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Islanders manager was a ‘class act’

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1969
    Chuck Tanner, right, shown with Jimmie Reese in April 1969, managed the Hawaii Islanders before he began working in the majors for the Chicago White Sox. Tanner died yesterday at age 82.
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PITTSBURGH » For Chuck Tanner, it was all about family in so many ways.

There was the 1979 World Series when the Pittsburgh Pirates — energized by the thumping anthem "We Are Family" — soared to a title that ended with the players’ wives dancing on the dugout roof.

And there was Game 5 of that Series, when the great comeback started for a Pirates team facing elimination by Baltimore. Tanner learned his mother had died that morning, but he insisted on managing because he knew she would have wanted him to do the job.

Yesterday, Tanner, one of baseball’s relentlessly upbeat figures, died at 82 in his hometown of New Castle, Pa. He died of a long illness at his home after spending time in hospice care.

"In baseball, we will remember his eternal optimism and his passion for the game," Tanner’s son, former major league pitcher Bruce, said in a statement.

He’ll be noted in the record book, too, for a most smashing debut in the majors: Playing for the Milwaukee Braves in 1955, he homered on the first pitch he saw as a big leaguer.

Before his 17 years managing in the big leagues, Tanner managed the Hawaii Islanders, leading the AAA franchise to their first Pacific Coast League division title in 1970.

That team won the Southern Division and drew a then minor-league best 467,217 at the old Honolulu Stadium, which is now a park in Moiliili. The Islanders lost the overall title to Northern Division champion Spokane, which featured manager Tommy Lasorda and star player Bobby Valentine. The Islanders broadcaster then was Al Michaels.

Tanner managed the White Sox, Athletics, Pirates and Braves to a record of 1,352-1,381 from 1970 to ’88. He won one division title and finished second five times.

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

Tanner’s irrepressible faith was tested on that morning of Game 5 in 1979, with the Pirates trailing the Orioles 3-1. Tanner awoke and found out his mother had died in a nursing home.

A grieving Tanner stuck with his team. He started 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 went on to sweep the final three games.

"Chuck was a class act who always carried himself with grace, humility and integrity," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said in a statement. "While no one had a sharper baseball mind, Chuck was loved by his players and the city of Pittsburgh because he was always positive, enthusiastic and optimistic about his Bucs and life in general."

Commissioner Bud Selig called Tanner a "lifetime contributor to baseball."

"Chuck spent his life serving baseball in a variety of roles," Selig said in a statement. "And I am particularly glad that in recent years he returned to the Pirates, the club with which he will be forever linked."

Tanner had made his mark in the dugout before joining the Pirates.

While with the White Sox from 1972 to ’75, 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.

Let go when owner Bill Veeck reacquired the White Sox in 1975, Tanner hooked on with the Athletics. Tanner turned the 1976 A’s loose for an AL-record 341 stolen bases.

Tanner was coveted by the Pirates, and the team made one of the few trades involving a manager in major league history to obtain Tanner’s contract. Pittsburgh sent All-Star catcher Manny Sanguillen and cash to the A’s for Tanner.

After being let go by the Pirates, Tanner 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 in Atlanta.

Born on the Fourth of July in 1928, Tanner hit .261 with 21 homers in 396 games as a spare outfielder with the Braves, Cubs, Indians and Angels.

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