Original Angel Chuck Tanner, RIP

Most people if they think of the late Chuck Tanner at all it's as the see-no-evil caretaker of the We Are Fam-i-lee Pirates, the avuncular enabler of Dick Allen's Chicago second act, the hapless bystander of the late-'80s Braves, or even as the super-'70s basestealing psycho who coaxed 52 SBs out of Don Baylor of all people en route to a Major League record 341 with the 1976 A's.

But Chuck Tanner was on the original 1961 Angels -- one of six future managers on the squad (Jim Fregosi, Buck Rodgers, Del Rice, Ken Aspromonte, Eddie Yost). And more important than the backup outfielder's 16 at-bats in a Halo uniform, Tanner was the Los Angeles/California Angels minor league manager of the 1960s.

After hanging up his spikes following the 1962 season, Tanner managed in the Angels farm system from 1963-70, spending two years at A, three at AA, and three at AAA before taking over the White Sox job in September 1970, just after completing one of the best minor league seasons in franchise history, a 98-48 romp at AAA Hawaii. He helped midwife to the majors Winston Llenas, Tom Egan, Rick Reichardt, Jay Johnstone, Marty Pattin, Jim Spencer, Clyde Wright, Tom Burgmeier, Ed Kirkpatrick, Hector Torres, Auerilio Rodriguez, Tom Murphy, Marty Perez, Ken Tatum, Rudy May, Steve Kealey, Doug Griffin, Tom Bradley, and Dave LaRoche, compiling along the way a record of 561-537 (.511).

If the Angels had been run by a competent baseball man, instead of Gene Autry, Chuck Tanner would have been the franchise's second big-league manager. The choice was screamingly obvious both at the time and in retrospect. Instead, when Autry's new General Manager Dick Walsh grew tired of Bill Rigney in the middle of 1969, he replaced the original Angel skipper with a tobacco-drooling yahoo who had not managed a single game on any level of organized baseball: Lefty Phillips. Lefty, like Walsh, was a recent hire from the Dodgers organization, and the Angels were still decades away from trusting their own culture and judgment more than whatever sloppy management seconds they could sponge from Chavez Ravine. Among his many faults, Lefty couldn't abide having Spanish-speaking players on his team, on account of their funny-talk.

As Ross Newhan wrote in his updated history,

Autry would concede years later that it was at this juncture he made a serious mistake by not insisting Walsh elevate Chuck Tanner, a communicative fireball who would later lead Pittsburgh to a world championship. Tanner was then managing the Angels' Hawaii farm club, having been in the system as a player and manager almost from the start, a man totally familiar with the players then on the Angels' roster. [...]

"Lefty Phillips was a fine man with a solid reputation as coach and scout, but he was a disaster as manager and I will accept the blame for not insisting Tanner be hired."

Tanner would manage in the big leagues without interruption from 1970 until he was fired from the Braves in 1988. Phillips was dead by 1972.

Tanner's managerial style, as you might expect, was very much influenced by Bill Rigney. As Chris Jaffe's very useful 2009 book Evaluating Baseball's Managers points out, Rigney and Tanner are both in the Top 5 managers all time in getting value out of their bullpens (Tanner made stars out of Terry Forster, Goose Gossage, and Kent Tekulve). Paradoxically (or not), they both were basically the last two managers to make anything like a habit out of giving starts to pitchers on two days' rest. And above all, both stand out in history -- though only Tanner gets really blamed for it -- as over-indulgent managers who looked the other way while their headstrong players went off the deep end with substance abuse.

Tanner gets the ink on this because mostly because his Pirates were at the center of the early-'80s cocaine scandal, because Dick Allen was one of the most controversial players to ever wear stirrups, because his career overlapped with the dawn of free agency, and probably because many of his key protagonists were black. Rigney's degenerate, second-division alcoholics, on the other hand, were more "colorful" than colored, and to this day are treated with more of a nudge-nudge, boys-will-be-boys kind of Bo-and-Dean revisionism than anything like the scrutiny Dick Allen would have faced if he had, like Belinsky did, violently assaulted multiple girlfriends. The two managers' styles on this question were very different -- Rigney was a hard drinker who liked to be the center of attention and occasionally tried to crack down on his wayward charges, Tanner was more genuinely clueless about what was going around him. But both were key figures in baseball's transition from player-slaves to player-millionaires, from '50s morality (or pretense thereof) to '70s extravagance.

I would have loved to know how much Tanner's famous laissez-faire attitude was learned, consciously or not, from Rigney, and what he thought about those talent-rich, potential-unfulfilled Angels squads of the 1960s. Sadly, his death is a reminder that those of us serious about our Angel history need to get off our asses and start trying to document things that the few existing Angel historians haven't thought to ask. RIP.

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