La Russa's new job with White Sox will make history

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Craig Muder

When Tony La Russa took over the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 2, 1979, he was 34 years old, had never managed a big league game and was replacing the last player/manager in American League history.

“I hope to bring some enthusiasm,” La Russa told the Associated Press when he took over the White Sox. “I’m going to kind of challenge my players to see if they can do some positive things.”

When La Russa manages the White Sox’s first game of the 2021 season on April 1, he’ll be 76, the owner of 2,728 victories and smack in the middle of an analytics revolution that has vastly changed how managers operate.

But his philosophy will be largely the same as it was 41 years ago: Get good people, and get them to play as a team.

“The game has changed 180 degrees,” La Russa told the Hall of Fame when he was elected in 2014. “I always refer to it as the distractions of fame and fortune. But you have to get past the individual’s concern with fame and fortune and bring him into the team concept.

“You could be a brilliant strategist, but if you don’t have the personnel on board (with your philosophy) you’re not going to win more games than the other guy.”

La Russa, who was named the White Sox’s skipper on Thursday, Oct. 29, is set to become the first manager to be elected to the Hall of Fame and then return to the dugout. Several players – including Paul Molitor and Ryne Sandberg – have debuted as big league managers after being elected to the Hall of Fame, but none were elected as managers.

La Russa will write his name into the record books on several fronts when he returns to the White Sox for the first time since being dismissed by the team in 1986. He managed Chicago for parts of nine seasons, taking over from Don Kessinger – who also played 56 games for the Sox in 1979 – and yielding to Jim Fregosi in 1986 before hooking on with the Oakland’s A’s as their manager just weeks later.

At 76, La Russa – born on Oct. 4, 1944 – will become the third-oldest manager in history, trailing only Connie Mack (at 87 years of age when he managed the A’s in 1950) and Jack McKeon (who was 80 when he managed the Marlins in 2011).

La Russa last managed the White Sox in 1986, meaning there will be a 35-year gap between seasons with the same team. The previous record was set by Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, who managed the Tigers from 1929-33 then returned to Detroit in 1955 and 1956 – a span of 22 seasons; it was then tied by Paul Richards, who managed the White Sox from 1951-54 and then returned to the White Sox in 1976.

La Russa will also have a great chance to pass John McGraw for the No. 2 spot on the all-time wins list in 2021 as he trails the Giants legend by just 35 victories. McGraw was first on the all-time wins list when he retired in 1932 (Mack passed him in 1934 and remains on top of the all-time list with 3,731 wins) and has not been out of the Top 2 all-time since surpassing Ned Hanlon’s 1,313 wins in 1914.

La Russa won a division title with the White Sox in 1983, the first of 14 times he would lead his teams to the postseason. Only Bobby Cox (16) and Joe Torre (15) – who were both elected to the Hall of Fame with La Russa in 2014 – have been to the postseason more often as managers.

La Russa’s three World Series titles (1989 with Oakland and 2006 and 2011 with St. Louis) trail only Joe McCarthy (7), Casey Stengel (7), Mack (5), Walter Alston (4) and Torre (4) on the all-time list.

The game has changed so much in the last 20 years, however, that maybe no one except Mack has managed in such distinctly different eras as La Russa.

“You try to use every statistical tool you have before a game,” La Russa told the Hall of Fame in 2014. “But you can’t ignore the human element.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series