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October 26, 2010

Another Look

Chuck Tanner and the 1979 Pirates

by Bob Hertzel

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If the 1979 World Series belonged to Willie Stargell, and there is not a soul on Earth who watched the man they affectionately called “Pops” will the championship to the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in those seven games against the Baltimore Orioles who doesn't think otherwise, then the season belonged to manager Chuck Tanner.

This was a team that not everyone could manage, for it was a flamboyant, rollicking group of free spirits that had somehow come together under one roof, tied together only by a burning desire to win. It was a cast of characters made for a TV situation comedy, sort of a “Gilligan’s Island” meets “Friends” sequel from a second baseman nicknamed Scrap Iron to a third baseman nicknamed Mad Dog. There was the Candy Man or the Rubber Band Man on the mound and in right field they had in Dave Parker, “The Cobra”,  a man whose ego was the only thing that towered over his ability.

It was, to be honest, a team only Chuck Tanner could love.

You have to understand that Tanner never was what you’d call a member of the baseball establishment, right from the moment he was born on the Fourth of July in 1929 through the day he hit a home run in his first major league at bat. You look at his player page on baseball-reference.com and you find out that he couldn’t even get to the Pirates in the traditional manner, being traded while managing Oakland on November 5, 1976, by Athletics owner Charlie Finley, along with 100 grand, for catcher Manny Sanguillen.

Tanner already had the reputation of being somewhat unique in his managerial style, charming the irrepressible—and sometimes irresponsible—Dick Allen into producing an MVP season with the Chicago White Sox in 1972, while at the same time getting four consecutive 20-win seasons out of knuckleballer Wilbur Wood by turning him from a tireless reliever into a tireless starter who made as many as 49 starts in five straight years of 40 starts or more.

But it was with the Pirates in 1979 that it all came together, for this was a clubhouse full of Dick Allens, a club that had more personality than talent. Not that they were talentless, obviously, but they won a world championship with a team that had neither a 15-game winner nor a 100-RBI man. No one else had ever done that.

“How did I keep everybody happy?” Tanner always says. “I’d tell them, 'We’re going to win the pennant, and if you don’t want that, get the hell out of here.'"

He knew in Stargell he had the perfect leader, a man who somehow understood what was needed during the toughest of times, and turned the clubhouse over to him.

"Any time things were going bad, Stargell would say, 'We need to have a team party,'" catcher Steve Nicosia, a rookie that year, once recalled. "We'd rent a suite on the road on a day off and have a big pool party, just have some alcohol and have a good time. Most managers might put a squelch on that, have their coaches try to make it not happen. Chuck would come down and have a beer, then leave us alone.”

"I had one eye and one ear," Tanner once explained. “If it wasn't important, I didn't care. That way, they'd all be relaxed."

Tanner was unorthodox off the field and just as unorthodox on it. The Pirates won the National League East by two games over Montreal in 1979. When people look back upon that regular season there are two games which Tanner managed by gut feeling rather than by anything that would ever pass for baseball sense by a more conventional manager.

One game was against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, bottom of the ninth inning, one out, the scored tied 8-8, at Three Rivers Stadium. The bases were loaded, left-hander Tug McGraw on the mound and the right-handed hitting Nicosia due up.

Let us first note that Nicosia was 4-for-4 on the day, but Tanner decided to pinch hit for him. With John Milner. A left-handed hitter.

It was as unorthodox a move as could be made, but as evidence of the respect Tanner had on the club, Nicosia not only didn’t complain, the career .248 hitter told a teammate on the bench, “What are the chances of a guy like me going 5-for-5?" There were boos, fans stunned by the move, but Tanner had his reasons, wanting to equalize McGraw’s best pitch, the screwball. He knew Milner was a fastball hitter, who got one on the first pitch and hit it for a grand slam.

Now we go to the second game on September 1 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco with the Pirates leading 5-3 with two outs in the ninth inning and Darrell Evans batting for the Giants. Out of the dugout bounces Tanner to bring in left-hander Grant Jackson to face Evans, just as he had done a night earlier as Jackson saved the game.

On this day, though, Tanner didn't take closer Kent Tekulve out of the game when he called in Jackson from the bullpen. Instead, Tanner sent Tekulve to left field, making him the most unlikely suspect you could ever imagine to place in the outfield. Tanner's thinking was that if Jackson did not retire Evans, he could bring Tekulve back in to face right-handed hitting Mike Ivie. The previous night, another left-hander, Terry Whitfield, followed Evans so Tanner didn’t consider leaving Tekulve in the game.

