Chuck Tanner, 82; skipper led Bucs to World Series title

Chuck Tanner with Bill Madlock during the 1979 World Series. Chuck Tanner with Bill Madlock during the 1979 World Series. (Associated Press)
Assocaited Press / February 12, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — Chuck Tanner, the relentlessly upbeat manager who led the “We Are Family’’ Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979 to one of the greatest comebacks in World Series history, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 82.

He died at his home in his hometown of New Castle, Pa., where he had been in hospice care.

“In baseball, we will remember his eternal optimism and his passion for the game,’’ Mr. Tanner’s son, Bruce, said in a statement.

Renowned for his never-wavering confidence and an inherent belief that no deficit was too large to overcome, Mr. Tanner managed the White Sox, Athletics, Pirates, and Braves to a record of 1,352-1,381 from 1970-88. He won one division title and finished second five times.

“It’s hard to win a pennant,’’ Mr. Tanner once said, “but it’s harder to lose one.’’

Mr. Tanner’s irrepressible faith was tested in the ‘79 Series when Pittsburgh fell behind favored Baltimore 3-1. Facing possible elimination in Game 5 in Pittsburgh, Mr. Tanner awoke to learn his mother had died in a nursing home in New Castle.

Saying his mother would have wanted him to do his job, Mr. Tanner stayed with his team and took a huge gamble by starting left-hander Jim Rooker, who had won four games all season, rather than future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Rooker held the Orioles to one run over five innings, and the Pirates, led by aging star Willie Stargell, went on to sweep the final three games.

While with the White Sox from 1972-75, Mr. Tanner, a former major league outfielder, turned modestly successful, knuckleball-throwing reliever Wilbur Wood into a successful and tireless starter and Rich “Goose’’ Gossage into one of the premier closers of his era. He was one of the first managers to use relievers in situational roles, as all teams do today.

Let go when owner Bill Veeck reacquired the White Sox in 1975, Mr. Tanner quickly hooked on with the Athletics. With Reggie Jackson gone and home runs at a premium, Mr. Tanner turned the 1976 A’s loose for an American League-record 341 stolen bases, an average of more than two per game. Eight players had 20 or more, including 31 by “designated runner’’ Larry Lintz, who had one at-bat all season.

Coveted by the Pirates, the team made one of the few trades involving a manager in major league history to obtain Mr. Tanner’s contract.

He kept running, doubling the Pirates’ stolen base total from 130 to 260. They overcame a 7-11 record in April 1979 to win the National League East before sweeping the Reds in a three-game National League Championship Series.

The Pirates had seven winning seasons in Mr. Tanner’s first eight years. However, some players later abused the considerable freedom Mr. Tanner gave them.

That permissive attitude was cited in part for the Pirates’ drug problems that were revealed during the widely publicized Pittsburgh trials of alleged drug suppliers to Major Leaguers in 1985.

Mr. Tanner testified he had only a cursory knowledge of such drug use.

Despite being fired by the Pirates in the aftermath of the drug trials — “I would have fired myself,’’ Mr. Tanner once said — he was quickly hired by Braves owner Ted Turner. But he was fired again less than halfway through that contract after going 153-208 in two-plus seasons.

After retiring from managing, Mr. Tanner remained involved with the Pirates, most recently serving as a senior adviser to general manager Neal Huntington.