clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hall of Fame 2014: Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa has long made his mark in baseball by doing things differently. He started with the White Sox with little experience or reputation, but went on to manage champions in Oakland and St. Louis using a relentless, active approach.

Domo Arigato (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox)
Domo Arigato (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox)
David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Putting an imprint on a game is an easy task for the manager. A manager sets the lineup, calls for bunts, steals and intentional walks, removes the starter, makes double-switches, and calls for pinch hitters. The more moves a manager makes, the more the manager gets noticed. The more the manager gets noticed, the more people talk about a manager's imprint on the game. The more people talk about the imprint, the less time a manager gets to stay employed. Unless that manager is Tony La Russa.

Tony La Russa managed continuously for 33 seasons for three different teams, missing only a few weeks while switching from the Chicago White Sox to the Oakland Athletics after Ken "Hawk" Harrelson fired him. La Russa, the son of a milkman who went to work at 2:30a.m. every day, was never very idle. After La Russa's playing career ended in 1973, he went to law school at Florida State University. When he finished, he moved right back into baseball, coaching in the minors for a few years before being called up to the majors by an aging Bill Veeck, Jr. in 1979.

Many managers appear to gain confidence the longer they have been on the job. As the job security grows, so does their willingness to do things their own way. La Russa managed his own way from the beginning. Before he was hailed a genius and "Mastermind" by George Will, he was a "goal-oriented scuffler". In 1980, he tried the left-handed Mike Squires at catcher. Players called him T-Bone and he was a big fan of Styx. As general manager Roland Hemond noted at the time, and what would become part of La Russa lore and legacy, "We're not afraid to try things."

La Russa continued to try things. In 1983, he played the aforementioned Mike Squires in 143 games, including the lefty at third base, yet he received only 180 plate appearances. La Russa did one better the next season by getting Squires into 104 games with only 89 plate appearances. He once had all the food removed from the clubhouse after a tough loss. It cost him $100 and sent a message, even if the message was not entirely clear. While others still worshipped the complete game, La Russa de-emphasized the pitcher going a full nine. In 1983, with a playoff berth already clinched, he put designated hitter Greg Luzinksi at first base despite not having played in the field in three years just in case La Russa might call on Luzinski to play the field in the World Series.

The World Series berth for the White Sox did not come in 1983 after they were swept away by the Baltimore Orioles. Veeck had earlier sold the team to Jerry Reinsdorf. Roland Hemond was out as general manager as was his assistant GM, a young Dave Dombrowski. When Jerry Reinsdorf bought the team, he thought he would have to fire La Russa based on the commentary by announcers Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersal at the time. Reinsdorf saved La Russa from the ax in 1985 when Ken Harrelson wanted to fire La Russa. He could not do so in 1986 (and who could blame him if he was spending a bit too much time watching his Bulls with new star, Michael Jordan), and it ended up being his biggest regret in combination with "naming a general manager that shouldn't have been a general manager and then letting him fire Tony."

Reinsdorf felt so bad about the situation, he reached out to the Oakland Athletics before La Russa was even fired. La Russa, with pitching coach Dave Duncan, moved to Oakland and kept trying things. After toying with the idea of using starter LaMaar Hoyt as the closer in Chicago, he went full bore with Eckersley, turning a solid, but washed up starter into a Hall of Famer. Of course it was not just Eckersley who had a new role.

In order to give closer Dennis Eckersley as much of a clean window to close games -- to start the ninth inning with nobody on base -- as he could, La Russa used a parade of lefthanded and righthanded specialists, not to mention sinkerballers and power pitchers, to create matchups in his favor. He would avoid intentional walks or overusing his closer by using as many arms as possible to create matchup advantages.

Dave Duncan tutored Dave Stewart and Bob Welch while a fantastic offense led by Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and later, Rickey Henderson, advanced to three World Series', but winning just one, in 1989. His reputation was solid in 1988 after turning the A's around, but it was cemented in 1989 with the World Series win. The book and "Mastermind" Sports Illustrated cover the following spring made La Russa a star. The A's failed to win the Series in 1990 and made the playoffs in just one of the five following seasons. When his contract was up, he moved to St. Louis, reputation still intact.

He made his presence known immediately when he chose to bench Ozzie Smith in the Wizard's final season. His intensity was still his trademark, even if he had new targets. A dozen years earlier, he had taken offense when Cleveland's Brett Butler stole a base with his team up by seven. When he reached the Cardinals, he had a different message according to Dennis Eckersley.

