COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Surrounded by statues of the game’s greats, Tony La Russa was simply awe-struck as he contemplated his place in baseball history.
"I’m getting overwhelmed," the former manager said Thursday after touring the Baseball Hall of Fame in preparation for his induction this summer. "When you get over the overwhelming, you try to sort out the impressions."
"I’m looking at Babe Ruth over there, and I look over here and there’s Ted Williams. There’s Tony La Russa. You’ve got to be kidding," he said. "It’s really difficult because this is an overwhelming place, especially when you go see the archives."
The 69-year-old La Russa is the third-winningest manager in the majors, leading Oakland to the 1989 World Series title and the St. Louis Cardinals to championships in 2006 and 2011.
La Russa was unanimously elected in December by the Hall of Fame’s expansion-era committee along with former managerial colleagues Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
They will be inducted July 27 with pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas, who were selected in January in their first time on the writers’ ballot.
"It’s absolutely perfect," La Russa said of the class. Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326) are fourth and fifth all-time in managerial victories.
La Russa compiled 2,728 wins in 33 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis, behind only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763). Members of the Hall of Fame’s second class in 1937, the plaques honoring Mack and McGraw are attached to a wall — one atop the other — near the entrance to the Plaque Gallery, and La Russa made sure to look.
"They didn’t acknowledge me when I walked by," La Russa said with a smile.
La Russa’s teams finished first 12 times and won six pennants, and he was picked as Manager of the Year four times, finishing second in the voting five other times. He went to the World Series three straight years from 1988-90 and also lost in the 2004 World Series when his Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox.
In 1983, La Russa managed the White Sox to their first postseason berth in 24 years, and 13 years later rewarded new Cardinals owners with a division title in his first season in St. Louis (1996). That ended the franchise’s nine-year postseason slump, and they made it to the playoffs nine times in 16 seasons overall.
La Russa also had 70 postseason victories, trailing only Torre’s 84, and he and his role model, Sparky Anderson, are the only managers to win the World Series in both leagues.
La Russa’s plaque will go on a wall not far from Anderson’s.
"More than anything, I just appreciate being part of three organizations that contributed to the record that earned this selection," La Russa said. "My feeling, very specifically, is that everybody that was part of those three organizations are part of this."
That La Russa found success in the dugout and not as a player is not a surprise. He made his big league debut as a teenage infielder with the 1963 Kansas City Athletics and appeared in just 132 games over six seasons, hitting .199 with no home runs and seven RBIs.
"I kind of made it because I got to sit on the bench in the big leagues," he said. "That’s how lousy I was. I was hoping the guy wouldn’t call me in to play. That’s the truth. I was more a cheerleader."
La Russa has spent the past two years as an adviser to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, working closely with Torre on the installation of instant replay into the game.
"I miss the winning and losing," La Russa said. "I think anybody that competes does. I’m very fortunate that MLB and the commissioner have given me a chance to stay close to the game. I really appreciate what I’m doing. I think it (instant replay) is going to work out."
La Russa walked off into retirement after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, the grandest of exits.
"It was like Fantasy Island the way it finished," he said.