Top Five All-Time Cardinal Managers: Number 2 – Tony La Russa

The next man on my list of All-Time Top Cardinal managers probably needs no introduction ANYWHERE in Cardinal Nation and quite probably anywhere in the entire baseball world.  Like my previous pick, he has ties to the baseball histories of both St. Louis and Kansas City.  Anthony La Russa, Jr.

Tony La Russa was born in Tampa, Florida on October 4, 1944. Growing up, he would play American Legion and PONY League Baseball with Lou Piniella who would go on to become the American League Rookie of the Year with the Kansas City Royals in 1969 and a World Series-winning manager in 1990 with the Cincinnati Reds.  After graduating from Jefferson High School in Tampa in June of 1962, he signed with the then-Kansas City A’s as an infielder.  He spent the rest of 1962 in the minors, playing with affiliate clubs in Birmingham, Alabama and Daytona Beach, Florida.  His contract contained a clause to help pay for his college education.  He got a degree in Industrial Management from the University of South Florida in 1969 and in 1978, he got his Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Florida State University School of Law.  He would be admitted to the Florida Bar in 1980, though, to this day, he has never practiced law.

On May 10, 1963, Tony made his major league debut as a pinch runner for pitcher Chuck Essegian in the top of the 8th inning of a 2-0 Kansas City loss to the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota.  His rookie season consisted of 34 games, 44 at bats, 11 hits, 1, double, 1 triple, 1 RBI and a .250 batting average.  He spent most of the next six years back in the minors before coming back to The Show with the A’s in 1968.  By this time, the A’s were now located in Oakland, California.  He would spend the entirety of the 1970 Campaign with Oakland, appearing in 52 games, but with a .199 batting average.  Tony never got to celebrate with his A’s teammates as they won the first of their five consecutive American League Western Division titles as on August 14, he was sold to the Atlanta Braves.  The latter stages of his MLB career consisted of “cups of coffee” with the Braves and the Chicago Cubs.  He made a token big league appearance with the Cubs on April 6, 1973 when, as a pinch hitter, he scored the winning run in a 3-2 win over the Montreal Expos.  Over the next four years, he bounced around between the organizations of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals (who he later managed).  His career as a player came to an end as he was released by the Cardinal organization on September 29, 1977.

La Russa was hired by the Chicago White Sox to become the manager of their AA affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1978.  After half a season, he joined the major league coaching staff under future Hall of Famer Larry Doby.  In 1979, Don Kessinger, a longtime standout Shortstop with the crosstown rival Cubs, was named the player-manager of the Sox.  Tony became the manager of AAA Iowa (then a White Sox affiliate).  About two thirds of the way through the 1979 Season, Kessinger was fired and at 34, Tony La Russa became the manager of the White Sox.  In 1983, Tony won his first title of any kind as a manager as his Pale Hosers posted 99 wins and cruised to the American League West title by 20 games over the Kansas City Royals under the slogan “Winning Ugly”.  The slogan was bestowed upon them by Texas Rangers manager Doug Rader because of a stretch of games that saw then win consistently despite sloppy play.  They were led by 24 game winner and Cy Young Award recipient LaMarr Hoyt, slugging Rookie of the Year outfielder Ron Kittle and future Hall of fame catcher Carlton Fisk.  However, their season came to an abrupt end as they were quickly dispatched by the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.  After a slow start in 1986, with the club sporting a record of 26-38, Tony was out as the manager of the White Sox.  His pitching coach Dave Duncan was fired right along with him.  Tony finished his first stint in the Windy City with a record of 522-510.

Less than three weeks after he was let go by the White Sox, Tony caught on with the Oakland A’s.  He brought his pitching coach Dave Duncan with him.  It was there that he took his first steps towards managerial greatness.  The A’s had a record of 31-52 when he took over as manager and they went 45-34 the rest of the way to finish 76-86 and in Third Place in the AL West in 1986.  Tony had a solid lineup to work with in Oakland.  He had the Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (who would later rejoin TLR in St. Louis first as  a player and then as hitting coach), Rookie of the Year infielder Walt Weiss, veterans Dusty Baker (himself a future major league manager) and Dave Parker and solid pitching from starters Dave Stewart and Bob Welch and relief ace Dennis Eckersley.  From 1988 to 1990, tony led the A’s to three consecutive American League Pennants and a World Championship. In 1988, the A’s lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers 4 games to 1.  That series was highlighted by a walk off home run by Kirk Gibson off Dennis Eckersley in Game One that saw Gibson practically limping around the bases.  In 1989, the A’s won the World Championship against their across the Bay rivals the San Francisco Giants in a four game sweep that was marred by a massive earthquake that forced postponement of Game Three.  In 1990, the A’s won 103 games and, despite being heavily favored, they lost the Fall Classic in a four game sweep to the Cincinnati Reds, led by Tony’s childhood friend Lou Piniella.  In 1995, after finishing with a record of 67-77 in a strike shortened season, Levi Strauss Chairman and A’s owner Walter A. Haas, Jr. (with whom TLR had become good friends) died and his family sold the team.  Tony decided to sever his ties with the A’s.  He would end his tenure with the Oakland club with a record of 798-673 for a .542 winning percentage, three AL Pennants and the 1989 World Championship.

