Late last week, Chuck Tanner passed away at the age of 82. Though no Hall of Famer, he had a rather impressive career.
I’m in no position to eulogize the man, aside from saying that he was reportedly a genuinely and extremely nice person. As for his career? Well, that is a bit easier for some random internet writer like myself to comment on. Having written a book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, about managers, I should have something to say about the man.
Here are ten key points in the MLB career of Chuck Tanner.
1. He hit a homer in his first plate appearance. First pitch, actually.
Yeah, that’s a nice way to start a career. On April 12, 1955, Braves manager Charlie Grimm called on Tanner to pinch-hit for Warren Spahn in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Reds leading 2-1. Tanner’s blast tied the game, and a Hank Aaron triple a few minutes later put the Braves ahead.
He played for Charlie Grimm? Man, he was around a while. In other news, Tanner debuted the same day as Ken Boyer, and Boyer’s been dead for almost 30 years. (Moving away from baseball, Tanner’s debut was the same day Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, and three days before Ray Kroc’s first McDonalds opened in Des Plaines, IL). Tanner debuted five days before the first MLB game for Roberto Clemente.
2. Tanner is one of only 18 men who managed in Major League Baseball every year for 19 years straight
Here’s the list of the most consecutive years managed in MLB:
Years Managers 50 Connie Mack 32 John McGraw 32 Tony LaRussa 26 Sparky Anderson 23 Harry Wright 23 Gene Mauch 23 Walter Alston 21 Bobby Cox 21 Joe Torre 21 Joe McCarthy 21 Tommy Lasorda 20 Bucky Harris 20 Clark Griffith 20 Cap Anson 19 Fred Clarke 19 Ned Hanlon 19 Bill McKechnie 19 Chuck Tanner
Making the list is an impressive achievement. Yes, it’s quantity, not quality—but, still, it’s impressive.
He’s probably the worst manager on the list, sure, but it’s an accomplishment simply to make the list. He did it the hard way, too—by working for four different franchises. Several of these guys worked for only one or two teams during their consecutive season stretch.
Four teams? Well, there’s Gene Mauch, Harry Wright (sort of, he managed Boston in the NA from 1871-75 and then Boston in the NL starting in 1876), Bucky Harris, Clark Griffith, and Tanner. Ned Hanlon had five, but that’s an oddity, as he switched leagues early on.
Almost every name up there is in the Hall of Fame, almost all as managers. Only Gene Mauch and Tanner are on the outside looking in. (Well, that statement assumes Cox, Torre, and LaRussa will go in, a rather safe assumption).
The trio of managers who plied the trade in 18 straight seasons are all also Hall of Famers—Wilbert Robinson, Whitey Herzog, and Dick Williams. Tanner is the least regarded of that bunch, making him arguably the ultimate journeyman manager: he always landed on his feet as he moved from team to team.
From his first to last lineup card, Tanner never missed a game. Many of the guys above had a partial season in the midst of their stretch, but Tanner—despite hopping from the White Sox to the A’s to the Pirates to the Braves—had no gaps from filling out his first lineup card on September 18, 1970 until his last on May 22, 1988.
3. The greatest managerial rivalry of the last 40-plus years
In the entire divisional era of MLB history, 1969-2010, only one pair of managers has faced each other over 200 times, Chuck Tanner and Dick Williams. Tanner faced the Hall of Famer 218 teams—and got the better of him, winning 117 of those contests.
Two hundred-plus face-offs used to be somewhat common. Until the early 1960s, it required simply that two managers worked in the same league for a decade or more, as teams faced each other 22 times per year. With expansion and divisional play, it’s been watered down.
It’s incredible that those two would be the most frequent matchup of the last 42 seasons given how often they both lost their jobs (especially Williams). But they kept getting hired in the same league, and usually in the same division.
Tanner managed the White Sox when Williams ran the A’s and Angels. Tanner’s year in Oakland coincided with Williams’ end with the Angels. All those teams—White Sox, A’s, and Angels—were in the AL West. AL teams faced each other 18 times a year back then, a practice that ended in 1977 with the Toronto-Seattle expansion.
As it turns out, in 1977 both Tanner and Williams switched to the NL, Tanner joining Pittsburgh and Williams moving to Montreal. Both franchises played each other 18 times a year as members of the NL East. In 1979, those teams competed for the division title, with Tanner’s Pirates claiming it on the last day of the season.
