I was a snot nosed gumshoe wet behind the ears, wannabe sports reporter when I initially met Charles (Chuck) Tanner right after the MLB All-Star break during the summer of 1978. When I was 25, it was a very good year. That was the year that I had decided to switch gears from music performing and try my hand at sports journalism.
I came up with the idea while partying with Rennie Stennet and Willie Stargell at the ‘Fantastic Plastic’ disco in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. One morning when I was in “recovery” mode, I had a flash of genius (which was unusual when I was battling a hangover). Willie, Rennie and I used to carry around those suede and leather wine bags filled with Sangria. Around the same time I was performing with the group “Second Movement” at a “joint” called the “Alcatraz” Lounge over on East Ohio Street. “Pops” used to frequent the establishment because he was friendly with the owner whose name was Mert, plus Willie, Rennie and I never had to pay for drinks because Mert always made a ton of loot when Willie showed up. I never knew Mert’s last name. His full name could have been Mert “Pourtheliquor.”
One day I asked Willie to introduce me to someone in the media relations office so that I could be credentialed to cover the Pirates. He gave me a phone number and informed me that I could use him as a reference but that was it. Shortly thereafter I began to call and call and call. I then began to hang around the Pirates’ offices. After being blown off for over a week, I ran into the late Vince Lascheid, Pirates long time organist, introduced myself and informed him of my dilemma. A few days later I received a call from the Bucs media relations department and the rest is as they say history. Regardless of all I have written up to this point; this story is about Charles (Chuck) Tanner who just recently went to join the ancestors. All of the drama I had to endure in order just to cover the Pirates was well worth it just to have had to opportunity to meet, know and love “Skip” Tanner.
At the Pirates year end media gathering in Dec. 2010, official photographer Dave Arrigo and I swapped stories about the legendary Pirates field general. At that time Mr. Tanner was still at the Jamison Medical Center in New Castle. As I was leaving the affair with my significant other, the elevator operator stopped me and informed me that “Skip” was not doing that great. I procrastinated and did not make it up to see him, for that I blame myself. Here is some free advice. If there is someone that you care for, give them their flowers and their “props” while they are still alive to receive them.
I truly believe in my spirit that there were very few people that Chuck Tanner met that he did not like. There were certainly very few people that he encountered that did not like him. I don’t have nearly enough space to talk about the times right smack dab in the middle of his heyday that he found the time to encourage a young African-American sports writer trying to find his way. He did not need affirmative action to prompt him to assist you. What he did for you came from his heart. Never proclaiming or exclaiming that he was bigger or better just because. Mr. Tanner was always just himself.
He proved that excellence does not have to evolve into ego. His kind and gracious spirit will live on in our hearts. Chuck Tanner did not worry about image, race or age. If you could play you would start. He did not care whether there were nine Black players, nine White players or nine Latino players starting; he wanted the best team on the field. When they were throwing batteries and hurling racial slurs at right fielder Dave Parker for being a “million dollar baby” “Skip” stuck with his beleaguered but talented player. When Willie Stargell passed away on the day that PNC Park opened Chuck Tanner said, “When you had Willie Stargell on your team, it was like having a diamond ring on your finger. Now, every opening day at PNC Park, everybody will know this is Willie Stargell’s day. He’s up there, and he knows the Pirates are opening today.”
“We are family” was not just some slick Madison Avenue marketing strategy that was developed to keep the turnstiles clicking at Three Rivers Stadium. This was a true community phenomenon, a state of mind, no correction a state of spirit that had the nerve to promote the notion that men, ordinary and extraordinary men from affluent and destitute backgrounds could perform together under one banner regardless and represent a blue collar, hard working city that was in the final process of waving the white flag after heading the charge of the industrial revolution. Leading the charge of change in Pittsburgh, at least from a professional sports aspect was Chuck Tanner. I am positive that they are now waiting for Chuck Tanner to exit the dugout in heaven, lineup card in hand.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-583-6741.)