I first wrote Tony La Russa back in the early 80’s when I was working at KNOE-TV in Monroe, La. As a big White Sox fan, I wanted to directly let him know my thoughts and opinions on how the team and organization was progressing. To my surprise, he answered with a hand written letter several pages long on his own stationary. He took the time to go over each point I made, good or bad, and explained the reasoning behind his actions. To say I was impressed would be an understatement, and that letter is one of my cherished possessions.
In 1983 the Sox opened what would eventually be a championship season in Texas. I took some vacation time, got media credentials and drove to Arlington to see the series in person. Standing on the field watching guys like Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Harold Baines take batting practice was an experience. But I also had the chance to do a radio interview with Tony near the batting cage, and appreciated the fact that he took some time out to talk.
We stayed in touch over the years every so often, but I never was able to get the chance to really spend some time with him and pick his brain on his days with the White Sox. That finally happened when his agent helped arrange a phone interview, which took place shortly after Christmas in December 2014. We talked for two and a half hours, and I could tell Tony really was getting into it, that this was an area that he hadn’t explored in quite some time. I also got the distinct impression with Tony having a law degree, that before he answered any question from me, he was giving serious thought to that answer … how it would be perceived, if he was recalling events correctly … things like that.
It was truly a memorable time for me and an interview that I’ll never forget.
So, “submitted for your edification” as Rod Serling once said on an episode of Night Gallery, is my interview with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa.
Tony La Russa is a member of the Hall of Fame, as one of the greatest managers in baseball history. In 33 years he won 2,728 games. He won three World Series titles with Oakland and St. Louis. He won six pennants. He made 14 postseason appearances and managed six All-Star games. He made his reputation leading the A’s and Cardinals.
But before that, before all the wins and the World Series titles, Tony started his career in Chicago as manager of the White Sox, from August 1979 (succeeding Don Kessinger) through June 1986 (when he was fired by GM Hawk Harrelson). This two-and-a-half-hour phone interview was a fascinating look inside one of the smartest men to ever manage in baseball, and one of only five to have had a law degree — and all of those law alums ended up in the Hall of Fame. You’ll see La Russa was thoughtful, direct, funny and humble, remembering his days with the White Sox with great fondness.
Mark Liptak: What was your baseball history before you came to the Sox as manager?
Tony La Russa: I played 16 years in baseball, mostly in the minor leagues, and I was hurt for five of the first six of them. I had serious injuries five times, and played with a bad arm for most of that time. I was with the White Sox organization as a player/coach in 1975 and 1976; I did both at Denver and at Iowa before I finished my playing career in New Orleans in 1977, again as a player/coach. I really hadn’t thought a lot about managing or making baseball a career; I started law school while I was playing and I probably played the last five years just to be able to pay for my legal education. When I was at Denver, Loren Babe was the manager, and through him I really started to take an interest in coaching, Loren opened me up to what managing was really all about.
In 1977, after graduating from law school, I played for the Cardinals organization in New Orleans. One of my professors thought New Orleans might provide an opportunity to get work as a clerk for a circuit court judge, but I decided I wanted to see if I could continue my career in baseball. I wrote letters to teams, and the White Sox answered and actually offered me the job of managing the Knoxville team in Double-A for 1978. (Author’s Note: According to the 1984 White Sox media guide, Tony was offered the job primarily on the recommendation of Babe.) We did well and won the first half of the Southern League. I was promoted to be the first base coach of the Sox for the rest of that year. The next year I was named to manage the Triple-A team in Iowa before I was offered the Sox managerial position.
What do you remember about the day you were named manager?
It was bizarre, the way everything happened to me. I think I was promoted to first base coach because the Sox wanted some youthful enthusiasm on the staff, and then I coached in the Dominican Republic that offseason before going to Iowa. My wife and I were eating at a Chinese restaurant in Des Moines that day when Walt Jocketty, who was working for the Sox, found me. He said that Roland Hemond had called and that I needed to get back to him immediately. I called Roland and he said that Don Kessinger had decided to retire and offered me the job. I said, “Where?” and he said to manage the White Sox … I was stunned, and so was my wife when I told her.
