Ten things I didn’t know about Tony La Russa

Last week, as most of you already know, Tony La Russa retired. This marks the end of an era for managers. Just 14 months ago, three sure-fire Hall of Fame skippers still worked the dugout: Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and La Russa. All are now gone, along with fellow veteran managers Lou Piniella and Jack McKeon.

This is not to take a look back at the end of that entire era of managers. La Russa, as the longest lasting and winningest of the bunch, deserves his own space. Last week, when news of his retirement broke I posted a career highlights retrospective of La Russa’s life and times.

The goal here is different; it’s to look through and note some key themes and points of his entire (and lengthy) career. Oh, and if it rips off the old “10 things I didn’t know” format Boss-man Studes used to employ all the time. That’s an added bonus.

There’s an extra wrinkle in this for me. I wrote a book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers (winner of The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award!) that already profiles La Russa. That profile is already available online and there’s no point in just rehashing it.

Well, let’s get to it. Here are ten key points about La Russa.

1. He’s the trick part of the answer to one of the great baseball trick questions

This one comes from Baseball Think Factory poster toratoratora, who noted this terrific item:

Since baseball expansion began, only three 18-year-olds have started a game at shortstop in the major leagues. All three men have overwhelming Hall of Fame credentials. Who are they? Answers: Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount—and Tony La Russa.

La Russa came up as an 18-year-old infielder with the Kansas City A’s in 1963 and got several starts at shortstop that year. He didn’t get many starts, and would soon head back to the minors—banished from the majors until 1968 and not given a real chance to play until 1970.

2. La Russa was part of one of the great assemblages of baseball brains with the Kansas City A’s

When you think Kansas City A’s, you probably don’t think brilliant baseball. In fact, while stuck in KC, the A’s never posted a winning record. They were as dreary a team as imaginable.

Despite that, a surprising number of people who passed through there went on to make a name for themselves in baseball in the ensuing decades. First, there’s La Russa himself. As noted above, he spent almost all his time in the minors, but he was part of the overall system.

Less than two months after La Russa made his big league debut in 1963, the Royals acquired a backup catcher named Charlie Lau. He became the most famous hitting coach of his generation. La Russa and Lau had a teammate on the 1963 A’s named Dick Howser. Before dying of brain cancer, Howser brought a world title to Kansas City as manager of the 1985 Royals.

The next year, the Kansas City farm system produced a young catcher named Dave Duncan, who later became one of the most prestigious pitching coaches in baseball history.

There’s plenty more where that came from. In the years before La Russa’s debut, the A’s employed Dick Williams, Whitey Herzog, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Tommy Lasorda. All those men not only became managers, but all piloted at least one team to a world title.

To sum up, from 1956 to 1964, the Kansas City A’s featured baseball’s most revered hitting coach, one of its greatest pitching coaches and seven managers who guided their teams to World Series rings, five of whom are or will be in Cooperstown.

Oh, and rooting for these terrible teams the entire way was a young beard-less kid named Bill James.

Few of these guys made important links with each other. Herzog served as a coach for Williams for a bit with the Angels. Charlie Lau was a hitting coach for La Russa for a few years with the White Sox, after Lau had established himself. Mostly, these guys went their own ways.

There is one huge exception—the relationship struck up by La Russa and Duncan . Duncan has been La Russa’s pitching coach for decades.

3. La Russa is one of our last remaining links to Bill Veeck

La Russa managed first big league game in 1979 at the tender young age of 34. Unless I’ve missed something, baseball hasn’t had a manager that young since then.

Legendary White Sox owner Bill Veeck gave La Russa his first shot. Veeck was that rarest of rarities, an owner actually popular with fans. He had all sorts of colorful gimmicks, from using Eddie Gaedel as a pinch-hitter to the exploding scoreboard in Comiskey Park. Maybe Veeck’s most disastrous promotion occurred barely three weeks before La Russa’s managerial debut—Disco Demolition Night.

There are still a few other lingering links left. Roland Hemond is still an advisor to the White Sox front office. Son Mike Veeck, who thought up Disco Demolition Night, is still around. But those guys are out of public view. La Russa was one of the last tangible links left.

It has been a while. The day La Russa managed his first game, the Yankees cancelled their game to attend the funeral for catcher Thurman Munson, who had just died.

