Another Fourth of July has come and gone. Among other memories, it always reminds me of my favorite all time figure in baseball. No, I don’t mean George Steinbrenner, the famous crook who ran the Yankees for so long and was born on that date. I mean Chuck Tanner, who was born on that date in 1929 to German and Slovak parents in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Tanner had an eight year major league career that was mostly unremarkable except for the fact that he hit a home run in his very first at bat, pinch hitting for the venerable Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn on April 12, 1955. It took a few years for Tanner to make it to the big league club after he was signed in 1946 when he graduated from Shenango High School. The team had moved in ’53 from Boston to Milwaukee where 43,640 Opening Day fans cheered his home run that helped put Spahn and the Braves ahead as part of a three run eighth inning rally. Ted Kluszewski had put the visiting Cincinnati Reds ahead 2-1 with a two run clout off Spahn in the top of the inning. A 21 year old outfielder named Hank Aaron contributed a triple to the winning rally. Despite humble beginnings and less than superstar ability, magic moments followed Chuck Tanner throughout his life, especially after his playing career when he became a very successful manager.
Tanner’s managing career reached its pinnacle in 1979 with the We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates. That team had a storybook season helped by trades in season that brought them infielders Tim Foli and Bill Madlock to solidify a lineup that already had included Dave Parker at his peak and Willie Stargell, who at 39 had enough left in his tank to play 113 games and blast 32 home runs, many of which were vital, clutch hits. The starting pitchers were not bad but not great, either, and it was innovative at the time the way Tanner used his deep bullpen No starter won more than 14 games but relievers Grant Jackson, Kent Tekulve, and Enrique Romo appeared in 345 innings combined to help the Pirates win the National League East by two games ahead of the strong Montreal Expos. Then they swept the Cincinnati Reds in the N.L. playoff for the pennant and went on to face heavily favored Baltimore in the World Series. The teams split the two opening games in Baltimore and then moved on to Pittsburgh, where the Orioles won the third game 8-4 and the fourth game 9-6 to take a 3-1 Series lead into the fifth game, which would be the final game at Pittsburgh. Before that fifth game, manager Chuck Tanner informed his players about his mother passing away and mentioned that she no doubt would have appreciated it if the Series did not end in Pittsburgh. Down 1-0 after five innings, the Pirates struck for seven runs over the next three innings to send the Series back to Baltimore. The Orioles had won their division title by eight games over the Brewers and then swept aside the Angels in the playoff in four games. They had Jim Palmer and Scott McGregor ready for game six and then seven if necessary. John Candelaria and Tekulve combined to blank the Orioles, 4-0 in the sixth game and then Stargell slugged his third homer of the Series and Pittsburgh won again, 4-1, using four pitchers. Cornball as seems, the Family prevailed, but that is the kind of guy Chuck Tanner was. He was referred to as Mr. Sunshine because of his relentless enthusiasm. The man just loved baseball and it rubbed off on others. In his youth in New Castle, the family had no electricity until he was in tenth grade and they also did without indoor plumbing. His grandfather apparently worried about his future because he told Tanner that, “You’ll be a bum. All you want to do is baseball, baseball, baseball.” When he played for the Braves, he was known for his hustle. Playing outfield, he would race to the dugout after the third out and reportedly often made it to the dugout before the lumbering first baseman Joe Adcock.
After his eight years of playing Tanner’s less than Hall of Fame batting marks were a .261 batting average with 21 homers and 105 runs batted in. In 1957 he had his most productive season, batting .279 in 117 games. What was not so fortunate for him was that he was traded from the contending Braves to the seventh place Cubs during the season. That was the year that the Braves knocked off the Yankees in the World Series, and the World Series dough might have doubled what a reserve outfielder was making in those days. He probably smiled about it.
Then his exciting managerial career began with 8 seasons in the Angels’ system. He was named minor league manager of the year in 1968 and 1970. After the Chicago White Sox fired Don Gutteridge in 1970, Tanner got his first big league managing job. The highlight there was 1972. The Sox had improved their record by 23 games in ’71 with the likes of Jay Johnstone, Carlos May, Rick Reichardt, and Tommy John (the pitcher, not the surgery) but still were far out of the race. In 1972, the White Sox acquired Dick Allen and everything got better. Allen, who grew up in Wampum, Pa., which is about a two and a half stones throw from New Castle, was now 30 years old and, while a truly talented hitter of All Star caliber, he was considered by some to be an indifferent defensive player with perhaps a bad attitude. True to form, Chuck Tanner saw the good in the western Pennsylvania neighbor. Allen, on his fourth team in four years, was the American League MVP with 37 homers and 113 RBI and the White Sox contended all the way before finishing second to eventual World Champion Oakland in the A.L. West.. Tanner was innovative with his pitchers in a different way that year. He had both Goose Gossage and Terry Forster in the bullpen but knuckle ballers Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen started 49 and 41 games respectively and Tom Bradley started 40, but I don’t know if he was a knuckler as well.
Managing the Oakland A’s in 1976, Tanner had another second place finish as the A’s dynasty began to crumble in the wake of owner Charles Finley’s unfavorable reaction to free agency. That team showed Tanner’s love of the stolen base as they swiped 341 in 464 attempts. Then the Pirates wanted Tanner, who considered managing the team that played fifty miles from his home a dream come true. Finley balked, and a historic trade of sorts occurred as the Pirates had to give Finley Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 to get Tanner. Mr. Sunshine had his dream come true.