LaRussa had managed less than two full seasons in the minors when he replaced Don Kessinger as the White Sox manager on August 2, 1979 at the age of thirty-four. LaRussa, who had graduated with a law degree from Florida State the previous year, became the fifth lawyer/manager in baseball history. The other four – Monte Ward, Hughie Jennings, Miller Huggins, and Branch Rickey — are all in the Hall of Fame. Extremely bright and articulate, LaRussa quickly established a reputation for being one of the best field tacticians in baseball.
After consecutive third-place finishes in 1981 and 1982, LaRussa led the White Sox to the AL West title in 1983 with a major-league high 99 wins, winning several Manager of the Year awards from various baseball publications. The White Sox stumbled in 1984-85, however, and after a 26-38 start in 1986 LaRussa was fired, signing on as the manager of the A’s three weeks later.
LaRussa proved to be a much better manager for the A’s than he had been a player. He had first tasted major league action as a teenager with the Kansas City A’s in 1963 (LaRussa, Robin Yount and Alex Rodriguez are the only eighteen-year olds ever to start a major-league game at short) and returned to the majors in 1968 after the team had moved to Oakland. After a few futile years with the A’s, Braves, and Cubs, LaRussa had returned to the minors in 1973 and retired in 1977 with a .199 batting average in only 176 career at-bats.
As skipper, he began with the A’s as he had with the White Sox, finishing in third place twice in a row in 1986 and 1987 before a first-place finish the following year. Indeed, led by sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (aka the “Bash Brothers”) the 1988 A’s stormed to a 104-58 finish, only to be upset by the Dodgers in five games in the World Series. In 1989, the team managed to win it all after winning 99 regular-season games, sweeping the San Francisco Giants in the earthquake-interrupted “Bay Series.” But in 1990 the team again lost the World Series after a 100-win season, this time in four games to Lou Piniella‘s Cincinnati Reds. By the time his 1992 A’s club had wrapped up the division title with a 96-66 record, LaRussa had managed five AL West champs in ten years.
LaRussa’s 1993 A’s collapsed after losing stars Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford, Harold Baines, and Walt Weiss. En route to a 68-94 finish, becoming only the second team to fall to last place the season after a division title (the 1914-1915 Philadelphia A’s led by Connie Mack were the first) LaRussa for the first time lost his cool, analytical demeanor and started hitting the panic button. At one point in the season, faced with an ineffective pitching staff, LaRussa experimented with using three pitchers a game for three innings each, setting precise pitch limits. He lost his temper against opposing manager Phil Garner of the Brewers, and once even canceled a post-game meal after a loss.
The A’s rebounded in 1994 to second place, but still had a losing record in the strike-shortened season. After another sub-par finish in 1995 LaRussa left the A’s for St. Louis and was successful in luring some of the stars from his Oakland teams to the Cardinals. In his first year with the club, aided by A’s alumni Mike Gallego, Rick Honeycutt, and fireman Dennis Eckersley (who saved 30 games,) LaRussa led the Cardinals to the 1996 NL Central crown. The young team took a step back in 1997, losing 89 games despite a mid-season trade that reunited LaRussa and home run champ Mark McGwire.
McGwire’s unprecedented home run binge over the next two seasons — including his dramatic chase of Roger Maris‘ single-season home-run record in 1998 — overshadowed the uninspired play of his teammates, and as the Cardinals hovered around .500. LaRussa drew little criticism from fans enraptured by McGwire’s feats. However, he did raise eyebrows in the second half of the 1998 season when he began to bat his pitchers eighth in the lineup, ostensibly to put another bat in front of McGwire.
LaRussa’s team continued to slide in 1999, finishing with eight fewer wins and a fourth place finish while once again watching McGwire put on a home run display, this time with 65 round-trippers. In 2000 the young Cardinals finally began to come into their own, winning the NL Central and then defeating the heavily favored Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. Though they lost to the New York Mets in the NLCS, LaRussa’s team was ready for long-term success. In the 2001, down-to-the-wire pennant race, they lost to the Houston Astros on the final game of the season, settling for the Wild Card instead of the NL Central title.
LaRussa was the winningest active manager in the major leagues, having compiled 1,827 victories in 22 years of managing — good enough for 11th on the all-time list.