02/11/11 5:24 PM EST
Tanner, managed '79 champion Bucs, dies
Led White Sox in first half of '70s, as well as A's, Braves
By David Briggs / MLB.com
"Nobody goes through life with a bigger smile, warmer handshake or kinder word than Chuck Tanner," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook once wrote.
A measure of the man was that the moment of his greatest professional triumph -- leading the 1979 "We are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates to a come-from-behind World Series win -- would take place alongside the pain of his mother's death before Game 5 of the Series, and neither event would be diminished.
"My mother is a great Pirates fan," Tanner would tell his players before the pivotal game, his team trailing 3-1 in the Series to the vaunted Baltimore Orioles. "She knows we're in trouble, so she went upstairs to get some help."
Today, some Pirates fans may be looking upstairs for signs of the last Bucs manager to lead the team to a World Series championship. Tanner, age 82, has died.
"The news of Chuck's passing ... was met today with heavy hearts by everyone within the Pirates organization," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "Chuck was much more than a highly successful Major League manager who guided the Pirates to the World Series championship in 1979, he was an integral and loved member of the Pirates family, most recently serving as a senior advisor to general manager Neal Huntington. Chuck will be deeply missed by everyone within the Pirates family."
A native of New Castle, Pa., some 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, Tanner played for eight seasons from 1955-62 with four different teams, the Milwaukee Braves, the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels.
"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," said Commissioner Bud Selig in a statement. "On behalf of Major League Baseball, 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."
Tanner homered in his first career at-bat on April 12, 1955, for the Braves, but his playing career was undistinguished. In parts of nine seasons spent with four teams, Tanner hit. 261 with 21 homers in 396 games.
He would make his mark, though, as a manager. After leading the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders to a Pacific Coast League pennant in 1970, Tanner landed his first Major League managerial job in September, taking over the Chicago White Sox. He led the White Sox to a second-place finish in 1972 and managed the club through 1975 before taking over the Oakland A's for a season.
Tanner's stay in Oakland was short-lived, though. He was traded -- yes, traded, for catcher Manny Sanguillen -- to the Pirates after one season by owner Charlie Finley.
He had found his fit. Tanner guided the Pirates to second-placed finishes in the NL East in 1977 and 1978 before the magical 1979 season, when the team won 98 games without a 15-game winner on the staff.
His optimism unflinching, Tanner was a player's manager if there ever was one.
"When things were going well, they didn't need you. But when the guys were going bad, I'd hug them," Tanner said, smiling.
It was a unique style, to be sure, but an approach that worked best with a close-knit Pirates team, led by Willie Stargell and which adopted the Sister Sledge song, "We are Family" as their anthem for the 1979 season.
"He was a real rah-rah type of guy," said Ray Zardetto, author and baseball historian. "Sometimes you're lucky and that managerial style works with a team. He was much better off with the guys like Stargell policing the clubhouse themselves."
Sanguillen, who was reacquired by Pittsburgh, said the manager's optimism was infectious.
"It was like you knew something good was going to happen because of the way he was always thinking," Sanguillen said. "Everybody loved him and everybody just loved playing for him."
At what seemed to be the club's bleakest moment, when the death of Tanner's mother cast a pall over a locker room full of men already despondent about being down 3-1 in the World Series, Tanner continued to be a positive influence, reassuring his team that he was all right and his mother was pulling for them.
The Pirates responded by winning 7-1 that day, and going on to take the final two in Baltimore, becoming the last team to win a Game 7 of the World Series on the road.
Afterward, Sanguillen told Tanner the team had dedicated the series to his mother. "It made me feel fantastic. Just fantastic," Tanner said years later.
He would manage the Pirates for six more seasons before taking over the Atlanta Braves from 1986 through 39 games of the 1988 season. His record over 19 seasons as a manager was 1,352-1,381.
In later years, Tanner stayed active in the game as a scout. And in 2006, Houston Astros' manager Phil Garner, an infielder on the 1979 Pirates club, honored his former mentor by naming Tanner a National League coach in the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
When Tanner passed, there was some discrepancy in reports on his age. Some listed him at 81, citing his published date of birth as July 4, 1929. But Tanner was actually born one year earlier. The misprint, Tanner revealed late in life, was the result of the Braves trying to pass him off as one year younger than he actually was when they drafted him out of high school in the late 1940s.
"I don't know how it happened," Tanner told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review in 2009. "They did that with every one of their players. But they're not the only team. I didn't do it. They did it."
No matter what his age, Tanner's love for the game -- and life -- was constant.
"Everyday was a great day," he said. "When we won, we beat the greatest players in the world. The second greatest thing was that you lose because you've had the chance to play against the best players in the world."
Tanner's son, Bruce, who pitched for the White Sox in 1985, said: "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."
David Briggs is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.