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Tanner's Sox fell short, but his stay was significant

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Dick Allen and the 1972 Sox were Chuck Tanner's best team.
Dick Allen and the 1972 Sox were Chuck Tanner's best team.

On May 31, 1974, Chuck Tanner decided to bat Dick Allen in the leadoff spot.

Mind you, Allen had never hit first for the Sox. He had never even hit second. Ever since Roland Hemond traded for him before the 1972 season, Allen was firmly entrenched in the third spot, moonlighting as a cleanup hitter every once in a while.

Hitting second? Beltin' Bill Melton, who owned the cleanup spot for most of Tanner's tenure. That was a little less odd, because Tanner put Melton at the top of the order over the final two games of the 1971 season to get him the best chance at winning the home run crown. The move paid off -- Melton hit two solo shots on Sept. 29, and then hit his 33rd home run on Sept. 30 to edge out Norm Cash and Reggie Jackson for the league lead.

It was the first time in franchise history a White Sox led the American League in homers. Allen would do it in 1972 and 1974, and no Sox has done it since.

These were your table-setters on this particular last day of May. With the Sox trailing Boston 1-0 in the third inning, ninth-hitter Bucky Dent hit a two-out single off Bill Lee. Allen followed with a two-run shot, and Melton made it a back-to-back job. A move Tanner made on sheer whimsy worked out to perfection, as that one-two punch gave Wilbur Wood all the runs they needed in a 3-2 victory. He thought about trying the lineup again the next day, but decided that lightning wouldn't strike twice, and went back to the usual.

Tanner, who died at the age of 82 on Friday, references this game -- kind of -- in Bob Vanderberg's terrific Sox: From Lane and Fain to Zisk and Fisk. Published in 1982, it's an oral history that predates the Retrosheet era, and thus it allows for memories to fade or mix over time. He describes the game as coming in the heat of a pennant race against Boston (the Sox were 21-21, and 2 1/2 games back of Oakland), and said:

"Wilbur Wood was pitching that day and we were down a run going into the ninth and there were two out. And Allen came up and hit a home run and then Melton hit a home run and we won by one run."

Tanner might have confused it with the only other time he gave it a shot. On Aug. 19, 1974, Tanner tried his luck against the Red Sox and The Spaceman once again. Allen and Melton led the lineup, but they couldn't replicate the magic. The White Sox lost, 6-1, dropping them to 60-62, 9 1/2 games back of Oakland.

These two games (and his recollection of them) sum up the Tanner Era in Chicago almost too tidily. He chose an extreme route early on to surprising success, only to watch the same methods fall flat later. And as a reflection of his always cheery disposition, his outlook on the events outshined reality.

The rise

Whimsy seemed to define Chuck Tanner's career, whether managing a game or his players. Strategically, he's best known for running the 1976 Oakland A's to an American League-record 341 stolen bases, which was 160 more than they stole the previous season. Eight Athletics stole at least 20 bases; three swiped 50 or more.

But his White Sox didn't run. They averaged just 86 steals over his five years, even though a couple of his teams probably could have run more. In 1972, for example, the Sox were successful on 100 of 152 steal attempts. That was good for second in the league. Still, it wasn't until he went to Oakland that he unleashed this desire to wreak havoc. For some reason, something about Oakland's roster construction made him go balls-out on the basepaths.

When he took over the Sox late in 1970, he defined himself in a completely different way. Plainly put, he was going to ride the hell out of his starters.

Wilbur Wood can thank him immensely for it. Wood pitched in 168 games for the Sox over four seasons leading up to 1971, and 158 came in relief. But when Joel Horlen injured his knee before the season, Tanner gave the knuckleballing Wood a chance to stick in the rotation. Not only did he earn a permanent spot, but he pitched so well that Tanner put him on a Wednesday-Sunday rotation. Fifteen of his 44 starts came on two days' rest.

In his first full season as a starter, Wood worked 334 innings, going 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA. That was good for third in the Cy Young voting behind Oakland's Vida Blue and Detroit's Mickey Lolich.

The White Sox were similarly invigorated. Armed with a retooled roster by first-year GM Roland Hemond, the Sox went from 56-106 and drawing league-worst 495,355 fans in 1970 to a 79-83 record and 833,891 fans.

Tanner decided to push the envelope further. Wood's workload looked light compared to his next two seasons. And he had company.

In 1972, Wood worked a league-high 376 2/3 innings - and that two-thirds makes a difference. Because he recorded two more outs than Lolich did the previous season, Wood still owns the single-season high for innings pitched in the modern era. To find somebody who worked harder than Wood in 1972, you have to go back to Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917.

Yes, Tanner brought back the dead ball era as far as pitchers were concerned. Wood and Stan Bahnsen combined to start 90 games that season. According to Chris Jaffe in the book Evaluating Baseball's Managers, Wood and Bahnsen were the first teammates to start 90 games between them since Christy Mathewson and Iron Joe McGinnity spearheaded the 1904 New York Giants rotation. Neither pitcher lived to see Wood and Bahnsen match their feat - in fact, they'd been dead for more than 40 years.