At first it was kind of rough. We'd be up 5-1, 6-1, and guys would be high-fiving and styling in the dugout, and all of a sudden Tony would yell, "Hey!" Maybe he was yelling at the runner, but he'd get the message across. When you've got a team down, you've got to step on its throat.

La Russa managed to botch a double-switch the first week on the job, but he made sure his imprint was on the game, once taking his closer, Eckersley, out of the game with two outs in the ninth and a 3-run lead. Even early on in his time with St. Louis, La Russa lamented the formula he had helped create in Oakland.

You can use a formula, but only with what's happening that day. It's a people game. If I had to face a low-ball hitter, I'd bring in Plunk with his high fastball. If it's a power hitter who likes the ball up, I may go to Nelson to sink it. You have to apply judgment to the situation. You can't just use a formula the way some people do now. You have to remember: The formula is written in pencil.

La Russa relied on Jason Isringhausen for several years while in St. Louis, but constantly moved relievers around depending on effectiveness. La Russa's moves did not always look brilliant, and many times, the bullpen was downright ugly, but he kept changing until he got the right mix. La Russa went with inexperience with Adam Wainwright and later Jason Motte to bring Championships to St. Louis. Early on, when the Cardinals had speed in Ray Lankford, Brian Jordan, and Delino Deshields, the Cardinals ran. The Cardinals later shifted to power. The Cardinals had success in La Russa's inaugural season. The playoffs ended in disappointment in 1996 with a loss to the Atlanta Braves after holding a 3-1 lead. For the rest of the decade, the Cardinals and La Russa turned themselves over to Mark McGwire.

Over the past 30 years, perhaps the three biggest changes to the game are bullpen management, an increased used of statistics, and steroids. La Russa factored heavily into all three. After being removed by La Russa from a start in 1983, Britt Burns was upset, but said after the game, La Russa, "cares more about the careers of his players than he does about winning, and I don't know how many other major league managers are that way." La Russa's care for his players came through in his blind support of McGwire despite his steroid use.  La Russa also brought McGwire back into the game despite the scrutiny it would bring to himself and his team.

La Russa lacked the talent to stay in the majors as a player, but demanded the intensity from players that took him as far as his talents would go. In an S.L. Price Sports Illustrated piece from 2007, La Russa shed some light on his aggressive, intense nature.

Before a playoff game with Class A Modesto in 1966, he was so spooked by his aching arm and dodgy throwing that he decided to fake being sick to avoid being embarrassed. That he had allowed himself to consider such a thing made him a bit crazy; he changed his mind, then drove to the park and played in a self-loathing fury.


"I thought, How do you live with yourself? How do you face yourself knowing that you didn't have the guts?" La Russa says. He got three hits, a ninth-inning grand slam to seal the win and a life lesson: When in doubt, when in fear, be aggressive. Commit yourself, and never look back.

Jim Edmonds arrived in 2000 from California, and the two seemed to be an odd pairing, but Edmonds turned himself into a Hall of Fame caliber player under La Russa as the Cardinals would embark on the most successful run in franchise history with the arrival of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Chris Carpenter forming the core of a team that would bring St. Louis it's first World Series Championship in 24 years. Between 2000 and 2006, the Cardinals made the playoffs six of seven years, advancing to the NLCS five times, the World Series twice, and winning one in 2006.

For a time, La Russa's lack of playoff success drew complaints from the local fanbase. His Cardinals teams at the turn of the century had enormous talent, just like those Oakland teams, but the Cardinals could not break through. The Cardinals had to come back to beat the Mets on the road in 2006, and were underdogs against the Tigers, but came through for the Championship. La Russa teams were often at their best when facing adversity. In 1989, a terrible earthquake struck the Bay Area, but La Russa's A's came ready to play and soundly defeated the Giants. In 2002, the team suffered a horrendous loss when Darryl Kile passed away during the season, and in La Russa's most difficult situation of his career, the team pressed on to qualify for the playoffs.

La Russa continued to try things throughout his tenure with the Cardinals. Dan Moore wrote, "the truly out-there move has always been La Russa's specialty". La Russa hit the pitcher eighth. Allen Craig became a second baseman and a center fielder before settling in at first and corner outfield while center fielder Skip Schumaker became a second basemen because La Russa thought it might work. Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer made the rare reliever to starter switch. He sometimes had the trainer send in the steal sign because he did not think anybody would be watching the trainer. He started a relief pitcher at the beginning of a game because he thought there might be rain that could potentially waste a starter.

