Friday, February 11, 2011

Sunshine Superman RIP

Sunshine Superman has flown away. Chuck Tanner died today in a New Castle hospice after a long illness at the age of 82. He was on the short list of good guys to be part of the game, and you can bet that St. Peter has a long line of old baseball folks lined up behind him and Babs to welcome Tanner to his reward.

Charles "Chuck" William Tanner was born on July 4, 1928 in New Castle, and he is a true Pittsburgh bred Yankee Doodle Dandy if ever there was one.

A lefty, Tanner played eight seasons (1955 - 1962) for four different teams - the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Braves and Cleveland Indians after a star-studded high school career, in which he won ten letters in baseball, basketball and football. Shenango High's ball field is named after him.

In 1955, he broke in with the Braves and captured the club's top rookie award. Tanner became the third pinch hitter in history to homer on the first major league pitch he saw, tagging the Reds' Gerry Staley. He played in 396 games during his injury-dogged career and batted .261 with 21 home runs.

In 1963 he began managing in the Angels' minor league system. After eight years in the bushes and a AAA championship, he received his first major league managing job in 1970 with the Chicago White Sox. Tanner turned knuckleballing reliever Wilbur Wood into a winning and inning eating starter and Rich "Goose" Gossage into one of the primo closers of the era.

His most successful season with the Sox came in 1972, when he they were runner ups in the AL West to the eventual World Series champion Oakland Athletics. Tanner managed the Sox until 1975, when he was axed and replaced by Paul Richards.

In 1976, Charley O. Finley hired Tanner to manage the Oakland A's. With burners like Bert "Campy" Campaneris, Bill North, and Don Baylor, Tanner made the Athletics into a running team, stealing a major league record 341 bases. Heck, his "designated runner" Larry Lintz, who had one at-bat all season, stole 31 sacks. The A's, however, lost out in the division race to the Kansas City Royals. It went downhill from there.

Before the 1977 season, the A's began dismantling their core of stars from the great team that won three straight World Series championships from 1972-74. Part of that salary dump was the trading of Tanner to the Pirates for an over the hill Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. Technically, this is the only instance in MLB history where a manager has been part of a baseball trade. (Two other deals involved player-managers, Joe Gordon and Lou Pinella.)

He reached the pinnacle of his managerial career in 1979 as the skipper of the World Champion "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates. Tanner was famous for always looking for the silver lining, and it rubbed off on his teams. The Pirates won in 1979 after falling behind three games to one in the World Series and despite the death of Tanner's greatest supporter, his mom.

He told The Baseball Digest that after talking to his dad, he decided to remain in the dugout. "My dad said, 'You're going to stay and manage. That's what your mom would have wanted.'" Tanner recounted.

There was a lot of emotion flowing through the Pirate skipper's veins. "Mom had promised me she would be there for every game," said Tanner.

"Now Dave Parker was her favorite player and I remember saying to myself 'If you're so hot, let Parker hit one over that Cardinals' sign," Tanner recalled. The Cobra promptly mashed an RBI double in the seventh inning, right at the spot where the St. Louis logo was painted on the outfield wall at Three Rivers Stadium.

Tanner then began to feel that a special force was at work. "I got goose-bumps all over my body after that one," he confessed. And the goose bumps would remain as his Buc's roared back to stun the Orioles. It was obvious Mama Tanner was still in the house.

He took them to the promised land, but Pops and Dave Parker were on the wrong side of the hill and Bert Blyleven was traded. The results showed, as did Tanner's laissez faire attitude towards his players' personal lives, culminating in the low mark of Pittsburgh baseball, the drug trials of 1985.

His baby-sitting skills can be questioned, but he came up with an innovation that's still en vogue. Tanner came up with the "bridge" relievers, bringing in guys as early as the sixth inning to keep the lead, a new tactic at the time. In fact, in 1979 Grant Jackson pitched in 72 games, Enrique Romo in 84 and Kent Tekulve in a league-leading 94. They had the three highest appearance totals in the NL.

Tanner left Pittsburgh after nine years at the helm in 1985. He was canned after the horrid PR of the drug trials, and famously said "I would have fired myself."

He finished his managing days with the Atlanta Braves where he spent three unforgettable years with an old, creaking roster. They were terrible, and he was done coaching in 1988.

Tanner ended his field boss career with a 1,352 - 1,381 record. His only pennant winner was the '79 Bucs. He finished as one of 18 managers to work nineteen or more consecutive seasons, joining old Bucco skippers Fred Clarke and Bill McKechnie.

"I don't think a manager should be judged by whether he wins the pennant, but by whether he gets the most out of the twenty-five men he's been given," he says. And Tanner did get to work for a pair of baseball's more colorful owners, Charley Finley and Ted Turner.

He surely never used the same book that other managers swear by. Tanner was never afraid to use unorthodox moves to shake things up, like pinch-hitting left-handed hitting John Milner (for righty Steve Nicosia) against southpaw screwballer Tug McGraw. He hit a grand slam. He let Ed Ott hit against him, too. Same result.

After spending eleven years with Milwaukee Brewers' baseball operations
and five seasons as a special assistant of the Cleveland Indians, Tanner, then 78 years young, was named a senior adviser to Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington in the autumn of 2007. It was a great move by the Pirates, dipping into their tradition and coming out with a great guy to work with the troops. Tanner saw the best and worst of times and knew how to deal with them.

Tanner was invited to be a coach in Pittsburgh's 2006 All Star game by NL manager Phil Garner, who played for the Pirates during Tanner's tenure. It was a classy and appreciated move by Scrap Iron. The icing on the cake was when Tanner got the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Tanner lost his wife of 56 years, Barbara, known by all as Babs, in 2006 after she fought a decade-long battle with a variety of health issues. Their house on E. Maitland Lane, where Tanner had lived since 1959, became a combination Babs/baseball shrine. They're back together again.

He was the father of former major league pitcher and coach at Pittsburgh and Detroit Bruce Tanner (he's a scout with Detroit now.)

"I've had the greatest life in the world," he told the Post Gazette. "How many guys can say they won a World Series in their back yard? How can that happen to a kid from Shenango?" But that's as it should be. Chuck Tanner has always been a star in Pittsburgh's book.

Visitation will be held from 4-9 p.m. Tuesday at Cunningham Funeral Home, 2429 Wilmington Road, New Castle. The funeral service will be private. 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.

And in Tanner’s honor, MLB Network will show “Baseball’s Seasons: 1979″ at 6 PM Saturday.

"The greatest thing in the world is winning a major league game. The second greatest thing in the world is to lose a major league game." - Chuck Tanner

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