In his 34 season as a major league manager, Tony La Russa has 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 his 2,764th victory — on Sunday, when the White Sox beat the Tigers 3-0 behind a stellar effort from Dylan Cease — La Russa moved into sole possession of second place on the list of all-time managerial wins. He moved past John McGraw and now trails only Connie Mack (spoiler: he’s not catching Mack and his 3,731 wins).
“Lot of pieces to this day including this uniform and coming back here to have it happen,” La Russa told reporters after the game. “It’s just overwhelming.”
With the help of The Sporting News archives, 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 last days as an active player in the Cardinals system, for the franchise’s Triple-A club in New Orleans. And he had a chance to keep playing, but he was 32 years old 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 there 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 earned his first wins as a skipper. From the July 30, 1977, issue:
Tony La Russa wound up with a winning record during his brief stint as interim manager for New Orleans. La Russa, subbing for Lance Nichols, who underwent precautionary final tests for lymph trouble in a Kansas City, Mo., hospital, got the Pelicans three wins in his five outings at the helm.
That December, La Russa was named the manager of the White Sox’s Double-A club in Knoxville for the 1978 season. With 10 games left in the first half of that season, La Russa’s club had an 11 1/2-game lead. The Sox wound up with a 49-21 record in the first half.
A quote from the July 1 issue of TSN:
”Four things won this championship for us — good defense, timely hitting, good relief pitching and an excellent attitude. And even though we’re already in the playoffs, we’ll keep playing hard the rest of the season because come June 24 (start of the second half), we’ll be all even again.”
Huh. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
La Russa wasn’t around for the second half of the Knoxville season — the club went 39-35 after his departure — because he was promoted back to the big leagues as part of a massive change in the leadership of the parent club. Manager Bob Lemon and his crew were out, and La Russa was part of the replacements. From the July 22 issue of TSN:
The popular Minnie Minoso was also replaced as the first-base coach by Tony La Russa, previously the manager at Knoxville. Minoso will remain in the organization and work in the public relations department. He will also be in uniform before home games. Minoso broke into tears when advised of the change.
The move was huge for La Russa, who as a player had fallen 88 days short of reaching the minimum for receiving 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.
How about this nugget from the June 2, 1979, issue of TSN?
Tony La Russa has moved into second place on the all-time manager wins list. Very cool.
Oh, how I wish there was video of this day back 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 headline “La Russa goes loco” in a notes package, here’s the text:
Thad Bosley and Kevin Bell each had three hits, but Iowa manager Tony LaRussa provided most of the fireworks May 11 when the Oaks overwhelmed Denver, 11-5. Most of the LaRussa theatrics occurred while protesting being thrown out in the ninth inning after a brief brushback battle. LaRussa argued abou this exit for quite some time, then before leaving the premises, picked up third base and pitched it into foul territory. In a final salute, he tossed a garbage can onto the field from the runway.
La Russa didn’t finish that minor league season as manager, either, thanks to more change with the White Sox. Don Kessinger told owner Bill Veeck over lunch on Aug. 2, an off day, that the club wasn’t playing well and he offered his resignation. Veeck, frustrated watching his team struggle to a 46-60 record, accepted.
La Russa was given the big league job, at 34 years old. He was the fifth manager since Veeck purchased the club in the winter before the 1976 season, following 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 I few to like when I was here last year as a coach. My No. 1 goal is to build a champion, but I know the fans won’t want to wait forever.”
Fun fact: Kessinger was a player/manager for the 1979 White Sox. In 56 games in his Age 36 season, the six-time All-Star shortstop batted .200 with a .546 OPS. He didn’t immediately retire as a player — the Expos were rumored to have interest — but he never played again. That was his only appearance as a big league manager.
He was also the last player/manager in American League history. Only Pete Rose — who was the player/manager for the Reds from 1984 to 1986 — pulled the double-duty after Kessinger.
La Russa’s first home games as the White Sox manager were a bit of a disaster. Remember the infamous Disco Demolition night on July 12 of that year, when the second game of the double-header was forfeited to the Tigers because the field 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 concert was held at the stadium, featuring Santana, Journey, Eddie Money and Molly Hatchet. The stage had been set up in center field, with the infield fenced off. But concert-goers were everywhere else on the field, and they chewed up the grass. Combine that with massive amounts of rain, and the field was a disaster. The scheduled game on Aug. 10 was postponed while the Sox tried to fix their field; the solution was to pour massive amounts of a sand-like compound in the outfield to act as a drying agent. It worked, kind of.
The White Sox and Blue Jays were able to play double-headers on Aug. 11 and 12 — they each won two games — but players hated playing in those sandy, sloppy conditions.
“It looked a little like the Sahara,” Veeck said.
The White Sox finished out the season with a 27-27 record under La Russa, including a 13-5 record in their final 18 games. That was enough for Veeck to bring back his young manager for the 1980 season, and he held the job until 1986.