Sparky the epitome of kindness, compassion

Bodley: Sparky the epitome of compassion

The first time I met Sparky Anderson was in February 1959 at the Phillies' Spring Training camp in Clearwater, Fla.

I walked up to Sparky one morning, stuck out my hand and was taken aback by how gracious he was. I was just a young reporter, in my second year on the beat, and pleasantly surprised that the Phillies' new second baseman would take time for me.

"What can I do for you?" Anderson asked, flashing that contagious smile and convincing me that he was genuinely interested in talking.

I'll never forget that moment. And, apparently, Sparky never forgot it either. Over the years, as our careers moved on, he'd always mention it when I interviewed him or we just exchanged baseball stories.

Sparky Include

A half-century of Sparky vignettes and memories flashed back on Thursday when I learned he had died at age 76.

Sparky Anderson never changed. Not from his rookie spring in Clearwater or the many times I visited with him during Hall of Fame weekends in Cooperstown. (He was inducted in 2000.)

He was destined to become one of the game's greatest managers. He was the first manager to win the World Series in both leagues, to go with his seven division championships, five pennants and 2,194 victories.

Sparky, who called himself "a chronic Minor League infielder," reluctantly realized early in his career that he'd never make it as a player, so he poured himself into studying the intricacies of baseball. He had an uncanny sense for strategy and was obsessed with winning, but above all, he had a knack for dealing with his players.

He made each one of them feel important. Just like he did with me the first time we met.

We often joked about his one season with the dreadful, last-place Phillies in his only stint in the Major Leagues. A huge disappointment after a monster buildup, Sparky batted just .218 in 152 games. He hit no homers and drove in only 34 runs. He spent the remainder of his playing career in the Minors.

"But don't forget that double I hit off the wall against Sandy Koufax," he'd say. "I crushed that ball!"

The Cincinnati Reds hired the virtually unknown Anderson as their manager, replacing Dave Bristol, two days prior to the 1969 World Series ("For just $28,500," he'd often remind me.) He was in Baltimore for the World Series that October, when the Orioles played the Mets.

"If anybody says they knew me then, they're lying," he said. "But I came out of church and somebody yelled my name. I turned around, and can you imagine this? Here's someone, me, who was 35 years old, the youngest manager in both leagues, and when I turned around, it was Yogi Berra. I'll tell you, my stomach turned over, I was so nervous.

"Yogi came over and asked, 'Would you mind if I walk back with you to the hotel?' Can you imagine him doing that to somebody who was a humpty-dumpty? That's when you find out who the real professionals are."

Sparky said that from that moment on, "Every coach in his first year, or every manager who got his first job, I made sure I introduced myself to him and told him, 'Enjoy it. It's going to be a lot of fun.' "

Anderson guided the Reds to the World Series in 1970 and 1972, but it wasn't until 1975 that the Big Red Machine won the championship, beating the Boston Red Sox in seven games. It remains the greatest World Series I've covered. The following year, the Reds swept the Yankees.

His lack of patience with pitchers got him the nickname "Captain Hook." He had a philosophy that his starting pitcher shouldn't be in a position to face the tying run if there were men on base in late innings.

I don't think Sparky ever got over his unexpected firing by the Reds in November 1978. He became the Detroit Tigers' skipper in June 1979, and in 1984, won the World Series over San Diego.

"I always wanted to prove the Reds were wrong in firing me," he said. "When we won the World Series in 1984, I finally felt vindicated."

During a news conference prior to his Hall of Fame induction, Sparky said, "It wasn't until years later I released all the bitterness I should never have allowed to creep into my mind in the first place."

Sparky made it back to Cooperstown for last July's ceremonies, but it was obvious that he was in failing health. It was one of the few public appearances he made during his last months. I sadly wondered then how long he'd be with us.

Sparky had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, but one time, in the middle of an extended interview, I blurted, "Let's cut to the chase, Sparky. What's your real philosophy to successful managing?"

"I didn't tell them how to do it. I showed them how to do it," he replied in all seriousness. "Managers like to make excuses. To me, that's the easy way. The hard way is to show them.

"I always was at the ballpark early. My door was always open to my players. They knew they could talk to me and I could show them how."

Sparky's heart was always in the right place.

When he walked to the podium at Cooperstown on July 23, 2000, he fought back tears as he said, "If you don't think this is the greatest game, then leave, because you're missing it all. It's the greatest game there ever was."

He then added: "When I walk away from here today, I'll never win another game, and I'll never lose another game. In that respect, it's a sad moment for me, knowing I will never get up in front of a group like this again."

Sparky was wrong.

He stepped away from the spotlight that Sunday afternoon, but he will always be what kindness, compassion -- and baseball -- are all about.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.