Chuck Tanner’s place in baseball history will forever be as the patriarch of the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, who overcame a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to upset Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles. However, it doesn’t seem fair to boil down an over 50-year baseball career to just one moment.
Tanner’s baseball journey began as a 16-year old prospect when he was signed by the Boston Braves in 1946. After nine long seasons in the minors, he finally made his major league debut in 1955 for the now Milwaukee Braves. Apparently, not wanting to make a return trip to the bushes, Tanner didn’t waste any time in his first at bat, a pinch hit appearance for the great Warren Spahn in the eighth inning of the Braves’ opener on April 12. With his team trailing 2-1, Tanner swung at the first pitch from the Reds’ Gerry Staley and sent it sailing into the grandstand for a game tying homerun. The Braves tacked on two more runs in the eighth and then held on to the win, but the story after the game was Tanner’s dramatic blast, which at the time made him only the seventh player to hit a round tripper on the first pitch faced in the majors.
Players Who Homered on the First Pitch of Their First At Bat
|Adam Wainwright||5/24/2006||St. Louis||P||5|
|Andy Phillips||9/26/2004||New York||PH-3B||14|
|Kaz Matsui||4/6/2004||New York||SS||32|
|Marcus Thames||6/10/2002||New York||OF||113|
|Gene Stechschulte||4/17/2001||St. Louis||P||1|
|Chris Richard||7/17/2000||St. Louis||1B||34|
|Esteban Yan||6/4/2000||Tampa Bay||P||1|
|Bert Campaneris||7/23/1964||Kansas City||SS||79|
|Eddie Morgan||4/14/1936||St. Louis||OF||1|
There’ll never be a thrill to beat this one. That includes the World Series, anything else that’s happened or still to come. This it.” – Chuck Tanner, quoted in The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 13, 1955
Tanner was right, at least with regard to his playing career. Although the newspapers had fun portraying the blast as a “rags to riches” story, the journeyman minor leaguer would really never make much more of an impact as a player. Over the next eight seasons, the outfielder bounced around the league as well as back and forth between the minors and the majors before finally retiring in 1962 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.
Although he didn’t really make much of an impression as a player, Tanner did build a reputation as a smart baseball man. So, when his playing days were over, the Angels hired him to manage their Quad Cities affiliate in the Midwest League. After spending parts of 14 seasons in the minors as a player, Tanner embarked on another long journey in the minors as he gradually managed his way up through the Angels’ farm system. Following a stint in Quad Cities, Tanner moved on to the El Paso Sun Kings (Texas League), the Seattle Angels (Pacific Coast League), back to El Paso, and then finally to the Hawaii Islanders (PCL).
If anyone should have been prepared for a long journey to the major leagues, it was Tanner. For the second time in his life, perseverance paid off when he was named manager of the Chicago White Sox at the end of the 1970 season. Unlike his debut as a player, however, his managerial career didn’t exactly start off with a bang. As if he hadn’t waited long enough, Tanner’s expected debut as White Sox’ skipper on September 15 was delayed three days because of rain. With the entire series against Kansas City washed away, the White Sox returned home to host the Twins on September 18. One can only imagine how anxious Tanner must have been to kick off his second crack at the majors, but after being swept in the series, and then losing 13 of the season’s final 16 games, perhaps the rookie skipper would have been better off it the rain had never stopped?
Tanner wound up managing five seasons in Chicago, but only finished above .500 once. During his time on the south side, however, he did make at least one contribution that would wind up having a significant impact on the Yankees in the latter half of the decade. In 1971, the White Sox had a 19-year old fireballer named Rich Gossage, who opened eyes by going 18-2 with a 1.83 ERA for the team’s single-A Appleton affiliate. Despite those gaudy statistics, Tanner decided to use Gossage as a reliever, bucking the overwhelming conventional wisdom of the time. At first, Gossage was resistant to the change, and his performance suggested that Tanner’s experiment was destined for failure. That all changed in 1975, when the now 23-year old Gossage turned in an outstanding season in relief that earned him enough Cy Young votes to finish sixth in the balloting. Unfortunately for Tanner, 1975 was his last year in Chicago, so Gossage’s success was a moral victory at best.
Chuck Tanner and Dick Williams were the best managers I ever played for. The best move that ever happened to me in my career was Tanner putting me into the bullpen in 1972.” – Rich Gossage, quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 27, 2008
Weeks after being fired by the White Sox, Tanner was named the new manager of the Oakland Athletics. After a five-year run atop the A.L. West, Athletics’ owner Charley Finley started dismantling his dynasty, and in 1976 Reggie Jackson was the latest to go. Always one to experiment, Tanner sought to compensate for this loss of power by employing a new strategy centered on stolen bases. In 1976, the Athletics hit 113 homeruns, but stole 341 bases. Eight players on the team had at least 20 swipes, including Larry Lintz, a pinch runner specialist whose 31 steals dwarfed his four plate appearances.
The Athletics’ reign as division champs came to an end in 1975, but their spirited pursuit of the Kansas City Royals earned Tanner much praise around the game. After the season, rumblings about mutual interest between Tanner, who grew up near Pittsburgh, and the Pirates began to emerge, but the manager was still under contract to the Athletics. Adding fuel to the speculation was the fact that during the 1976 campaign Tanner had a few clashes with Finley, not the least of which dealt with the notoriously frugal owner’s unwillingness to pay him his full salary. According to Finley, the White Sox were responsible for paying 60% of the $60,000 owed to Tanner in each of the three years remaining on his previous contract with the White Sox. New Chicago owner Bill Veeck apparently didn’t agree.