We must have sat in that restaurant for at least an hour talking about it. Elaine, my wife, was about a month away from our first child and we were comfortable in Des Moines. We liked the area, and made friends. But the more we talked, the more we understood that an opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime. If I said no, there were no guarantees something like this would happen again. So I called Roland, who had given me until 4 p.m., and said yes … we flew to Chicago, and it was announced the next day. Then I met the team in Toronto.
What are some of the best memories of the people you worked with? Let’s start with Bill Veeck.
I think the fact that I was going to law school intrigued him. When I was coaching, he often invited me to dinner. I’d be there with him and Paul Richards, Ken Silvestri and Roland Hemond. At those dinners he’d challenge you, he wanted to see if you’d speak your mind when he asked you about something. I remember one time we were talking about using the hit-and-run and playing the infield in halfway. Al Lopez, a great Sox manager, didn’t like the hit-and-run, and Paul Richards, another great Sox manager, didn’t like to bring his infield in halfway. I did, and had to defend my reasoning behind doing something like that.
Looking back, I was being tested by [Veeck]. I also was invited to join him in the Bards Room sometimes after games. You talk about going to grad school for baseball … that was special. When I went to those, you didn’t talk; you listened and maybe took some notes. I know when he offered me the job to manage the team again in 1980 he made me promise that I’d finish the final part of the Florida law school exam, which I did. That was important to him. I love Bill and Mary Frances Veeck, who became close with my wife.
In January 1981 Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn got the club, and things immediately began to happen. I know you are still close to both men [Einhorn passed away in 2016]. What were they like to work with?
When they took over, it wasn’t guaranteed that I’d stay as the manager. I know that both Bill and Roland went to bat for me and [Reinsdorf and Einhorn] got control of the club so late. It was only a month to go before spring training [so] it wouldn’t have made sense for them to try to find someone else at that point in time. I came to Chicago to meet them, explained my thoughts and they offered me the job. They showed confidence in me and support through good times and bad and that’s something I’ll never forget.
One of the first things they did when they took over was challenge Roland. They were into winning and they wanted to know how things could change with the team. With that, Roland told them to sign Carlton Fisk. That would send the message, and that’s what happened. They also got Greg Luzinski.
Eddie was the idea guy. He was into promotions, marketing, and television. Remember, this is the guy who basically got college basketball on TV. [Author’s Note: Einhorn also was a member for many years of baseball’s television committee and was the driving force behind getting the World Football League on the Hughes Television Network.] Jerry was more like the CEO, and that’s the approach he took. They made a very good team.
Jerry was very, very interested in the game, he was genuinely curious about it; he was a fan since he was a boy. He wanted to know why this hit-and-run didn’t work or what was the thought process behind putting this player in. We had a lot of great conversations. He also was very progressive in a lot of areas. For example, for a long time, coaches were just friends of the manager or guys getting their time in to get a pension. But Jerry recognized that because kids were being pushed to the majors earlier, the role of coaches as teachers became crucial. He embraced the idea of putting together the best coaching staff you possibly could, that the staff of a manager should be a force for developing players.
With that, I thought we had the best staff in baseball, Dave Duncan was our pitching coach and he was the best in the game. Charlie Lau was the best hitting coach in the game until he passed away. Ed Brinkman was a superb infield coach and Davey Nelson was a tremendous baserunning coach. We had Jimmy Leyland as the third base coach and everyone has seen what he did in his career. Art Kusnyer, “Caveman,” was the bullpen coach. Jerry has a great heart; he’s always giving and caring.
Your relationship also remains close with Hemond. In his interview with me, he always had the utmost respect and admiration for you and your ability.
I have never been around a person like Roland in my baseball career. He touched my life in so many ways. To be around a guy so positive and so respected, I truly believe that Roland is the most beloved man in this generation of baseball.
I can give you a few examples of what he did for me. One was at the winter meetings of 1979, when he took me around to introduce me to people, and another was in spring training 1980 … Roland told me that he had some things he needed to get done and wouldn’t be down to Sarasota until about 10 days after we started. Now if I really needed him, I could have called my “lifeline” and he would have come down. But later I realized that he was showing confidence in me, he was allowing me to take charge. Remember, this was my first spring training as manager.
