Monday, August 10, 2009

Tony La Russa Goes to Chicago, 8/2/79

On August 2, 1979, the baseball world mourned the loss of New York Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash outside Canton, Ohio. Overshadowed by the baseball tragedy was the ascension of a son of West Tampa to the pinnacle of his profession in the same sport.

Tony La Russa, who got his start at Cuscaden Park and made a name for himself at Jefferson High School, became manager of the Chicago White Sox following the resignation of player-manager Don Kessinger. In joining the White Sox, La Russa followed in the footsteps of another Tampa legend, Al Lopez, who managed Chicago for parts of 11 seasons between 1957 and 1969.

La Russa, then just 34 years old, left his job as manager of Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate in Iowa and took over a White Sox club mired in a seven-game losing streak, and a distant 14 games out of first place in the American League West. While no novice to life in the major leagues, the adjustment would not initially be an easy one for La Russa.

An all-state shortstop for two seasons at Jefferson, La Russa signed a $70,000 bonus with the Kansas City Athletics in 1962, at the time the second-highest bonus in club history. He was just 17 years old and fresh out of high school when the Athletics sent him to play for Daytona Beach of the Florida State League. He played well, hitting .270 and flashing some leather in the field, which merited an invitation to Spring Training with the big club in 1963.

As a “bonus baby,” La Russa had to spend the entire season on the big league roster, so he mostly watched the 1963 season unfold from the bench.

“I took infield and watched,” La Russa once said. “You can learn a lot watching, at least for about two months.”

An injury to one of Kansas City’s every-day players allowed La Russa his shot, and in 34 games he hit .250 with 11 hits in 44 trips to the plate.

Still, he would not return to the majors again until 1968 as a 23-year-old. No longer a hot prospect, La Russa did little to distinguish himself as a player in the majors. He remained with Oakland until 1971, mixing in short stints with the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. He toiled in the minor leagues until calling it a career in 1977 after being released by the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Despite a nearly finished law degree from Florida State University, by then La Russa knew that he wanted to become a manager.

With less than two seasons as a minor league skipper under his belt – and unlike a contemporary named Joe Torre – he could not rely on successful playing career to help earn acceptance as a big-league manager.

White Sox GM Rollie Hemond told La Russa he would have few people rooting for him to succeed.

“You have five things going against you,” he’d say. “You’re young. You’re handsome. You’re smart. You’re getting your law degree. You have a nice family. I don’t think you’re going to last very long.”

Even the team’s radio duo of Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray were rough on La Russa at first, second-guessing his every move while subtly implying that the young manager was in over his head.

The White Sox organization, just three weeks removed from its disastrous Disco Demolition Night promotion, now had a relative-unknown manager in La Russa. Still, despite his occasional seeds of doubt and growing pains, the White Sox had nowhere to go but up under his leadership.

La Russa began his managerial career with a victory on August 3, as the Sox defeated the Blue Jays 8-5 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. In a unique show of hometown solidarity, Tampa Bay area-product Jim Morrison led off the game for Chicago with a home run.

La Russa guided Chicago to a 27-27 mark in 1979, and eventually turned things around in a big way. In 1983, La Russa rewarded the gamble taken on him by leading the White Sox to 99 wins and a division championship.

Now 30 years later, La Russa has more than proven his doubters wrong by winning five pennants and two World Series. Undoubtedly when his career ends, he will once again follow in Al Lopez’s footsteps. Instead to Chicago, however, next time it will be to Cooperstown, New York.

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