Garner remembers Chuck Tanner
Chuck Tanner was Phil Garner’s guy. Garner didn’t all the physical tools of Willie Stargell or the stature of Dave Parker, but he had heart and determination. Much like the city of Pittsburgh itself and the manager who guided the Pirates to the 1979 World Series title.
Tanner passed away Friday following a long illness at age 82, and Garner – a member of the 1979 Pirates team – took some time to reflect on their relationship.
“I’m sad, but I am going to take Chuck Tanner’s advice. I’m going to celebrate his life,” Garner said. “Without Chuck, I’m another bench player who never made it. Chuck believed in me, and I certainly hope I had a chance to pattern my managerial career after Chuck and I hope people will say being around me they enjoyed it as much. I was just as optimistic as Chuck Tanner. That would be the highest compliment I could have.”
When Garner was managing the Astros from 2004-07, Tanner was a fixture in the visiting clubhouse before Astros games in Pittsburgh.
“He’s always come in and say hello and I always invited him to come say hello,” Garner said. “Once we got caught up, he always wanted to ask about Carol [Phil’s wife], the children and mom and dad, and then we’d get down to baseball. He was absolutely the best. You just could not find a better man.”
Garner played for Tanner with the Oakland A’s in 1976 before being traded to the Pirates in spring training 1977, reuniting him with Tanner. He was traded, along with Chris Batton and Tommy Helms, to the Pirates for Dave Giusti, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, Rick Langford, Tony Armas and Mitchell Page.
Garner hit .500 in the 1979 World Series and was a favorite of Tanner for his hard-nosed style of play, which ultimately earned him the nickname “Scrap Iron.”
“He never met a day he didn’t like,” Garner said. “His famous deal was you could get beat 15-0 in the worst conditions under the sun – snowing, sleeting and hailing – and he’d come in after the game and say it was great. He’d say, ‘Just think what else we could be doing? Nothing else is as good as playing baseball.’ We’d say, ‘Yeah, right, Chuck,’ but his attitude permeated everybody’s spirit.
“Chuck loved life every day. You know when you saw Chuck Tanner there wasn’t going to be any sourpuss. No matter what he was doing in his life, he put it aside and was happy to see you.”
As a result of winning the 2005 National League pennant, Garner got to manage the NL in the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh and named Tanner as the honorary coach of the game at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Tanner was in uniform and threw out the ceremonial first pitch, with he and Garner soaking up every moment along the way.
“It was one of those things that turned out to be better than I even thought it would,” Garner said. “I thought it would be wonderful for Chuck to be able to do that and for me to do it for Chuck. In the end, it was gratifying for both of us. We couldn’t shut him up. He was talking and telling stories and it was the absolutely best experience I could have had at the All-Star Game.”
Garner kept in touch with Tanner through the years, though he admits he became harder to reach the past few months while Tanner’s health deteriorated. But like many who came in contact with Tanner, Garner said he will never forget how great it was to play for him.
“The other thing remarkable about Chuck was his players were his guys,” Garner said. “He would end all his scouting reports – and we could be playing really good teams – and he’d say, ‘If these guys were any good, they’d be on our team.’ He always pumped guys up. He loved every player, no matter what.
“If you put on a uniform and played for Chuck Tanner, you were part of his family. Chuck loved everybody. It will show. People from all walks of life will come to pay tribute to Chuck Tanner.”