Tony’s new team

La Russa humbled by Hall of Fame tour

April 10, 2014
Hall of Famer Tony La Russa sits down in the Plaque Gallery for an interview during his Orientation Visit. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF)

Months after joining baseball most exclusive team, Tony La Russa admits he still has trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that he has reached the game’s pinnacle.

“I always thought this was for players and personalities like Tommy (Lasorda) and Earl (Weaver) and Sparky (Anderson),” he said. “I’m pretty much a relentless grinder.”

At the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on April 10 for his Orientation Visit, the “relentless grinder,” whose 2,728 career managerial wins ranks third all time, is one of six electees to be inducted into the Cooperstown shrine this summer.

La Russa was made aware of his election while attending Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings held in Orlando in December.

“I remember going down to the room and Frank Robinson and Pudge Fisk said, ‘Your life will never be the same,”’ La Russa recalled. “And there hasn’t been a day that there hasn’t been some kind of reminder of what’s coming up in July and what it means.

“I just had this amazing experience in St. Louis on Opening Day, where they really honor the Hall of Famers. So here I am on the field, waiting for the new team to come out, and there’s Red (Schoendienst) and (Bob) Gibson and (Lou) Brock standing next to me. It’s just ridiculous.”

This year’s Induction Ceremony, to be held 1:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday, July 27, will feature Baseball Writers’ Association of America electees Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas as well as Expansion Era Committee electees and fellow managers Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and La Russa.

La Russa’s professional baseball career began when he signed his first contract with the Kansas City Athletics on the night he graduated from Tampa’s Jefferson High School in 1962. After a big league playing career as a middle infielder with three big league clubs, he found his true calling as a manager for more than three decades with the White Sox (1979-86), Athletics (1986-95) and Cardinals (1996-2011).

Overall, La Russa’s 2,728 career wins rank third all time, behind legends Connie Mack and John McGraw, while he also skippered teams to 12 first-place finishes, six pennants (1988-90, 2004, 2006, 2011) and three World Series titles (1989, 2006, 2011). Leaving on a high note, he retired following the Cardinals’ improbable seven-game win over the Rangers in the 2011 World Series, which featured two sequences where the Cardinals were down to their last strike.

During his two-hour Museum tour, the 69-year-old La Russa, wearing gray pants and a plaid shirt, couldn’t help but say “Oh, boy” numerous times, whether it was when he was shown the bat Bobby Thomson used to hit his “Shot Heard ‘round the World” in the 1951 playoffs or the bat Babe Ruth used to hit his famed “called shot” in the 1932 World Series.

“I already had an overwhelming feeling about this Induction but when you get this extensive look at what’s here, what’s displayed and what’s available to be displayed, I’m beyond overwhelmed now,” La Russa said. “I’m going to have to find a way to collect myself between now and July.”

Hall of Fame visitors were also surprised to see La Russa strolling through the Museum with a camera crew and photographer in tow. It was during while checking out the Baseball Timeline that La Russa seemed most engaged, sharing stories about people and events from his past such as Mickey Mantle being his favorite player while growing up.

“Sparky (Anderson) was to all young guys, if you wanted to talk baseball, he would give you the gospel every day, all the time,” said La Russa when passing an exhibit on the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. “We would play them 12 times a year, so 12 times before the game I’d be spending it with Sparky. He was the best.”

La Russa and Anderson are the only managers to have led both a National and American League team to World Series titles.

La Russa even shielded his eyes when passing Diamond Mines, an exhibit on scouting, when it showed a video of the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson famously homering off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series while La Russa watched from the dugout.

It was when inside the locker room of Today’s Game where La Russa shared some thoughts on his most recent players.

“Every day for 11 years, and he’s (Albert Pujols) still doing it. He just plays the game the right way to win,” La Russa said. “People ask me why do those young guys pitch so well in St. Louis? They go to the mound and whatever he (Yadier Molina) puts down they throw.”

It was players like Pujols and Molina that allowed La Russa to wear three World Series rings during his visit to the home of baseball.

“If I can’t wear them here, I can’t wear them,” he said with a smile, adding, “I wear them whenever I can get away with it.”

Harkening back to his playing career, La Russa requested to see a pair of box scores when he was at the Hall of Fame Library – from Early Wynn’s 300th career victory in 1963 and from the Cubs’ home opener in 1973. Both games featured La Russa pinch running.

In the Museum’s collection storage area, La Russa was able to check out numerous items he had donated over the years.

“I knew why I was asked because I was involved in something that they thought was historic,” he said. “I always thought I could tell the family that I’ve got something representing but I never had a clue it would come to this. It’s fun to see. They were all magical moments. It went fast, though. When you love what you’re doing, it goes fast.”

With his tour coming to an end, La Russa deflected the attention from himself and explained it was really the organizations that were the key to his ultimately being selected for enshrinement at the Hall of Fame.

“You know how I got in? Part of three organizations. That’s exactly how I feel,” La Russa said. “I’ll give you real good proof of that. It was always ownership, front office, development and scouting. I was never in a bad situation, not one day.

“The other thing I want to mention, and I know I’ll mention this in my speech, is that I had a real unique situation because our ownership, they agreed that coaching was really important. Some owners think that they’re just fungo hitters and they are there because they’re friends of the manager. And the truth is there is more coaching, teaching around the major league level now because of the kids.”

La Russa also said that he considers his managerial wins the results of a community and he was just part of it, adding he had the good fortune to be part of the three organizations. “But I never felt good fortune was a Hall of Fame credential.” 

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum