COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Tony La Russa had just been hired to manage the Double-A Knoxville Sox in 1978, the first step on a journey that led to his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Before Opening Day that season, White Sox player personnel advisor Paul Richards came to town to introduce him at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
"After he introduced our really good team, he said, 'If you've wondered about this boy that's going to manage this team and you've heard that the worst players make the best managers, this young man has a chance to be an outstanding manager,'" La Russa said, drawing a laugh from the estimated crowd of 48,000 at the Clark Sports Center and setting the self-deprecatory tone for his remarks.
"I thought, 'It always hurts to hear the truth.' Then [Richards] watched me manage four or five games. He comes in and says, 'I think you may have been a better player than I thought you were.'"
There is no question about his qualifications, of course. La Russa won 2,728 games, trailing only fellow Hall of Famers Connie Mack and John McGraw. He managed 33 years, split between the White Sox (1979-86), Athletics (1986-95) and Cardinals (1996-2011), winning six pennants and three World Series titles. He's the only manager to win a World Series championship and the All-Star Game in both leagues.
Speaking without looking at his notes, La Russa made it clear during his 17-minute talk that his unease at taking credit for all those accomplishments is rooted in a deep conviction that he benefited from an uncommonly good support system.
"I understand and appreciate what this means, but I want to add that I am not comfortable with it," La Russa said. "After thinking about all the other young managers who paid a lot of dues in the Minor Leagues, and I get a chance after parts of two years. Then I go into the big leagues with three organizations -- Chicago White Sox, Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals -- and truthfully can tell you I never had one day that the coaches and myself felt that we didn't have total support from the people up top.
"All that equates to me is that I've been very, very fortunate. And the more I think about it, I've never put my arms around the fact that being really lucky is a Hall of Fame credential."
La Russa's plaque features a nondescript cap, because he didn't believe it would be fair to single out one of the franchises he worked for. Each holds a special place in his heart.
The three skippers inducted Sunday -- Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre -- rank Nos. 3-5 all-time in managerial wins.
|Manager ||Wins ||Years |
|1. Connie Mack ||3,731 ||53 |
|2. John McGraw ||2,763 ||33 |
|3. Tony La Russa ||2,728 ||33 |
|4. Bobby Cox ||2,504 ||29 |
|5. Joe Torre ||2,326 ||29 |
|6. Sparky Anderson ||2,194 ||26 |
|7. Bucky Harris ||2,158 ||29 |
|8. Joe McCarthy ||2,125 ||24 |
|9. Walter Alston ||2,040 ||23 |
|10. Leo Durocher ||2,008 ||24 |
When the White Sox won the American League West in 1983, it was the first time a Chicago baseball team had made it to the postseason since 1959.
"A wonderful experience," La Russa said. "With the White Sox, we had this unique opportunity for two years. The best example was a game in New York against the Yankees. Tom Seaver's going for his 300th win. Hall of Famer [Carlton] Fisk is catching him. To be part of that, to watch [Seaver] pitch a complete game ..."
With the Athletics, La Russa noted that he had clubhouse leaders like Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford and Dave Henderson.
"I used to communicate with Stew by just listening to him and doing as he said," said La Russa.
And the Cardinals are one of the most storied franchises in baseball.
"You've got that tradition that's so spectacular," said La Russa. "You've got Hall of Famers walking around like Red [Schoendienst] and Stan [Musial] from the 1940s and '50s. Then you go to the '60s, and you've got Bob [Gibson] and Lou [Brock]. Later, you've got Whitey [Herzog] and Ozzie [Smith] and Bruce Sutter. And you feel this obligation to go forward. We were really motivated to be caretakers."
La Russa praised his wife, Elaine, for encouraging him to take the White Sox manager's job when it was offered even though she was pregnant with their first child, and for her unwavering support during his lengthy absences.
La Russa made special mention of legendary former coach George Kissell.
"This is one of the most important things I want to share," La Russa said. "The last year that I tried to play, I was a player-coach. I wanted to try to manage. And George said, 'Here's my advice. And if you can't do these two things, don't try it. If you want to manage or coach, you've got to love the game. And you've got to want to learn it.'
"And for the next 35 or 36 years, it was always about loving the game and learning it. And it's incredible. The more you learn, the more you love it. And the more you love it, the more you want to learn."
La Russa said he learned from hundreds of people over the years, singling out Jim Leyland, Dave Duncan, Charlie Lau and even NFL coach Bill Parcells, who was in the audience.
There were two things that bothered La Russa, he said. One was that daughters Bianca and Devon were unable to attend. The other was that there was no way to recognize everybody whose name deserved to be mentioned.
"I am not personally comfortable on this stage," La Russa said in conclusion. "But I believe I finally came to a resolution. I was in three great situations. Great. And I believe the way to accept this tremendous honor is as a representative of all those mentors, coaches and members of the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.