Williams lost his job in Canada after the 1981 season, but was immediately hired by the Padres, so both Williams and Tanner stayed in the NL, albeit in different divisions. They faced off against each other a dozen times per year for four years until both got canned after 1985. Each got hired in 1986, but in different leagues—Tanner with the Braves and Williams with the Mariners—so they never faced each other after 1985.
Aside from being the most quantity-heavy managerial matchup of the last 40 years, the Tanner-Williams rivalry served as a nice personality contrast. Williams prided himself on his crusty public persona, even titling his autobiography No More Mr. Nice Guy. Tanner? He was Mr. Nice Guy.
4. The near triple crown and Chuck Tanner
The last time any player won the Triple Crown was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Since then the closest anyone came was Dick Allen for the 1972 White Sox. As late as September 8, 1972, Dick Allen led the AL in homers, RBI, and batting average. This is largely forgotten because his batting average trailed off and ended a little over .300, but it was still an exceptional season.
Allen’s season helped make Tanner’s reputation as the ultimate player’s manager. He was a sunny, likable guy whose positive, player-centric approach succeeded in getting Dick Allen, generally seen as the a perennial problem child, to live up to his potential.
5. Chuck Tanner is responsible for one of the greatest baseball stories in Jaffe family history
Memorial Day, 1973: my uncles John and Ron, White Sox fans both, go to see the Pale Hose take on the Indians. They were in for a treat.
First, before the regularly-scheduled game would begin, some unfinished business had to be taken care of. A game from two days before had hit the AL’s curfew and was suspended in a tie after 16 innings. They were going to finish it up and then start the day’s regularly-scheduled game.
Tanner had an idea: his scheduled pitcher was rubber-armed knuckleballer Wilbur Wood. Why not let him pitch the last few innings of the other game and then start the regular game? He might pitch a few extra innings but he could take it.
Wood ended up pitching five innings in the resumed game, allowing one unearned run in the 21st inning, but getting the win when Chicago rallied in the bottom half of the inning. Then he threw a complete game shutout for another win. In all, he threw 14 innings, and allowed one run—unearned—while recording two wins.
Yea, that’s a day to remember.
That’s how Tanner ran the White Sox, though: he leaned as heavily as humanly possible on his main arms. In 1972, Wood and rotation mate Stan Bahnsen started 90 games, the most by any team’s duo since the the Teddy Roosevelt administration. (Imagine how many starts Wood and Bahnsen would’ve had if the Sox hadn’t lost eight additional games to MLB’s first players’ strike that year).
The team’s third starter, Tom Bradley accounted for another 40 starts in that season. It was dang near a three-man rotation. That trio threw almost two-thirds of the team’s innings, the most by any top three pitchers by any team in Tanner’s lifetime (1929-2011).
6 The most steal-happy team of the last 90 years? Tanner managed them
If you were to ask a bunch of savvy baseball fans which manager oversaw the most steals in a season in the last 40 years, most would say Whitey Herzog. After all, his teams stole bases like no other.
However, any such guesses would be wrong: the 1976 A’s managed by Chuck Tanner stole the most bases of any team of the entire liveball era: 341. This was more than a little bit dictated by team owner Charles Finley, who employed pinch runners Matt Alexander and Larry Lintz. That duo combined for 51 steals despite only 34 PA.
That said, plenty of others stole huge buckets of bases. Bert Campaneris, age 34, stole 54, his highest total since the 1960s. Career highs were set by Billy North (75), Don Baylor (52), Phil Garner (35), and Sal Bando (20). Wait, a 32-year-old Sal Bando had 20 steals? (And only six caught steals!) I assume they were primarily trailing efforts on double steals.
The next year, now in Pittsburgh, Tanner’s squad stole 260 bases. Tanner thus became the first manager since the Deadball Era whose teams stole 600 bases over two seasons, not bad given that he switched teams in the middle of it. Tanner moved away from such relentless stealing by the early 1980s, but for a few years there he seemingly was more Whitey Herzog than Whitey Herzog.
7. He’s the guy Ted Turner managed against.
On May 11, 1977, new owner (and all-around maverick) Ted Turner decided to shake things up for his team by sending the normal manager on a scouting trip and leading the club himself. They’d lost 16 games in a row, and he figured they couldn’t do any worse with him at the helm.
