Tony La Russa has a permanent home along the top row of the back wall in the Hall of Fame’s plaque gallery in Cooperstown, N.Y., between Bobby Cox and Frank Thomas. That is where visitors will find La Russa: in profile, lips creased, eyes focused, a strategist in bronze. The first sentence of the text below his image cites his 2,728 victories, the third most for a manager.
The plaque went up in 2014, and La Russa never expected the numbers to change. After starting his managing career with the Chicago White Sox in 1979, he seemingly finished it 32 years later with a victory in Game 7 of the World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals. Managing would not be part of his future.
“I thought I’d probably get the chance,” La Russa said on Thursday. “I didn’t think I would want it.”
But La Russa left a hint, right there on the plaque, one of the few in the gallery without a logo on the cap. La Russa managed the Cardinals and the Oakland Athletics to three World Series appearances each, but he gave the White Sox equal standing in his reasoning: They gave him his start, and he remains a close friend of the team’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf.
So when the White Sox sought a new manager to elevate a roster coming off its first playoff appearance in 12 years, La Russa was ready. They hired him on Thursday, making La Russa, at 76, the third-oldest manager ever and the first to come out of retirement to manage after being enshrined in Cooperstown.
“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years talking about where we are in this rebuild, and phases — the transition from phase one to phase two to phase three,” General Manager Rick Hahn said. “This hiring today is another indication that we’ve moved on to that final, most exciting stage, and that is the one about competing for championships.”
The only managers who were older than La Russa during their tenures were Connie Mack, who was 87 in his final year with the Philadelphia A’s in 1950, and Jack McKeon, who was 80 when he guided the 2011 Florida Marlins. La Russa needs 36 victories to move past John McGraw and into second place on the career list for managerial wins. (He is still 1,003 behind Mack.)
La Russa stayed busy after retiring from the Cardinals, first working for Major League Baseball and then as the chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He became an adviser to the Boston Red Sox in 2017, and then for the Los Angeles Angels in the 2020 season, taking the role much more seriously than most who have it, following the teams closely and often traveling to road games.
“It was very difficult, increasingly so, to sit there and think about what’s going on downstairs,” he said of his recent roles, adding later: “I did get a fresh opinion and observation point for how difficult front-office work is, I got a better feel for scouting and player development. But my heart was always in the dugout. When the first inquiry was made by the White Sox, I perked up.”
La Russa’s ties to the White Sox go so deep that the man he replaced in 1979, Don Kessinger, was actually a player-manager, a role no team has filled for decades. The closer in La Russa’s first game, Ed Farmer, went on to spend 29 years as a team broadcaster before his death in April. La Russa even managed Minnie Minoso, who was born in 1925 and made a cameo in 1980 so he could play in a fifth decade.
With the A’s, especially, La Russa was considered an innovator — young, well educated (he has a law degree) and the subject of a chapter in “Men At Work,” the 1990 book by George F. Will, who said La Russa had an “information-intensive approach” to game preparation.
More recently, of course, the analytics revolution has significantly reshaped game strategy, as seen on Tuesday in the final game of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kevin Cash, the manager of the Rays, pulled Blake Snell from a shutout in the sixth inning, largely because data suggests pitchers should not face the same hitters three times in a game. The Dodgers, on their way to the title, quickly took the lead against the next pitcher.
On Thursday, La Russa sidestepped a question about what he would have done in Cash’s position. But he said that while he embraced the “wealth of information that helps you prepare,” it was critical to make decisions based on the way a game unfolds.
“Once the game starts, it’s a very volatile experience,” he said. “Players, not machines. How they vary, how the game may be changing within innings, much less games to series. That’s why I think it’s very important we use the term ‘observational analytics.’ So I think the difference is the preparation will be better — I’m looking forward to it — but the actual game decision-making will be much like what I learned: You watch the game and try to figure out how to put people in position to win.”
La Russa was also asked about activism by players. He told Sports Illustrated in 2016 that he would not support a player taking a knee during the national anthem, but he said on Thursday that his stance had evolved.
“Not only do I respect, but I applaud the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially in sports,” he said. “I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing and identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side, as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere.”
La Russa gave a similar answer about bat flips and showmanship, another evolving aspect of baseball’s culture. He added that with increased scrutiny of the modern game, “I see how that impacts players emotionally.”
That scrutiny will naturally extend to La Russa himself, with every decision judged through the prism of his adaptation to today’s game. He will consume the data, he vowed, while understanding its limits.
“There’s a lot of great, new information, a lot of great ways that you can improve how you coach up or prepare,” he said. “The difference is that once the game starts, there is no formula that can measure the head, heart and guts of a player that day.”