4. In 30-plus years of managing, Tony La Russa has only been fired once

Managers are hired to be fired. Ultimately, they are all interim managers, and even the best get fired numerous times.

La Russa, though, was fired only once. It came in 1986 with the White Sox. As a lifelong resident of the Chicago-land area, I remember that. Though La Russa’s achievements weren’t as impressive in Chicago as they would be in his later stops, he was a very well regarded manager in town. The team was in the doldrums beforehand and rose up.

The GM who fired La Russa was one of the worst GMs in baseball history: Hawk Harrelson. That’s right, the Sox TV announcer. The team put him in charge that year, and the results were a disaster. Most infamously, Harrelson bizarrely insisted the team put aging catcher Carlton Fisk in left field. Harrelson didn’t think much of La Russa and dumped him. (Odd side note: Harrelson was another product of the Kansas City A’s.)

It doesn’t look like baseball’s lords took this firing as a knock against La Russa, as the A’s hired him just a few weeks later. From August 1979 until now, that is the only gap in La Russa’s managerial career. La Russa left the A’s on his own terms. His contract expired, and numerous teams bid for his services, with St. Louis winning out.

5. Oakland’s bullpen: more rise of the modern than the actual modern

If there’s one tendency La Russa is noted for, it’s his willingness to change pitchers in mid-inning. On the one hand, it’s silly to associate that with him, because literally every manager does it nowadays. On the other hand, it was La Russa’s tenure in Oakland most closely that is associated with the hyper-specialization of the bullpen.

There’s something to it, but too much can be made of it. In 1991, his Oakland relievers averaged 1.14 innings per appearance, the lowest any bullpen had ever averaged up to that point. That said, a bullpen averaging 1.14 innings per pitcher nowadays would be one of the longest averages. In 2010, only the Mariners topped it, and only barely so—1.17 inning per appearance.

Take super-closer Dennis Eckersley, for instance. In 1987, his first season with any closer duties, he entered before the ninth in half his saves. The next year, in his first season as reliever demi-god, he entered the game in the eighth inning to preserve the lead 22 times. He was held until the ninth inning more than previous closers, but not as exclusively as current ones.

La Russa’s 1988-90 A’s had probably the best bullpen in history, and certainly the most influential of recent times. But what’s happened since then has taken its reliever specialization farther than the A’s themselves did.

6. La Russa has the best last-game-played team ever

From the files of things researched but never written about …

Take every retired player who either 1) played in 1,000 games, 2) started 200 times on the mound, or 3) appeared 400 games in relief, and then figure out on what teams and under which managers they ended their careers. Through 2010, 53 such guys ended their careers with La Russa. Only one other manager has more than 33 (Joe Torre, with 41). Despite having a nearly as long career at the same time, Bobby Cox only has 24 guys.

Here’s the All-End-with-La Russa All-Star Team
C – Joe Girardi
1B – Mark McGwire
2B – Steve Sax
SS – Ozzie Smith
3B – Ron Cey
OF – Dusty Baker
OF – Larry Walker
OF – Reggie Jackson
DH – Don Baylor
SP – Bob Welch
SP – Dave Stewart
SP – Fernando Valenzuela
SP – John Smoltz
SP – Chuck Finley
RP – Sparky Lyle

Not bad. On the bench, there’s Willie McGee, Greg Luzinski, Vance Law, Carney Lansford, Will Clark, Oscar Gamble, Preston Wilson, Ray Lankford, Glenn Hubbard, Dave Kingman, Bruce Bochte, Aurelio Rodriguez, Bill Caudill, Gabe White, Andy Benes, Darryl Kile, Mark Mulder, Eric Show, and even Minnie Minoso.

Not sure it means anything, but no other manager can top La Russa for depth and breadth of quality players who ended their careers under his watch. (That said, no one can mess with Connie Mack’s top-heavy crew of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, and Al Simmons.)

7. La Russa’s 30 years legacy of Cardinals managers

St. Louis Cardinals fans have been blessed in recent decades. If you’re a Cardinal fan, unless you’re in your late 30s or older, you probably have no experience seeing a rotten manager work day-in, day-out. No other fanbase can match that. (Well, maybe the Giants, depending on what you think of Dusty Baker).

