The Main Spark

The Main Spark... That was the title of a book written some years ago about Sparky Anderson and the Big Red Machine. And while that powerhouse (Geez... Morgan, Bench, Rose, Perez, Foster, Griffey, etc., etc. Bleeping Pete Rose was the THIRD best player on that team.) could have won more than two World Series, there's no denying, unlike the 2010 Giants, "that team REALLY was loaded."

Maybe almost anyone could have managed that crew to five (six, if you count John McNamara's 1979 team) divisional titles. Maybe Sparky did cost them a bunch of games (as Bill James once claimed). Maybe another manager would have gotten even more out of them. Maybe. But, there's also no denying that Sparky Anderson was a fine manager. Two reasons come to mind. One, until Tom Seaver showed up halfway through the 1977 season (and by then it was ultimately too late to save Sparky's job), Sparky not only didn't have an ace to lead with, his top pitchers were a bunch of guys like Gary Nolan, Fred Norman, Jack Billingham, Pat Zachry, Don Gullett, and the like. In other words, they were a bunch of journeymen. No wonder Sparky got the nickname "Captain Hook," because he was always pulling those journeymen from the game before they could blow the leads Morgan, Bench and Rose bestowed upon them. And, two, anyone who lasts as long as a manager as Sparky did by definition pretty well has to be a fine manager.

Look at it this way… a player who really isn't all that hot can hang around for a long time, if he's real good at one phase of the game; Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith come to mind first under this heading. Rabbit Maranville. Brooks Robinson, especially late in his career. But, a manager who can't cut it, he usually gets fired real quickly. Maybe he gets re-hired a couple of times, thanks in part to baseball's Good Old Boy Network, but eventually the word gets out. And he doesn't manage long enough to run up a lot of wins. As the old saying goes, you can fire the manger, but you can't fire the whole team.

If you're a manager who keeps getting re-hired, or, more likely, who stays in one or two places for a long time, like Anderson (in Cincy and Detroit ) and Tony LaRussa, for instance, then, almost by definition, you're a pretty good manager. Yes, there have been a few guys who were blessed with invariably managing great teams for the balance of their careers – Joe McCarthy, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and John McGraw are examples of that. But, if you stick around for 2000 wins, just by the weight of your team's accomplishments, you've got to be pretty good. With one notable exception, these guys were all pretty good.


Connie Mack               3731

John McGraw              2763

Tony LaRussa              2638

Bobby Cox                  2504

Joe Torre                     2326

Sparky Anderson          2194

Bucky Harris                2158

Joe McCarthy              2125

Walter Alston               2040

Leo Durocher               2008

By one of those coincidences that make baseball such a great game, exactly 10 major league managers have won more than 2000 games. So who's the exception on this list? It's the guy at the top, Connie Mack. You see, Mr. Mack owned the team (at least a part of it) for his 50 years leading the Philadelphia Athletics, and he wasn't about to fire himself. As a result, he actually lost more games than he won. However, it should be noted that, up until the mid-1930s, Mack WAS a fine manager, with two fine teams (1901-1914 and 1925-1933) that he put together himself. However, he would have been better off, and Philadelphia baseball would have been better off, if he followed his first inclination and hired Babe Ruth as manager after the 1933 season.

McGraw's record was largely with the first New York powerhouse, the Giants, although he cut (or maybe sharpened) his managerial teeth in Baltimore . LaRussa, although he was a terrible major league player (he was a utility infielder, mostly for the A's), has put together a long managerial resume in three places, Chicago , Oakland and St. Louis . (Although it's hard to see how his trick of batting the pitcher eighth has helped him much.) Cox, who just retired, was likewise a dud as a player, but he made everyone forget that by managing the Braves from 1990 to 2010, although the less said about his earlier tour with the Braves, the better. He was pretty successful managing the Blue Jays in between his stops in Atlanta . (Although it's hard to see how his trick of issuing an intentional walk at the drop of a hat helped him much.) Torre was a genius managing the Yankees and Dodgers, and pretty average at best managing everyone else (Mets, Braves, Cardinals.) It doesn't hurt to have Steinbrenner's money behind you. Harris served more (three) terms running Washington than anyone but FDR, and also managed the Tigers (also twice), Red Sox, Phillies and Yankees. McCarthy, who never played in the majors, and who Jimmy Dykes skewered as being a "Pushbutton Manager," certainly had the buttons to push when managing the Yankees from 1931 to 1946. However, he also did pretty well before and after that with the Cubs and the Red Sox (a winning percentage of .584). Alston (he only had one at bat in the majors) was the REAL pushbutton manager for the Dodgers from 1954 to 1976. As James has also noted, when he had the best players, he won, when he didn't have the best players, he didn't win. But, at least he didn't get in their way. Finally, Leo the Lip hung around for a long time, basically from 1939 to 1955 and from 1966 to 1973, managing the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs and Astros. His reputation as an aggressive winner, built with the Dodgers in the early 40s, kept getting him jobs from people who thought they could deal with that personality otherwise. As Peter Golenbock said in his book "Bums," he didn't have a scruple in his body.

One other interesting facet of these 10 managers is that, outside of Torre and McGraw, they were all well below average players. If you care to file this under the heading, "those that can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym," feel free to do so. Here are their career OPS+ figures…

Mack               72

McGraw          135

LaRussa           53

Cox                  87

Torre                128

Anderson          43

Harris               86

McCarthy         --

Alston              --

Durocher          65

Mack was a journeyman catcher, mostly for Washington and Pittsburgh . McGraw was a superb offensive third baseman (but a terrible fielder) who hit for average and drew a million walks – his career .466 on base percentage is third all-time. Torre wasn't dissimilar, at least in that his managers kept trying to find a place to hide his glove – he went from catcher to third to first. Cox and Harris were sort of average infielders and Durocher was widely known as the "All-American Out."

Not many people know that Sparky Anderson was considered a pretty fair second base prospect for the Dodgers in the mid-50s. He hit around .270, and got a few walks, although he didn't have much power. And he would turn well over 100 double plays each year. There were certainly worse prospects. However, unfortunately for Sparky, the Dodgers had Junior Gilliam at second at that point, and he wasn't going anywhere. So they traded him to the Phillies after the 1958 season, for three players, one of whom, Rip Repulski was a pretty fair hitting outfielder. By the time Sparky got his chance in the majors, he was 25. He was the Phillies regular second baseman throughout the 1959 season (152 games, 527 plate appearances), and, well, it didn't work out. He had an historically bad year, hitting .218/.282/.249 with just a dozen extra base hits. So the Phillies shipped him off to Toronto (in the Indians system) where he eventually became a manger.

It's tempting to say the Phillies should have kept him in their system as a manager, since he would have been ready to take over as the Phillies manager right about the time the organization had a falling out with their own Hall of Fame caliber manager, Gene Mauch. But, they didn't, so Sparky took over the Reds. Maybe he would have helped the sagging Phillies of the late 60s and early 70s, and started them somewhat sooner on the path that led to the fine teams that took over the National League from the Big Red Machine in the late 70s and early 80s. Maybe. But, just as Sparky wasn't fated to be a great player, he wasn't fated to take over the Phillies. He was, on the other hand, fated for the Hall of Fame. In addition to being, by all accounts, a fine man, he was a fine manager as well.

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