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La Russa proudly accepts Ellis Island Award

Tony La Russa stepped down the gangplank of a Statue Cruises ferry on Thursday morning, wearing a thin smile and a dark suit as he strode into the same Ellis Island Great Hall where his grandfather first entered America over a century ago.

The boat ride from Battery Park had taken 15 minutes across a choppy Hudson River, much of which La Russa spent chatting with TV host Meredith Vieira, Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda and other well-dressed well-wishers.

Pietro La Russa's two-week voyage from Italy aboard the SS Calabria in 1906 likely ended with a similar view of the Statue of Liberty, although he traveled with only his family and was met by immigration officials rather than photographers.

Pietro, along with his wife, Catarina, and three children, passed through Ellis Island on his way from Sicily to Ybor City, Fla., a story Tony recounted on Thursday when he accepted the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award.

A four-time Manager of the Year, La Russa retired last October three days after winning his third World Series championship. He was preceded at the podium by Vieira -- who hosted the event -- as well as officials from the National Parks Service and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. The Foundation has presented Family Heritage Awards since 2001 to "celebrate the extraordinary lives of Americans who trace their ancestry through Ellis Island." Architect Richard Meier and singer/actress Angela Lansbury were also honored.

After a video presentation chronicling his grandfather's immigration, his father's early love of baseball and his own career in the game, La Russa delivered a brief but poignant acceptance speech.

He spoke of childhood weekends when both his father's Sicilian family and his mother's Spanish side would gather, and how the time spent with aunts, uncles, cousins -- and dogs -- had instilled a lasting sense of heritage and history.

"When you leave your home country, you don't know what's waiting for you across the ocean," La Russa said. "It took a lot of guts. I heard that from the time I was 5 or 6 years old up until the time I left when I was 17."

Now 67, La Russa is spending his first season off the diamond since 1978 working for Major League Baseball. He's also served as an analyst for MLB Network and maintained a steady focus on Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation, the organization he founded in 1991 to match abandoned animals with people who could benefit from pet ownership. His speech on Thursday recognized a pair of fellow former big league managers and Family Heritage Award honorees: Joe Torre and Lasorda. La Russa said he believes the pair likely steered the selection committee in his direction this year. If true, it would be just another strong recommendation from Lasorda, who was among the first to tell La Russa that his baseball future was in the dugout rather than on the field.

The son of an Ellis Island immigrant himself, Lasorda was honored in 2006. On Thursday, he echoed La Russa's sentiment about the challenges faced by immigrants during the Ellis Island era.

"I can imagine my father coming in here, not being able to speak one word of English, and the fortitude that he had to go to a new country," Lasorda said. "That took a lot of courage on their part. It took a lot of courage by them to take jobs that nobody else wanted. All they wanted to do was work and have a family and make sure that their family got the opportunity to live in the greatest country in the world."