#CardCorner: 1972 Topps Chuck Tanner
It was the beginning of an MLB journey that saw Tanner ride his unrelenting optimism to the pinnacle of the game as one of the most successful managers of the 1970s.
Born July 4, 1928, in New Castle, Pa. – about an hour north of Pittsburgh – Tanner was the son of a railroader who played baseball from his earliest days. He signed with the Boston Braves in 1946 and slowly made his way through the minor leagues, topping the .300 mark every season from 1947-54. While playing with the Atlanta Crackers of the Double-A Southern Association in 1954, Tanner led the league with 192 hits and 311 total bases.
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The next season, at age 26, Tanner made the Braves’ Opening Day roster. In the first game of the season, he pinch-hit for Warren Spahn in the eighth inning and homered off the Reds’ Gerry Staley to tie the game at 2 – a game the Braves eventually won by a score of 4-2. Tanner was the seventh player in history to homer on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues.
He spent the entire 1955 season with the Braves, hitting .247 in 97 games with six homers and 27 RBI. After hitting .238 in 1956 over 60 games – the vast majority of which came as a pinch-hitter – Tanner was waived on June 8, 1957, and quickly picked up by the Cubs.
Tanner hit .286 in 95 games with the Cubs in 1957, returned to Chicago in 1958 to hit .262 in 73 games (including an NL-best 53 at-bats as a pinch hitter) and then was traded to the Red Sox on March 9, 1959. He spent virtually the entire 1959 season with the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate in Minneapolis before the Indians purchased his contract in September.
From 1959-62, Tanner appeared in a total of 49 games with the Indians and the Angels. He turned down a chance to play again in 1963, instead accepting a job managing the Angels’ Quad Cities team in the Class A Midwest League. At 34 years old, Tanner had found his calling.
Tanner spent two seasons with Quad Cities and two with Double-A El Paso before making it to Triple-A with the Seattle Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1967. He returned to El Paso in 1968, leading the team to a 77-60 mark before taking over the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders in 1969. Then in 1970 – after leading the Islanders to a 98-48 mark – Tanner was tabbed by the White Sox to take over for Don Gutteridge on Sept. 4.
“I didn’t have any idea I was being considered, but I look forward to the challenge,” Tanner told United Press International prior to going 3-13 with the White Sox in their final 16 games of 1970. “I plan to first observe and analyze the team during the last two weeks of the season. Then I’ll try to figure out what the team needs to improve itself.”
The White Sox needed everything following a 56-106 record that still remains the franchise low point for any one season. But Tanner turned things around in a hurry, leading the club to a 23-game improvement in 1971. A key move in that turnaround was Tanner’s decision to make Wilbur Wood – who led the AL in appearances each year from 1968-70 was a reliever – a starting pitcher.
Summoning all of his positive energy, Tanner led the Pirates to three straight victories and the World Series title.
Tanner was now a Pittsburgh icon, and he kept the Pirates competitive for the next few seasons – finishing third in the 1983 AL Manager of the Year voting. But in 1984, the Pirates fell to 75-87 despite leading the NL in ERA (3.11) and outscoring their opponents by 48 runs.
Searching for offense in the offseason, the Pirates traded John Tudor for George Hendrick, sent Jay Buhner and others to the Yankees for Steve Kemp and signed Sixto Lezcano as a free agent. The result was a lost season where the Pirates went 57-104, leading to Tanner’s dismissal.
He quickly signed a five-year deal to manage the Braves, winning a combined 141 games in 1986 and 1987 before being fired 39 games into the 1988 season. He would hold several jobs in baseball over the next two decades, but he would never again manage in the big leagues.
Tanner finished with a record of 1,352-1,381 – the 19th-most wins in history at the time he stopped managing. Known as “Captain Sunshine” for his relentless good humor, Tanner passed away on Feb. 11, 2011, at his home in New Castle.
“We will remember his eternal optimism,” said his son Bruce Tanner, who pitched for the White Sox in 1985, “and his passion for the game.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum