Tony La Russa’s Hall of Fame Career Started in the Smokies Organization

Tony La Russa (right) did not spend a full season in Tennessee, but helped prepare the team for a Southern League Championship. Photo Courtesy: Tennessee Smokies website

Tony La Russa (right) did not spend a full season in Tennessee, but helped prepare the team for a Southern League Championship. Photo Courtesy: Tennessee Smokies website

Tony La Russa’s playing career was anything but noteworthy.  The Tampa native spent much of his playing career in the minor leagues and played only 132 games in Major League Baseball.  But being a baseball player was not what La Russa was supposed to be.

The Knoxville Sox were looking for a manager in 1978 that could turn the team around after a disappointing 50-87 campaign in 1977. The search landed on Tony La Russa,  who had earned a law degree from Florida State a few months earlier.  La Russa was quoted as saying, “I decided I’d rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living.”

Tony La Russa quickly changed the culture of the Sox and ignited the team out of the gates. With the help of future star Harold Baines, the Knox Sox started the season 53-25.

On July 3rd, an opportunity was given to La Russa that he could not pass up. The big league White Sox were struggling and fired manager Bob Lemon.  When Chicago hired Larry Doby to take over, there was an opening on the White Sox coaching staff that La Russa did not hesitate to fill.

The Knoxville Sox would go on to to win a share of the Southern League pennant, going 35-31 under La Russa’s replacement Joe Jones, thus starting the high-standards of winning for La Russa-led teams.

La Russa spent less than two full seasons in the minor leagues before being named the head man for the Chicago White Sox in the middle of the 1979 season. His rapid move up the ranks as a manager is one that is rarely seen in today’s game.

La Russa won the first of three World Series titles in Oakland during the 1989 season. Photo Courtesy: AP

La Russa won the first of three World Series titles in Oakland during the 1989 season. Photo Courtesy: AP

The four-time Manager of the Year spent eight seasons in the Windy City before moving on to a talented, young Oakland Athletics team.  The A’s knew La Russa well, as he played 122 of his 132 games as a big leaguer with the team.

La Russa finished .500 in his first full season in Oakland, but young sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco had begun to make their splash on the game combining for 80 round-trippers during the 1987 season.

By now, any baseball fan hears the name, McGwire or Canseco, and quickly they think about the steroids era and its tainted statistics.  La Russa was always around scrutiny and criticism, most recently evident by how he picked the National League roster for the 2012 All-Star Game.  Yet, the former big league skipper handled adversity as well as any manager in recent memory.

Perhaps, it was because his playing career was anything but normal.  He spent 15 seasons playing professional baseball for 18 different teams.

Or maybe it was because he did not spend a succession of full seasons as a manager until his fourth and fifth big league seasons with the White Sox.

La Russa found his niche as a manager.  His ability to adapt was what helped him accumulate 2,728 wins, third all-time on Major League Baseball’s win list,  just 35 wins behind second-place John McGraw.

The three-time World Series champion would lead the A’s to the Fall Classic in three straight years from 1988-’90, winning the 1989 World Series by sweeping the San Francisco Giants.

After three consecutive losing seasons with the A’s, La Russa left for St. Louis in 1996, where he would replace another future Hall of Famer, Joe Torre.  La Russa had just three losing seasons with the Cardinals in 16 years, helping the Cardinals capture the World Series title in 2006 and the miraculous season of 2011.

La Russa announced his retirement while the champagne was still being popped in St. Louis in 2011 after 33 seasons as a Major League manager.  He told reporters, “I think this just feels like it’s time to end it,” he said Monday. “When I look in the mirror, I know I’d come back for the wrong reasons, and I didn’t want to do that.”

La Russa’ legacy has a long list of accomplishments topped by few in the game’s history.  Perhaps most impressive was that he had a winning record at each of his three stops winning 500 games with each team.  Only Leo Durocher can make the same claim.  TLR walked away from baseball the same way he entered as a manager for the Knoxville Sox in 1978.  With a championship.

Anthony “Tony” La Russa, Jr. will be on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013 joining  prominent modern-day managers Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Lou Pinella.  All four are expected to be giving induction speeches in the summer of 2014.  It will be a rare time when four prolific managers get to share their memories from illustrious careers.

For Tony La Russa, his memories have numerous major accolades, but those memories would not have been the same without his time in East Tennessee.  Firsts in baseball are well-documented and La Russa’s first opportunity to manage will forever be linked to his start in the Smokies organization.

Michael Wottreng is a Broadcast and Multimedia Assistant for the Smokies Radio Network. You can follow Michael on Twitter here: @MWottreng

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