TSN Archives: ‘La Russa goes loco’ and other stories from the early career of a Hall of Fame manager
In his 34th season as a major league manager, Tony La Russa won three World Series titles, six pennants and 12 division titles. Impressive numbers, of course, but it’s the 2,764 wins that are truly exceptional in MLB history.
With her 2764th win – Sunday, when the White Sox beat the Tigers 3-0 behind a stellar effort from Dylan Cease – La Russa became the only second-place possession on the managerial wins list of all time. He passed John McGraw and now only hangs out Connie Mack (spoiler: he doesn’t catch Mack and his 3,731 wins).
“Lots of pieces to date including this uniform and coming back here to make it happen,” La Russa told reporters after the game. “It’s just overwhelming.”
Using the archives of The Sporting News, let’s take a look back at the beginnings of what turned out to be a legendary career as a big league manager.
La Russa spent his final days as an active player in the Cardinals system, for the franchise’s Triple-A club in New Orleans. And he was fortunate enough to keep playing, but he was 32 and apparently saw the writing on the wall. In the July 16, 1977 issue, TSN reported that the Denver Bears – La Russa had arguably his best offensive season in 1975 – wanted to sign him, but he accepted an offer to stay with the Pelicans as a coach.
And a few weeks later, he won his first victories as a skipper. From the issue of July 30, 1977:
Tony La Russa found himself with a winning record during his brief stint as interim manager for New Orleans. La Russa, replacing Lance Nichols, who underwent precautionary final testing for lymphatic problems at a hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, has won three wins for the Pelicans in his five outings at the helm.
In December, La Russa was appointed manager of the White Sox Double-A club in Knoxville for the 1978 season. With 10 games to go in the first half of that season, La Russa had an 11 1/2 lead. matches. The Sox finished 49-21 in the first half.
A quote from the July 1 issue of TSN:
“Four things have won this championship for us: good defense, timely hitting, good relief and great attitude. And even though we are already in the playoffs, we will continue to play hard for the rest of the season because on June 24 (start of the second half) we will all be equal again. “
Huh. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
La Russa was not around for the second half of the Knoxville season – the club went 39-35 after leaving – because he was promoted to the big leagues as part of a massive change in management of the parent club. Manager Bob Lemon and his team were absent and La Russa was among the substitutes. From the July 22 issue of TSN:
Popular Minnie Minoso was also replaced as first baseman coach by Tony La Russa, previously Knoxville manager. Minoso will remain with the organization and work in the public relations department. He will also be in uniform before the home games. Minoso burst into tears when he was told of the change.
The move was huge for La Russa, who, as a player, had missed 88 days to reach the minimum to receive a major league pension. La Russa finished the 1978 season with the White Sox, then was named manager of the Triple-A Iowa Oaks for 1979.
What about that nugget from TSN’s June 2, 1979 issue?
Tony La Russa moved up to second place on the all-time managerial wins list. Very cool.
Oh, how I wish there was a video of that day when he was the 34 year old skipper of the Iowa Oaks in 1979 … pic.twitter.com/dHpYXyk6sb
– Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) June 8, 2021
With the title “La Russa va loco” in a package of notes, here is the text:
Thad Bosley and Kevin Bell each had three hits, but Iowa manager Tony LaRussa provided most of the fireworks on May 11 when the Oaks overwhelmed Denver, 11-5. Most of LaRussa’s plays occurred as they protested their ejection in the ninth inning after a brief battle back. LaRussa argued about the outing for a while, then before leaving the scene, picked up the third base and threw it into foul territory. In a final salute, he threw a trash can on the ground from the track.
La Russa also didn’t finish this minor league season as a manager, thanks to more change with the White Sox. Don Kessinger told owner Bill Veeck at lunch on August 2, on a day off, that the club were not playing well and he offered his resignation. Veeck, frustrated to see his team fight for a 46-60 record, agreed.
La Russa was given the post in the big leagues, at 34 years old. He was the fifth manager since Veeck bought the club the winter before the 1976 season, after Kessinger, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Paul Richards and Chuck Tanner.
“I was surprised when I got the call. I feel a challenge in this job – a responsibility to the fans that I don’t like when I was here last year as a coach. My # 1 goal is to build a champion, but I know fans won’t want to wait forever.
Fun fact: Kessinger was a player / manager for the 1979 White Sox. In 56 games during his season at the age of 36, the six-time all-star shortstop hit .200 with a .546 OPS. He didn’t immediately retire as a player – the Expos would have been interested – but he never played again. It was his only appearance as a big league manager.
He was also the last player / coach in American League history. Only Pete Rose – who was the Reds player / coach from 1984 to 1986 – did double duty after Kessinger.
La Russa’s first home games as manager of the White Sox were a bit of a disaster. You remember the infamous Disco Demolition party on July 12 of that year, when the second double-header game was confiscated from the Tigers because the pitch was unplayable after the explosion that destroyed all those disco records? ?
Well, while the White Sox were on the road Aug 3-9 – the club went 4-2 under La Russa – a gig was held at the stadium, featuring Santana, Journey, Eddie Money and Molly Hatchet. The stage had been set up in the central field, with the infield fenced off. But concert goers were everywhere else on the pitch, and they were chewing the grass. Combine that with massive amounts of rain, and the field was a disaster. The game scheduled for August 10 was postponed while the Sox tried to repair their field; the solution was to pour massive amounts of a sand-like compound into the outer field to act as a drying agent. It worked, sort of.
The White Sox and Blue Jays were able to play doubles tournaments on August 11 and 12 – they each won two games – but the players hated playing in those sloppy, sandy conditions.
“It looked a bit like the Sahara,” Veeck said.
The White Sox finished the season 27-27 under La Russa, including a 13-5 record in their last 18 games. That was enough for Veeck to bring back his young manager for the 1980 season, and he held the position until 1986.