Almost every Cardinal game over the last 30 years has been managed by a Cooperstown-bound skipper: Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa. Not bad. There have been two interim skipper stints aside from that, and Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst handled that one. (He’s in Cooperstown as a player, but he won over 1,000 games and a world title as manager). The other interim stint was by Mike Jorgensen, the only non-accomplished manager St. Louis has had in three decades.

Few teams can match a stretch like that. The A’s can, with Connie Mack for 50 years. The Dodgers can, with Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda.

That’s about it, unless you count teams managed by people inducted as players. Do that, and you have the Giants managed by Bill Terry and Mel Ott bridging the gap between John McGraw and Leo Durocher. (Yes, St. Louis had Schoendienst, but he was only for a few weeks.)

8. His teams beat the opponents many different ways

La Russa’s teams won more games than they lost because they scored more runs than they allowed; 1,523 more runs to be exact. It was 23,964 runs for La Russa’s teams in his 5,097 games, and 22,441 for the other side.

How did they score more? Well, they bested their opponents in many phases.

In the 5,097 regular-season games La Russa managed, his teams laced 1,523 more hits than their opponents, drew 686 more walks, and got hit 19 more times. Getting on base over 2,000 more times should lead to more runs.

They also did it while expending fewer outs. The 2,000-plus extra times on base came in just 1,100 more plate appearances than their opponents had. Must be all those times they led heading into the bottom of the ninth in home games.

But it wasn’t just getting on base, as that 1,523 edge in hits includes a lead in homers of 480. They got on base more and they slugged more.

La Russa’s teams also did a better job on the bases. In his career, his teams stole 854 more bases than their opponents while only getting caught stealing 27 more times. That’s an edge of about 240 runs right there.

That’s pretty well-rounded: better power, better speed, better batting, better patience at the plate. To that you can add a few other things. Despite having more guys on base, La Russa’s teams hit into 79 fewer double plays while hitting 113 more sacrifice flies and laying down 28 more sacrifice hits. Also, the edge in walks comes almost entirely due to managerial strategy: La Russa’s 686 extra walks came primarily from a 554 lead in intentional walks.

There was a downside, but it was negligible. His teams fanned 647 more times. Big deal. They hit six fewer doubles. Yawn. They also had 126 fewer triples. In all, though, his teams beat the opposition in many ways.

9. His best teams were never his world champions

It’s one of the great oddities of La Russa’s career. Though he won three world titles as manager, the clubs that went all the way were not his best.

Seven times, La Russa managed a team that led the league in victories. Only one of those teams won a world title, the 1989 A’s. Even they were the weak link in Oakland’s pennant three-peat. The A’s won 104 the year before and 103 the season after, but “only” 99 in 1989. Of the other half-dozen league toppers, only three advanced to the World Series, and they went 1-12 in the Fall Classic.

The 2006 and 2011 Cardinals did win it all despite less formidable regular-season records. Among the 30 teams La Russa managed all year long, the 2011 squad posted the 12th-best winning percentage, and the 2006 came in 20th.

10. La Russa held on for an impressively long time

His career lasted so long he almost caught John McGraw for career victories. He ends just 35 wins shy of McGraw—2,763 to 2,728.

Actually, if you include postseason games, that changes. McGraw won 26 of them, while La Russa triumphed in 70. Add those in, and La Russa tops McGraw by nine. (Yes, it’s not a fair comparison because of the extra rounds of playoffs, but then again, we’re already comparing a 154- vs. a 162-game schedule, so why not?)

That’s a product of both how long he lasted and how good he was. Managers like Earl Weaver were arguably better in their peaks or primes, but it’s hard to give Weaver the edge in career value. He managed less than half as many games as La Russa.

Ultimately, few managers are really worth much after 20 years on the job. Connie Mack, John McGraw, Tony La Russa … and maybe one or two others. It’s tough to stay that involved as manager for decades.

Here’s a quick story. On Aug. 6, 2010, the following happened to the 69-year-old Bobby Cox. After a night game, he woke up, attended a series of functions from the morning until he had to go to the ballpark. (It was a SABR panel he had previously agreed to attend and a luncheon for John Smoltz, whose number was retired that night).