Roland also was able to balance his kindness with the fact that he had responsibilities as a GM He was tough and never hesitated to make the tough call. That’s why he was an outstanding GM.
With the new ownership team in place, money started being spent and you got some quality players to work with immediately as Fisk and Luzinski signed on. It seemed like a different atmosphere with the club. Can a few good players make that much of a difference?
[Longtime manager] Gene Mauch told me that one of the most important keys to a successful team is the type of people your greatest stars are. Are they in it for the right reasons? Are they selfish? Both Carlton and Greg were great teammates, they were leaders in drills and on and off the field. They had terrific work ethics. Showing the proper way to do drills in spring training is very important.
They didn’t go through the motions, they did them correctly and that rubbed off on everyone else. You can’t overestimate how the culture changed, how our work ethic improved when those two men joined the team.
At 34, you were very young to be a manager, not much older than some players, and you were tested. Chet Lemon had his differences with you for a time [Author’s Note: Much to his regret as he told me] and Ron LeFlore just seemed to be a handful. How did you get your point across that you were in charge given the unusual nature of your age and the relationship to the players?
It was a unique situation. I got every break in the book to be able to manage after only doing it about a year and a half in the minor leagues. That being said, I never cheated the game. I played hard for 16 years, never gave away an at-bat and I took notes. I was told a simple formula: “Love the game and want to learn it.” That’s what I did.
By my nature I’m really not a ballsy guy, I don’t like to fight. I’d rather walk away. But if somebody gives you responsibility, your courage expands. I can say in all honesty that I was never afraid of any player, I never lied to them, I was never afraid to teach them and I was never afraid to care for them. When you take over as manager that first day, the respect and trust level starts at zero. You have to earn it. You have to tell the truth: We’re all in this together. I took a one-on-one personalized approach and felt that hard work would lead to success. You can’t be afraid to lead. [Former White Sox manager] Paul Richards told me something one time that I never forgot when I managed: “Trust your gut, don’t cover your ass.”
At times your relationship with Sox fans was a little rocky, to say the least; there were some tough times as you were laying the foundation for the 1983 success. In general, what did you think of Sox fans during your tenure?
I counted them as a blessing because they cared deeply about the team. They were and are very passionate. When I took over, they had no reason to have confidence in me. Like with the players, I had to earn their respect and trust. I always thought it starts with the effort being shown by the players and the staff. Sox fans, all fans, have the right to expect their team to be able to compete, to be able to win and to play in October. Yes, at times it was difficult. In 1982, I managed a series at home against Boston wearing a bulletproof vest under my jacket. There was a death threat. I thought it was a joke at first, but was told that it was being taken seriously.
Even with the labor impasse in 1981, the Sox finished with a winning record. In 1982, they won 87 games. By 1983, they were considered a legitimate threat to at least win the division. The pieces were falling into place, and that spring training the Sox had the best record in baseball at 20-7. But, according to Roland Hemond, you told him not to expect the Sox to get off to a quick start, and you didn’t. What gave you cause for concern to where you told Hemond that?
We were going to rely on a mix of veterans and young guys. Both can have drawbacks early in the season. For the veterans, it’s the cold weather that impacts them. When all is said and done, they’ll produce and get their numbers, but when the weather’s bad that can result in a slow start. Our young guys were really young, and inexperience can beat you early in the year. We were counting on everyday kids to help us, in Greg Walker, Scott Fletcher and Ron Kittle, and we had a bunch of younger pitchers, but they all needed time. You were there, Mark, on opening night in Texas. Greg made some key errors and we wound up losing the game [5-3 to the Rangers]. I just thought it would take a little time to get it together.
By May 26, the Sox had fallen to 16-24 and there was talk about you being fired. In fact, talk about that started back in July 1982. Hawk Harrelson made the comment that September on the WFLD-TV special “Next Year is Here …” that what saved the season was that you didn’t become paranoid with all the rumors, that you didn’t let that filter down the dugout and impact the players. What was that time period like for you personally? How could you not let that affect you?
I knew the heat was on, but I also knew we were better than this. Remember our philosophy: You learn, you teach, you practice it. Having a good frame of mind is part of what we teach. When you get into a difficult situation, are you going to give in to it? Or are you going to tough it out? I just didn’t want to hear or read about all the negativity.
