I had first met LaRussa in 2006 while a dugout photographer for the Washington Nationals, a spot I held for six years from 2006-2011. Being a National League team like the Nationals, St. Louis, one of the top teams in MLB, made an annual visit to Washington and I made a point to be on hand for the series.
The last time I saw iconic Major League Baseball manager Tony La Russa was the summer of 2018. Former Salem Red Sox general manager Ryan Shelton had invited me to be one of four media representatives to meet with La Russa at Salem Memorial Ballpark. LaRussa was in Salem as a special assistant to the Boston Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski checking out the Salem Sox talent.
I was the first in the pecking order to sit down one-on-one with La Russa that day (age does have its advantages). As I entered the special interview area, La Russa broke into a big smile and announced, “Oh, my goodness, it’s Bill Turner.”
I returned the chuckle with a handshake, and commented, “C’mon Tony, you might remember this face, but I know somebody around here tipped you off on my name.” La Russa just laughed without admitting as much, but invited me to sit down so we could talk baseball. It was a huge honor sitting down with one of the top Major League managers in baseball history.
La Russa had long been recognized as one of the best managers in the game, having managed the Chicago White Sox from 1979 to 1986, followed by stints with the Oakland A’s and 16 seasons with St. Louis. Along the way he won three World Series titles, one with Oakland and two with St. Louis, plus three Manager of the Year awards.
The most amazing record for La Russa is one that many baseball fans are unaware. He has managed 2,528 wins at the Major League level, currently third on the all-time career wins by a manager, behind only Baltimore Orioles and N.Y. Giants John McGraw’s 2,563 wins, and Cornellus McGillicuddy, known more familiarly as Connie Mack, who amassed an astounding 3,731 wins. McGraw’s run of wins began in 1899, while Mack was with the Philadelphia A’s for the club’s first 50 seasons of play, starting in 1901 before retiring at age 87 following the 1950 season.
Although, La Russa had last managed in the big leagues in 2011 with the World Series-winning Cardinals, it looked like he was cemented in third place in managerial wins. He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
While we talked I suggested jokingly to La Russa he still had time to pass McGraw. “Each year, teams fire managers part-way through the season, so get your name out and pick up the last 36 wins you need.” He responded that he doubted that was on the horizon.
As we talked about his great days and what he attributed to all the wins, the conversation turned to one of my pictures of him I took in the dugout at Washington’s National Park during a Cardinal win that had its moments when St. Louis slugger and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was determined in a joking manner to disrupt my picture by using his bat to block the lens.
La Russa and I laughed about it, but I pointed out I got the last laugh. I pulled out an 8 X 10 of the picture I had enlarged from that day. La Russa scrutinized the photo and autographed it for me with a spot-on message:
“To Bill: A great dugout photographer- Except, wish I was smiling. But never happened!
Tony La Russa. HOF 2014. 2,528 wins.”
Well, as Shakespeare once said, “Many a truth is said in jest.”
In August, La Russa, now 76, was named the new manager for the Chicago White Sox for the upcoming 2021 season. He takes over a young White Sox team that is talented in most positions.
“While I have had other inquiries about managing since retiring, this opportunity with the White Sox brings together a number of important factors that make this the right time and the right place, “La Russa said in a release by the team. “The on-field talent is amazing, and the front office, led by Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn, has done everything necessary to create an atmosphere of long-term success. All of those factors aligned to make this a tremendous opportunity, and I am excited to get going as soon as possible by building a coaching staff and getting to work.”
Even with a pedestrian start, La Russa should be in position to move into second-place in all-time career managerial wins by June. His spot should be secure for years as the next active manager on the list is Houston Astros skipper Dusty Baker, with 1,892. Baker is 71 years old.
La Russa has come full circle, returning to Chicago where he won his first game as a manager. With 36 more wins in the Windy City, he moves into second on the prestigious list. And, it’s cool to remember I was standing beside him for a few of those victories.