Chuck Tanner never played for or managed the Yankees, but that really shouldn’t matter. He was one of those special people in baseball who just made you feel better about yourself, even if you were only around him for a few minutes. Tanner died last week at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of general cheerfulness and highly competent managing.
About a dozen years ago, I had a chance to meet Tanner and Oliver at a university symposium about integration in baseball. Both men played important roles for those culturally diverse Pirates teams, allowing them to share their experiences with the college students and academics in attendance. When it came to coaching and managing black athletes, Tanner offered plenty of credibility. More than any manager, he found a way to get through to Dick Allen where other skippers had failed. He also had good relationships with African-American and Latino players in Pittsburgh, from Oliver and Manny Sanguillen to Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock. His ability to deal well with athletes of all ethnicities was exemplified by a 1979 world championship team, a unified group tied together by the hit Sister Sledge song, “We are Family.”
After we participated in the panel, I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Tanner and Oliver. It didn’t take long to realize that Tanner’s persona of perpetual optimism was no deceptive façade. He took as much interest in me as I did in him, even though I had never managed a world champion or played in a major league game. As much as anyone I’ve ever met, Tanner genuinely exuded positive vibes–and seemingly did so every minute of the day. It was not difficult to see why so many of his players proclaimed him as the best and most enjoyable manager they had ever experienced.
Tanner knew the game, too. The job that he did leading the 1972 White Sox remains one of the great managerial accomplishments of the past 40 years. Other than Dick Allen, the knuckleballing Wilbur Wood, and a young Terry Forster, the White Sox had little frontline talent, but they somehow managed to keep pace with the vastly superior Oakland A’s for much of that summer. Tanner knew that he didn’t have much pitching depth that season, so he used a four-man rotation that sometimes morphed into a three-man affair. Wood, ex-Yankee Stan Bahnsen, and journeyman Tom Bradley each made over 40 starts, all of them pitching well enough to keep the Sox and their low-scoring offense in most games that season.
Tanner knew something about relief pitching, as well. He was the man who made the decision to convert Goose Gossage to the bullpen, a maneuver that resulted in a Hall of Fame career. Later on, when Tanner moved on to the Pirates, he masterfully mixed and matched his bullpen arms. He exhibited a great feel for when and where to use his relievers, whether it was Jim Bibby or Enrique Romo pitching in long relief, ex-Yankee Grant Jackson working as a situational left-hander, or Kent Tekulve filling the role as closer.
In between managing stints in Chicago and Pittsburgh, Tanner did intriguing work in Oakland. He managed the A’s for only season, but he left his mark in a distinctive way. An aggressive manager who loved the running game, Tanner realized he had speed to burn with the ‘76 A’s. Giving green lights to practically his entire roster, Tanner watched the A’s steal 341 bases, a major league record for the post-deadball era. Tanner skillfully used Matt “The Scat” Alexander and Larry Lintz as designated pinch runners, while coaxing career best base stealing seasons from Billy North (75 steals), Don Baylor (52) and even the -footed Sal Bando (20 steals). Having lost Reggie Jackson in a spring training deal and having to wade through Charlie Finley’s ill-fated player sales of Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers, Tanner somehow kept the A’s in contention before they fell a few lengths short of Whitey Herzog’s Royals.
One of the most successful managers of the 1970s, Tanner seemed to lose his touch in the 1980s. He drew criticism for allowing cocaine problems to escalate in the Pirates’ clubhouse. Drug-addled and aging, those Pirates teams fell into decline in the early eighties. After being fired by the Pirates, Tanner resurfaced with the Braves, at the time a failing franchise. Joe McCarthy and John McGraw couldn’t have won with those Braves teams, but Tanner’s reputation continued to take a hit.
Tanner became a Sabermetric whipping boy in the 1980s, largely because of a series of Bill James articles that criticized him for his blind optimism, and his inability to recognize the culture of cocaine and other illicit drugs in Pittsburgh. I remember reading one article in particular, titled “Chuck Tanner’s Funeral Home.” Some readers found it funny, but I mostly found it to be over-the-top, mean-spirited, and grossly unfair, clearly not a highlight of James’ writing career. Instead of pinning the blame on the Pirate players who brought drugs into the clubhouse, James made Tanner his No. 1 target. I’ve never understood that line of thinking. It was the players who snorted cocaine in the bathrooms of Three Rivers Stadium during games, not Chuck Tanner.
That’s not to say that Tanner was blameless in the affair. He should have done a better job identifying the drug problem and then trying to correct it. As the manager, enforcing discipline and clubhouse atmosphere are parts of the job description, and those were areas in which Tanner failed. But I don’t think that it was a case of Tanner turning a blind eye to the drug culture; I suspect that he simply didn’t know much about drugs, having grown up in the Midwest in the 1940s, and didn’t have the ability to recognize the symptoms.
In judging a man’s career, I believe it’s important to make an assessment of what he did on balance. Tanner’s unquestionable successes in the 1970s, on the whole, outweigh his failures in the eighties. Tanner did good work for three different franchises, culminating in a world championship in which his team, the underdog in the World Series, came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win.
Tanner was not a Hall of Fame manager, not with a career record a bit below .500 and only one world championship. But he was a damned good one. I would have been pleased to see him become a Yankee manager in the seventies or eighties, when the franchise badly lacked stability in the dugout. I suspect that his vibrant, cheerful personality would have won over even the tyrannical George Steinbrenner. In many ways, especially in terms of charm and personality, Tanner was the anti-Billy Martin.
Tanner was also a good man, kind, accommodating and caring, whether it was with his players, members of the media, or secretaries working in the front office. Chuck Tanner was the kind of man who made you proud to be a baseball fan.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.