Obituary: Chuck Tanner / Manager who led Pirates' 'Family' to 1979 championship
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Chuck Tanner, the popular manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates' most recent championship in 1979, died Friday, just days before his beloved team was to open spring training, which he often excitedly called "the best time of the year!"
Mr. Tanner was a lifelong resident of New Castle, where he died at his home in hospice care after a long illness. He was 82.
He will be best remembered for overseeing the Pirates' World Series triumph against the Baltimore Orioles, taking the final three games after trailing the best-of-seven series, 3-1. That group adopted the Sister Sledge song, "We are Family," and, while first baseman Willie Stargell was the clubhouse leader, Mr. Tanner was its father figure.
Mr. Tanner's mother died in New Castle before Game 5, just as that series looked darkest, and Mr. Tanner told his players: "My mother is a great Pirates fan. She knows we're in trouble, so she went upstairs to get some help."
Kent Tekulve, that team's closer, recalled the scene on that Sunday morning at Three Rivers Stadium.
"We knew Chuck as our manager, but we also knew how close he was to his family," Mr. Tekulve said. "We knew this was a powerful loss, and we're sitting there in the clubhouse not knowing what to say to the man. And most of us, we were pretty good at having something to say. It was a brash group. Not this time."
Then, Mr. Tanner entered and said his brief piece.
"We're all sitting there feeling sorry for him," Mr. Tekulve continued. "Well, that gives you a focal point. It's still not going to be easy, but, all of a sudden, all this other stuff didn't seem so important. We could just go out and play ball."
True to Mr. Tanner's annual exclamations about spring training, hope always seemed to spring eternal in his world, according to those who knew him best. He was unfailingly upbeat, smiling and offering hugs rather than handshakes to those who greeted him.
"I played for a lot of managers in my time, and I never knew anyone who treated people like Chuck," former reliever Grant Jackson said. "He's a man I'll never forget, because the things he taught me will always be with me."
"Chuck was a people person," former catcher Manny Sanguillen said.
Mr. Tanner's effect resonated with current players, as well.
"From the moment I met the man, he made me feel like I was on his team, like he was rooting for me," second baseman Neil Walker, a Gibsonia native said. "When I was toiling in the minors, I had doubts in myself. But he was a person who forced me to believe in myself, he wouldn't let me get down."
Mr. Walker paused.
"He was the leader of a big family and, in his own way, he was still continuing to manage by guiding all the young ballplayers who would sit and talk to him. In spring training, he'd come into a room, and he would command attention just by his presence. What I remember his message being most was to believe in yourself. He also said that you had to have a pride in what you did, in how you carried yourself and played the game. That sticks with me, every single day that I play this game."
A 10-letter standout in baseball, basketball and football while at Shenango High School -- where the baseball field is now named for him -- Mr. Tanner reached the major leagues as a player in grand fashion: He homered in his first at-bat April 12, 1955, with the Milwaukee Braves, and he did so on the first pitch, just the second player in baseball history to achieve that.
Mr. Tanner's career as an outfielder spanned 1955 to 1962, also including stints with the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels, batting .261 with 21 home runs in 396 games.
But his greatest impact on the sport, by far, came in managing four major-league teams in 1970-88, beginning with the Chicago White Sox, then a year with the Oakland Athletics. The Pirates acquired Mr. Tanner in a trade involving a manager -- only the second such transaction in baseball history -- from Oakland for Mr. Sanguillen. He remained in Pittsburgh until 1985, after which he finished his managerial career with three seasons in Atlanta.
Mr. Tanner's overall managerial record was 1,352-1,381, and it was 711-685 with the Pirates. That victory total ranks fourth on the franchise's all-time list. Only Fred Clarke (1,422), Danny Murtaugh (1,115) and Jim Leyland (851) had more victories.
Among Mr. Tanner's many memorable quotes about his profession is this: "I don't think a manager should be judged by whether he wins the pennant, but by whether he gets the most out of the twenty-five men he's been given."
Mr. Tanner's death touched people around the world of baseball.
