When longtime Pirates manager Chuck Tanner passed away last week, most of the obituaries focused on his years as a manager, particularly the time he spent at the helm of the Pittsburgh Pirates—whom he guided to a championship in 1979.
Tanner was also a player, however, and though his star never shone bright in that role, the lessons he learned during those years informed his managerial decisions for the rest of his career.
I spoke to Tanner over the phone in 2008, expecting a 15-minute conversation in which he would answer a number of specific questions I had compiled. Instead, we talked for close to two hours, during which it became clear that at his essence, this was a guy who simply loved baseball, who jumped at the opportunity to talk shop.
It was a fantastic conversation, which led to two stories in the original manuscript for The Baseball Codes. Unfortunately, both were excised due to space considerations. In honor of Tanner, however, I present them here.
Long before Chuck Tanner went on to win the 1979 World Series as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was a scrappy outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves. In 1955, Tanner’s rookie season, he was on first base in a game against the Phillies when Hank Aaron hit a shot to the left side of the infield. The feed went to second baseman Granny Hamner, who eyed the young Tanner barreling toward him.
At 28, Hamner was only three years older than Tanner but had already been in the big leagues for 12 years and possessed a veteran’s bag of tricks. He sidearmed the relay to first, aiming the ball at Tanner’s forehead. The runner was forced to hit the dirt in order to avoid being brained, and Hamner was spared a potential collision.
As Tanner lay on the ground trying to figure out what had just happened, Hamner approached, with words of wisdom. “Hey kid,” he said, “this is the big leagues.” Tanner never forgot.
Two years later Tanner was with the Cubs, and again found himself on first base against Philadelphia. Again a ground ball was hit to the shortstop, Chico Fernandez, who juggled it for just a moment, giving Tanner the extra time he needed. He barreled into Hamner, spiking him hard in the knee—an act that drew denunciations from many of the Phillies players.
After the game, Tanner went out to get some food. He was eating by himself when Hamner surprised him by showing up in the same restaurant, not hesitating to limp toward his table. He sat down and ordered a beer for each of them.
“He said, ‘You know, Chuck, when you hit me I remembered what I said to you when you were a rookie,’ ” Tanner recalled.
Tanner’s retaliation was taken as exactly that, and although physical damage was done, Hamner bore no hard feelings.
In 1959 Tanner was sold to the Cleveland Indians—and one of the first players he saw upon entering the clubhouse was none other than Granny Hamner, who had joined the team just weeks earlier. Tanner warily eyed the players in the clubhouse, guys like Johnny Temple, Billy Martin and Vic Power—“a bunch of tough guys,” he said—wondering what Hamner might have had in store for him.
“I walk in the door, (Hamner) sees me, and I said, ‘Hi, Granny,’ ” said Tanner. “He said to the guys, ‘Hey, be nice to that guy. He never forgets.’ They all laughed when he told them what happened. It took me a couple of years to get him, but I never forgot it. That’s the game. That’s the way the game is.”
The next story took place when Tanner was a member of the Chicago Cubs.
Leaving the ballpark after a game in which he hit a home run against St. Louis’ Sam Jones in 1957, Tanner said the pitcher went out of his way to flag him down. “Hey Chuck,” said Jones, “the next time I see you, you’re going to have to take one out of your ear.”
It was either misguided banter or a clear attempt at intimidation. Either way, it didn’t sit well with Tanner.
“I was in the middle of a conversation with somebody and I said, ‘Just a second, I need to say something to this guy,’ ” said Tanner. “I took about five steps toward Jones and said, ‘Hey Sam, I just want to tell you something ahead of time. If I go down, fine. But if I can get up, you’re going in the hospital for three months. Remember that.’ ”
Tanner didn’t make a habit of digging in against pitchers, but the next time the two squared off, about two weeks later, he did just that, then hit a shot that was caught by left fielder Del Ennis. “He just looked at me,” said Tanner. “He never threw at me. If I hadn’t said anything when he said it to me, who knows what would have happened. . . . I have to say something back. The hell with you, you know.”
That’s about as old-school—and beautiful—as it gets. Chuck Tanner will be missed.