And let's not overlook Tom Bradley, who contributed 40 starts and 260 innings to the cause himself. Bradley was the staff's strikeout pitcher - in fact, before Javier Vazquez's last two years with the Sox, Bradley was the last Sox pitcher to record 200 K's in back-to-back seasons. Wood, Bahnsen and Bradley combined to work 64.2 percent of the staff's innings. To find three pitchers who carried a staff more, Jaffe says you have to go back to the 1923 Cincinnati Reds.

On the offensive side, Tanner's player-friendly style of management (he was just 40 when he took over the Sox) allowed the mercurial Dick Allen to flourish. He put together the best White Sox season this side of Strike Year Frank Thomas, leading the league with 37 homers and 113 RBI, and hitting .308/.420/.603, good for the American League MVP. His 199 OPS+ that season is the second-highest in franchise history.

Alas, Bill Melton's back gave out midway through the season (herniated disc - sound familiar?), and they didn't have enough depth to compete with the dawning of the Oakland dynasty. They finished 5 1/2 games back at Oakland, but thanks to an 87-67 record, Tanner and Hemond helped reverse the franchise's fortunes. They drew 1.18 million fans, good for third in the American League, giving struggling owner John Allyn some breathing room.

The fall

If it hurt the Sox to lose Melton, the fractured kneecap Allen suffered devastated the Sox's chances in 1973. The Sox were 37-32 when they lost Allen for the season, and they finished the year at 77-85. On the same day, according to Richard Lindberg's Total White Sox, Mike Andrews and Rick Reichardt were jettisoned after complaining about the preferential treatment (and much greater salary) Allen received.

Tanner's control of the clubhouse soon faded. The following year, Hemond made the mistake of trading for Ron Santo, who didn't like playing second base nor Allen. Allen didn't care for Santo's growing role in office politics, and called it quits midway through September. Allen's retirement lasted three baseball weeks, but there was no way he could come back to the Sox.

It didn't help that Tanner couldn't find a third pitcher to fit his strategy. Wood was the same old warhorse, adding to his legend in 1973. He finished the year 24-20, making him the first pitcher with 20 of each in one season since Walter Johnson in 1916. He picked up two wins on one enchanted May evening, finishing the last five innings of a suspended 21-inning game against Cleveland, and then pitching a shutout the same night. In July, he started both ends of a doubleheader against the Yankees. Those starts didn't go so well.

(That season inspired one of my favorite pieces of baseball writing on the Web by Josh Wilker: "He was the last vestige of a time when men named Rube and Mordecai and Smokey Joe and Grover strode as giants upon the land, their won-loss records both gleaming and gory, good and bad entangled.")

But Wood had to fade eventually, declining steadily in 1974 and 1975. Hemond struck gold on waivers by claiming Jim Kaat, but couldn't find another pitcher to carry the immense load Tanner placed on their shoulders.

You couldn't tell anything was wrong from Tanner, and that was a problem. The Sox sank to 75-86 in Tanner's final year, and according to Vanderberg and Lindberg, he remained oblivious, at least publicly, to a lot of half-assed efforts on the field. He was an easy target for Harry Caray, who feasted on bad ballclubs to build his legend. Everybody remembers Tanner as the eternal optimist, and his faith and/or blind spots were a double-edged sword in Chicago, and also later in Pittsburgh, where he won a World Series before rampant cocaine use destroyed the clubhouse.

The legacy

In the Sox's case, the positive energy Tanner helped create may have saved the franchise, even if his momentum ultimately stalled. John Allyn and the Sox were on the brink of bankruptcy when Tanner joined, and at the end of Tanner's stay, they were almost bought out by an ownership group who would have moved the Sox to Seattle. Fortunately, Bill Veeck was able to swoop in and raise some serious 11th-hour cash to keep the Sox on the South Side.

The re-entry of Veeck meant goodbye to Tanner. Veeck liked Tanner, but he wanted to try to capture the spirit of 1951 by hiring the past-his-prime Paul Richards (a bad idea). The plan called for Tanner to take up scouting, and then Veeck would give him his job back. Tanner politely declined, and headed to Oakland instead. His starters there had normal workloads.

While reading about Tanner, he reminded me an awful lot of Jerry Manuel. Manuel had to clean up the mess left by an uninspiring manager (he had Terry Bevington, Tanner had Don Gutteridge) and touchy payroll situations. He let the kids arrange themselves until he found a system that worked, and enjoyed short-term success that he couldn't sustain with veterans.

Manuel might have been flawed, but he helped steer the Sox back above .500, and Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams have taken it from there.

Tanner did the same thing, except under more severe circumstances. If the success of 1971 to 1973, albeit limited, never happened, it's quite possible we don't have a team to root for. Hemond probably can take the biggest share of the credit, but Tanner isn't far behind. He excelled at stalling for time, playing a big part in one of many short-term flurries that kept the Sox solvent until Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn arrived.