In the offseason following the 1972 season, the Chicago Cubs traded a journeyman relief pitcher to the Atlanta Braves for a journeyman utility infielder: Tony La Russa.
The 28-year-old La Russa didn't project to be much more than "organizational depth", but in Spring Training, he did catch the eye of Cubs Special Batting Instructor Lew Fonseca:
"LaRussa (sic) has impressed me more than any other newcomer," Fonseca began. "He has a lot of desire, a quick bat and he spreads the ball around real well. He is an excellent two-strike hitter. He can be fooled and still have enough strength to poke the ball through the infield."
-- Chicago Tribune
La Russa would break camp with the big league club and make an appearance in their Opening Day game. It would be the final major league appearance of his career.
A standout high school shortstop, La Russa was sought after by many teams, and ultimately signed by Charlie Finley of the A's, who promised not only a $50,000 bonus, but a new car and to pay for La Russa's college education. La Russa entered the A's minor league system immediately following his high school graduation in June, 1962.
Despite being a "bonus baby," within one year, two major events would end La Russa's tenure as a top prospect. The first - and most often cited - is a shoulder injury that he would suffer playing softball during the offseason.
But perhaps just as damaging was a rule which required teams who paid a player a large enough signing bonus to keep that player on their major league roster for a full year, following their first year in the minors. And so it was that 18-year-old Tony La Russa found himself sitting on the Kansas City A's bench, unable to play, on Opening Day of the 1963 season, less than a year after graduating from Jefferson High School.
La Russa would not appear in a game for the A's until May 10, and then only as a pinch runner. He would not play a single inning in the field until July 20, when he played the 9th inning at shortstop. Despite spending the entire season on the A's roster, he would not start a game until August 25.
He would spend the next four full years in the minor leagues before getting another crack at the majors. Whether it was the shoulder (and subsequent) injuries or losing a full year of development at such a young age, La Russa was now a fringe major leaguer at-best. From 1968 to 1971, he would appear in 98 games for the A's and then the Braves, then spent the entire 1972 season in the Braves minor leagues before his trade to the Cubs.
La Russa knew his career was on fumes when he joined the Cubs in Spring of 1973. Touted as a true utility player who could play every infield position and left field, La Russa told the Chicago Tribune: "At this point, I'll just take about any spots on this club."
The Cubs played the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field on Opening Day of the 1973 season. La Russa spent the first eight inning sitting wherever the 25th man on the roster sits in the dugout.
In the 9th inning, with the Cubs down 2-1, Joe Pepitone led-off with a single. Then Ron Santo hit what should have been a double-play ball to 2nd base, but was bobbled.
La Russa came into the game to pinch-run for Santo, as the potential winning run at first base. He didn't know it at the time, of course, but these would be his final steps on a major league field as a player. Would he get one final opportunity to flash the talent that had earned him that big bonus all those years ago? Perhaps he would get a great read on a ball in the gap, and use his speed to come all the way around from first to score the winning run?
La Russa would score that winning run, but rather anti-climactically on three walks. But a great photo from the Chicago Tribune the next day captures La Russa jumping triumphantly on home plate as he scores to end the game.
Soon after, La Russa was optioned back to the Cubs minor league system, where he spent the rest of the 1973 season. That offseason, he began pursuit of his law degree from Florida State University (having already earned his undergraduate degree on Charlie Finley's dime). He would spend four more full seasons in the minors, in the Pirates, White Sox and finally Cardinals systems, before hanging up his spikes for good after the 1977 season. In 1978, he graduated from Florida State with his law degree.