Chuck Tanner, R.I.P.

Chuck Tanner, who played in the Majors for parts of nine seasons and managed four teams over the course of nearly 20 seasons, has died. Tanner's most famous team was the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, forever remembered for their team song, Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" (you sort of had to be there).

MLB.com's David Briggs:

Tanner homered in his first career at-bat on April 12, 1955, for the Braves, but his playing career was undistinguished. In parts of nine seasons spent with four teams, Tanner hit. 261 with 21 homers in 396 games.

He would make his mark, though, as a manager. After leading the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders to a Pacific Coast League pennant in 1970, Tanner landed his first Major League managerial job in September, taking over the Chicago White Sox. He led the White Sox to a second-place finish in 1972 and managed the club through 1975 before taking over the Oakland A's for a season.

Tanner's stay in Oakland was short-lived, though. He was traded -- yes, traded, for catcher Manny Sanguillen -- to the Pirates after one season by owner Charlie Finley.

He had found his fit. Tanner guided the Pirates to second-placed finishes in the NL East in 1977 and 1978 before the magical 1979 season, when the team won 98 games without a 15-game winner on the staff.

His optimism unflinching, Tanner was a player's manager if there ever was one.

"When things were going well, they didn't need you. But when the guys were going bad, I'd hug them," Tanner said, smiling.

Tanner will be remembered as a player's manager, and deserves to be.

I sort of missed most of that, though. I remember the "We Are Family" Pirates, of course, but in 1979 I wasn't paying much attention to baseball outside of Kansas City. Chuck Tanner didn't really hit my radar screen until the 1980s, when he kept showing up in Bill James's annual Baseball Abstracts.

Around that time, drugs were a huge story in baseball.

What, you thought this steroids thing is new? The only difference between steroids and cocaine is that Hall of Fame voters don't care about one of those. Well, another difference is that baseball players went to jail for using cocaine, and many more were hauled into courtrooms and embarrassed. And perhaps no team was more embarrassed than Chuck Tanner's Pirates.

Bill James did not absolve Tanner. Here's a chunk from a long essay about Tanner and Whitey Herzog, circa 1986. Tanner didn't do anything about the drugs; Herzog did ...

We come then to the summer of 1985, and to the bizarre confluence of news stories which joined at the Allegheny and the Monongahela. On the one hand, there was the story of the ongoing drug investigation centering on Pirates and former Pirates; on the other, a steady stream of stories about what a hell of a job Chuck Tanner was doing managing the Pittsburgh Pirates through their nightmare. The theme of these stories was "He's just the same. I interviewed him in '79, when the Pirates were in their glory days, and I interviewed him in '85, and he's the same now as he was then."

The logic of this argument misses me. Would you defend the pilot of a crashed jet-liner by saying that he flew the plane just the same through a thunderstorm as he had on a sunny day? Would you defend the general of a slaughtered infantry by saying that he marched his men into a hail of bullets just as if they were marching in a Fourth of July parade? Would you defend a doctor by saying that he treated you the same when you were healthy as when you were sick? What kind of moron is going to manage a team like this just the same as he managed a World Champion?

In 1985, Tanner had managed the Pirates to a 57-104 record. From there, he moved directly to Atlanta and managed the Braves to a 72-89 record. Granted, this was not a talented club. But after that season, James wrote, "I wasn't kind to Chuck Tanner in the book a year ago, but I would never have believed what an awful job he would do as manager of the Braves."

Which Bill followed with a mini-essay that touched on psychology, society, and all the other aspects of humanity that make his writing unique.

Anyway, this is the Chuck Tanner I grew up with.

Throughout the 1970s, Chuck Tanner ranked among the game's best managers. He wasn't Earl Weaver or Billy Martin, but his players loved him and he won. When the Pirates won the World Series in 1979, Tanner was 50.

And then, as often happens to managers, Tanner was simply left behind. Cocaine was a terrible scourge, far worse than steroids ever could be, and Tanner simply wasn't equipped to begin to address the problem. The last five teams Tanner managed finished sixth, sixth, sixth, fifth and sixth.

Again, there's nothing particularly strange about this. It simply points to the brilliance of someone like Tony La Russa, who just keeps winning, decade after decade.

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