Hall of Fame selection humbles La Russa

La Russa won 2,728 games in 33 years and along the way popularized how a modern bullpen is constructed with closers, setup men and specialists.
Dec 11, 2013

 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols read the text message on his phone early Monday morning, he was struck by its simplicity. Leave it to the manager he loved for his single-minded pursuit of winning and often described as “like a father” to distill the achievement of a lifetime into four, direct words.

“They voted me in.”

What the sentence lacked in flair it made up in meaning.

Tony La Russa, the winningest manager in Cardinals history, had been voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, joining Bobby Cox and Joe Torre as managers selected by this year’s expansion-era committee. The vote was announced Monday at the game’s annual winter meetings.

The three managers spent most of their careers jockeying against each other for league pennants and World Series championships. Torre replaced Cox in Atlanta once. La Russa replaced Torre in St. Louis. La Russa, Cox and Torre rank, in that order, third, fourth and fifth in all-time wins by a manager. Yet, they reach the pinnacle of their profession tied: All three were unanimous selections by the 16-member committee.

“I watched (the press conference) on TV, and Tony wasn’t smiling. I kept waiting,” said Pujols, from his offseason home in St. Louis. “I would be jumping around, yelling, dancing. But it’s like the message. Direct. That’s Tony. It will sink in soon what this means. It’s going to hit him when he’s with family just what he’s done. It’s what a great career deserves.”

La Russa had been told before Monday by a Hall of Fame official about the process. If he was elected, he would receive a phone call Monday morning, at 8:30 a.m. Florida time.

If it didn’t ring, he wasn’t in.

At the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort, La Russa set his phone down before 8:30 a.m. and looked at it. It came to life with a phone call from Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the Hall of Fame’s board, and the news of his induction. His next call was to his wife, Elaine.

“Stunned. Just stunned, “ La Russa said repeatedly. He was presented with a Hall of Fame jersey and a Hall of Fame cap at a news conference for the three newest Hall of Famers. He added afterward: “This is the unbelievable part of it when you start feeling that it’s real. It’s beyond belief.”

La Russa, 69, wore two World Series championship rings at the news conference — the one from the 1989 title with Oakland and one from the 2011 championship with the Cardinals. A few days after the Cardinals’ unexpected run to the franchise’s 11th World Series title, La Russa retired. He did so with 1,408 wins as the Cardinals manager and 2,591 games at the club’s helm. He has the most wins and most games of any manager in club history, and he was part of an unprecedented decade of success that included three pennants and two World Series titles. He helped re-establish the franchise, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said.

“Starting with the first year that he took over (1996) he set that tone early that we were going to get back to prominence as a franchise, back to continually contending,” said DeWitt, whose team had only three losing seasons in La Russa’s 16. “He gave us a lot of credibility from day one because of the success he had. It helped us get players. It helped us keep players. They wanted to be with a Hall of Fame-type manager.”

La Russa won 2,728 games in 33 years and along the way popularized how a modern bullpen is constructed with closers, setup men and specialists.

Cox’s Braves teams had 14 consecutive first-place finishes, and he won five pennants. Torre won 2,326 games in 29 seasons as a manager, including six with the Cardinals. After leaving the Cardinals — immediately before the club hired La Russa — Torre went to the New York Yankees, where he won six pennants and four World Series. Torre was inducted as a manager, though the committee was invited to consider his playing career, which included an MVP award with the Cardinals in 1971.

“When I was traded from the Braves to the Cardinals (as a player), I think that was the start of my maturity,” Torre said. “Just being with the Cardinals and of course going through their hallways and seeing the many World Series they were part of having come off of two straight World Series in ‘67 and ‘68. Then playing for Red Schoendienst. (I) just started paying attention, started paying attention.”

La Russa and Torre will be the third and fourth men who managed the Cardinals inducted into the Hall of Fame in the past seven summers, joining Billy Southworth (2008) and Whitey Herzog (2010). The logos on the plaques for Torre and Cox are obvious — Yankees and Braves, respectively. La Russa said he still has to confer with the Hall about what logo to put on his cap. A decision is expected within two weeks. The Hall makes the final choice in collaboration with the inductee. An inductee can go without a logo on the cap.

It is “a lifetime decision,” Hall executive Brad Horn said.

The Cardinals, where he had the most wins and most years and best rings, may not, however, be his final team. La Russa has served as a special assistant to Commissioner Bud Selig the past two seasons and has worked extensively with the game’s forthcoming instant replay protocol. La Russa said Monday that he wants back into the game with a team. He misses the competition.

“My life has been the score at the end of the day,” La Russa said. “This feels out of the ordinary, unusual, uncomfortable to not have a game tonight. … For 50 years, I lived my life around the score of that next game. I miss that action. But I don’t miss the dugout.”

La Russa has interviewed with several teams but not found the right role. The Cardinals have talked to him about a job with the organization, though he has been reluctant to return because DeWitt said he worries about “being a distraction” from new manager Mike Matheny.

La Russa attended Pujols’ annual holiday charity event this past weekend in St. Louis, and former Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said the Hall filled conversations. He could tell La Russa “was nervous about it, humbled by it.” Mark McGwire, the record-setting slugger and former Cardinals hitting coach, started texting La Russa about his surefire Cooperstown credentials when the ballot for the committee was released. Like Pujols, who is now with the Los Angeles Angels, McGwire watched the news conference at home. He was getting his two sons ready for school.

“So well-deserved,” said McGwire, who played for La Russa in Oakland and St. Louis. “I owe a lot to him. I owe my career to him. … A lot of guys would come into our team and wonder why is this guy so intense? It didn’t work for some players. But, look, there’s a reason why he kept winning every year. The game has really evolved because of Tony. And there he is now, at the very top of the game, as high as you can go, in the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.”

The induction will be July 27 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The players elected for enshrinement will be announced in January.

After they held court with the media for a while after the news conference, La Russa and Torre were led downstairs, out of the meetings’ traffic and toward a room for formal photographs. Outside the room, Torre fiddled with his fitted Hall of Fame cap. He usually wears a 7½-inch cap. The one provided him was a 7¾-inch.

Room for his head to grow, he joked before La Russa could.

“The Hall of Fame,” Torre said with a smile, “is already taking effect.”

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