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Former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner dies at 82

Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

Chuck Tanner never wanted to be judged by how many games he won as a Major League Baseball manager. To him, what mattered was getting the most out of the 25 players on his roster.

Tanner, 82, died Friday in his hometown of New Castle, Lawrence County. He had been ill and in hospice care.

He bonded the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates into the "We Are Family" crew and managed them to the World Series title, staging one of baseball's greatest comebacks to upend the favored Baltimore Orioles in seven games.

"Chuck loved the game," said former outfielder Mike Easler, who played for Tanner in Pittsburgh from 1977-83. "He knew how to get the best out of each player. That's why we won."

Born on July 4, 1928, Charles William Tanner displayed an upbeat, can-do attitude, even when facing long odds. He toiled for nearly a decade in the minor leagues, then homered on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues. He never quite reached everyday status as a player but found his niche as a manager.

"We will remember his eternal optimism and passion for the game," said his son Bruce Tanner, a Detroit Tigers scout and former Pirates coach.

"For my generation, when you think of the best times in Pirates baseball, Chuck Tanner comes to mind," Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown said. "He's an iconic figure in the organization. I rank him up there with (Danny) Murtaugh, (Bill) Mazeroski, (Willie) Stargell, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor and those guys. In my mind, he's a Pirates hall of famer."

As a wiry teenager in 1946, Tanner signed his first pro contract with the then-Boston Braves. He spent nine years in the minors, including four in the early 1950s as a slick-hitting outfielder with the Double-A Atlanta Crackers.

He finally cracked the then-Milwaukee Braves' roster in 1955 and made his major league debut in the season opener against the Cincinnati Reds. With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Tanner pinch-hit for pitcher Warren Spahn. He hit a solo home run off right-hander Gerry Staley, sparking a three-run rally that lifted the Braves to a 4-2 victory.

Tanner played parts of three seasons with Milwaukee. He also spent time with the Chicago Cubs (1957-58), Cleveland Indians (1959-60) and California Angels (1961-62). In his eight-year playing career, he hit .261 with 21 homers and 105 RBI.

When he signed with the Braves out of Shenango High School in the late 1940s, Tanner said, team officials marked his birth year as 1929 to make the outfield prospect appear to be one year younger.

The falsity became fact. The back of his Topps baseball card lists 1929 as his birth year, as have countless reference sites from past Pirates media guides to Baseball Almanac, a baseball encyclopedia website.

"I was born in 1928," he told the 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."

It wasn't until Tanner went into managing that he made his mark. In 19 seasons, he had a .495 winning percentage (1,352-1,381) and earned a World Series ring.

"He was the best manager I ever had," said former Pirates outfielder Lee Lacy, who played for four major league teams over 16 years.

Tanner managed eight years in the minors before being hired in 1970 by the Chicago White Sox. The team finished second in the American League West Division in 1972, and he was named manager of the year. Three years later, he was fired after a fifth-place finish.

Tanner managed the Oakland A's in 1976, then was traded to the Pirates for Manny Sanguillen and $100,000.

"The first thing Chuck did was bring me back to Pittsburgh," Sanguillen recalled with a chuckle. "It was my dream to finish my career with the Pirates."

In each of the first two years under Tanner, the Pirates finished second in the rugged National League East. In 1979, they won 98 games, held off the Montreal Expos and captured the division by two games.

After sweeping Cincinnati to claim the NL pennant, the Pirates faced the Orioles in the World Series.

"We were down three games to one, but Chuck came in and said, 'OK, let's get 'em tomorrow. We can get 'em. We can do it,' " Easler recalled.

On the morning of Game 5, Tanner's mother died. Rather than go back to New Castle, he remained with the team, saying his mother would have wanted him to do his job.

Pirates relief pitcher Kent Tekulve remembers the scene in the clubhouse when a grieving Tanner met his players before the game.

"He walked into the clubhouse before Game 5, and we were befuddled," Tekulve said. "We didn't know what to say to him. He saw how much we cared for him, though, so he walked to the middle of the clubhouse and there was no, 'My-mother-would-want-me-to-manage-today speech.' None of that.

"He just said, 'My mother saw we were in trouble so she went somewhere to get us some help.' "

The Pirates won that night, then took the next two games to win their fifth World Series.

"Chuck was a fierce competitor who knew how to get his players' attention and maximum effort," Pirates President Frank Coonelly said. "As a result, Chuck earned the respect and admiration of his players."

Back-to-back last-place finishes in 1984 and '85 ended Tanner's tenure in Pittsburgh.

His final year coincided with the Pittsburgh drug trials that involved several of his players.

Tanner landed in Atlanta in the following season, but the Braves struggled to last-place finishes in the NL West in 1986 and '87. When the team started the 1988 season 12-27, Tanner was fired for the third and final time. He had offers over the years to return to managing but never accepted.

"I hated to see him go to Atlanta," former Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock said. "He was such a huge part of the city of Pittsburgh. Chuck meant so much to the Pirates organization."

From 1992-2002, Tanner worked as a special assistant to the general manager in Milwaukee. He also scouted for five years for the Cleveland Indians. In 2008, the Pirates hired him as a senior adviser to the general manager, a job he held until his death.

"Chuck spent his life serving baseball in a variety of roles," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "I am particularly glad that in recent years he returned to the Pirates, the club with which he will be forever linked."

Until last year, when illness began to restrict him to bed rest, Tanner was a frequent visitor to PNC Park during the season. He attended spring training workouts in Bradenton, Fla., where he found time to talk with younger players.

Even later in life, he was a father figure for the Pirates family.

The Pirates yesterday announced the creation of the Chuck Tanner "We Are Family" Fund. It will present an annual award to the Pirates' minor league staffer who best exemplifies his optimism, enthusiasm and work ethic.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Cunningham Funeral Home, 2429 Wilmington Road, New Castle. The funeral service will not be open to the public.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, a contribution be made to the "We Are Family" Fund in care of Pirates Charities, 115 Federal St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

reaction to tanner's death

Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm (via Twitter): "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"

Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda (via Twitter): "Rest in Peace Chuck Tanner. I loved you like a brother. You taught me a lot about managing, and I always appreciated it."

Former Pirates relief pitcher Grant Jackson: "He did outstanding job as far as handling us, keeping us as a team and keeping us as a group, as the name goes, 'We are Family.' He will always be in my mind."

Former Pirates relief pitcher Kent Tekulve: "Everyone else said, 'Oh, he's too skinny. Don't pitch him too much.' But he said just the opposite (about me). He said he gets better the more he pitches. ... He didn't tell me what to do. He trusted me to do it."

Bruce Tanner, Chuck Tanner's son: "He will forever be remembered as a loving husband, father and grandfather to his family and a good friend to every life he touched."

Former Pirates infielder Phil Garner: "You knew that if you were on the team, you were there because Chuck wanted you there. So there was a sense of, 'I don't want to disappoint Chuck.' We talk about him being a great motivator, and he was because he was always positive and upbeat. But he never had to kick you in the butt to get you to do something. You wanted to do it for him."

Former Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock: "Chuck was always the same. I saw him years later, at fantasy camps and the All-Star Game, and he hadn't changed. He was still the same, happy-go-lucky guy."

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