Here’s Tekulve’s account of what went on as Jackson came to the mound.

Tanner: How you going to pitch Evans?

Jackson: I’m going to work him inside.

Tanner: No, Evans is a pull hitter, work him away.

Jackson: I can’t pitch him inside, Teke’s in left field.

Tanner: I don’t care. Evans is a pull hitter and a dangerous one, so I want you to pitch him away.

Tekulve wasn’t on the mound as that conversation took place, but he says that’s the way it was told to him. He, instead, was in left field. While Tanner and Jackson were talking, Omar Moreno came over from center field to give Tekulve a crash course in playing the outfield.

"I’m saying 'yeah, yeah,' but I don’t understand a word he’s saying. He’s talking in Spanish,” Tekulve said.

Sure enough, Jackson pitches away, Evans hits a soft fly to left.

“It’s a can of corn,” Tekulve said. “There isn’t anyone within 150 feet of me but I’m waving everybody off as if anyone else is going to catch it. I caught it and I’ve always accursed Evans of hitting the ball to me on purpose.”

Everyone rushed out to congratulate Tekulve, not Jackson, while Tanner just wore a big, wide smile.

“We won the pennant by one game and I tell people that fly ball was the most important play of the season,” Tekulve said.

Actually, two games, but who’s counting?

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Kent Tekulve

32 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Tarakas

Isn't this largely the same group of players and manager that shortly after this became the poster children of illegal drug use in baseball? Didn't they have drug dealers in the clubhouse? Take John Milner, who said he got amphetamines from Stargell, and that he was buying cocaine at the park as early as 1980.

I know in 1979 and the early 1980s it was standard to portray them as a fun loving cast of misfits, as beloved sitcom characters, but I thought that went away in 1985, with the drug trials.

Oct 26, 2010 06:38 AM
rating: -1
 
Brian Kopec

I won't make a worn out 'product of their time' argument to excuse drug abuse. But it's a little bit unfair to taint this specific team with drug accusations. This was entering the peak of the cocaine epidemic in baseball and no clubhouse was immune. But you said it yourself...Milner was buying cocaine as early as 1980, not 1979. The drug trials of 1985, which were focused on drug use in the early 80's, did not find evidence of use on the 1979 team.

And I'm not sure what the point about the amphetamines allegation is. Isn't it part of MLB lore that greenies were freely available in every clubhouse in the majors? Should we discount this particular team or a particular player because you heard an anecdote that the player gave amphetamines to another player? I doubt you had to go any farther than the head trainer's candy dish to pick up some greenies in 1979. That would apply to every team. If you think amphetamine use or even cocaine use was not an issue on the 1980 Phillies, 1981 Dodgers, or 1982 Cardinals, then you have staked out a remarkable position.

Oct 26, 2010 18:47 PM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

I guess I remember the Pirate drug scandals (and the massive investigation and trials) as the worst of the drug scandals in baseball. Bill James discussed the Pirates and the career of Tanner at length in his 1986 abstract. He was less polite than I. Here is a sample:

"Sometimes I think Chuck Tanner should be hung in effigy in every sporting place in the country. Other times, I think his only offense was the cowardice of being nice."

Yes, the Cardinals had a drug problem. Whitey Herzog admitted it and fought against it. He threw Keith Hernandez off the team over it. He did not welcome the dealers into his clubhouse. There is a difference there.

Oct 26, 2010 19:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Kopec

Yes, there is a difference. As much as a manager should be responsible for the behavior of grown men in his charge, Tanner should be held responsible. However, those transgressions largely, if not entirely, took place in subsequent years. This article was about the '79 Pirates. Nobody is going to celebrate anything about the Pirates of the early 80's.

Oct 27, 2010 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
npb7768

Believe me, I don't know how old you are, but this team was certifiably obnoxious...That the quietly-confident Orioles were subjected to these clowns for two weeks in October was tough to take...

If the Phillies hadn't had an off year in 1979, this team would be totally forgotten...The apt sit-com isn't "Friends" or "Gilligan's Island", its either "Lotsa Luck" or "That's My Mama", shows that had one lucky year with a big fat guy as the center of the show...The only fond memory I have of this group of derelicts is Dave Parker in his typical juvenile manner saying, "When the leaves turn brown, I'll be wearing the batting crown", and then being sent a bag of leaves from some fan...

Oct 26, 2010 07:09 AM
rating: -2
 
Brian Kopec

I'm a Pittsburgh native who spent several years living in Baltimore. My experience is that for whatever reason, folks in Baltimore have not gotten over the 1979 World Series. Thanks for that reminder.

