February 11, 2011
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have finished with a losing mark in a record 18 straight seasons, the possibility of being World Series champions probably seems like an unreachable goal these days.
Not that anyone would ever catch Chuck Tanner saying something like that. He might have been the most optimistic man in baseball history.
Tanner, the man who most recently managed the Pirates to a championship, has died at age 82 after a long illness.
Tanner's hometown paper, The New Castle [Pa.] News, first reported his passing Friday afternoon.
A major league manager for four teams during 19-plus seasons, Tanner was skipper of the 1979 "We are Family" Bucs, who came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the Series.
The morning of Game 5, Tanner was informed his mother had died in a nursing home. He stayed with the team, which would outscore the Orioles 15-2 in sweeping the next three games for Pittsburgh's fifth world championship.
The Pirates stars of the time included Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven, along with Dave Parker, Omar Moreno, Phil Garner, Bill Madlock and side-winding closer Kent Tekulve. They were players from diverse backgrounds who came together using a can-do attitude (and a disco soundtrack) behind Tanner's boundless hope.
Tanner is the seventh member of the '79 Bucs to die; right-hander Jim Bibby died a year ago this month.
Tanner also managed the White Sox, Athletics and Braves — right before Bobby Cox took over an organization on the rise. He finished his managerial career with a 1,352-1,381 record, but Tanner's confidence always seemed way over .500.
In a 2002 interview, knuckleballer Wilbur Wood succinctly described what it was like to play for Tanner on the White Sox of the 1970s:
"Chuck was the most positive guy I've ever been around. No matter how bad things were going, Chuck would always find something to be positive about, something to try to keep you going. In fact, Chuck spent more time with guys who were having trouble or in a slump then with guys who were going well. I thought that was really smart. Remember, in baseball you only have 25 guys; if two or three guys are down or having a hard time suddenly your roster is really short. Chuck tried to keep everybody ready to play because that gave us a better chance of winning."
An unusual side note to how Tanner got to manage the Pirates in 1977: A's owner Charlie Finley traded him for catcher Manny Sanguillen. Once in Pittsburgh, Parker said, Tanner offered him prescient wisdom:
"He told me once that you should govern with one eye and one ear. You're not going to see and hear everything. It's some of the best advice I've ever gotten."
When the All-Star game came to Pittsburgh in 2006, Garner brought in Tanner as a coach for the NL squad (pictured above). In 2007, Pirates' GM Neal Huntington hired Tanner as a special assistant, a position in which he served as recently as the 2010 season.
"We lost an unbelievable man today in chuck tanner he will be missed by all. I loved every conversation I was able to have with him. RIP"
On the back of his baseball card, Tanner was listed as being born in 1929. Not so, he has said. Tanner was actually born a year earlier. Tanner said the Braves, who drafted him out of high school, employed a tactic that was common in those days — chopping a year off a player's age to make him appear younger. (Which makes Tanner the Miguel Tejada of his day, in a sense.)
As a major leaguer, Tanner became the second player to ever hit a home run on the first pitch he saw (pinch hitting for Warren Spahn in 1955). In 982 career plate appearances also with the Cubs, Indians and Angels, Tanner hit .261 and had an OPS of .711.
He took a minor league managing job with the Quad Cities Angels in 1963. Seven years later, he was managing the White Sox.
"I communicated individually and collectively, and I was the boss," he said. "I treated everybody the same. Every day was a new day. No matter what transpired that day, if I hollered at you, no matter what happened, the slate is clean the next day. We're all starting new. That's the perspective I kept, and that's the way I treated everybody."
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