LAKE BUENA VISTA — Tony La Russa dreamed while growing up in West Tampa of being a big league baseball player, until he realized his talent would never carry him that far. Then the dream turned to managing, and managing a big league team.
“But never, ever was the Hall of Fame part of that dream, never,” La Russa said.
Until Monday morning when the phone rang inside La Russa’s room at the posh Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort with the news that La Russa was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by a unanimous vote from the Expansion Era Committee.
“Then it’s a reality,” La Russa said, “and you start feeling kind of the unbelievable part of it. It’s hard to believe.”
La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, the three winningest managers during the expansion era (1973 to the present), were each elected Monday. Like La Russa, Cox and Torre got in on unanimous votes.
“We’re in Disney World right now. This is the magical kingdom; I think we just hired three kings of the managers,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, a member of the Expansion Era Committee. “It’s a magical day for each and every one of them. And we’re so excited to have them in the Hall of Fame.”
All three will be inducted July 27 at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable being part of that club,” La Russa said.
La Russa retired after winning the 2011 World Series with 2,728 career wins, the third-most in major league history. He managed three teams during a 33-year career: the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals. He won three pennants each with the A’s and Cardinals and won World Series titles with the A’s in 1990 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.
La Russa joins Al Lopez as the only Tampa natives elected to the Hall of Fame. Like La Russa, Lopez was a pennant-winning manager.
Cox is fourth on the all-time list for wins by a manager, with 2,504. He won 14 consecutive division titles, five pennants and one World Series title with the Atlanta Braves.
Torre, who won six pennants and four World Series titles with the New York Yankees, is fifth in wins, with 2,326.
“I’m really pleased for all of them,” Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “They’re kind of like the last vestiges of this particular style of managers. You’re not going to see that, ... that iconic manager that was the face of each team that he managed.”
La Russa is credited with creating the modern-day bullpen with a set ninth-inning closer and relievers employed to match up with certain hitters.
La Russa brushed aside that claim, saying he was just working with what he had and gave the credit to his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan.“I never invented anything,” he said. “Somebody always taught me something.”
La Russa was a top infield prospect at Jefferson High School. He signed with the Kansas City A’s in 1962 and embarked on a career that included parts of six big leagues seasons with the A’s and the White Sox.
“I thought he was a really good player,” said former major league player and manager Lou Piniella, who played with La Russa while growing up together in Tampa. “He always carried himself well on the baseball field. Very heady. He knew how to play the game.”
It was after the 1977 season when La Russa, then 32, decided to listen to all the minor league coaches and managers who told him he should go into coaching.
“I played 16 years, and it was always mediocre at best,” La Russa said. “And right there toward the end I had the great opportunity to end my career as a player coach in St. Louis with the great (George) Kissell, and he said, ‘Are you still playing? You’ve got to get out of here. You’ve got to start coaching for real.’ All the guys that knew I was lousy — I should have started earlier.”
Two years later he was managing the White Sox.
La Russa took all three of his major league clubs to the postseason.
“I’m an opinionated guy,” La Russa said. “I always said the Hall of Fame is for players and that the only managers who would get in would be guys like Sparky (Anderson) and Tommy (Lasorda), Earl (Weaver), Whitey (Herzog). They had a lot of personality, after-dinner speakers. They really brought the game to a lot of people beside managing. I’m basically a grinder, so I didn’t think I was that kind of that personality, so I’ve never been comfortable thinking about it. I’m not comfortable now.”