His time in Oakland may have been his first step towards managerial greatness, but it was in St. Louis that Tony La Russa became a managerial legend.  1996 saw a change in ownership for the St. Louis Cardinals as Anheuser Busch, who had owned the team since 1953, sold the team to a group led by Bill DeWitt, Jr., a member of a longtime baseball family.  That same year saw a changer in managers as Tony La Russa replaced the recently deposed Joe Torre (who would, himself go on to managing greatness in New York as the longtime manager of the Yankees).  Tony again brought Dave Duncan with him.  Though he finished his inaugural season as the Cardinal manager with a record of 88-74, Tony piloted the Cards to the NL Central Division title.  They would lose to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.  In Tony’s 16 years at the helm in St. Louis, the Cardinals finished with a sub-.500 record only twice.  Though he was reaching the twilight of his career, the Cards were still getting stellar defense from Hall of Fame Shortstop Ozzie (“The Wizard of Oz”) Smith.  Returning during TLR’s inaugural season as the Cardinal skipper was Willie McGee, one of the speed merchants from the “Whiteyball” teams of the 80’s. 1997 saw the reuniting of Tony and his old First Baseman from Oakland Mark McGwire.  in 1998, Mark and Chicago Cubs’ slugger Sammy Sosa put on a home run chase for the ages as they pursued the 37 year old home run record set by Roger Maris (himself a one time Cardinal) in 1961.  McGwire ended up winning the battle – hitting 70 round trippers to Sosa’s 66.  However, the chase would be tainted as both men would be accused of one form or another of cheating. In 2000, the Cards returned to the top of the NL Central heap, but they would fall in the NLCS to the New York Mets.  Over the years, the got Cardinals solid production from First Baseman Will (“The Thrill”) Clark and Left Fielder Ray Lankford and solid pitching from Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Andy Benes, Rick Ankiel (who later reinvented himself as an outfielder), Darryl Kile (whose career was cut tragically short by his death in 2002), relief ace Jason Isringhausen and, in later years, 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.  They were solid behind the plate as well with Mike Metheny (who succeeded Tony as manager) and the G.O.A.T. Yadier Molina.  Adding to Tony’s star-studded Cardinal lineups was the “MV3” trio of Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols. in 2004, the Cards won 105 games and cruised to the NL Pennant and, for the first time since 1987, reached the World Series.  However, they would be swept by the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic as the Red Sox erased the “Curse of the Bambino” that had befallen them since they won their last World Series back in 1918!  The Cards won 100 regular season returned to the NLCS in 2005.  However, they fell in six games to the Houston Astros who went to their first-ever World Series.  That series was highlighted by a massive home run by Albert Pujols off Brad Lidge that sent the series back to St. Louis and one final game at Busch Stadium II.  in 2006, the cardinals started out strong but then stumbled towards the end, they manged to hold on for the NL Central title albeit with a record of 83-78.  However, it was during the postseason that they got hot.  They steamrolled past the Padres in the NLDS and then triumphed over the New York Mets in the NLCS 4 games to 3.  They continued their hot postseason run by capturing the 2006 World Series from the Detroit Tigers 4 games to 1.  A sub-.500 season followed in 2007, but starting the next year, the Cards started to become a contender again. in 2011, the Cardinals got hit by the injury bug early as Adam Wainwright (a 20-game winner in 2010) would miss the entire season due to Tommy John Surgery.  By August, the Cardinals had been given up for dead, but after being 10.5 games out of the Wild Card on August 25th, the Cardinals began an incredible run that saw win the NL Wild Card on the last day of the season with a 90-72 record.  In the postseason, they beat the Phillies in an epic NLDS in five games and then triumphed over the division rival Brewers in six games.  The World Series proved to be one of the best Fall Classics ever as the Cardinals came back from being one strike away from elimination TWICE and won their 12th (?) World Championship in seven games over the Texas Rangers.  The Series would be highlighted by David Freese’s walk off homer in Game Six that sent the Series to a deciding Seventh Game.  After the Series, Tony resigned as manager of the Cardinals becoming the first manager in MLB history to retire after winning a World Series.  However, he came back the next year to lead the National League to an 8-0 win over the American League in the All-Star Game, which, interestingly enough, was played in Kansas City.  Tony finished his managerial stint with the Cardinals with a record of 1408-1182 for a .544 winning percentage, 3 NL Pennants and 2 World Championships.  He is the all-time winningest manager in franchise history and his iconic number 10 was retired in 2012.

In the days since his tenure with the Cardinals ended, Tony has held executive positions with MLB (2012-2014), the Arizona Diamondbacks (2014-2017), the Boston Red Sox (2018-2019) and the Los Angeles Angels (2019-2021). In 2013, he was elected by the Veteran’s Committee to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager along with fellow managing legends Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. In 2021, Tony began his second managerial stint with the Chicago White Sox. He recently finished the first season of his second stint with a record of 93-69. Overall, La Russa’s managerial record stands at 2821-2434 for a .537 winning percentage, 6 Pennants and 3 World Championships.  Tony has passed John McGraw for Second Place and now trails only Connie Mack on the All-Time Baseball Managerial Wins list.

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