Oct 26, 2010 17:17 PM
rating: 2
 
apbadogs

Meh, a flash in the pan WS winner...only remembered because of a catchy Sister Sledge song.

Oct 26, 2010 07:18 AM
rating: -1
 
Brian Kopec

Flash in the pan? The Bucs were consistently good throughout the 70's, bookended by their World Series titles. They were a wild pitch away from appearing in a 3rd World Series. Quite a flash in the pan.

Oct 26, 2010 17:14 PM
rating: 1
 
cdt719

1979 ended an 11 year run where they won 88 games or more in 10 of those 11 years, winning the division 6 times.

Oct 27, 2010 05:32 AM
rating: 0
 
rcrary

What is the point of these articles? I don't mind that they lack BP-style analysis, but I do mind that the writing is awful.

Oct 26, 2010 07:53 AM
rating: 5
 
CRP13

My first instinct was to "minus" you for this comment. But to be perfectly honest, it was the very first thing I noticed as well.

"If the 1979 World Series belonged to Willie Stargell, and there is not a soul on Earth who watched the man they affectionately called “Pops” will the championship to the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in those seven games against the Baltimore Orioles who doesn't think otherwise, then the season belonged to manager Chuck Tanner."

Is that even a sentence? Truly awful to try to wade through that. Please....please....tougher editing.

Oct 26, 2010 11:25 AM
rating: 3
 
cdt719

While the anecdotal history stuff isn't the main reason I subscribe to BP, I do enjoy reading it, but that sentence was the first thing I noticed as well and I had to reread that sentence several times to parse it. There's nothing wrong with a writer using a clunky sentence from time to time but the editing doesn't seem to be as tight as of late.

Oct 27, 2010 05:37 AM
rating: 1
 
rcrary

I suppose I should explain what I meant. First, I love baseball stories, sabr-oriented or not. What bothers me about these articles from Bob is that they are ill-conceived as topics/arguments (not all of them are intended to argue something), as noted at length in the thread accompanying the Pete Rose article, and as noted below by others wrt to this article. The poor conception seems to me directly related to the writing, which is, yes, clunky, as you note, but more to the point goes nowhere.

For example, the anecdotes he presents about these two games are actually fairly entertaining. I liked knowing about them. But he begins the piece talking about Chuck Tanner and ends, rather abruptly, attempting to humorously suggest that the Pirates won the division that year because of those two games. The connection between the two appears to be some vague notion that Tanner was "unorthodox", and therefore successful with this loveable gang of guys. But, ignoring the drug issue handled capably by other readers, there is ample data showing how shitty a manager Chuck Tanner was. Is this meant to be contrarian, then? Typically, he doesn't say, or even acknowledge that Tanner is not highly regarded. I expect a bit more from BP, advanced metrics or not.

Oct 27, 2010 06:32 AM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

My issue is less with the topic and more with the writing. I don't mind an article without a point if it relives a good moment in history or tells a good story. But from a readability standpoint, this one was brutal.

Oct 27, 2010 09:53 AM
rating: 1
 
Richie

What's horrible about the writing?? And they're just interesting stories about past teams and events, nothing more than that.

I agree they're very unlike past BP articles. Just don't read them, if you don't want to.

Tho' Tarakas has nailed them historically. And NPB, thanks for the 'bag of leaves' anecdote. :-)

Oct 26, 2010 09:03 AM
rating: 1
 
Tarakas

I guess this piece, much like the Rose one, seem so completely removed from everything BP has been about. Not just in tone, but in message. It's jarring.

The pieces are like they are from some odd, Bizarro-world version of BP.

Next week's topic: Jeff Torborg, an unappreciated genius in handling pitchers.

Oct 26, 2010 10:56 AM
rating: 2
 
Tarakas

"You know, Jeff Torborg has gotten a bad rap. A lot of people say he hurt pitchers, but if you look at it, most of his pitchers had the best years of their careers with him as their manager. Just look at the win totals, or the huge numbers of innings these pitchers threw for him. Most of them never did that again for other managers in the years after that. I asked Dusty Baker for his opinion on Torborg. Baker said "Jeff is my sort of manager. I mean, people say I am bad with young pitchers, too. But if you look at Mark Prior, well, the only real success Mark ever had as a big league pitcher was when he pitched for me. He hasn't done anything since I left Chicago. Clearly, I was good for him, wasn't I?"

