Sparky Anderson’s Hall of Fame managerial career, shaping the Reds and Tigers into championship clubs, might never have happened if not for the three years he spent as a minor-league manager in the Cardinals’ system.
Anderson, who died Nov. 4 at 76, had been fired as manager of Toronto of the Class AAA International League after the 1964 season. He had led Toronto to an 80-72 record, but he was considered hot-tempered. No other offers came. At 30, after just one season, his managerial future appeared cloudy.
Then in March 1965, Fred Koenig resigned as manager of the Cardinals’ Class A Rock Hill team in the Western Carolinas League. With the start of the season near, St. Louis general manager Bob Howsam was scrambling to find a replacement for Koenig.
Howsam contacted Dodgers executive Dick Walsh for advice. Walsh recommended Anderson, who had played in the Dodgers minor-league system. Howsam took a chance on Anderson.
The Cardinals didn’t stock Rock Hill with top prospects. The best players were two future major-league pitchers _ Sal Campisi and Jerry Robertson _ and third baseman Len Boyer, younger brother of big leaguers Ken and Clete Boyer. (Displaying a knack for the hyperbole he later became noted for, Anderson predicted Len Boyer “has the best potential of the family.”)
Anderson managed Rock Hill to a 59-63 record.
In 1966, the Cardinals named Anderson manager of St. Petersburg, in the better caliber Class A Florida State League.
After an 0-5 start, St. Petersburg won 22 in a row, shattering the league’s consecutive wins record of 15 established by Daytona Beach in 1950.
The streak was broken on May 21 when the Cocoa Astros beat St. Petersburg, 1-0. “The kids seemed like they didn’t want to believe it was over,” Anderson told The Sporting News. “I had to say, ‘Come on, let’s get in the clubhouse.’ “
The streak wasn’t the only amazing thing that happened to Anderson and his team that season.
In a game that began on June 14 and ended at 2:30 a.m. on June 15, the visiting Miami Marlins beat St. Petersburg, 4-3, in 29 innings. “It was the darndest thing I’ve ever seen,” Anderson told The Sporting News.
It also was the longest game, by innings, in the history of organized baseball. The game took 6 hours, 59 minutes. It began with a crowd of 750, and ended with about 600 less.
The score was 2-2 after nine innings. Each team scored in the 11th. Miami left-hander Paul Gilliford pitched 11 scoreless innings of relief and didn’t get the decision. A sacrifice fly by Carl Cmejrek with the bases loaded in the top of the 29th scored pitcher Mike Hebert from third. Hebert retired St. Petersburg in order in the bottom of the inning.
St. Petersburg, led by future big-league pitchers Clay Kirby and Harry Parker, went on to a 91-45 record. Anderson was named the league’s all-star manager and strengthened his reputation within the Cardinals organization as a first-rate instructor.
In January 1967, Howsam left St. Louis to become general manager of the Reds. The Cardinals named Anderson manager of Class A Modesto of the California League. Three of his Modesto players _ Kirby, reliever Ed Sprague and catcher Bill Plummer _ later would play for him with the Reds.
Anderson led Modesto to a 79-61 mark and the league championship.
In the fall of 1967, Howsam wooed Anderson into the Reds organization as a minor-league manager at Class AA Asheville. Two years later, Oct. 9, 1969, Howsam introduced Anderson as manager of the Reds.
He won the National League pennant in his first season at Cincinnati, and from there built one of the legendary managerial careers in major league history.