Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chuck Tanner, 1929 - 2011

     Chuck Tanner played for the Cubs, managed the White Sox, and approached everything he did with infectious optimism. He passed away last Friday at the age of 81.
     Tanner made his big-league debut as a player for the Milwaukee Braves on Opening Day in 1955, cracking a home run on the very first pitch he saw. The blow did not portend greatness, however, for Tanner's eight-year career produced totals of 21 homers, 98 runs scored, and 105 runs batted in, to go with a .261 batting average. More than half of Tanner's hits, homers, and RBIs came in a two-year stint with the Cubs in 1957 and 1958.
     Tanner resurfaced in the majors when he was named skipper of the White Sox late in the 1970 season. After 17 consecutive winning seasons from 1951 to 1967, the Sox had fallen on hard times. They bottomed out in 1970, losing a club-record 106 games while drawing only 495,000 fans to Comiskey Park. The Sox went 3-13 under Tanner as they limped to the finish line.
     It looked like more of the same in 1971, as the White Sox lost 38 of their first 60 games and occupied last place into July. But the Sox went 12 games over .500 for the rest of the way to finish at a respectable 79-83. Tanner's positive attitude and relentless cheerleading helped, but not as much as his decision to convert knuckle-balling lefty reliever Wilbur Wood into a starter. Wood won 22 games and finished third in the voting for the Cy Young award (for the rest of Tanner's tenure as manager, Wood led the league in games started every year; he won 106 games in five seasons). A pair of 20-year-olds, lefty Terry Forster and righty Rich "Goose" Gossage, anchored the bullpen, and third baseman Bill Melton led the league with 33 home runs.
     Thanks to the Sox' improved play on the field and the arrival of the ultimate baseball-and-beer salesman, Harry Caray, in the broadcast booth, attendance increased nearly 70 percent.
     In 1972, first baseman Dick Allen was acquired in a trade for pitcher Tommy John. Having worn out his welcome with three other clubs in the past three years, Allen flourished with the White Sox. He skipped batting practice, traveled separately from his teammates, and smoked on the bench, but Tanner didn't mind. He blithely admitted that he had one set of rules for Allen and another for the rest of the team. The moody slugger responded with a then-club-record 37 homers to go with 113 RBIs and a .308 average and won the Most Valuable Player award as the Sox finished just five and a half games behind the Oakland A's, who won the world championship. Tanner was named American League Manager of the Year.
     A particular highlight of that season was a doubleheader sweep of the Yankees on June 4 before a Bat Day crowd of 51,904 at Comiskey Park. In the nightcap, the Sox were trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth when Allen blasted a three-run pinch-hit homer into the upper deck in left field.
     The White Sox were relevant again. Attendance ratcheted up to 1.17 million in 1972 and 1.3 million (third highest in club history at the time) in 1973.
     Tanner was let go when Bill Veeck reacquired the franchise after the 1975 season. He managed the A's for one season, then piloted his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, for nine years, winning the World Series in 1979. He concluded his career with the Atlanta Braves in 1988. Phil Garner, who played for Tanner with the Pirates and later became a manager himself, said, "Chuck Tanner taught me nearly all I know about baseball."

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