MORGANTOWN — Chuck Tanner would have been 91 today, a Yankee doodle dandy born on the Fourth of July.
Had the one-time Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager hung around until now, he would’ve greeted you with a huge smile and a handshake that would feel like you’d stuck your hand into a vise.
There haven’t been many like Chuck Tanner, and it matters not in what sport you look.
This was a unique human being who saw light in the darkness, who stayed dry when it rained, who loved life, yes, but more important who loved living it.
And mostly he loved living it in baseball.
When you were around him in the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the field you feared only the sunburn you might get from the warmth he was radiating.
You kept thinking this can’t be true, the way this guy is. But it was.
Chuck Tanner was blessed. He was blessed that day back in 1945 when he was 17 and facing a decision — college or professional baseball. He was home in New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he was as good of a football player as he was a baseball player.
A decade ago now, I interviewed him on his Fourth of July birthday, about life in baseball
“My dad told me that I was 17, old enough to make up my own mind,” he recalled that conversation he had with his father so long ago, sitting in a chair under a tree as his father cut his hair.
It really wasn’t much of a choice for Tanner. He was going to play baseball and told his father so.
“OK,” his father answered. “But don’t come home until you play in the big leagues.”
You know that he got there, that he is one of the few major leaguers to hit a home run in his first at-bat, and one of fewer yet who have hit a home run on the very first pitch they saw in the major leagues.
That was the start of a career that almost didn’t happen.
That day back in 2009, I asked him about the early days, about how he became this eternal optimist.
This was what he told me, taking me back to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, under a former major leaguer named Andy Cohen:
“The ball park was on a peninsula,” Tanner explained. “You had to cross a bridge to get there. Well one day, there were two ground balls to right field. Both went right through my legs. We lost the game.
“After the game I’m going home over that bridge and I stopped and just sat there on the bridge. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just jump and kill myself.’”
Tanner decided to drive on.
“Next morning at 10 we had a meeting and Andy Cohen stood there and said, ‘Yesterday is yesterday. You erase it, just like a blackboard. Today is the most important game you’ll play.’”
That night Tanner hit two home runs and drove in five runs.
“Going across that bridge I was saying to myself, ‘I’ll be with the Braves in a month,’” Tanner said, laughing at the memory.
And so it began, a journey unlike any other in baseball.
Every day was fireworks for this Fourth of July baby.
His playing career ended early because of an Achilles tendon injury, which only got him into managing faster.
He was a manager unlike any other.
While today they have computers and analysts and go by the numbers, Tanner had a beat up book he kept in his hip pocket — much like a golfer’s yardage book — and it had his observations of the opponents.
He flew by the seat of his pants. He once removed stringbean reliever Kent Tekulve from a key 1979 game with two outs in the ninth to bring in left-hander Grant Jackson to face dangerous left-handed hitter Darrell Evans.
Except he didn’t remove Tekulve from the game; instead he sent him to left field in case Jackson didn’t get that final out.
Sure enough, Evans hit a fly ball and was retired with Tekulve staggering under it to catch it.
That same championship year, catcher Steve Nicosia was in the midst of a 4-for-4 game with two doubles and a home run. The score was tied 8-8 in the ninth inning, two outs, bases loaded and left-hander Tug McGraw on the mound.
Tanner sent left-hander John Milner up to hit in place of the 4-for-4 Nicoscia.
First pitch, Milner hit a grand slam to win the game.
You can’t make this stuff up.
In Oakland he took a team that wasn’t particularly fast and set a major league record with 341 stolen bases.
In Chicago he took over a team that included Dick Allen, who had a reputation of being a moody, sullen, difficult player who wasn’t quite able to reach the greatness his incredible talents said he should reach. Allen won the American League MVP title under Chuck Tanner.
He managed for Charlie Finley in Oakland and became the first manager ever traded. Finley got catcher Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 for Tanner as he was sent to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates became the “We Are Family” World Champions of 1979.
It was a wonderfully wild and wacky team, headed by 39-year-old Willie Stargell as well as Dave Parker, Phil Garner, Jim Rooker, Tekulve, Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria and Bruce Kison.
It’s the last World Championship the Pirates have ever won.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.