December 16, 2019

“We Had to Pay the Price:” How the Pirates Traded for Chuck Tanner

February 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Chuck Tanner’s death last Friday struck particularly close to the hearts of longtime Pirate fans.  He was the down-to-earth local kid who went away, made good, and then returned to lead his hometown club to a World Series title in 1979.  But as the Pittsburgh media reminisced about Tanner’s life and career last week, they mostly overlooked the strange and somewhat controversial trade that brought him to the Pirates in the first place.

The back story is a convoluted tale of ego and money.   Tanner managed the Chicago White Sox from 1970-1975, but following the ’75 season new owner Bill Veeck hired his old buddy Paul Richards to run the club and bumped Tanner upstairs.   Tanner demurred and instead jumped to the Oakland Athletics, whose owner Charlie Finley was hoping to make one final run at a pennant before the last remnants of his early ‘70s dynasty played out their contracts and beat a path out of town.

Although the Swingin’ A’s didn’t have the talent they had a few years earlier, Tanner made them fun to watch.   They ran crazy that season, stealing 341 bases– a modern record that might never be broken.  But Tanner lacked the starting pitching he needed to complement all that speed.   The A’s great run ended with a whimper – a second-place finish, two-and-a-half  games behind Kansas City.

By October, Tanner had his eye on the Pirates’ job, which came open when Danny Murtaugh, who was gravely ill, stepped aside.   Sure, Tanner yearned to return to Pittsburgh; but as much as that, he just wanted to escape Oakland and the poisonous tendrils of the odious Finley.   The A’s owner fostered a destructive culture in which he and his players engaged in open warfare.  He denigrated them.  They hated him.  And Tanner was the poor sap caught in the middle, struggling to keep a simmering clubhouse from boiling over into outright mutiny.

Nor was he properly compensated for his trouble.  Finley, a man unencumbered by the shackles of conscience, agreed to pay Tanner a salary of just $25,000.  He insisted the White Sox were responsible for making up the remaining $35,000 Tanner would have earned under his old Chicago contract.   Veeck, understandably, thought Finley was nuts.   Tanner agreed to manage anyway, although the unresolved pay dispute loomed in the background all season.

Tanner relished the chance to work for a professional organization run by sane people.  But in return, he offered the Pirates something of a fresh start as well.   Pittsburgh was a successful franchise throughout the 1970s, but it was as if they had been playing under a dark cloud since their 1971 World Championship.  Roberto Clemente was dead their best pitcher, Steve Blass, lost his ability to throw strikes; and the Bucs had lost in the NLCS three times in four years.   By 1976, things were really starting to slide.   With Willie Stargell apparently on the decline, the Bucs were no match the Phillies, who won the NL East by nine games.  Attendance barely topped one million.  New general manager Harding Peterson believed Tanner’s optimism and the exciting style of play he encouraged would shake things up and re-energize the fan base in ‘77.

On October 21, American League president Lee MacPhail ordered the White Sox to pay Tanner his $35,000 for 1976, but ordered Finley to re-work the final two years of Tanner’s contract.  Peterson saw his opening.   He swooped in and offered Finley his choice of $100,000 or catcher Manny Sanguillen for the rights to Tanner.   Finley didn’t like that choice – he wanted both.  “If I’m going to run a finishing school for managers I want to be paid for it,” he snarled to reporters.  “Maybe that’s highway robbery without a gun, but I’ll get my pound of flesh.”

Indeed, he did.  At first, Peterson huffily declared the deal dead.   But a couple of weeks later he cooled off, went back to Finley hat in hand, and gave the A’s owner exactly what he wanted – Sanguillen, plus the cash.   Finley, who cherished every nickel, was ecstatic.  “I can get $250,000 for Sanguillen.  That would mean I would be making $350,000 for having a manager somebody else wants.”

Peterson realized he was taking a big risk on his old minor league teammate.  It was not the first time a team had traded for a manager – the Mets landed Gil Hodges via a trade in 1967 – but it was highly unusual.   And the Mets only surrendered a second-rate pitching prospect for Hodges; here Peterson was, handing over a popular three-time all-star.  But the arched eyebrows didn’t shake him.  “I am sure I will be criticized to some degree [but] Tanner was my man…We had to pay the price.  I feel we came out the winner.”

Although it is difficult to measure the impact of a manager in wins and losses, it seems Peterson was right – especially with Sanguillen hitting an empty .275 in his lone season in Oakland, then returning to Pittsburgh to come off the bench for Tanner for three years.

Tanner has been criticized for losing control of his clubhouse in the 1980s, turning the other way and whistling a happy tune while his teams stumbled along in a cocaine-addled haze.  Those criticisms are not without merit.   But with his ebullient, relentlessly positive personality, Tanner was the perfect leader for the high-spirited, veteran Pirate teams of the late 1970s.

James Forr’s book, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (co-authored with David Proctor) was a finalist for the 2010 Casey Award.  He also was the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.

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