Pittsburgh Pirates fans have known for months that Chuck Tanner was in poor health and fading fast. We saw him at PNC Park mid-summer at a weekend long celebration for the 1979 World Series championship team. From August 21-23, the Pirates honored Tanner, the players, coaches, families, and the uniform style from that season. Tickets went for $19.79 and the Friday night fans got one of those crazy looking caps that the players wore that season.
Tanner’s eulogies have been overwhelmingly positive. Most describe him as the nicest man in baseball and a sound strategist. Almost apologetically, some commentators made a passing reference to the blackest chapter in Pirates’ history—the cocaine scandal that engulfed the team during the early 1980s while Tanner was its pilot. While the consensus is that if Tanner didn’t know what was going on in the clubhouse, as he swore he didn’t, then he most certainly should have.
My Society for American Baseball Research colleague D. Bruce Brown in his daily trivia email reminded me of one the most amusing footnotes in recent baseball history that involved Tanner. On May 11, 1977 in a game against the hapless Atlanta Braves, Tanner became the only manager to defeat Ted Turner in his single managerial appearance. (Sign up for Brown’s email here. SABR members get extra hints; they’re helpful.)
The Braves, who would lose 101 games that year, were floundering under Dave Bristol’s direction. Turner sent his beleaguered manager on an extended “scouting trip” and replaced him in the dugout. Wearing uniform number 27, Turner watched his hapless Braves lose their seventeenth straight game, 2-1. Years later, Tanner named the Pirates winning pitcher, John Candelaria, as the hurler he would most like to have on the mound in a “must win” situation.
The next day Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and National League president Chub Feeney ruled that no one who owned stock in a club could manage it. Turner immediately declared the commissioner’s decision nonsense and said that it represented instead a vendetta against him. At the time, Turner was unpopular among other owners and with the baseball higher ups for his aggressive 1976 pursuit of free agent Gary Matthews that resulted in a one-year suspension eventually delayed on appeal.
Here are a few other fun facts about Tanner.
Born on Independence Day, Tanner hit a home run on the first major league pitch he ever saw. On Opening Day, April 12, 1955, Tanner pinch hit for Milwaukee Braves’ starter Warren Spahn in the bottom of the eigth inning and homered off the Cincinnati Reds’ Gerry Staley.
As manager for the Chicago White Sox (1970-1975), the Oakland Athletics (1976), the Pirates (1977-1985) and the Atlanta Braves (1986-1988), Tanner won 1,352 games. A public viewing of Tanner was held Tuesday at the Cunningham Funeral Home in New Castle where he was born in 1929.