For those who followed the Tigers even casually, June 12, 1979, a Tuesday afternoon, was one of those where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news days.
The radio news bulletin hit like a thunderbolt:
Les Moss had been fired as Tigers manager. Sparky Anderson, only three years after his last World Series steering the Big Red Machine, was getting a five-year deal to skipper the Tigers.
It made no sense.
And yet it absolutely did.
The Tigers were 27-26, two months into a new season, which is not typically when managers are zapped, especially when Moss’ win-loss record was above sea level.
But there was much going on, internally, at the team’s offices, which were several floors up in quarters as ancient as the very site on which Tiger Stadium stood at Michigan and Trumbull.
Jim Campbell was the team’s general manager. He had chosen Moss eight months earlier to run his team after Ralph Houk, who had been something of an exalted caretaker, had gotten most of the dirty work done from a rebuild that was now essentially in a fifth full year.
Campbell had seen Moss’ work managing in the Tigers minors, from Instructional League to Double A, to Triple A, and decided a man, then 53, was due a promotion.
Campbell also wanted a manager who knew his young roster and its potential. Moss was the easy choice.
But increasingly that spring of ’79, Campbell had sensed a bespectacled gent who could pass for many years older wasn’t the man, after all.
Man of few words
It had to do with Moss’ personality. He was, as they say, laconic. Words tended to be spare. And not only with the media, which didn’t matter to Campbell as much as he had become frustrated by Moss’ arid conversations with the GM.
As with all GMs, Campbell counted on feedback from his skipper. He needed not only appraisals, but insight. He wanted fuller briefings.
Moss simply wasn’t delivering enough thoughts, words, and observations.
Campbell was aware also that a clock was ticking at Thousand Oaks, California. Anderson had somehow been fired by the Reds the previous autumn after having the audacity to finish 92-69 and in second place.
Sparky wasn’t going to be unemployed for long.
Campbell called. Anderson was interested. He had been told by Houk that if he ever had a chance to work for Campbell, do it. The Tigers boss was straight, smart, and stayed out of the clubhouse.
Anderson knew what was bubbling in Detroit. But he had been traumatized by the Reds firing, which had seemed to virtually all of baseball’s world as senseless and impulsive.
Anderson wanted a five-year contract as security when he knew the Tigers’ youth was extreme and the timetable for bringing this volatile mix of skills and personalities to a championship boil.
Campbell said yes.
Moss was given the news in Campbell fashion:
“Les, I’m bringing in Sparky Anderson as manager.”
And that pretty much was it.
Tigers players got the news hours before that night’s game against the A’s at Tiger Stadium. Dick Tracewski was going to move from coach to interim manager until Anderson arrived later in the week.
Lance Parrish was the Tigers’ catcher who was to turn 23 three days later, was busy tending to wife Arlyne, given that the Parrishes were hours from greeting their first child, David. Parrish had been particularly close to Moss, a man who had worked 13 seasons as a big-league catcher and who had become a personal tutor during Parrish’s farm years.
“Kind of a whirlwind of emotions, between being with Arlyne at the hospital and getting the news about Les,” Parrish said this week. “Because David was born right during the transition, it kind of helped take my mind off it a little bit.”
Alan Trammell was getting ready for a drive to the ballpark and an 8:05 p.m. game (standard starting time in 1979) when the news crashed.
“When I say ‘shock’ — well that’s a good way to describe it,” Trammell said this week, speaking from his home in San Diego. “I was totally taken off-guard. I was shocked.”
Tigers players knew there was more involved than a 27-26 record. They had just gone 4-5 on a typically thorny West Coast trip. They had beaten the A’s the previous night at Tiger Stadium.
But they knew Moss better even than Campbell did. They figured a guy who had been a big winner in the minors as a manager, who could teach any aspect of baseball to any player or pitcher on a roster, and who had skippered them to an above-.500 record through 53 games, had to have come up short somewhere.
And the players were thinking, privately anyway, that Campbell simply had clashed with Moss’ minimal gift for gab.
They were right, although players weren’t aware Moss had been so distressingly tight-lipped with the GM. They sensed it had more to do with Moss being less than quotable in media scrums.
“Bottom line, I felt very badly for Les,” remembers Parrish, who, like Trammell, is now a special assistant to Tigers GM Al Avila. “Les was a great teacher. He had been my Double-A manager, my Triple-A manager, had helped get me ready for the big leagues. I thought he was a great manager — and a great man.”
Parrish’s feelings, he still believes, were in line with most teammates. There was a sense of Moss having been betrayed. There was also this matter of communication. At some level, publicly or with the boss, they were wary that Les and his less-than-loose lips had made it easy for Campbell to opt for Anderson, the best free-agent manager on the market.
Not that it soothed Parrish. Not initially.
“For me, a relationship takes time,” he said. “If I wanted somebody to run my business and he was successful at it, and even if we weren’t on the same page communication-wise at the beginning, I’d at least give that relationship an opportunity to see if it could develop in a positive way.
“Les had been successful in the minor leagues. It could have carried over.”
Trammell felt much the same, although he acknowledges that he didn’t have the bond Parrish, as a catcher, had forged with Moss.
Trammell had viewed Moss during their joint time on the farm in the manner ballplayers are conditioned to see skippers: They were men in charge. You listened and tried not to make the relationship overly personal.
