Tanner was baseball's happy warrior
Late manager's cheerful demeanor set the tone for his players
George Steinbrenner liked to say, "Lead, follow or get out of the way," though he wasn't at all fond of the latter two. Chuck Tanner, a good baseball man who died on Friday, could do all three well -- and was pleased to accommodate.
Tanner was most pleased when he was wearing a baseball uniform -- whether it was for the Pirates, White Sox, Braves, Angels, A's, Indians or Cubs. He represented each club at some point in his long career in the big leagues.
"You're never better dressed than when you're in your uni," he used to say.
That was one of the axioms -- they were axioms to him -- that Tanner embraced. He was a man who loved to say, "The best thing you can do on a given day is win a baseball game. The second best thing is lose one."
And he meant it. He smiled perpetually. The last time I saw him, he was wearing his fishing hat and smiling. The last time I spoke with him -- he was hospitalized at the time -- he said by phone that he was wearing his fishing cap. That he was wearing a smile, too, was a given.
Some folks, though never the ones who knew him well, suggested the smile was a facade -- that in private moments Tanner would break a pencil, slam a door, or even kick a trash can. Roland Hemond, the world's nicest baseball executive, said he never saw a harsh side of Tanner, and doubted one existed. Rich Gossage, who held Tanner in the highest regard, never saw it. Willie Stargell acknowledged he saw Tanner disappointed and/or "out of character." And he recalled seeing the semblance of a temper once. "But I can't remember when. He's not too good to be true. He's just good, and it's all true."
And so the game has lost another smiley disposition, and a manager who won a World Series ring and treasured it above all other possessions. Tanner passed on Friday in New Castle, Pa., his hometown some 40 minutes from where he managed the Pirates to their most recent World Series championship in 1979. He had been ill for some time, and recently had been in hospice care. He was 82-years old -- 81 if you choose to believe the date of birth on his first contract.
He was the manager of the Fam-a-lee, the team that adopted the Sister Sledge recording "We Are Family" as its theme song. Tanner didn't know from Sister Sledge; the group didn't figure to be among his favorite artists. But he wouldn't acknowledge that.
"Whatever we play out there [in the clubhouse] after we win is fine with me," he said one September evening in '79, when Cobra, Candy, Mad Dog and the others were dancing in the adjacent room.
And if it's after a loss?
"I don't care," Tanner said. "Just as long they play something. We don't need to celebrate losing? But why get down about one game?"
Tanner made himself comfortable in every circumstance. His mother died before Game 5 of the World Series. He accepted it and explained the why of it.
"Mom was a great Pirates fan," Tanner said. "She knew we were in a fix and wanted to do what she could. ... She went upstairs to get some help."
Tanner was the manager, but he would follow or get out of the way if that was best for his team.
"I'm pretty sure Chuck's got an ego," Stargell said after a playoff victory against the Reds. "But he doesn't need it to be stroked. And he doesn't show it. He's a man of modesty."
Tanner produced merely modest success in his eight seasons playing the outfield unremarkably for the Milwaukee Braves and three other clubs. He hit a home run in his first big league at-bat in 1955, and 20 others before he retired in 1962. And his resume as a manager has more last-place finishes, three, than championships. But he'll always have '79 when his Buccos swept the Reds in the National League Championship Series, and then recovered from a 3-1 World Series deficit to beat the Orioles and give the Steel City a different kind of champion.
The team's popularity transcended the baseball community of western Pennsylvania, partly because of Stargell's gentle nature and role as leader, Dave Parker's brilliant play, John Candelaria's nastiness, Bill Madlock's hitting, Kent Tekulve's sling shot and that curve of Blyleven's. And partly because Tanner was one of the community.
The Fam-a-lee was a compelling bunch. Tanner was part of the fabric, though not a conspicuous one. Without him, the fabric probably would have been quite flawed.
"He lets us be," Bill Robinson said. "We have our own discipline in [the clubhouse]. Nothing gets too out of hand. So Chuck doesn't have to say much. When he does talk, we do listen."
Tanner's career winning percentage in 19 years in the dugout was .495. His White Sox (1972) and A's (1976) teams produced second-place finishes. And the Pirates were runners-up in the two seasons preceding the championship and in 1983. His last four full seasons -- two with the Pirates, two with the Braves -- produced three last-place finishes and one next to last. The Braves were in last place after 39 games in 1988 when he was dismissed. Bobby Cox took over the Braves two years later and found some residual optimism in the manager's office.
"Chuck kept his players happy," Cox said. "He didn't make them happy. He let them be happy. That's the trick."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.