They didn’t do worse, but they didn’t do better, either—they fell to Tanner’s Pirates 2-1 for their 17th consecutive loss. Little known fact: not only did Atlanta lose their 17th straight, but that game was Pittsburgh’s 11th consecutive win. The next day, with a coach managing, Atlanta snapped their losing steak and Pittsburgh’s winning streak.
Tanner never won 12 straight games, but he would pilot another 11-game winning streak the next year.
8. Pirates and drugs
I don’t have too much to say about this that hasn’t been said many times by others, but it’s important, so I’ll include it. If Dick Allen helped make Tanner’s reputation as a player’s manager, Pittsburgh undid it. Eventually.
At first, the team bolstered Tanner’s reputation as someone who worked well with players. This was especially true in 1979 with the team’s feel-good nickname “The Family.” They won a tough division race over the Expos (it would be Tanner’s only first-place finish ever as MLB manager). After a hard-fought sweep of the Reds in the NLCS (two of the three games went into extra-innings), the Pirates rallied back from a three games-to-one deficit to Earl Weaver’s Orioles to claim the world title.
Then came the 1980s. Long story short, serious drug problems beset the team. Cocaine was in other places in the 1980s, but the Pirates had the worst reputation. When a cocaine-related drug trial began in the late 1980s, it was held in Pittsburgh. Drug dealers were known to have entered the clubhouse. The team’s mascot was implicated in drug dealing.
The most famous player affected was Dave Parker. Cocaine punched a hole in his offensive production in the middle of his career, and that possibly cost him a chance at Cooperstown. Reliever Rod Scurry had it much worse. His drug usage cost him his life.
Yeah, the worm turned on Tanner. Bill James was one of his most severe critics, writing pieces that ranged from scathing to humorous (or both, as was the case in his “Chuck Tanner Funeral Home” piece).
9. Tanner’s worst loss
Tanner presided over very few games in which his team really leveled or was leveled by the opposition. In fact, only once did he manage a game decided by more than 14 runs.
That came near the end: on September 15, 1987 the Reds hammered his Braves, 21-6. If you asked, I would’ve confidently predicted his biggest victory was by more than 14 runs, but that was not the case. While the Pirates beat the Cubs 22-0 in the 1970s (the most lopsided shutout loss since 1900), that happened in 1975, before Tanner took over there.
Added insult: the 21-6 smackdown came less than two months after Tanner’s career win-loss record fell under .500 for good. A 5-4 loss to the Phillies on July 22 dropped him to 1,313-1,314 for his career.
If you’re curious, his all-time record peaked on August 17, 1980: 837-741, 96 games over .500. That day his Pirates beat division rival Montreal—managed by Dick Williams. From then on, Tanner was 515-640 as a manager.
10. Saving the worst for last
Like most managers, Tanner ended his career on a down note. He never had a last-place finish over a full season until 1984. (His 1970 White Sox came in last, but he only managed the last few weeks of the season. The 1981 Pirates came in last over the second half of the year, but finished a little over .500 in the first half).
Once Tanner started coming in last, he rarely did anything but do that. His teams finished last in 1984 and 1985 with the Pirates, and again in 1986 with the Braves. In 1987, the Braves vaulted to next-to-last. The 1988 Braves also finished last, but Tanner wasn’t around for the full season. He got fired just before the season’s quarter post.
Those 1988 Braves lost their first 10 games of the year. Added bonus: it was the first and only 10-game losing streak of Tanner’s career. No wonder he was out of a job five weeks later.
In an oddity, he actually won his last game. I can only assume the Braves decided to fire him beforehand. They were, after all, 12-27 at the time. Rather fittingly, that last victorious game came over the Pirates, the team with which he was most closely associated.
By all accounts, a genuinely nice guy. R.I.P., Chuck Tanner.
References & Resources
Info came from Baseball-Reference.com. A poster at >Baseball Think Factory noted Tanner hit a homer on his first MLB pitch (and B-ref’s Bullpen confirmed it), which is how I knew that one.
The info about Tanner and the Pirates comes from the old Bill James Abstracts.
Though the article is called “10 things I didn’t know about Chuck Tanner,” I not only knew a few of these items, but some of this comes from my book: Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008. The title is just an homage to the regular pieces boss-man Studes used to put out (10 things I didn’t know last week).