Blessed by good fortune: Tony La Russa’s unlikely path to Cooperstown

ST. LOUIS — Tony La Russa admitted that indeed he is nervous about his upcoming induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

"But more excited," he said in a phone call earlier this week.

The excitement part is reassuring because it’s not easy to believe Tony La Russa could be nervous about anything. You’re talking about one of the most accomplished managers in the history of the major leagues, a man who has been through just about everything and knows just about everyone.

But being immortalized alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Stan Musial must be daunting even for a baseball lifer such as La Russa.

Especially for a baseball lifer like La Russa, who played all of 132 games in the major leagues with a .199 batting average. At the press conference last December announcing his election, he called the opportunity to manage in the majors "a dream come true."

"My parents always said: ‘Dream the big dream.’ Never, ever was the Hall of Fame part of that dream, never," La Russa said. "So it’s a stunner."

Tony La Russa won 2,728 games in 33 seasons with the White Sox, A’s and Cardinals.

Since his unanimous election by the Veterans Committee, La Russa has not failed to mention how humbled he is by baseball’s highest honor. He has talked about how he believes the Hall is for players, and while he’s not about to turn down his invitation, he doesn’t see himself in the same museum with the greatest players of all time.      

"I’ve been more fortunate than anyone I know," La Russa said. "I never had a bad situation, not one day. I don’t know any other manager who can say that. I never thought good fortune was a criteria for the Hall of Fame."

La Russa did not have that much good fortune in his playing career.  A legitimate big-time prospect as a middle infielder, he signed with the Kansas City Athletics on the day of his high school graduation in Tampa, Fla., in 1962. This was before the first amateur draft and La Russa had his choice of interested teams, choosing the A’s because they offered $100,000, a new car and four years of college.

But his playing career was more or less derailed when he tore up his shoulder in a softball game in one of his early offseasons and his No. 1 asset, his right arm, was never the same. La Russa reached the majors several times in his 15 years as a minor-league player but never for long. He had six call-ups for four teams, and never appeared in more than 52 games in a season. He played in his last big-league game in 1973 but stuck around the minors for five more seasons.

During his final years as a minor-league player, he also secured a law degree from Florida State and was seriously considering leaving the game. But he got a chance to be a player-manager in the minors — briefly for the Cardinals’ then-Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans — and soon realized his calling. And thus began his unlikely path to the Hall of Fame.

The White Sox gave him his first big-league managing job in 1979, and 33 seasons later, his teams had won 2,728 games, third-most all-time and the most for any manager who started managing after 1899. In 16 seasons with the Cardinals, La Russa won a franchise-high 1,408 games and two World Series. Overall, his teams reached the playoffs 14 times, won three World Series and captured six pennants.

Factor in four Manager of the Year awards and his innovative deployment of his bullpen and it was no surprise that La Russa got the call from the Hall. Fittingly, he will be inducted with two other recently retired managers, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, the all-time fourth- and fifth-winningest managers, respectively.

To the initial disappointment of St. Louis, La Russa decided his Cooperstown plaque would not depict him in a Cardinals hat. Because he did not want to disrespect his other two teams, the Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics, La Russa said it was an easy decision to enter the Hall with no logo.

"It’s the totality of the success of each of those three teams that led me to Cooperstown, so I am choosing to not feature a logo so that fans of all clubs can celebrate this honor with me," La Russa said in a statement at the time of the decision.

La Russa still will be supported by a contingent from the Cardinals’ organization this weekend, led by owner Bill DeWitt Jr. La Russa also will be joined by plenty of family and friends but says his party will be dwarfed by that of Torre, whose wife, Ali, is one of 16 kids. "It’s going to be a little crowded," Torre said at the announcement presser.

Cooperstown will be packed by fans as well for the largest class of Hall of Famers since 1955. First-ballot electees Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas will be leading the way. With so many inductions on the docket, the six new members have been asked by the Hall to limit their speeches to 10 minutes.

La Russa agrees: "The players should get any extra minutes. They were the producers on the field."

But he also is worried about packing 33 years of thank yous into the time it would take him to make a couple of pitching changes.

"After 30 years with three organizations, it’s tough to accommodate and give proper credit," La Russa said. "We’ll make it happen."

Of course, he will. Anyone who can ascend from 15 years in the minors to the Hall of Fame can do just about anything, even if he gets a little nervous.

Hall of Fame visitors inspect the displays of Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, who will be inducted Sunday.

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