Oct 26, 2010 11:17 AM
rating: 4
 
ofMontreal

I think you all need to lay off Bob. These articles are good clean fun. It's hard to not sound snarky about it, but really. Your kind of proving Will's point aren't you? I mean, are you really trying to say that the Pirates are the only team to reach post-season and do drugs? The "quietly confident" Orioles? Who were managed by a serious horses' ass. Get a grip people.

Oct 26, 2010 11:36 AM
rating: 4
 
Tarakas

No, I'm not saying that. I'm a Cardinals fan. Drug abuse is, sadly, a legacy of the 1980s Cardinals, too. If I was to write a piece about them and the good memories I have of them, I would also at some point acknowledge a part of their story was a battle with drugs, both on the organizational and personal levels.

Mr. Hertzel is a fine writer, and I do not mind this sort of piece--I like fun baseball stories, too. But his choices of subject--Pete Rose, the Pirates of that period, are odd ones to lionize, as they have so much baggage he never acknowledges.

When I read this "fun" piece celebrating Chuck Tanner kindly turning a blind eye to his players partying, I remember that this blind eye ultimately led to the partying getting out of control, to drug dealers operating out of the Pirates clubhouse, and to the worst baseball drug scandal of the 1980s, a low point of baseball history.


If the above piece had a line that somehow acknowledged the sad fate of this team, I would like it fine as a piece. Something like "And while they sadly fell victim to the drug problems of the 1980s, for that summer of 1979, they were a great team to watch."

But instead the piece seems oddly blind to the tragedy that Tanner accidentally led his team to, instead celebrating the character trait that led to his downfall. It's like reading a piece praising Captain Ahab for his perseverance.

Oct 26, 2010 19:27 PM
rating: 2
 
Brian Kopec

I think you should hold the players responsible, not Tanner. It's a bit much to say Tanner "led his team" into tragedy. But I wholeheartedly agree this would have been a more interesting piece if there was some exploration of the sad fate that would soon befall many of the key players on this team...Parker, Scurry, Milner, and Berra chief among them.

Oct 27, 2010 11:59 AM
rating: 0
 
npb7768

Torborg was a character made for a TV situation comedy, sort of a Sgt. Vince Carter from 'Gomer Pyle, USMC' meets Sgt Ernest G. Bilko from the 'Phil Silvers Show' meets Cap Capogrosso from 'Ball Four' meets Det. Tony Barretta from 'Baretta' sequel.

Oct 26, 2010 11:39 AM
rating: 1
 
npb7768

"Serious Horses' Ass" [sic]????...

Let me remind you that BP is bascially the embodiment of every managerial move that that 'horse's ass' ever made...From bringing someone named Mike Dimmell into his first major league game as a defensive replacement in RF and having him throw the tying run out at the plate in the last of the ninth http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1977/B09020CHA1977.htm,
to realizing that Mark Belanger owned Bert Blylven and Rich Gossage, EVERY metric/theory that BP conceives must be tested against: "Would Earl Weaver do it?"...Everything....Everything this sites creates must meet that criterion...And you can him a serious horses' [sic] ass?...Shame...

Oct 26, 2010 11:55 AM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

You need to think about what your original post reads like my friend. I have a sincere regard for the style and success of Mr. Weaver. That victory by the Pirates, which they solidly earned, brought joy to a great many people. For the same reasons you call them 'certifiably obnoxious.'

Oct 26, 2010 18:06 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Well, I think it's established that Earl Weaver's disattributes as a human being went beyond 'not cuddly'. Bill James once wrote that most all highly successful managers were kinda rotten at the human being part. Helped them manipulate and, when needed, discard people.

Not that I'm sure what this has to do with quietly confident or cacophonously nonconfident Orioles. But just for the record.

Oct 26, 2010 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

As much as we can know these things or not, I'll state simply that the day I spent talking about baseball with Earl Weaver as part of republishing Weaver on Strategy remains high up in my firmament of personal highlights of working around the game; rather than end the interview after a couple of hours, we were having enough fun talking about baseball that he invited me along to the card show he was in town for, and we just kept talking for the rest of the day. Now, that was just a day, but what a day.

Similarly, I've heard people who know the man say all sorts of kind things about Chuck Tanner. I've seen Ozzie Guillen show a generosity of spirit that left me convinced he's one of the most stand-up guys I've ever met. All of which goes towards a point I think we should all keep in mind: when talking about people in sports, it's better to recognize how little we know about them as people, and keep in mind our obligation to not pretend otherwise. And that goes for everybody, from Bill James on down.