“Les could be surly, although not in a negative way,” Trammell said. “He was just a different personality. But a very good baseball man. Hard worker, had his own style. With Lance, that (Moss) was his No. 1 guy, and it wasn’t always pleasant between them. I saw that first-hand. There was some tough love there.
“But what you could also say about Les is that he wasn’t flamboyant. He wasn’t a Sparky Anderson.”
Finding a Spark
What the Tigers players knew about Anderson was little beyond his overall baseball celebrity. Apart from the World Series, there was no inter-league play during the ‘70s. Tigers players, unless they had spent time in the National League, had seen him as most fans had come to know him — as the white-haired skipper wearing a Reds cap and stepping to the mound in a couple dozen World Series games.
What they couldn’t understand, what seemed comically ironic to them, is that Anderson was being viewed in the press as a “tough disciplinarian” the Tigers supposedly needed after Moss was axed.
“Les Moss was every bit the disciplinarian, maybe more than Sparky,” Parrish said. “Les didn’t put up with any crap.
“But Les didn’t have the resume coming into job that Sparky had. I think, because of that, Sparky was in position to do and say certain things, and it was just accepted because this was coming from Sparky Anderson.”
Anderson had promised at his get-acquainted press session that he would bring Detroit a winner, but that it could take five full years. He was on the button. Five years later, the Tigers won 104 games, knocked out Kansas City in the American League Championship Series, then cleaned up San Diego in five World Series games.
Sparky now owned championships in both leagues. He was headed to the Hall of Fame.
Right man for the job
And yet a question remains 36 years later.
Would any capable manager — a Les Moss, for example — have done the same with a roster as loaded as the Tigers featured in 1984 and in seasons afterward?
Would the more subdued Moss have been as effective as Anderson, a good psychologist, who nurtured a hyper-talented — and early on, an emotionally complicated — player like Kirk Gibson?
History can’t be ignored.
Gibson in 1983 was 26, in his fourth full season with the Tigers, and enduring a miserable year. It was so bad that when a late-day show on WZYZ (Channel 7), “Good Afternoon Detroit,” came on the air, Gibson would feel dread, knowing it was time to head for the ballpark.
Anderson and Gibson had been dueling and privately squabbling, a tightrope walk for both manager and player. Anderson decided one day in the Tigers pre-game outfield to have some fun with his outfielder who a few years earlier had been a magnificent wide receiver at Michigan State.
Sparky pretended to be the defensive back covering Gibson on pass routes. Gibson clobbered him. Sparky laughed and continued with the horseplay, not worrying about ending up in a body cast.
It was all by design. Anderson had been afraid of losing Gibson. Afraid of seeing him tumble from stardom. Afraid that he might grow, ultimately, into the player he was to become but with another team.
The next year, Gibson was deep within the heart and soul of a championship season that began with a 35-5 burst. He would bring the same fury to another World Series team in 1988, the Dodgers.
Would this have been anything Moss could have pulled off?
“That’s a really valid, good question,” Trammell said. “I do think it would have been tougher for Les. Even though Jack (Morris, Tigers ace pitcher) had a relationship with Les, I think with Gibby those were a couple of tough personalities that would have made things challenging for Les, or anybody.
“I guess we’ll never know.”
Parrish also wonders. He agrees Moss and Gibson would have “butted heads.” He knows, as does Trammell, that there were closed-door conversations between Anderson and players that were both volatile and fragile. And that the player normally emerged stronger and better-equipped to win baseball games.
But would 1984 have happened — the way it did?
“I would think a manager experienced, who knew what he was doing, could take that ’84 team and have been successful,“ Parrish said.
“Could he take us all the way to a world championship? I don’t know. Maybe somewhere along the way, a different manager might have pushed a button, or said the wrong thing that might have taken us off track for a while.
“Sparky was able to stay consistent and do, and say, the right things. He treated everybody the right way. And we all seemed to respond in a good way, a productive way.
“I will never say that just anybody could have stepped in and done the job Sparky did.”
As for Moss, not surprisingly to those who knew him, he didn’t pout. And didn’t spout off. Nor was he about to break from baseball.
A month later, he became a minor-league pitching coordinator for the Cubs and followed as their big-league pitching coach in 1981. A year later, he hooked on with Houston and was Astros pitching coach for eight seasons.
He died in 2012 at age 87.
Parrish says there might not have been a baseball man who affected his career as indelibly as Moss.
“There were times I didn’t appreciate things he said to me,” Parrish said. “But, in retrospect, I can see now how important that was along the road I took.
“And it wasn’t only because he was an ex-catcher. I saw him do that with any number of people. He knew the right buttons to push — with infielders, outfielders, anybody.
“I remember talking with people at the Astros, when he was their pitching coach. Danny Darwin (longtime right-handed big-league starter) absolutely loved Les Moss. Everyone on their staff — Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott — they loved Les.
“I think it’s a tribute to his overall abilities to teach, whether you were a catcher or a pitcher.”
Trammell has a final thought — in his view, conclusive.
“Now that I fast-forward from then until now,” he says of that monumental news from June, 1979, “it was the right thing to do.
“It didn’t mean Les wasn’t going to be a good manager. I think he would have been.
“But he would not have been a Sparky Anderson.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.