Then the turnaround started and a big reason for it was your decision to bat Carlton Fisk in the second spot in the lineup. Former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport told me that was a brilliant move because no one would think of putting a power hitter in a bat control spot in the lineup. What was your reasoning for the Fisk move?
Paul Richards told me one time that you never want to be in a situation where you say, “I’ve tried everything and it’s not working … it must be the players.” Richards said there’s always something else you can do or try. Carlton was struggling early in the season. This guy was a Hall-of-Famer, he had the talent, he was giving the effort, but it wasn’t working and it was getting to him mentally. He got hurt and didn’t play for several days. Remembering what Paul told me, I went to Charlie Lau and talked with him about it.
We had a deep middle of the order with guys like Bull Luzinski, Harold Baines, and Tom Paciorek and had I left Carlton there by the end of the year he would have produced his numbers. But sometimes a different look can help you mentally so I thought, after talking to Charlie, that maybe moving [Fisk] up in the order would give him a different responsibility and help him. It was a nice change of pace for him, because now Rudy Law gets on and Carlton starts taking a pitch or two to see if Rudy will steal a base. Then, maybe he hits a ground ball to the right side and Rudy gets to third, or if he’s in scoring position, Carlton’s going the opposite way and drives in a run. Before long, Carlton really embraced that spot in the lineup and it was a tremendous help to the team.
This was the first time I had ever tried something like this, and I took it with me to Oakland and St. Louis. I had Dave Henderson hit second in Oakland, and I had guys like Brian Jordan and Ray Langford hit second in St. Louis. These were guys who could hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs. The other benefit was that it turned the lineup over and gave at-bats to guys who could win games … how many times have you seen a game end before the third or fourth hitter in the lineup could get that one additional at-bat?
The Sox then put it together and exploded in the second half. They went 46-15 the final two months, in one of the best stretches in baseball history. Starting pitchers LaMarr Hoyt, Rich Dotson and Floyd Bannister were 42-5 after the All-Star break. Team chemistry was so good on that club, Jerry Koosman told me. Ron Kittle and others told me about how the players would stay in the clubhouse after games to talk, and about the team parties on the road. That club was a throwback, weren’t they? They loved the game and really seemed to care for each other.
Fisk was on that 1975 Red Sox club, Koosman was on the 1969 Mets, Tom Paciorek made the playoffs with the Dodgers and Bull Luzinski was on those Phillies teams that made a number of playoff appearances. But you ask any of those guys and they’ll tell you the most fun they ever had was on the 1983 White Sox. That was a classic team. There was no attitude from anybody … not the veterans or the kids. That team was so tight and it wasn’t just the players and coaches … it was [trainer] Herm Schneider, it was Willie Thompson and the clubhouse guys. It was everybody all focused on winning.
The other thing that was special about the club was we embraced the pressure that was being put upon us. We’d lose two or three games in a row, and the talk would start about another Chicago team folding …no Chicago baseball team had won since 1959, the Cubs collapse in 1969, all of that. We said the hell with that, we’re going to win anyway. That team was so relentless.
As far as the team parties, that was something I started doing in Knoxville. I was paying for them out of my own pocket and I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I thought it was good for the team to be around each other. Eventually the owner heard about it and he started paying for them. I did it in Chicago. It was something like, “We’re going to get together from 6-7:30, then you can go do what you want …” It brought the team closer together, and they were a close team. There were never any bad fights or arguments in the clubhouse that season. And sometimes I would do it even if we hadn’t won a game. In Texas we lost opening night, lost again the next day. Before the third game I said, “We’re getting together to celebrate Scott Fletcher getting engaged.”
On Sept. 17, 1983 the Sox won the division, beating Seattle 4-3 at Comiskey Park, and were postseason-bound for the first time in 24 years. What was that experience like for you?
I remember thinking this is a series of steps: Can you take a team and have it qualify for the playoffs … then can you win them? As far as the moment itself I was ecstatic, euphoric … we did it! Our unit pulled it off!
The ALCS against Baltimore was another story. The Sox just couldn’t hit. I’ve read talk that perhaps the victory party downtown right before the playoffs started may have put undue pressure on some players. Looking back, did that have an impact?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think it was good to push Bull [Luzinski] to be our spokesperson. He was from Chicago, and we had him speak for all of us. But I don’t think the rally itself did anything to hurt us.
