(Chuck Tanner, right, and Phil Garner, one of his former players, at a 2009 ceremony honoring the 1979 World Series champion Pirates. Photo by Associated Press)
I didn’t know Chuck Tanner well, but I felt like he was an old friend. Every time I talked to him in person or on the phone over the years, he was such a warm, enthusiastic presence that you couldn’t help feeling a little bit better about life.
I wasn’t alone, of course. Everyone loved Chuck Tanner, who has died at age 82 — old teammates, the players he managed over a long dugout career (including the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates of “We Are Family” fame, who rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Orioles in the World Series), and pretty much anyone he ever came in contact with during his long baseball life.
Few knew him better than Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners’ general manager. Tanner was from New Castle, Pa. — the same town that Zduriencik grew up in. Tanner was a long-time advocate of Zduriencik’s career. In a long profile of Zduriencik I wrote shortly after he was hired, I told of a ceremony a few years ago in which a field was dedicated in Tanner’s honor at his alma mater, Shenango High School.
“Darned if Jack wasn’t there, sitting in the stands,” Tanner told me. “He took time off work, said he had to be there. I was really pleased. But that’s Jackie.”
I reached Zduriencik today in Peoria. He said he was at the batting cage this morning when he got a call from a friend telling of Tanner’s passing. Shortly after, he heard from Tanner’s son, Bruce, who played briefly in the major leagues.
“Since I’ve heard the news, I’ve felt a great void,” Zduriencik said. “I’m very saddened. We lost a great man.”
Their relationship actually flourished when Zduriencik played in the White Sox farm system while Tanner was managing the Sox. They became even closer when Zduriencik became a Pirates scout, and later when he worked in the Brewers organization and Tanner was an advisor to Milwaukee GM Sal Bando. Zduriencik and Tanner talked about once a month right up until his death.
“He was one of the best people, honestly, I’ve ever known in my life,” he said. “He was just the most positive guy. It was amazing how he could talk about anything and turn it into a positive. He was a great baseball guy. He loved his family, he loved baseball, and he loved where he was from. If you had a conversation with Chuck, you always felt better.”
Zduriencik added, “It was a privilege to have known him. He had such an impactful personality. If you were his friend, he was always in your corner. Chuck was always pulling for me.”
Zduriencik told one Tanner story from the high-school ceremony I mentioned earlier (to which Zduriencik drove from Milwaukee on a whim). With several old Pirates on hand, it turned into an impromptu roast. Kent Tekulve, the former Pittsburgh reliever, got up and said his prevailing memory of Tanner was with his right arm outstretched, signalling for him to get up in the bullpen. Tekulve pointed out that Tanner brought him into nearly 100 games (91 in 1978, 94 in 1979). When Tanner took the stage, he said, “Kent, I don’t want to hear about pitching in 100 games. We were paying you for 162!”
On the way to the majors, Tanner made a stop at Seattle’s Sicks Stadium in 1967, managing the Seattle Angels of the Pacific Coast League, just two years before Seattle joined the majors as the short-lived Pilots of 1969. The Angels didn’t fare particularly well in ’67, finishing fifth in the six-team Western Division of the PCL, but that Angels team had some interesting characters. Chuck Cottier, who would eventually manage the Mariners, was on that team, as was Lew Burdette, hero of the Braves’ World Series victory in 1957. So were a bunch of future major leaguers like Elrod Hendricks, Jay Johnstone, Aurelio Rodriguez, Marty Pattin and Clyde Wright (father of Jaret Wright).
Tanner was 37 when he managed in Seattle. Three years later, he took over the Chicago White Sox to start his 17-year major-league managerial career, which yielded 1,352 wins. He managed in Oakland and Atlanta as well, but his greatest years were at the helm of the Pirates during a glorious era of Pittsburgh baseball (yes, kids, there actually were glorious eras of Pittsburgh baseball) that featured the likes of Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, John Candeleria and Kent Tekulve.
Tanner had a great thrill in the 2006 All-Star Game when one of his former players, Phil Garner, was managing the National League squad after winning the pennant with Houston the previous year. The game was held in Pittsburgh, and Garner brought in Tanner to be an honorary coach. He got a huge ovation from the crowd at PNC Park, and was clearly ecstatic to be there. He got another chance to be celebrated in 2009 when the 1979 Pirates were honored on their 30th anniversary. Tanner’s enthsiasm and love of baseball was infectuous, and he will be greatly missed.