Oct 26, 2010 13:32 PM
 
RaysProf

Every field has heroes who lacked "moral character." Einstein divorced his wife with whom he had 3 children to marry his first cousin while Erwin Schrodinger is said to have developed his wave equation when he took his mistress up into the Alps over the holidays. Pauli, unbelievably brilliant, yet was probably a compete ass. Some of his more well know comments include, "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong." and when asked about a presentation by a recent Ph.D., "so young and so finished." Feynman frequented a topless joint and filled his first autobiography with some questionable opinions about the behavior of women. And yet I would have considered it a highlight of my life to spend an afternoon with any of them, discussing physics, the universe and how we conduct science.

I am completely envious of your experience with Earl Weaver. The only other baseball people with whom I have a comparable interest are Billy Martin, John McGraw, Ted Williams and Marvin Miller.

Oct 26, 2010 23:37 PM
rating: 1
 
tvnick5

I have to take umbrage with this one. I always thought Tanner was one of the worst managers I've ever witnessed. He ruined the White Sox in the mid-70's. He ruined position talent by catering to Richie Allen.
And, he ruined the pitching staff by using a 3-man rotation. He felt that with Wilbur Wood at the top of his rotation he could get by with a 3-man rotation. Well, he ruined Stan Bahnson's career....and Bahnson had been a pretty good pitcher before Tanner got hold of him.

The author didn't mention that after finishing 1st in 1979 the Pirates went on to finish 3rd, 4th, 4th, 2nd, 6th and 6th under Tanner.

Chuck Tanner was merely in the right place at the right time in 1979.

Oct 26, 2010 13:15 PM
rating: 1
 
Brian Kopec

Tanner was a mixed bag at best. I don't think anyone can defend Omar Moreno 700 plate appearances at the top of the lineup. And I have the distinct impression that he ran way too much, especially with a lineup that had a great deal of power for the time.

But I think he did a good job finding platoon advantages on both offense and with his bullpen. I think today's managers could learn a lesson about how to run a bullpen from Tanner with regard to using his best pitcher in high leverage situations and getting into the bullpen early when appropriate.

Like I said...a mixed bag. He probably was just in the right place at the right time. But that could be said of any World Series winning manager.

Oct 26, 2010 18:14 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

I'd suggest that, due to the fishbowl they live in (or that can be reconstructed), we actually know quite a bit about these people. Now, if you wanna say "there but for the grace of God go I", or "walk a mile in his shoes first", or something along those lines, that I'd go for.

Oct 26, 2010 21:54 PM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

For those who forgot it, the Pirates of that era were part of the worst drug scandal in baseball history. There were major federal investigations and trials. Chuck Tanner ended up in federal court, and he testified that he knew the drug dealer was in the clubhouse, knew the dealer was being federally investigated for drug dealing, and let him continue to enter the clubhouse.

Yes, many teams have had players use drugs. But Chuck Tanner ended up in federal court over his team's uniquely widespread involvement in drugs, which is pretty unusual.

The Pirates of that era were to baseball's drug scandals what the 1919 White Sox were to baseball's gambling scandals. To write a story about the 1979 Pirates and not mention this, and to laud Tanner's "blind eye," would be like writing a tribute piece on the 1918 White Sox and talk about what a bunch of funny guys they were, and what great parties gamblers would throw them, without mentioning the Black Sox scandal.

Oct 27, 2010 04:04 AM
rating: 2
 
npb7768

Number 1: The Pirates were not a wild pitch away from a WS (in 1972)...They were a wild pitch away from still having to record a third out to reach extra innings in a game for the pennant...

Number 2: The Pirates run ended in 1975, period -- when a decent team finally inhabited the NL East, the 1976-83 Phillies, that was it...The Phillies simply had an off year in 1979...Hebner-Oliver-Sanguillen-Robertson-Cash-Zisk-Clines-Giusti-Reuss-Alley-Moose-Ellis were long gone...The 1968 Columbus Jets had made their mark and had moved on --- to be replaced by "Adipose"-Ed Ott, Omar "Blow" Moreno, Phil "The ball was wet, like a bar of soap, that's why we lost Game 1" Garner, and "Mentalcase" Tim Foli, and John "Valley of the Dolls" Milner...Please...

Oct 27, 2010 07:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Kopec

Dude...it was 30+ years ago. The Orioles and the Phillies have both had a great deal of success since then. Put the Air Supply, premium Corinthian leather, and polyester leisure suit away and move on.

Oct 27, 2010 11:42 AM
rating: 1
 
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