The issue was that I didn’t do a good job of getting the team to turn the page, to let go of the fact that we won the division and had to start over. That’s on me. When I went to Oakland I met John Madden and he told me the same thing, that after the Raiders won the Super Bowl they had a bad season the next year, and John said it was because he didn’t get the guys to go back to zero and start over. I could have done more to get the team ready. That being said, we did win the first game on the road [the Sox won Game 1 in Baltimore 2-1 behind a complete game, six-hitter by Hoyt], we just got beat by the world champions.
After the Sox lost Game 4 in the way they did … it was excruciating, and Baltimore celebrated on the field. But both you and Jerry Dybzinski faced the media afterwards and answered all the questions. That showed character; other guys might have ducked out and blown the media off. Did you remember what you told the team after the loss?
I told them the obvious things; that we had to acknowledge what happened, but we also knew that we’d cherish this forever. If you lose, as long as you gave it your best shot, that’s all you could ask for. Even though we lost, the memories won’t ever be forgotten.
The Sox were the consensus pick to repeat in 1984. You had won seven straight and were in first place at the All-Star break, yet things fell apart in the second half and you ended up with a losing record and way out of the chase for the division. Ron Kittle told me he thought the team quit, and that’s a direct quote. What happened?
I always appreciated Ron’s candor and his willingness to say what he feels. I disagree with him, though, I don’t think the guys quit. Often when you look at something to evaluate it, you go to the first line or two and stop. Sometimes you need to look a lot deeper and that’s what I think happened in 1984.
Here’s what I mean: Carlton Fisk was hurt and missed time [Fisk played in 102 games in 1984 and hit only .231]. That was a significant part of our lineup that wasn’t available. Julio Cruz signed that big contract in the offseason and I don’t blame him or his agent for getting it, but it affected him. He was never comfortable with it, he was trying to justify it and he regressed as a player. And finally, we traded away Jerry Koosman, and that was a major mistake.
In 1983, Dennis Lamp was the leading guy out of the bullpen and everyone in the organization felt we needed to strengthen the back end. We traded Koosman for Ron Reed, and that would have been OK except that nobody, including myself, recognized the impact that [Koosman] had on this team. It was a big mistake. Bull [Luzinski] and [Koosman] were like brothers and if I remember right, Greg retired after 1984 and didn’t have a good year. [Luzinski retired after 15 years in the big leagues after the season. In 1984 he had only 13 home runs and 58 RBIs after 32 and 95 in 1983.] The vibe of the team would have been much different in 1984 if we had kept [Koosman].
In 1985 the Sox rebounded with 85 wins and you had the pleasure of managing future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. What was that relationship like?
I have that 1985 team high on my list of favorites, because they had great chemistry and showed great character after what happened in 1984. You remember Ozzie Guillén was Rookie of the Year that season. As far as Tom, it was one of my greatest fortunes to be with him those two years. He won 15 games each season and he had the most brilliant mind to go with his great talent. He taught me a lot, he taught me how a pitcher thinks … how a winning pitcher thinks and sets up hitters.
Hawk Harrelson took over in 1986 as GM, and he had his own views on how things should be done. Some examples were wanting to move Carlton Fisk to left field, hiring Don Drysdale as a pitching consultant even though you had a pitching coach, and requiring that all Sox minor league coaches be former big league players. It just seemed like oil and water, and you eventually were let go in June. Did you just know from the beginning it wasn’t going to work out?
It hurt. I had a great experience with the White Sox family, and then suddenly you’re out of the family. The thing is, to be fair to Hawk and Don and the organization, given what those men accomplished in the game you can’t discount their opinions, they earned the right to be heard. What should have happened, looking back, is that if the organization wanted Hawk to take over, he should have had the right to hire his own manager. He should have gotten a new manager right from the start. I should have been called in at the end of the 1985 season and let go … and I would have been OK with that. I would have thought that I had a nice run, and it was time to move on. I don’t know if that’s something Hawk wanted to do at the time, however.
Over the years you’d read or hear stories from time to time about you returning to the Sox as field manager. Were you ever close to coming back at any point?
