NEW CASTLE, Pennsylvania (AP) — Chuck Tanner, the relentlessly upbeat manager who led the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979 to one of the greatest comebacks in World Series history, died Friday after a long illness. He was 82.
He died at his home in his hometown of New Castle, Pa., where he had been in hospice care.
“In baseball, we will remember his eternal optimism and his passion for the game,” Tanner’s son, Bruce, said in a statement.
Renowned for his never-wavering confidence and an inherent belief that no deficit was too large to overcome, Tanner managed the White Sox, Athletics, Pirates and Braves to a record of 1,352-1,381 from 1970-88. He won one division title and finished second five times.
“It’s hard to win a pennant,” Tanner once said, “but it’s harder to lose one.”
Tanner’s irrepressible faith was tested in the ’79 Series when Pittsburgh fell behind favored Baltimore 3-1. Facing possible elimination in Game 5 in Pittsburgh, Tanner awoke to learn his mother had died in a nursing home in New Castle.
Saying his mother would have wanted him to do his job, Tanner stayed with his team and took a huge gamble by starting left-hander Jim Rooker, who had won four games all season, rather than future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Rooker held the Orioles to one run over five innings, and the Pirates, led by aging star Willie Stargell, went on to sweep the final three games.
“Chuck was a class act who always carried himself with grace, humility and integrity,” Pirates President Frank Coonelly said in a statement. “While no one had a sharper baseball mind, Chuck was loved by his players and the city of Pittsburgh because he was always positive, enthusiastic and optimistic about his Bucs and life in generally.”
After retiring from managing, Tanner remained involved with the Pirates, most recently serving as a senior adviser to general manager Neal Huntington.
“My early memories of the Pirates organization are of Chuck’s teams, the way they played the game and the genuine affection they seemed to have for each other,” Huntington said. “This made an impression on me, and never did I imagine that I would have the chance to work with Chuck.”
While with the White Sox from 1972-75, Tanner, a former major league outfielder, turned modestly successful, knuckleball-throwing reliever Wilbur Wood into a successful and tireless starter and Rich “Goose” Gossage into one of the premier closers of his era. He was one of the first managers to use relievers in situational roles, as all teams do today.
Let go when owner Bill Veeck reacquired the White Sox in 1975, Tanner quickly hooked on with the Athletics. With Reggie Jackson gone and home runs at a premium, Tanner turned the 1976 A’s loose for an AL-record 341 stolen bases, an average of more than two per game. Eight players had 20 or more, including 31 by “designated runner” Larry Lintz, who had one at-bat all season.
Coveted by the Pirates, the team made one of the few trades involving a manager in major league history to obtain Tanner’s contract.
He kept running, doubling the Pirates’ stolen base total from 130 to 260. They finished second in each of their first two seasons under him, in 1977 and ’78, then overcame a 7-11 record in April 1979 to win the NL East before sweeping the Reds in a three-game NLCS.
Despite having front-line starters Blyleven and John Candelaria, the Pirates didn’t have a starting pitcher with more than 14 wins that season, or a position player with more than 94 RBIs. Still, the team’s chemistry was undeniable.
Led by the 39-year-old Stargell’s clutch hitting (32 homers, 82 RBIs), the team adopted a popular song of the time by Sister Sledge to become known as the Family (or, as it was often spelled, the Fam-A-Lee). Stargell was the NL’s co-MVP, as well as the MVP of the NLCS and the World Series, despite being limited to 424 at-bats by age and injuries.
“Having Willie Stargell that year was like having a diamond ring on your finger,” Tanner said.
The Pirates had seven winning seasons in Tanner’s first eight years, several after they had terrible starts. However, some players later abused the considerable freedom Tanner gave them, such as allowing friends and family members to roam freely in the clubhouse.
That permissive attitude was cited in part for the Pirates’ drug problems, involving such players such as 1978 NL MVP Dave Parker, that were revealed during the widely publicized Pittsburgh trials of alleged drug suppliers to major leaguers in 1985.
Tanner testified he had only a cursory knowledge of such drug use. Former Pirates shortstop Dale Berra contradicted that claim, testifying Tanner specifically warned him to stay away from reputed drug dealers and once asked Berra if he had a cocaine problem.
Despite being fired by the Pirates in the aftermath of the drug trials – “I would have fired myself,” Tanner once said – he was quickly hired by Braves owner Ted Turner. But he was fired again less than halfway through that contract after going 153-208 in two-plus seasons in Atlanta.
Tanner later worked as a scout for the Brewers and Indians but did not manage again despite having several offers. In 2006, he was honored with an annual award presented by the baseball writers to the Pirates player who is most cooperative with the media. The baseball field at his alma mater, Shenango High in New Castle, is named for him.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1928, Tanner was best known for homering on the first pitch of his first career at-bat for Milwaukee in 1955. He hit .261 with 21 homers in 396 games as a spare outfielder with the Braves, Cubs, Indians and Angels, missing out on a chance to be an everyday outfielder with the Cubs in 1958 because of a shoulder injury.
Son Bruce Tanner pitched briefly in the majors with the White Sox and later was the Pirates’ bullpen coach. Another son, Mark, pitched in the minors.
Tanner’s wife, Barbara, died in 2006, the month after her husband served as honorary NL coach in the All-Star game in Pittsburgh. Phil Garner, the NL manager, insisted Tanner be on his staff.
“Chuck Tanner taught me nearly everything I know about baseball,” Garner said.
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