By the time he was done, this man with the shock of white hair and schoolboy nickname would produce a considerable list of achievements that featured three World Series titles - including crowns in each league - and a Hall of Fame entry on his resume.
Anderson, who directed the Big Red Machine to back-to-back championships and won another in Detroit, died Thursday from complications of dementia in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 76. A day earlier, his family said he'd been placed in hospice care.
Anderson was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues and the only manager to lead two franchises in career wins.
"Sparky was, by far, the best manager I ever played for," said former Reds star Pete Rose, the game's career hits leader. "He understood people better than anyone I ever met. His players loved him, he loved his players, and he loved the game of baseball. There isn't another person in baseball like Sparky Anderson. He gave his whole life to the game."
Anderson's teams in Cincinnati - featuring Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Rose - won crowns in 1975 and 1976 and rank among the most powerful of all time. Led by Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, Anderson won with the Tigers in 1984.
"He was a good guy," former Tigers pitcher Jack Morris said, choking up over the news. "Baseball will have very few people like Sparky. He was a unique individual. He was a character with a great passion and love for the game."
Anderson never tried to overshadow his teams, giving his stars great leeway while trying to stay in the background. At Anderson's request, there will be no funeral or memorial service.
Always affable, ever talkative and known for a self-deprecating demeanor, Anderson was equally popular among players, fans and media.
"Revered and treasured by his players for his humility, humanity, eternal optimism and knowledge of the game," his Hall of Fame plaque reads.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig called Anderson a gentleman and dear friend.
"I recall with great fondness the many hours we would spend together when his Tigers came to Milwaukee," Selig said. "Sparky was a loyal friend, and whenever I would be dealing with difficult situations as commissioner, he would lift my spirits, telling me to keep my head up and that I was doing the right thing."
The Reds put a photo of Anderson on their outfield videoboard at Great American Ball Park on Thursday afternoon, honoring the man who led them to their greatest moments.
"In one way or another, Sparky touched the life of every Reds fan," owner Bob Castellini said.
Anderson's win total of 2,194 was the third highest when he retired after the 1995 season, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw. He's still sixth on the career list - he won 863 games in nine years with the Reds and 1,331 in 17 seasons with the Tigers.
He'll be remembered as much for the little things that made him beloved as for the big numbers that made him a Hall of Famer.
"Being a good baseball player and person went hand-in-hand with him," said Alan Trammell, the 1984 World Series MVP who is Arizona's bench coach. "He wanted us to put our dirty clothes in the bin so that the clubhouse guys didn't have to pick up after us."
In many ways away from the field, he was a teacher.
"He had a lot to do with molding me professionally and taught me a lot about perseverance," Morris said.
Anderson knew all about perseverance.
George "Sparky" Anderson got his nickname in the minor leagues because of his spirited play. He made it to the majors for only one season, batting .218 for the Phillies in 1959.
Anderson learned to control a temper that nearly scuttled his fledgling career as a manager in the minors, and went on to become one of baseball's best at running a team. And he won with a humility that couldn't obscure his unique ability to manage people.
"I got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot and then just hung around for 26 years," he said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2000.
Of course, there was a lot more to him. He liked to twist the language, using double-negatives to make a roundabout point. He also reassessed things constantly.
"To be around me, you have to be a little bit cuckoo," Anderson said on the day he resigned from the Tigers after the 1995 season. "One day it's written in concrete, the next day it's written in sand. I always felt if I didn't change my mind every 24 hours, people would find me boring."
Anderson's win total trails only those of Mack, McGraw, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. His overall record was 2,194-1834 and he was a two-time AL Manager of the Year.
"Sparky was one of the greatest people I've met in baseball," Detroit Hall of Famer Al Kaline said. "He was a leader to his players both on and off the field. He was an incredible person and I cherish the time I was able to spend with him."
He had the right touch with superstars, and it came in handy when he led the star-studded Reds to World Series wins in 1975-76. "He was a people person," Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman, told The Associated Press. "I don't think anybody else could have managed that team nearly as well as he did. We had a lot of different personalities. Sparky was able to deal with all of us on an individual basis but also collectively as a team.
"Because he was close to you and cared about you as a person, you were always willing to do more for him than you were for somebody else. I never thought of him as my manager. I thought of him as part of my family."
Anderson won four National League pennants in Cincinnati from 1970-78, then was stung when the Reds fired him after consecutive second-place finishes. Anderson took his disappointment to the other league and won there, too, directing the Tigers to the 1984 championship and a division title in 1987. He was voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee.
Even then, he showed his usual self-deprecation. Anderson had refused to step foot inside the Hall until 2000 because he felt unworthy.
"I didn't ever want to go into the most precious place in the world unless I belonged," Anderson said.
For a long time, he was a long shot to make the Hall.
The only notable thing about Anderson as a player was his prematurely graying hair and his nickname. He was playing for Fort Worth in the Texas League in 1955 when a radio announcer, taken by his feisty play, started calling him Sparky.
The name stuck. He didn't. Anderson made it to the majors in 1959 and singled home the go-ahead run on opening day in Cincinnati, which turned out to be the highlight of his playing career. A light-hitting second baseman, he had 12 extra-base hits - zero home runs - and 34 RBIs in 477 at-bats.
He was back in the minors the next year, and soon realized it was time to think about another career.
He decided to try managing.
That almost flamed out, too. His first job was managing a minor league team in Toronto in 1964. He was overly aggressive in his strategy and argued every close call with umpires, showing a short fuse that soon got him fired. Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam gave him a second chance to manage in the minors, then moved to Cincinnati to build the Reds.
When he needed a big league manager there, he decided to call Anderson, who was shocked to get the chance. The youngest manager in the majors at age 35, he signed the $28,500 contract - by far the most money he'd ever made - and set out to make himself known in a city asking: Sparky who?
"Bob Howsam either had to be nuts or have a lot of savvy," Anderson said. "As it turns out, he had a lot of savvy."
Howsam assembled one of the most talented teams of all time - Bench, Morgan, Rose, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster, Davey Concepcion. Anderson was charged with making it work.
Anderson's plaque in Cooperstown calls him "the crank that turned the Big Red Machine," and his players agree that it fit. Bench noted that Anderson treated his players respectfully and was always on top of game strategy.
"It's a lot like a chess game, and Sparky was a chess master," Bench said.
In Cincinnati, Anderson also got himself another nickname: Captain Hook, a reference to his habit of pulling a starting pitcher when he got into a jam late in a game. He also showed creativity in making lineup changes.
One of the most important moves: switching Rose from left field to third base on May 3, 1975, allowing Foster to play full-time in left. It was the final piece of the Machine, which beat Boston in a dramatic seven-game Series that year, then swept to another title while winning 108 games the following season.
Two second-place seasons led to a surprising firing. Anderson moved on to Detroit, where he had more longevity and added one more title.
He refused to manage replacement players during baseball's labor dispute in spring training of 1995, angering owner Mike Ilitch. He resigned after a 60-win season, saying the franchise needed a new direction. He hoped to manage somewhere else, but when an offer never came along, he retired.
Survivors include his wife, Carol; sons Lee and Albert; daughter Shirley Englebrecht; and nine grandchildren.
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.