Retracing Chuck Tanner's path to Pirates

February, 13, 2011
2/13/11
2:00
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With the passing of former manager Chuck Tanner last week at age 82, a number of remembrances were written about his time in Pittsburgh. Many focused on how he piloted the “Family” of 1979 to the World Series title. It was noted he was a players’ manager, who loved the game and the men who played. That led to other, less savory, remembrances about Tanner’s lax attitude toward the clubhouse and his hands-off approach. Tanner was fired in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh drug trials.

[+] EnlargeChuck Tanner
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFormer Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner, shown in May, 1985, started his managerial career with the White Sox in 1970.
While Tanner’s managerial career was mostly defined by his time with the Pirates, the story of how he arrived in Pittsburgh wasn’t told.

Tanner started his managerial career in 1970 at age 40 with the Chicago White Sox. He skippered the South Siders for a little more than five seasons, with his best season coming in 1972 when the Sox finished with 87 wins and finished in second place, 5 1/2 games behind the Oakland A’s.

Following the 1975 season when the White Sox finished in fifth place in the AL West with a 75-86 record, the team was bought for a second time by Bill Veeck. Baseball in the mid-1970s was a time characterized by great upheaval. At the time of the purchase, it was rumored the Sox were on their way out of Chicago, with a move to Seattle most often mentioned. Veeck was the only potential bidder who would guarantee that the White Sox would stay on the South Side.

When Veeck took over the Sox in December of 1975, he immediately dismissed Tanner, who still had three years and $60,000 remaining on his contract, but invited him to remain with the team in another capacity. Tanner didn’t have much time to think, as Oakland's owner, Charlie Finley, swooped in to grab the manager. Did Finley have an ulterior motive? Perhaps. He was one of the owners to vote against Veeck’s ownership bid for the White Sox. With Finley, there was always an angle, or ulterior motive, he was working. In this instance, Finley wanted the Sox to move out of Chicago, because he wanted to move the A’s (who moved to the east side of the bay from Kansas City just seven years before) to the Windy City where he felt his club could draw more fans.

At any rate, Tanner took over as skipper in Oakland and Finley was delighted he got his man. He was even more delighted that Tanner still had time remaining on his contract with Chicago. “I won’t say how much I’m going to pay him, but if I give him $10,000 a year, Bill Veeck will have to pay him the other $50,000,” Finley said.

Tanner guided the A’s to 87 wins and a second-place finish in 1976. That was the beginning of the end of the great Oakland dynasty as Finley was determined to prove a point that the advent of free agency was stripping his team of its best players.

Meanwhile, across the county and in the National League, Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh retired from his fourth tour of duty as manager. With the Pirates in the market for a new skipper, their eyes turned west to Tanner, who was was from nearby New Castle. At that time, Finley was in a dispute with Veeck and the league over how much money was owed to Tanner, with neither owner wanting to pay their share of the contract. There was thought the manager would be released from his contract and would basically become a managerial free agent.

However, those hopes were dashed when American League president Lee MacPhail ruled that the White Sox had to make up the difference in salary between what Oakland was paying and what the Sox owed on his $60,000 deal. A victory for Finley. MacPhail then released the Sox from any contractual obligation to Tanner for the 1977 and 1978 seasons. A loss for Finley.

While Finley’s plan to secure a manager at a cut rate for at least three years lasted only a single season, the Pirates thought they would be able to persuade Finley to let Tanner come home to Western Pennsylvania. While the penurious Finley would be happy to let his suddenly expensive manager leave, he wasn’t about to do so without extracting his “pound of flesh.”

He told the Pirates he would let Tanner go, but it would cost them -- catcher Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. “If I’m going to run a finishing school for managers, I want to be paid for it,” Finley told reporters. As if Tanner evolved as a manager more in one season in Oakland than his five years in Chicago.

The Pirates initially balked at the asking price. The free-swinging Sanguillen owned a career line of .303/.334/.411 and was just a year removed from the best season of his career. He hit .328/.391/.451 -- career high numbers across the board -- in 1975. Plus, he was loved in the clubhouse and the city, and had been a key member of the 1971 Pirates club that won the World Series.

New general manager, Harding “Pete” Peterson attempted to negotiate, but Finley wouldn’t budge. While the Pirates had up to 10 candidates to replace Murtaugh, Peterson felt he had to have Tanner. Finley, knowing the mutual attraction between the two, was firm in his demands.

On Nov. 5, 1976 Peterson pulled the trigger on his first trade as general manager, sending Sanguillen and $100,000 to the A’s in exchange for Tanner.

Tanner was pleased to be returning home. “I can’t wait for spring training. This is such a thrill. It’s like a dream come true.”

Of course, Finley was delighted. After all, he made a profit. “I would trade a manager any day of the week for Manny Sanguillen and $100,000,” he told reporters. “I can get $250,000 for Sanguillen. That means I would be making $350,000 for having a manager somebody else wants.”

All worth it in Pittsburgh. A few seasons later the “Family” won the 1979 title.

Craig Brown writes for the Royals blog, Royals Authority and about fantasy baseball for Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter.

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