I’m the man in the middle. I still have a contract with Charlie Finley, but I haven’t been paid a full salary to manage. I’ve been asked by friends and newsmen if I would like to manage the Pirates. I said since I grew up in the area it would be like a dream come true.” – Chuck Tanner, quoted by UPI, October 17, 1976
After months of bickering, American League president Lee McPhail ordered Veeck to pay Tanner the $35,000 owed in 1976, but then released the White Sox from further obligations in 1977 and 1978. Finley liked Tanner as a manager, but not enough to pay him $60,000 per season. So, after some back and forth, the Athletics agreed to trade Tanner’s contract to the Pirates for Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. Both sides expressed great pleasure with the deal. The Pirates had their manager, and Finley had his money.
Chuck Tanner did a fine job for me. I am not trying to discredit him as a manager. But I would trade a manager any day in the week for Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. And, I can get $250,000 for Sanguillen. That would mean I would be making $350,000 for having a manager somebody else wants.” – Charlie Finley, quoted by AP, November 6, 1976
Tanner’s first two seasons in Pittsburgh, which included a temporary reunion with Gossage in 1977, were a success. In each campaign, the team just fell short of the Philadelphia Phillies for the division lead. Then, in 1979, everything seemed to fall into place. Led by veteran Willie Stargell, who was known as Pops in the colorful Pittsburgh clubhouse, the Pirates rebounded from an early slow start, which had left them seven games behind the upstart Montreal Expos in early July, to eventually clinch the division title on the final game of the season. After the game, Tanner called the victory “the biggest thrill of my entire baseball career”, echoing the same joyful exuberance he once expressed as a rookie after hitting a homerun in his first at bat.
The Pirates made quick work of the Reds with a sweep in the NLCS, but once again found their backs against the wall in the World Series. A late six run rally by the Orioles in game four put Baltimore on the precipice of what most people believed was inevitable, but all season the Pirates had made a habit of coming back from adversity. However, before game five, a bigger tragedy intervened. While he was eating breakfast on the morning before the pivotal game, Tanner’s father called with a somber message. His mother, who had suffered a stroke before the NLCS, had passed away.
Stung by the news, Tanner’s first response was to head home immediately, but his father resisted. “No, your mother wouldn’t want that,” the elder Tanner told his son, according to AP. “Stay there and go get ‘em”.
All season long the Pirates considered themselves a family, and Tanner’s painful situation gave them a chance to prove it. After winning an emotional game five, the Pirates completed the comeback by taking the final two games in Baltimore, completing an improbable season that still defines baseball in Pittsburgh today. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time for Tanner to celebrate the victory. Twelve hours after the final out, he buried his mother.
In many ways, Tanner really never had a chance to enjoy his status as a World Champion. Following the 1979 season, the Pirates slipped back toward mediocrity until hitting rock bottom in 1985, Tanner’s last season at the helm. Losing 104 games would have been enough to qualify as a low point, but in 1985, baseball was in the midst of several scandalous drug trials, and the Pittsburgh clubhouse was ground zero. In September, Tanner was called to testify at one of the hearings, which alleged that a cocaine dealer named Curtis Strong sold drugs to various major league players between 1980 and 1984. Although the manager acknowledged warning his players about various unsavory characters, he denied any direct knowledge of the rampant drug use occurring on his team. The backlash was damning.
Whether the managers’ blindness to their players’ personal and professional degeneration on the playing field and in the clubhouse is because they weren’t looking or because they weren’t seeing when they did look, is largely immaterial. The damage to the American tradition of professional baseball resulting from this managerial sloth is incalculable.” – U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill, during the sentencing of convicted drug dealer Robert McCue, October 30, 1985
The drug scandal marked the end of Tanner’s time in Pittsburgh, and seriously marred his reputation. Always lauded for the affable personality that made him very popular among his players, it became apparent that Tanner’s lack of discipline helped foster the epidemic that tarnished both his team and the game of baseball. Despite the stain, Tanner wasn’t out of work for long. He was quickly hired to manage the Atlanta Braves, the same organization he first signed with at the age of 16. The Braves weren’t a very good team, however, and Tanner struggled through two-plus seasons before being let go early on in the 1988 campaign.
After being fired by the Braves, Tanner tried to remain active in the game. He wasn’t shy about expressing his interest in various managerial openings, and even made unsuccessful bids to buy the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros. However, a return to the helm of a major league baseball team wasn’t to be. Instead, he took a job as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, and then returned to his Pittsburgh roots as a special advisor to the Pirates. Tanner was in that role when the Mitchell Report was released.
Just like the cocaine scandal that rocked the game two decades earlier, major league baseball was widely criticized for its willful ignorance and tacit acceptance of behavior that damaged its credibility. In response to the rampant allegations and recriminations, Tanner’s response was eloquent in its simplicity. “The main thing is, let’s not look back, let’s move forward. You never look back,” he said. “You look forward to better things that are going to happen.”
Those words could just as well have defined Tanner’s entire career.
Managers with a World Series Title, but Career Record Below .500
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