Chuck Tanner: Wonderful Man, Wonderful Manager

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Chuck Tanner: Wonderful Man, Wonderful Manager
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Chuck Tanner watches over the troops during his successful tenure as Pittsburgh Pirates' manager.

A day following the announcement of Chuck Tanner’s death, we have read what a wonderful man he was.

This praise is most deserved. He was always positive, always helpful. From nursing his wife back to health after a stroke to seemingly befriending everyone he met, Chuck Tanner was a truly wonderful person.

I’m afraid, however, that he may not get enough recognition for being a truly wonderful manager. Critics will always look at the fact he only won one pennant in 19 years, or that he had a lifetime losing record.

True, he was the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates when they last won the World Series in 1979, but will he be remembered as a great skipper?

He should be.

Look at the record of the players who played for Tanner and it can be said almost all of them had their career years under him.

True, some of that is because he inherited some players in their prime, such as Dave Parker, Bill Melton or Goose Gossage, whom Tanner is responsible for turning into a reliever.

But Willie Stargell was 39 when he won his Most Valuable Player Award under Tanner. Wilbur Wood was 32 when he became a 20-game winner for the 1973 White Sox. And Dale Murphy was 31 when he hit a career-high 44 home runs under Tanner in 1987. 

Dick Allen, John Milner, Grant Jackson, Tim Foli...all of these players were practically picked up off the scrap heap when Tanner managed them. All Allen did was win the American League MVP under Tanner, while the other three played key parts in the Bucs winning the 1979 World Title.

Much has been made of Tanner’s optimistic nature. Could anyone else have kept the slumping 1978 Pirates, 51-61 on Aug. 12, 11½ games out of first, in the mindset that they could get back into the pennant race by winning 24 straight at home and taking the Phillies to the last series of the year?

For that matter, what about the next to last game of that season? In a game the Pirates had to win or else they’d be eliminated from the race, the Bucs trailed Philadelphia 10-4 going into the bottom of the ninth inning.

Then the Pirates rallied for four runs off Tug McGraw before Stargell came to the plate representing the tying run. Yes, the comeback fell short, but it served as motivation for the Pittsburgh Athletic Company in 1979.

Even then, the Bucs started slowly, as was usually the case with the Pirates under Tanner. They spent 10 days in last place that season and on May 17 found themselves nine games back of first-place Philadelphia.

But to a man, the Pirates believed they were destined to win the pennant in 1979. Not to diminish the midseason acquisition of Bill Madlock and Dave Roberts, but the Bucs were 24-15 in the 39 games prior to trading for them on June 28.

The fact the Pirates were in position to make a deal and not fold after, say, Rick Rhoden, whom General Manager Harding Peterson acquired in April in a trade for Jerry Reuss, was lost for the season due to injury again shows their spirit; a spirit that Tanner’s personality could only intensify if it didn’t springboard it outright.

And what about those strategic moves? Pinch-hitting left-handed hitting Milner for righty Steve Nicoscia, with Nic 4 for 4, the bases loaded, score tied, and two out against southpaw McGraw on Aug. 5. Milner responded with a grand slam to win.

Pitcher Kent Tekulve even played left field on Sept. 1 against the Giants so Tanner could use him against right-handed hitters just in case lefty Jackson didn’t retire Darrell Evans.

Teke lost a save to Jackson but gained a putout when Tanner told “Buck” to pitch the left-handed hitting Evans away, and the slugger flied to Teke in left.

How about the fact the Pirates had lost three League Championship Series to the Cincinnati Reds earlier in the decade, then swept them in 1979?

Or how Tanner knew to call Manny Sanguillen to get the game-winning pinch hit off Baltimore’s Don Stanhouse in the second game of the 1979 World Series instead of Nicoscia, Lee Lacy, or Rennie Stennett, all of whom posted better numbers than Sangy that year?

Tanner’s decision to start Jim Rooker, supposedly broken down and washed up, against Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan in the fifth game had overtones of Connie Mack starting Howard Ehmke in the 1929 Fall Classic.

Rooker, 4-7 that year with a 4.59 ERA, pitched four innings of no-hit ball in a must-win game before being touched for a run in the top of the fifth.

Then Tanner called on Bert Blyleven, making his first relief appearance in seven years, who shut down the Orioles for four innings as the Pirates won 7-1, on an otherwise bittersweet day for Tanner as his mother passed away that morning.

Tanner would not let his own loss hurt his team. He famously said she just went upstairs to offer the Bucs some help, a true testament to keeping one’s chin up in times of adversity.

There was a key hit-and-run call in the sixth game, allowing Dave Parker to drive in the Bucs’ first run in the seventh inning of an eventual 4-0 triumph.

And Tanner also called for Ken Singleton to be intentionally walked to load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and leading 2-1 in the seventh game in order to face slumping Eddie Murray.

The future Hall of Famer flew out to right field, effectively ending any chance of Baltimore victory.

Yes, it was Stargell’s series. A manager is, after all, only as good as his talent. But Tanner’s optimism and strategy allowed the Pirates to play to the most of their abilities.

The 98 victories the Bucs won in 1979 was the most victories by a Pittsburgh team since 1909, and none of Jim Leyland’s three division winners were able to top it, either.

Tanner also was a champion of the running game. His 1976 Oakland A’s stole an American League record 341 bases, and the Pirates’ record for stolen bases in a season, 96 by Omar Moreno, was set under Tanner’s guidance in 1980.

His last years as a manager were not winning ones. By 1984, only Madlock remained from the ’79 starting lineup and he began to show signs of age.

For the first time since 1957, the Pirates finished in last place, but again, never gave up. They finished with the National League’s best September record at 17-10.

The next year was disastrous, 57-104. It also might have been Tanner’s best season as a skipper.

First, he brought Stargell back to uniform as a coach, and even contemporary players such as Chipper Jones and Jose Guillen speak of “Pops” influence on their careers when they were younger.

Second, with the Bucs in danger of leaving town, Tanner sought out investors to buy the team and keep it in Pittsburgh.

Though his group eventually fell short to a consortium of Pittsburgh business leaders who eventually purchased the team, it showed Tanner’s commitment to the Pirates and Pittsburgh.

Third, through all the losses which led to Tanner wearing a pin on his cap that read “ATTITUDE,” the Bucs had one final run in them.

They finished their final 28 games 14-14, not superb, but enough to provide hope for the future with new acquisitions like Sid Bream and R.J. Reynolds and the Bucs’ first round draft choice, Barry Bonds, tearing up A Ball.

Most of all, the Bucs took five of nine games down the stretch from the New York Mets, who finished three games behind St. Louis in 1985.

Ask any of the old Mets, and they’ll tell you it was Tanner’s Pirates who spoiled their pennant drive in ’85, starting a great rivalry in the following years for the Bucs and Mets.

If there was one flaw to Tanner, it might be that he was loyal to a fault.

He often brought back old veterans to fill out his roster, and, in hindsight, maybe the 1983 Pirates would have been better without Gene Tenace hitting .177, and maybe if Atlanta started their rebuilding project instead of bringing back old Pirates like Moreno, Larry McWilliams, or Jim Morrison, they would have been better off.

Still, Stargell ended his career with two years of pinch hitting and wound up leading the National League in pinch-hit home runs and RBIs in his final season.

Jackson would become the Bucs’ first African-American coach when he guided the Bucs’ bullpen in 1984. It was a year the Pirates would lead the Major Leagues in ERA.

Besides, if the worst thing we can say about Tanner is that he was loyal, could there be a greater testament to his character?

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