Not all of La Russa's moves worked. His reliance on veterans caused too much playing time for Aaron Miles and the front office was forced to trade Chris Duncan because La Russa would not send the hurt and ineffective son of his pitching coach to the bench. He was known for, and confirmed in Three Nights in August as a guy who will throw at the other team. Whether the move is based on protecting his guys or not, the old school mentality is dangerous and needs to be removed from the game. The one move La Russa feels worst about is likely Rick Ankiel. La Russa tried to protect Ankiel, having him skip the pre-game press conference to Game 1 against Atlanta in 2000, Rick Ankiel ended up starting that game where he completely unraveled, effectively ending his pitching career in the majors.

La Russa was known for his analytical mind, but he did not believe strategy to be his most important job.

Your major responsibility, by far, is to get the players to play hard for you. You do it, more than anything else, with sincerity. If you get too strategic in your thinking and forget the people side of the game, even for a little bit, you end up losing.

La Russa certainly had the respect of many players, but he had many high-profile spats. Talented, productive players like Scott Rolen, J.D. Drew, and Colby Rasmus were all traded after clashing with La Russa. As a young manager, he believed most disputes with players could be dealt with privately, but as he aged, his attitude changed. Players were to be called out publicly in order reach them.

Tony La Russa's attitude toward statistics and technology could sometimes be confusing. In 1983, he said "In time the use of the computer will be standard with all clubs...You're never going to have a computer making decisions for the manager, but the longer you use it, the more uses you have for it." By 1992, he was still known to use a computer to help analyze competitors, but in 2007, it was "I don't use a laptop. I just write shit down." Dave Duncan could often be seen in the dugout with a massive binder, designed to help with understanding the opponent.

La Russa showed a strong dislike, and perhaps a misunderstanding, of Moneyball, yet adhered to many of its principles. While many of his peers favored get 'em over type guys in the second spot in the lineup, La Russa preferred some pop, a tactic in line with devotees of advanced statistics. More information available is beginning to show catchers might be more valuable than current statistics indicate, and La Russa once said, "I don't care if he doesn't get a hit, he's that valuable behind the plate." Yadier Molina was not the subject of that statement. La Russa was talking about Carlton Fisk in 1982, although he did echo that sentiment about Molina in 2005.

La Russa's annoyance at Moneyball is even more curious considering Billy Beane's first job with the A's was as advance scout for La Russa.

Probably the biggest thrill is that Tony La Russa calls me up to talk baseball, to ask me my opinion. As a player, I always wanted to just sit down with him and pick his brain. Now I do that all the time, and I'm getting paid for it!

--Billy Beane, 1990

La Russa was complimentary of Beane at the time, saying, "He has a very analytical mind. He knows what to look for, and he's not afraid to have an opinion." Less than ten years later Beane was less than complimentary about managers in general, stating that "I think it's true of about 90 percent of the managers now that there's not much difference among them." He went on, "But when you've got someone like Tony [La Russa], the great ones can make a big difference."

Injuries and aging players kept the Cardinals from winning after their improbable run in 2006. A dangerous and embarrassing drunken driving before the season in 2007 hurt his reputation. The Cardinals had to deal with great loss once more when Josh Hancock was killed in an early morning traffic accident. By mid-season of 2011, the Cardinals were looking at just one playoff appearance in five years. In an online poll done by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August 2011, more than three times as many responses indicated La Russa should leave at the end of 2011 compared to those who wanted him to come back. La Russa did leave at the end of the 2011 season, but under much more favorable terms. A series of miraculous comebacks beginning with qualifying for the playoffs after a double-digit game deficit and ending with the impossible Game Six that is now better understood with feelings than with words, the Cardinals embodied the "goal-oriented scuffler" who began his managing career 33 years before his final win as a manager.

La Russa does not enter the Hall of Fame without help. Nobody does. Bill Veeck gave him a chance. Roland Hemond built a team and provided the freedom to be creative. Jerry Reinsdorf fired him, but still facilitated the move that would build La Russa's reputation. Sandy Alderson gave him talent in Oakland. Dave Duncan, who should be in the Hall of Fame himself, harnessed and developed that talent along every step of La Russa's career. The Dewitts and Walt Jocketty's continued support with the Cardinals helped make his run possible. John Mozeliak continued those efforts through turbulent times so that Tony La Russa could go out on top. Of course, La Russa also had the players. From Carlton Fisk to Dennis Eckersley. For better or worse, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Jim Edmonds, Darryl Kile, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright. All great managers have great players and Tony La Russa was no different from other great that respect, anyway.