Few probably know this story about Tony La Russa. It’s when the past sees the future, says his thank-yous and, in the process, reminds everybody of why he was so successful.
In essence, little details always mattered.
In September 2012, almost a year after retiring as a big-league manager following 33 seasons in dugouts, La Russa slipped into the Ozarks unannounced and watched the Springfield Cardinals – the Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals – from a darkened suite at Hammons Field.
That night, a prospect right-hander named Carlos Martinez kick-started the club’s run to a Texas League pennant by firing seven scoreless innings. La Russa then surprised farmhands by dropping by the clubhouse and offering a pep talk, plus a pat on the back to their manager, Mike Shildt. The skipper, you see, ran spring trainings several years for La Russa.
“It’s great to have a Hall of Famer here, to speak to us, to have our backs,” Martinez was quoted as saying.
Call it vintage La Russa, who thrived because he always devised Plans A, B, C and D – or so it seemed — and certainly paid attention to detail.
Now, after 2,728 big-league victories including 1,408 with the Cardinals, another honor awaits. The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is naming La Russa a Missouri Sports Legend during the Baseball Sports Enthusiasts Luncheon on May 27 in Springfield.
It means a specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Hall’s Legends Walkway, which features Stan Musial, Whitey Herzog, George Brett and Len Dawson, among others.
La Russa, who was enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame last summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., finished with a .538 winning percentage. That figure is the third-most in baseball history behind Connie Mack and John McGraw.
His final 1,408 victories came with St. Louis over 16 seasons (1996 to 2011) and marked a franchise record. He led the Cardinals to eight division titles (1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009), three NL pennants (2004, 2006, 2011) and won two World Series (2006, 2011).
La Russa’s Cardinals teams finished above .500 in 13 of his 16 seasons. They recorded 105 wins in 2004 and 100 wins in 2005, making La Russa only the second Cardinals manager to oversee two 100-win seasons. He also joined Billy Southworth (1942, 1944) as the only Cardinals managers to win two World Series for St. Louis.
Overall, La Russa is the only manager in MLB history to win multiple pennants in both the American League and National League, and the second – the other being Sparky Anderson with Cincinnati and Detroit — to win a World Series championship title in both leagues.
Born to Tony and Oliva (Cuervo) La Russa in October 1944 in Tampa, Fla., the future big-league manager took the old-fashioned route.
La Russa signed his first pro contract in 1962 after playing at the University of South Florida and made his big-league debut on May 10, 1963.
Over the next 10 seasons, the middle infielder played in parts of six big-league seasons before turning to managing in 1978, with Knoxville of the Double-A Southern League. A year later, he was a midseason hire as the Chicago White Sox manager.
Success came to define him.
La Russa piloted the White Sox from 1979 to midseason 1986, with his 1983 team earning 99 wins and a berth into the American League Championship Series.
The Oakland Athletics hired him days after the White Sox and La Russa parted ways, and La Russa eventually led the Athletics to three consecutive American League pennants from 1988 to 1990, winning the 1989 World Series.
His work in St. Louis turned around one of the game’s most storied franchises.
Officially, La Russa was 1,408-1,102 in St. Louis during the regular season and led the Cardinals to the postseason nine times in his 16 seasons. They beat the Detroit Tigers in five games to win the 2006 World Series, and beat the Texas Rangers in seven games to win the 2011 World Series.
Along the way, La Russa co-founded the Animal Rescue Foundation in 1991 and still plays an integral role in the organization. He is married to Elaine Coker and they are parents to Bianca and Devon.
“What made him really, really good were his preparation and the intensity he brought to the game,” Dave Stewart, the former ace of those great Athletics teams, was once quoted as saying. “What he brought to the dugout would manifest itself in each and every player.”
WANT TO GO?
The ceremony: The Baseball Sports Enthusiasts Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company at is 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 27 at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Springfield.
Tickets & sponsorships: Call 417-889-3100. Tickets are $40, or $100 for a head table ticket. Numerous sponsorships are available, including a table of eight for $400, which includes associate sponsorship recognition in the printed program.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be honored as a Missouri Sports Legend, in which a specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway.
Byron Hagler, who won almost 600 baseball games and reached nine state final fours as the head coach of Licking and Hillcrest high schools. His 1988 and 1989 Licking teams won Class 2 state championships.
Diane Juergensmeyer, the former St. Elizabeth High School softball coach who won more than 400 games and three state championships in 1992, 1994 and 2002.
Roy Burlison, a former standout in the American Softball Association who played on teams in St. Louis and Springfield.
John Schaefer, CEO of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper, recipient of the President’s Award.
DIAMOND 9 HONOREES
Tim Blasi, a Hillcrest and Missouri State baseball standout who went on to star in ASA
Janice Crumpley-Bluebaum, a Marionville native who was a fast-pitch and slow-pitch standout in the American Softball Association
Jack Burrell, former baseball standout at Humansville and Southwest Baptist
Caitlin Chapin, a 2009 Ozark High School graduate who also played for Missouri State
Jim Lumpe of Glendale High School, the Mizzou Tigers and Montreal Expos
Diane Miller, a standout pitcher in early 1990s for Missouri Southern softball
Barry Short of Mansfield High School, Three Rivers Community College and the New York Mets
Brad Simmons of Glendale High School and the Kansas City Royals
Kelly Snider of Hillcrest High School the Oklahoma Sooners and the Los Angeles Dodgers