t like them.
Q: Isn’t it true that the players on some winning teams can’t stand each other?
A: So I’ve heard. But I couldn’t operate that way myself. If I don’t enjoy being around you, I can’t operate. There are certain clubs that I couldn’t manage. I just don’t like bad people. When (the players) catch sight of me walking around, I don’t want them saying, ‘Oh, bleep, here comes the boss!’ When a player smiles and says hello, I know I’ve got less to worry about.
Q: What accounts for the grouches and Sphinxes in so many locker rooms these days?
A: It beats me. You’re having your dreams come true in the big leagues--and you aren’t happy? No player in baseball comes from a millionaire’s family. Not one. If you aren’t happy here, making good money for playing a game, where you ever gonna be happy?
Q: That’s the way a lot of sportswriters look at some modern athletes.
A: Hell, I write myself. And if I was on the daily paper, nothing would make me madder than some smart young punk being nasty to me after a game. I mean, I’d be on his tail for the next six months.
Q: Suppose a reporter has unfairly criticized a player.
A: That’s different. That makes a big difference. And I’m gonna do something about it. I’ll call the writer in, sit them down and talk it out, and if I’m mad enough, tell them I’ll throw them out myself if they ever do it again. But that doesn’t happen often in my clubhouse.
Q: Do your players agree with you that nice guys always win?
A: Sure they do. We brought in Darrell Evans from San Francisco last year, and I overheard Larry Herndon talking to Chet Lemon in the clubhouse. Herndon never says two words where one will do, but he had played with Evans, and Lemon must of asked him about the new guy. Herndon pointed toward my office and said: “One of his.” It was the best compliment I got all year.
Q: Do you handle big-league players the way you used to handle minor leaguers when you started out as a manager?
A: It’s about the same. Why do you ask?
Q: Minor-league clubs often have split seasons. And the record shows that your teams finished down the track three times in the first half but always won the second half. Was there a bad guy-good guy explanation?
A: Hard work is the big thing on that level. We outworked the other teams in our league every year. I’m a great believer in morning workouts. We’d work out in the morning and play a game the same day.
Q: Did your players approve?
A: I don’t recall that I asked them. I just knew we had to keep improving, and did. As a player, you know, I came up in the Dodger organization. I was never much of a player, but as a Dodger I did learn how to play, and I can teach them to play.
Q: But not mornings now. You couldn’t get by with that in the majors.
A: No, but spring training is just as important to me. In the big leagues, that’s the last time all year you have an opportunity for intensive workouts, and we make the most of it. Nobody outworks us in the spring.
Q: In pro football last fall, nobody outworked the Minnesota Vikings under their new coach, Les Steckel. But the players rebelled, and eventually Steckel was fired.
A: I’d say he must of had the wrong crew. In my career I’ve been very fortunate--at both Detroit and Cincinnati--in having players willing to work.
Q: If they should feel overworked, do you give them the right of appeal? Can your players bargain with you on the rules--on beards, say, or your airplane dress code?
A: On beards, no. On the dress code, yes. My players have a voice in practically anything they want to talk about. In fact, I sit down with the senior players every year and go over the rules before I give them to the team.
Q: Has a player ever persuaded you to change a rule?
A: Well, I was sitting with four of them in Cincinnati one spring--Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Morgan--when a guy questioned my coat-and-tie travel rule. I think it was Morgan, or maybe Bench. He said it was time to throw the ties out. That was about the time the new shirts with wider collars were coming in. And he said it don’t make sense to insist on ties now. I asked what the others thought, and they all agreed with him. So I said, OK, no problem, I’ll tell the team tomorrow to burn their ties.
Q: Was this greeted with cheers and applause?
A: Well, it’s a funny thing. Little Joe (Morgan) came up to me a few days later and said he and the boys had been talking things over. He said: “Skip, let’s put the ties back on.” I looked at him close and saw he didn’t really mean it. They were just trying not to disappoint me, but by then my mind was made up. I said: “The rule stands, Little Man. I like them new shirts myself.”
Q: How would you handle it if your three best players came to camp wearing beards this month and said they intended to keep wearing them?
A: My best three players?
A: It couldn’t happen. But I’ll be honest with you. If it did, I’d call them in one at a time and ask them to please shave it off as a personal favor to me.
Q: Would they do it?
A: I’ve never known a professional who wouldn’t do me a favor if I asked them to. They might come back someday and ask a favor of me--but that’s all right, too. I’ll trade.
Q: You will?
A: Being a manager is like being a governor or a senator. You can’t get anything done in politics if you don’t trade. And running a team is about the same. When a senator has a pet project, they trade their votes for other votes. Me, I trade favors--if I have to. With a professional, I mean. There’s nothing wrong with trading with a star. I don’t have to trade with non-stars.
Q: What kind of trades are you asked to make?
A: We’ve got an off-day and a guy wants to stay home. They say, “I’ll join the club later.” That’s a bad thing to start--I don’t like to make that trade. I would only do it if I’m cornered. Another guy wants to be an hour late tomorrow. They say, “I’ve got something to do.” In spring training, the kind of favor they want is to get out of a road trip. They say, “I’m tired.” There are trades I make and trades I won’t make.
Q: And apparently, you wouldn’t trade a beard for a million dollars.
A: This is a team. It isn’t tennis or boxing. It’s a 25-man team, and a team has to be cohesive. You can’t have 20 or 21 guys doing the same thing and four or five guys doing their thing. If my players and coaches all voted to wear full beards I’d have to think about it. But I’m not going to have 25 players interpreting the rules 25 ways. On a team, any time you have a guy who wants to do their own thing, they aren’t a professional. They’re a non-professional and I don’t want to be around them.
Q: How do you differentiate between the types?
A: A professional accepts your money and does his job. A non-professional accepts your money and wants to run the club. I’ve never had a problem with a star. The people you have trouble with are the guys that think they’re stars but ain’t.
Q: You’ve managed a long time. Is it just luck that you’ve had the same kind of quiescent, talented players everywhere you’ve been? Or have you had to get rid of a few troublemakers?
A: Let’s say that some of my players have disappeared from time to time. But I’ve never had to disappear a star.
Q: What kind of players are you trying to find? What’s your idea of an ideal person?
A: My ideal is a sociable person, a player that’s easy to be around. But I’ll settle for a player that’s always the same, regardless of whether they’re really sociable. I don’t like players that come in Monday with a smile on their face and come in Tuesday like they’d been hit by a truck. If you’re the quiet type, be still. If you’re a talker, say something. I just want to know where I’m at with a player. It’s when they change up on me that I’ve got problems.
Q: Speaking of problems, you’ll have your share this season against the other teams in your division.
A: Yes, they’ve all improved--especially Baltimore, Toronto, Boston and the Yankees.
Q: And this was already the strongest division in baseball. Are you worried?
Q: Maybe your fans will be more tolerant. They won’t expect you to win 35 of your first 40 games again, will they?
A: No. A fan always hopes you’ll win 40 out of 40.
Q: Realistically, what should Tiger fans look for this season?
A: Everything depends on how the players react to winning the World Series. This might be a better team than I had in Cincinnati, but I always knew how the Reds would react (to winning). I knew they’d be all right. I don’t know what the Tigers will be like. Winning is a new experience for them.
Q: What do they have to do to win again?
A: They’ll need to do what they know they have to do without me harping after them all the time. They’ve got to work harder than ever, dress as decent as ever, and get along with each other--and with the people of Detroit--like they did last year.
Q: And presumably, the manager will also have to have another good year.
A: Managers only manage. It’s the players that win or lose.