There was one chance, and it almost happened, because we were getting new ownership in Oakland. [A’s owner Walter] Haas had announced he was going to sell the team; this was before his health problems started. In the winter of 1994, before spring training in 1995, I thought I was going to manage the Red Sox. But Mr. Haas asked me to lunch and wondered if I would stay one more season. I had also looked at Baltimore as a possible job, because my preference was to stay in the American League. The next year I left Oakland, and there was some discussion with the White Sox. I had talked with Ron Schueler, who was the Sox GM and who was my pitching coach with the Sox in 1981 and who I worked with in Oakland. The Sox, though, decided that Terry Bevington was the right man for the opening and gave him the job.
Soon after that, Walt Jocketty called me. He had gone to St. Louis after the 1995 season and took over as GM. I talked to Sparky Anderson, and he told me that one time I should manage in the National League because the situations were so different from the AL. I thought it over, and when St. Louis offered me the job, I took it.
You’ll go into the Hall of Fame this August as one of the all-time winningest managers. Have you ever wondered what may have happened if you stayed with the Sox? I know Sox fans wonder how many championships you might have won had you stayed for 20 years or so.
Yes, I do, but more for entertainment. I don’t take a lot of time to look back in a serious manner. I just think you have to move on from the past, learn from it and go forward. I will occasionally tease Jerry [Reinsdorf] about it, though. I honestly think had I stayed with the White Sox for 30 years that the team would have won multiple world championships. I think that because we were so united. Everyone from the owners to the front office to the coaching staff was on the same page. Our minor league system was developing, and we had good people in all areas.
I’m sure you know Reinsdorf many times has publicly stated the biggest mistake he ever made with the Sox was letting Hawk Harrelson fire you. [Author’s Note: An example of Reinsdorf’s thought process came in Rob Rains’ book Tony LaRussa: Man on a Mission: “I never should have allowed Tony to be fired. I’ve often said that was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was a mistake. And I let it happen anyway.”]
I appreciate his comment. That’s very nice of him to say that.
To wrap up, can you sum up your days with the Sox?
Sure. The White Sox gave me my first opportunity. I would never, ever disrespect the organization or the years I spent in Chicago. I appreciate what they did for me so much. I learned a lot from the opportunity. I learned about family and about relationships in my time there. They will always be a big part of my heart. Every time I see people like Jerry and Roland, we embrace.
I’ll tell you something, Mark; I spend more time socially with people from the White Sox than I do with people from Oakland or St. Louis. I’ll give you a couple examples. Over the summer I had dinner with Jerry [Reinsdorf], Art Kusnyer, Jim Thome and Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls coach … I really like him, by the way. Just a few weeks ago, I had dinner with Jerry, Buddy Bell, Jim and Bo Jackson.
The thing that struck me about that dinner was how vitally interested and concerned Jim and Bo were about getting the fans back engaged with the team. To have two of the best hitters I’ve ever seen show that much concern was impressive to me, and I feel the same way. I’m committed to do what I can to help rejuvenate the passion and support of White Sox fans towards the team. Now I understand the Sox themselves have to give the fans a reason to get engaged; they have to start playing better baseball. Last year was painful to watch, but if I can do anything to help that along, I will.
Tony, I’m grateful for the time you showed me today. This was a big thrill for me and a highlight of the many, many interviews I’ve done with members of the Sox family.
It was a lot of fun for me, too. I enjoyed looking back and talking about those times.
5 thoughts on “A Conversation With: Tony La Russa”
Ugh, Terry Bevington the right man for the job opening. Mark, thanks so much for sharing this fantastic interview . Oh to be a fly on the Bards Room wall when Bill Veeck owned the team!
Pointer: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it…many more interviews to come.
James Fox: Sorry about that. If you can tell me how to reach you I’ll try to figure out how to change that. I don’t know how to do half of this stuff.
I was an attendee of Don Kessinger’s last game. My friends and I were pleading and screaming for him to pinch hit Wayne Nordhagen for himself. We know he could hear us with so few in attendance and we were right by the dugout. Kessinger walked toward the dugout as Nordhagen pinch hits. Retires next day
Thanks, Mark. A terrific read. And looking forward to the “more to come.”