Baseball / Sports

Tony La Russa salutes those who helped him along the way

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Tony La Russa, feeling the urgency to wrap up his Hall of Fame induction speech that lasted 17 minutes, 26 seconds Sunday, noted afterward with some measure of horror that he had neglected to finish his talk with the mention of the baseball legend who had helped him start his managing career and the baseball legend who was there at the end of it.

The names are Roland Hemond, the former Chicago White Sox general manager and longtime baseball man who hired him as manager in 1979 and Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, who still is in uniform before games at age 91.

"As soon as I sat down," La Russa said, "I went 'Oh, crap.' There was Roland sitting right in front of me. I didn't mention Roland and I wanted to mention Red at the end.

"Dave Winfield said that every time you're always going to forget something. But that's not what I wanted to forget."

The Cardinals' latest Hall of Famer never actually played for them and didn't have a "STL" logo on the hat of his Hall of Fame plaque.

But the three-time World Series-winning manager said his career words to live by came from longtime Cardinals player development genius George Kissell as La Russa was nearing the end of a distinguished minor league career which didn't translate to the major league level.

"The last year that I tried to play, I was a player-coach and then I wanted to try to manage. George said, 'Here's my advice and if you can't do these two things, don't try it,' " related La Russa.

"He said that if you want to manage or coach, you've got to love the game and you've got to want to learn it. Like a lot of us, who knew George, everything George said, we did. For the next 35 or 36 years, it was all about loving the game and learning it. And baseball's incredible. The more you learn, the more you love it. The more you love it, the more you want to learn."

La Russa and fellow Hall of Fame inductee Joe Torre, a Cardinals player and manager, both cited Kissell's influence in their speeches.

Torre said, "I've never seen a man (more) dedicated to teaching young people and veteran people. He never stopped showing his love for the game and he certainly left an indelible mark on my baseball life."

Addressing his hope that coaches be given a chance to make the Hall of Fame, La Russa said, "If that ever happens, I don't know who has credentials better than George."

Of the six men inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday afternoon before an estimated crowd of 48,000 at the Clark Sports Center, La Russa was the only one to speak extemporaneously although he had his notes in front of him.

La Russa, who will be 70 in October, paid tribute to the three organizations for whom he managed -- the White Sox, Oakland and the Cardinals -- in a career which spanned 1979-2011, capped by the Cardinals' magical World Series triumph over Texas in 2011.

La Russa, only the second manager to win World Series in both leagues (Sparky Anderson was the other), said he was "uncomfortable" being lauded for things he thought were the byproducts of excellent organizations.

"Uncomfortable, because I didn't make it as a player. Not even close," La Russa said. "And even in my early days as a manager, there were some moments where this could never happen.

"I remember that Paul Richards (White Sox farm director) introduced me, when I was with my first minor league club in Knoxville, to a Chamber of Commerce.

"He said, 'If you're wondering about this boy (he was 32 years old) who's going to manage this team, and if you've heard that the worst players make the best manager, this young man has a chance to be an outstanding manager.'

"It always hurts to hear the truth," La Russa said. "Then he watched me manage about four of five games and I said, 'What do you think, Paul?' And he says, "I think you may have been a better player than I thought you were."

A key Hall of Fame credential, La Russa said, was "being really lucky."

La Russa then spoke of his luck to have his "three ladies," wife, Elaine, and daughters Bianca and Devon. He recalled several times this weekend that Elaine was eight months pregnant with Bianca in August, 1979, when the White Sox called to offer La Russa, then managing the Iowa Class AAA team the White Sox job. It was 1 p.m. at the time and La Russa said he had until 4 p. m to decide if he wanted the job or the White Sox would introduce somebody else as their manager.

"I thought I might not get another shot," La Russa said. So he chose the White Sox job and that was the first of many more summers he would spend away from home and his family and later the animals he has grown to love.

"Half the time you're on the road and half the time when you're at home you go to the ball park at 12 o'clock or earlier and you come back at midnight," he said. "Mentally, you're not even home when you're at home. Somehow my wife has made this work.

"At any time, any of the three could have said, 'It's enough of you and it's about us.' And they allowed me to do it."

Richards also told La Russa that he would never have a completely happy day as a manager and so it was Sunday. Not only did La Russa rebuke himself for leaving Hemond and Schoendienst out of his speech, he was disappointed that his daughters, caring for the cats and dogs and who had other commitments, couldn't attend the ceremony.

"That does not make me happy," La Russa said. He also said he couldn't mention everyone who had helped him in his career from all three organizations and that did not make him happy, although La Russa, who spoke in polished fashion, did now know how unhappy until after his speech.

"If I had looked at my notes, I would have seen Red," La Russa said. "But I was very conscious of the time. I knew I was belaboring it.

"I didn't need my notes. But (if he had looked at them) I wouldn't have missed Red and Roland."

He actually did mention Schoendienst, in his listing of Cardinal Hall of Famers he encountered upon his arrival in St. Louis and then 16-year stay. He ticked off the names of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

La Russa paused and said, 'Who am I missing?' Then, prodded, he quickly made reference to Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog and Bruce Sutter.

"You feel this obligation to go forward," La Russa said of the St. Louis experience.

"We were really motivated to be caretakers. Wonderful leadership. A complete package of trying to put the players into position to win."

And then La Russa attached the Hall of Fame appellation to one more player who will get his day.

"A player who I know will be here very soon, or hopefully, not very soon. but sometime... Albert Pujols," said La Russa of the former Cardinals star now with the Los Angeles Angels.

La Russa saluted, among others, his longtime friend and former coach with Chicago, Jim Leyland, a World Series manager who retired after last season from the Detroit Tigers' job.

"One of the great baseball minds and managers of any generation," La Russa said.

As he had the day before, La Russa extolled longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, who was on hand along with former Cardinals coaches Dave McKay and Joe Pettini and former equipment manager Buddy Bates.

"If we didn't have Dunc since '83, you could subtract hundreds of wins," said La Russa, whose teams won 2,728 regular-season games.

La Russa lamented additionally after his speech that he hadn't launched into what he thought the place, hopefully minor, advanced metrics should have on the game.

But he did discuss the issue of leadership.

"Because of free agency and guaranteed contracts and guys seeking fame and fortune, (players) grow up kind of entitled, so it's more important that people who are trying to put them into position to win have real leadership skills and really work at it," he said.

"You've got to fight through those distractions and those distorted ideas of what's right."

La Russa said there were three "T's," for success. "Team, tenacity and toughness," he said.

"But I have one pet peeve. I've heard for years that 'Tony's prepared. Our team has prepared.'

"Preparing is just studying for the test. I believe what our teams did was that we took the test."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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