Between a two-hour rain delay, the Smoltz ceremony and extra-innings, the game didn’t end until 1:00 a.m., so Cox probably ended up working a 14-hour day or more. It came in the middle of a stretch of 16 games in 16 days.

A manager can’t just show up. He’s got to be attentive, observant, and always “on” as leader. Plus all the tension and nerves that come with it. This happens almost every day for six months straight—seven months if you’re lucky. Yeah, it wears a guy down.

To put the pressure of big league manager into perspective, here’s a quote from La Russa (as well as some additional commentary by former Cardinals super-blogger Brian Gunn from a piece Gunn wrote on the 2007 Cards for the 2008 THT Annual) on why La Russa felt he still had the passion for the job:

“There are still times,” [La Russa] said, “when you’ve got a five-run lead, when it’s tense and I can’t swallow. I’ve got a headache, and I’m afraid I’m going to throw up. You only feel that stuff because you’re anxious about the outcome.” Headaches, anxiety, vomiting—to La Russa, these are sure signs of a healthy work environment.

When you think of it like that, it’s difficult to imagine performing well for long while feeling like that, but La Russa did for as long as anyone in the last 80 years. I suppose it also shouldn’t be too surprising he would retire.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com, and Retrosheet provide the statistical information. The info in the eighth point comes from the daily pitching/hitting gamelogs at B-ref, and all non-La Russa managed games in 1979 and 1986 have been deleted. B-ref’s pages on players retired per year provided the basis for the sixth item on this list.

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Comments

  1. salvo said...

    Other than the 3-year gap between Schoendienst and Herzog—which were dark years for the Cardinals—-they’ve had decent managers for 50 years, going back to Johnny Keane in 1961.

    Five men—-Keane, Schoendienst, Herzog, Torre and LaRussa—-have managed the Cardinals for 92.1% of the team’s games since Keane took over in 1961, a span of more than 8000 games.

  2. Brian Gunn said...

    Thanks for the piece, Chris! I found just about each of those points fascinating, but particularly #2. I knew the Kansas City A’s were a font of talent for the Yankees in those years (what with Maris, Ryne Duren, Ralph Terry, etc., etc.). Who knew they supplied so much managerial talent to the rest of the league?

  3. Anon said...

    Great column!

    AJ Hinch was 6 days shy of 35 when he took over the DBacks in 2009 so he was also 34, albeit barely.

    Eric Wedge was 34 when he was named manager (10/29/02) although he didn’t manage a game until he was 35 (March 2003).

  4. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    No one is comparing 154 game seasons to 162 game seasons, the only thing you have compared is wins. They both managed 33 seasons, and it is extremely impressive that LaRussa came within 35 wins of McGraw, but it’s even more impressive that McGraw lost 417 fewer games. Adding postseason records won’t erase that deficit.

  5. Anon said...

    Larussa also started a game at 2B as an 18 yo. There can’t have been many of those either. Tried to use b-ref’s search engine but that search swamped it.

  6. Chris Jaffe said...

    gnmoez—yes, I’m aware how Kile’s career ended.  I knew someone at the game that was cancelled.

    That said, he still had a last game and it was under LaRussa.

  7. dave said...

    What a great article.  I’m a Cardinal Nation fan,  born & raised a Cardinal fan.  We have been so lucky to have such great managers over the last years.  I’m 58 and can remember back to the 64 Cardinals on.  Thanks to all the Skippers for all the great times & good luck to Tony on you retirement !!!

  8. Joe said...

    He is also vegetarian, runs an animal rescue/shelter, and is only one of a handful of MLB managers to hold a law degree.

  9. Cliff Blau said...

    The Yankees didn’t cancel a game due to Munson’s funeral, which was on August 6.  They attended that in the afternoon and flew to NY and played that night.  You might remember Bobby Murcer had a big game.  LaRussa’s first game as a manager was August 3.

  10. Dennis Corcoran said...

    Chris,
    Were you talking about the SABR Convention in Atlanta as the SABR event he attended? If so, than it was Tom Glavine whose number was retired and not John Smoltz. I know because like a lot of SABR members we attended that game. The event was delayed because of rain that night.
    Nevewrtheless, I enjoyed the article on LaRussa.

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