Bud Selig, Major League Baseball's commissioner, issued a statement: "Chuck spent his life serving baseball in a variety of roles, and I am particularly glad that in recent years he returned to the Pirates, the club with which he will be forever linked. I extend my deepest sympathy to Chuck's sons and the entire Tanner family, as well as to his many fans in Pittsburgh and throughout our game."
"Rest in Peace, Chuck Tanner," the legendary former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda posted on his Twitter account. "I loved you like a brother. You taught me a lot about managing, and I always appreciated it."
Most of Mr. Tanner's time at the Pirates' helm was successful, with six winning seasons out of the nine, plus the championship. But it ended badly, with the team finishing the 1985 season 57-104 and several of its players dragged into what became known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials for baseball. Seven men -- all outside the team -- were convicted of selling drugs to baseball players, many of whom testified in exchange for immunity.
Mr. Tanner testified he had no more than cursory knowledge of such drug issues, but Dale Berra, a shortstop at the time, contradicted that by testifying that Mr. Tanner warned him to stay away from drug dealers.
The Pirates fired Mr. Tanner and, as he would later state, "I would've fired myself."
After managing in Atlanta, Mr. Tanner spent 11 years in the Milwaukee Brewers' baseball operations, then five in Cleveland. But -- and this might tell more about Mr. Tanner's allegiance than any tale -- he often wore a Pirates cap while scouting for the Indians.
When Frank Coonelly became the Pirates' president in late 2007 and Neal Huntington the general manager, among Mr. Huntington's first moves was righting that wrong and hiring Mr. Tanner as a senior advisor.
Mr. Tanner had an active role in his first two years on that job, delighted to have returned. He attended top-level meetings with Mr. Huntington's staff and lending his voice to key personnel decisions. He also was a fixture at spring training in Bradenton, Fla., roaming from field to field and offering first-hand assessments of players. That contribution diminished along with his health in the past year, but he remained in constant touch with the Pirates.
Mr. Huntington has lost both his senior advisors -- Bill Lajoie died in late December at age 76 -- in the past two months.
"Chuck was a truly special man who gave so much of himself to those with whom he came in contact," Mr. Huntington said. "My early memories of the Pirates organization are of Chuck's teams, the way they played the game and the genuine affection they seemed to have for each other. This made an impression on me and never did I imagine that I would have a chance to work with Chuck himself."
Anytime Mr. Tanner was introduced to a crowd at PNC Park in recent years, the final team with the reunion of the 1979 team two years ago, he was greeted with the loudest ovation.
"Chuck was a class act who always carried himself with grace, humility and integrity," Mr. Coonelly said. "While no one had a sharper baseball mind, Chuck was loved by his players and the city of Pittsburgh because he was always positive, enthusiastic and optimistic about his Bucs and life in general."
"Chuck always took a bit of extra time to pull me aside, put his arm around my neck and tell me what was was going well, and what was going wrong," team owner Bob Nutting said. "His passion for the game and for the Pirates ran through every conversation we had. He set a high bar, he expected much from me and the organization, and he reinforced my personal commitment to restore the Pirates to their historic greatness."
A month after Mr. Tanner served as an honorary coach in the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park, he was devastated by the death of his wife Barbara -- "my best friend," as he called her -- that August. But he was back at work before long, along with the familiar smile.
Mr. Tanner is survived by four sons: Mark, Gary, Brent and Bruce.
"The Tanner family would like to express their sincere thanks to friends, fans, and the entire baseball community for their thoughts and prayers during Chuck's recent illness," said Bruce Tanner, formerly a coach with the Pirates and now a scout with the Detroit Tigers. "He will forever be remembered as a loving husband, father and grandfather to his family, and a good friend to every life he touched. In baseball we will remember his eternal optimism and his passion for the game."
The Tanner family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, contributions are made to The Chuck Tanner "We Are Family" Fund' c/o Pirates Charities, 115 Federal St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212. The fund will annually present an award to the Pirates' minor-league employee who best exemplifies Mr. Tanner's enthusiasm.
There will be a public viewing for Mr. Tanner at the Cunningham Funeral Home in New Castle next Tuesday, 4-7 p.m.