Oct 8, 2012

Italian / American Manager: Tony LaRussa (1979-2011)

Anthony La Russa Jr. was born on October 4, 1944 in Tampa Florida. He grew up in the same neighborhood as former White Sox Hall of Fame manager Al Lopez. LaRussa was also childhood friends with former MLB player & manager Lou Pinella. The six foot right handed hitter was originally signed as an infielder by the Kansas City A’s in 1962. He came up for 34 games the next year batting .250 overall. He would play parts of the next four seasons as the A’s moved to Oakland, playing a career high 52 games in 1970. That year he batted only .158 with six RBIs.

In Oakland he became intrigued with Dick Williams style of managing which would lead to three straight AL West titles & ywo staright World Championships before Williams departed in 1974. Larussa wasn't a great player & became expendable on a talented Oakland team. In 1971 his contract was purchased by the Atlanta Braves & he was soon traded to the Chicago Cubs.

He spent the rest of his playing career in the minors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox & St. Louis Cardinal organizations. In his brief six year playing career he batted .199 , 35 hits in 176 at bats, no HRs, with five doubles & seven RBIs. He spent 15 seasons in the minors batting .265 lifetime there.

When it seemed his playing career wasn't working out, he attended Florida State University earning a law degree in 1978. The following year he passed the bar exam, but chose a coaching job instead of becoming a lawyer. Larussa is one of four MLB managers in MLB history to have a law degree.

In 1979 the White Sox gave him his first chance at managing, putting him at the helm of their Knoxville AA team. Midway through the year he was put on the big league coaching staff of manager Larry Doby, who had replaced Bob Lemon at skipper. In 1979 Don Kessinger became the White Sox player manager & Larussa was sent to manage the AAA Iowa Oaks.

The Sox faltered in 1979 and Kessinger was gone in midsummer. Tony Larussa was named the Chicago White Sox managerin early August and brought the team to a 27-27 finish. Although at the .500 mark & fifth place finish, his team showed improvement immediately. He would manage the White Sox for nine seasons overall, finishing 5th in 1979 & 1980. In the strike shortened 1981 season they finished sixth in the second half after a third place first half finish.

By 1982 the White Sox had improved to a third place finish winning 87 ball games. In 1983 he took them to their first A.L. Western title with a team lead by veteran hitters Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Harold Baines & Ron Kittle. His pitching staff had two twenty game winners in Lamar Hoyt & Richard Dotson. The Sox won 99 games but fell short to the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS. Personally for Larussa: he won the A.L. Manager of the Year Award.

That season he also began a long working relationship with his old team mate & friend Dave Duncan. He hired Duncan as his pitching coach & the two would work together through the 2011 season. He often credited Duncan with the success of his teams in Oakland & St. Louis. Larussa remained in Chicago until 1986 when after a 26-36 start; he was fired by GM Ken Hawk Harrelson, who only served one year in the front office. He had been the team’s play by play man before that & still is today. Within three weeks Larussa was offered the job as manager of the Oakland A’s.

He took over and brought them to two straight third place finishes in 1986 & 1987. By 1988 the mighty A’s were the monsters of the American league led by the “Bash Brothers” of Mark McGwire & Jose Canseco. They also had a dominating pitching core of- Dave Stewart, Bob Welch & future Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley. Larussa led Oakland to three straight AL pennants while getting to the World Series, winning the World Championship 1989.

That year the Bay Area Earthquake struck during the World Series and play halted after the series began, as the Bay area cleaned up, needing time to get back on their feet after the natural disaster. The A's went on to beat their cross bay rival San Francisco Giants in a four game sweep. Although the A's were dominant they were upset twice in World Series play. In 1988 Larussa's team lost to Tommy Lasorda’s miracle Dodgers led by Orel Hershiser & Kirk Gibson. In 1990 his childhood friend, Lou Pinella & his surprising Cincinnati Reds swept the mighty A's, both times Larussa’s teams were heavy favorites. In those seasons he won two more A.L. Manager of the Year Awards. After the 1995 season, A’s owner Walter Haas passed away & the family sold the team. It was time for Larussa to move on.

He took over as the St. Louis Cardinals manager in 1996, replacing Joe Torre. Larussa found a new home in St. Louis & would manage there for 16 seasons winning two World Championship (2006 & 2011) & one NL Pennant (2004). His 2004 World Series loss was another classic milestone, as his Cards fell to the Boston Red Sox who won their first Championship since 1918.

In 2006 he surprised a favored New York Mets team by winning the NLCS in seven games. He took his Cardinals team to a first place finish seven times, winning 100 games two straight years (2004 & 2005). In St. Louis he lured his old slugger from Oakland Mark McGwire to the team, where he went on his historic 1998 HR chase. He broke the all time single season record, battling with Sammy Sosa most of the season putting baseball back into the spotlight. Later in the decade he managed one of the game’s best Players in Albert Pujols.

In 1998 he began his strange approach as sometimes putting the pitcher in the number eight spot in the lineup. In 2006 Larussa’s team won the fewest games ever by for an improbable World Champion- 83. Larussa became the first manager to win the Manager of the Year Award four times & only one of four to win Manager of the Year in both leagues. In 2007 he became the Cardinals all time leader in wins passing the legendary Red Schoendienst.

That season he also won his 2500th game, placing him third all time behind Connie Mack & John McGraw. In 2009 he passed the New York Giants John McGraw for second most games managed all time. After taking his team to an incredible late finish in the 2011 season, he got to the post season winning the wild card race. His Cards shocked the favored Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS & then the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS.

In the 2011 World Series Larussa's Cardinals were down to the favored Texas Rangers, three games to two heading back to St. Louis. In Game #6 they won the game in the bottom of the 11th & then won Game Seven 6-2 for the Worlds Championship. Larussa chose to retire at the end of the Series. In his 33 year managerial career he was 2728-2365 (third most wins all time) good enough for a .506 winning %. Overall he has won three Worlds Championships, six pennants, & had twelve first place finishes.

Drama: In 2007 he was found asleep at a red light in his SUV, in Jupiter Florida. He was arrested and charged with a DUI. Embarrassed by the situation he made a public apology to his family, the Cardinals team & the St. Louis fans. In 2009 he sued Twitter for having someone impersonate his identity on the social network.

Personally Larussa has been married twice and has four daughters. He & his second wife started the Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek California. His daughter Bianca LaRussa is a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders- a Raiderette.

He was elected to the Italian American Sports hall of fame in 1998 & also is a member of the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum. He has been the subject of numerous books, some including Moneyball & Three Night’s In August. He also gave his name to the popular video game Tony Larussa Baseball in the 1990’s.

Politics: He is supporter of America’s Tea Party movement saying "I'm actually a supporter of what Arizona is doing... you know if people don't fix their problems they have to take care of it themselves."

Larussa is personal friends with Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby & jazz bassist Christian McBride. He has appeared on the Animal Planet television channel, the movie Angels in the Outfield & To Tell The Truth television show.

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