Former White Sox recall Tanner's legacy
Hemond, Melton and Hairston praise 'gentle giant'
CHICAGO -- During Chuck Tanner's White Sox managerial tenure, starting with 16 games in 1970 and running through the 1975 season, he had one team finish with a record over .500.
But Tanner's impact on the organization was far greater than wins and losses in talking to people who worked alongside him and played for him.
"He was an eternal optimist, always happy, and never complained," said longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond of Tanner, who passed away on Friday at the age of 82. "He was all about just going out and getting the job done, and he was a great motivator for the players. He made players better than they could be."
"One thing about Chuck Tanner, he was more of a teacher and father figure," said Bill Melton, who played third base for Tanner during his time in Chicago. "He came in with the attitude that he was a Major League manager, but he was going to teach guys to play the game -- and play the game the right way. He was very innovative."
Melton, who was an outfielder converted to third base, didn't have the greatest footwork or lateral movement when he first started playing the position. So, Tanner had coaches such as Al Monchak and Joe Lonnett work with Melton in these areas.
There were no less than five plays Tanner used for charging in and covering bunts, according to Melton. He threw knuckleballer Wilbur Wood in both ends of a doubleheader, and was one of the first managers to bring in the center fielder as a roving infielder to try to cut off a run at the plate.
"Really, there was nothing he wouldn't do," said Melton with a laugh.
That list included promising Rod Carew, one of baseball's all-time best bunters, that he would not get a bunt down against the White Sox in a game against Minnesota. Knowing his raw ability at third and Carew's adept handling of the bat, Melton found that pregame prediction around the batting cage a bit strange.
"Carew comes up, and I'm already playing him in on the grass toward shortstop," Melton said. "I see out of the corner of my eye Tanner, from the dugout, is calling me in more.
"I'm standing about halfway between home and third, so I'm thinking, 'Is he nuts?' But he kept pulling me in. Carew eventually hits a pea down the third-base line, right by my head, and I'm 40 feet from home plate. Tanner said he told Carew he was not getting a bunt down. He wanted him to swing."
When Hemond took over as White Sox general manager on Sept. 14, 1970, he brought in Tanner as his manager. Tanner was managing Hawaii during the 1970 campaign, and the team drew 497,000 by Hemond's recollection. Over that same 1970 season, the White Sox had an attendance of 495,355.
Of course, this time period didn't feature attendances in the high end of 3 million or 4 million fans. But the White Sox were 12th out of 12 teams in American League attendance.
In 1972, when the White Sox finished 87-67 and came up 5 1/2 games short of the Athletics in the AL West, the White Sox drew a total of 1,177,318 for the AL's third-highest attendance.
Along with Melton, prominent players such as Dick Allen, Carlos May, Ed Hermann, Stan Bahnsen, Terry Forster and Rich "Goose" Gossage were part of Tanner's charges. When Gossage was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008, Tanner drove with Allen to Cooperstown for the ceremony.
Tanner's White Sox managerial tenure ended in 1976, when Bill Veeck regained ownership of the franchise. Veeck had talked to Paul Richards about taking over as manager if he became owner again. But according to Hemond, Richards didn't want Tanner to leave. He wanted him to stay on as third-base coach and move back in as manager by the Fourth of July.
Instead, Tanner managed an Oakland team in 1976 that finished with an astounding 341 stolen bases in 464 attempts. Tanner found his greatest fame and fortune as the manager of Pittsburgh's "We are Family" 1979 World Series champions -- which was also his lone division crown.
As creative and innovative as he was a manager, though, Tanner will be remembered just as much for his gregarious nature and uplifting outlook as a team leader.
"Always laughing and smiling, just a gentle giant," Melton said. "He would never let you put your head down."
"I remember how he would come to take a pitcher out of the game. But he would be talking to him as he hit the third base line, telling him how the team needed him tomorrow. Never, 'Give me the ball and take a hike,'" said Jerry Hairston, who played for Tanner from 1973-75. "He was a player's manager. At the same time, you knew he was in charge of the team -- even though he made you feel like the best player on the planet."
"It's a tough day for me," Hemond concluded. "I lost one of my best friends."