Edson: 40 Years Ago, Sparky Energized Detroit

Forty years ago this week, the Detroit Tigers stunned the baseball world.

They fired first-year manager Les Moss and hired former Cincinnati Reds skipper Sparky Anderson.

I’m just glad Twitter or other social media wasn’t around then. They would have gone crazy for the “bone-headed” Tigers move.

Actually, it was a stroke of genius by Detroit’s Jim Campbell.

I remember sitting in the Tigers dugout a couple hours before Opening Day in April of 1979. Les Moss was holding court. He was chewing on a wad of tobacco and throwing out one cliché after another.

He didn’t like talking to the media. He wasn’t big on communication, period. He was just a lifelong player, coach and manager who liked to do things the old fashioned way. He expected the players to police themselves.

But the 1979 Tigers weren’t a veteran team. They had young players like Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish.

Since Moss had managed the four of them at Evansville, the Tigers figured he would be the perfect choice to take over when Ralph Houk retired after the 1978 season. In fact, a few days after the season ended, the Tigers wasted no time in naming Moss the manager.

Then a lightning bolt struck. The Cincinnati Reds, whom Sparky had guided to two World Series titles in 1975 and 1976, fired him on Nov. 28, 1978.

A day after he was fired, teams started calling Sparky and his agent. Luckily for the Tigers, nothing was finalized before Opening Day with any team in the league.

So the Tigers started the 1979 season and actually had a winning record (27-26) when the conservative Tigers organization knew they had one chance to sign the future Hall of Fame manager.

They fired Moss and hired Sparky. It took Anderson almost a week to get to Detroit, but coach Dick Tracewski took over in the interim.

When Sparky arrived, everything changed. He charmed the media. He built a tremendous relationship with his players. He promised that within five years that this young team would win an American League pennant.

He delivered on his promise. In 1984, the Tigers got off to a 35-5 start and won the World Series.

I remember covering the Tigers during those years and listening to the players tell me – off the record, of course – how much better off the Tigers were with Sparky compared to Les Moss.

The players didn’t slam Moss… they just realized that Sparky was a big step up as a teacher, communicator and manager. He was a difference maker. And, as it turns out, a Hall of Famer.

When Sparky managed his first game as Tigers manager on June 14, 1979 I was there. He brought energy and optimism to a franchise that was rebuilding.

We knew that Les Moss deserved a better fate. But we also knew that to get Sparky, the Tigers had to act boldly and quickly. They did… and now we dream that our rebuilding Tigers can once again capture that magic.

Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.