Pirates' Lonnett was a man who valued family

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011

Chuck Tanner promised that if he ever became a major-league manager, Joe Lonnett would be one of his coaches. Tanner stayed true to his word, and Lonnett followed him to the Chicago White Sox and Oakland A's.

When the Pirates traded catcher Manny Sanguillen to the A's for Tanner in 1977, it provided a long-awaited homecoming for Lonnett.

The third base coach for the Pirates' 1979 World Series champions, Lonnett was an embodiment of their "We Are Family" slogan, a Beaver Falls native whose wife and five daughters often baby-sat the players' children. A Brighton Township resident for 45 years, Lonnett died Monday. He was 84.

"We grew up with it. We have a lot of memories with him, with the ballplayers," said daughter Barbara Lonnett, of Leetsdale. "It was kind of a dream for us for him to come to Pittsburgh. It was icing on the cake.

"He still left early and came home late, but he was here and we could see him. That '79 season, as cliche as it sounds, they truly were an amazing, close-knit group of guys, as humble as can be."

Lonnett spent 24 years in baseball as a player and coach, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1948. He missed two seasons while serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Korean War. Lonnett spent four seasons as a catcher with the Phillies, from 1956-59, batting .166 with six home runs and 27 RBI. His roommate was Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher who died in May 2010.

After playing and coaching in the Phillies' minor-league system, Lonnett coached with Tanner, a New Castle native, with the Chicago White Sox from 1971-75 and the A's in '76. His wife, Alvida, and daughters Maria, Judy, Joyce, Barb and Nancy would visit Lonnett when the White Sox returned East and made three-game road swings.

When Tanner was traded to the Pirates for Sanguillen - only the second trade in MLB history to involve a manager - Lonnett returned home. He wore Sanguillen's No. 35 jersey until the Pirates traded for Sanguillen a year later, then switched to No. 32. Lonnett's family saw the Pirates as an extended family of big brothers or father figures.

"I didn't see him as a celebrity," Barb said. "My dad loved all of the players, literally, like sons. They were all so close. When we were around Chuck Tanner, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock — all of them — we didn't see them as professional athletes. That's just how we grew up."

In recent years, Lonnett battled Alzheimer's disease and was cared for by Alvida, his wife of 56 years. He attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the World Series champions in 2004, where Barb recalled a tearful reunion with former Pirates players and coaches.

"The admiration and love they had for my father, you see it," Barb said. "I have never heard anyone say anything derogatory about my father. It's always, 'He's the kindest man I ever met.' It's a testament to who he was. He touched so many people's lives - and I don't think he realized that. It was never about him. He was a man of immeasurable kindness, someone who was selfless always and loved his wife and kids."

Lonnett is survived by Alvida Pisani Lonnett, daughters Maria Lonnett Burgess, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.; Judy Lonnett and her husband, Rick Morgan; Joyce and her husband, Rick Schaughency, all of Brighton Township; Barb; and Nancy Lonnett Roman and her husband, Chris Roman, of Beaver; and six grandchildren. Family and friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Noll Funeral Home in Beaver. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at SS Peter & Paul Church in Beaver, followed by interment at Beaver Cemetery.

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