In the beginning, Tony LaRussa was just another one of Bill Veeck's novelty acts.
He's a manager....but he's also a lawyer!
Five years after retiring from baseball, Tony LaRussa got his Juris Doctor from Florida State. Instead of studying for the Florida Bar Exam, LaRussa was hired as manager of the Double-A Knoxville Sox. When the White Sox fired manager Bob Lemon in June of 1978, LaRussa joined the big club as the first base coach.
In September of 1978, LaRussa was asked to manage the Estrellas, a Puerto Rican league team that was packed with Sox prospects from the Dominican Republic. As Richard Dozer wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
"LaRussa got the job partly because (General Manager) Roland Hemond needed an interpreter one day last month. Also because LaRussa had played in the Dominican during two winters in the early 70's. But mostly because owner Bill Veeck of the Sox and Hemond, his chief aide, want to find out if LaRussa was ‘for real' when he led Knoxville to a 14-length title in the Southern League's first half this summer."
Dozer believed LaRussa would eventually manage in the Major Leagues, just not with the White Sox. Manager Larry Doby's future was uncertain, but Veeck was sure to pick a "name" manager in order to goose ticket sales.
Doby was fired, and Veeck's "big name" manager also happened to be his shortstop: Don Kessinger. LaRussa was assigned to manage the Iowa Oaks, the White Sox Triple-A team in Des Moines (now the Iowa Cubs).
In Iowa, LaRussa had to manage a roster of young talent (Harold Baines and LaMarr Hoyt), players who were trying to make a comeback (Bart Johnson), and Veeck's "circus hires" (former Bears Quarterback Bobby Douglass). While LaRussa rode the bus in the minors, Kessinger struggled as a player...and as a manager.
On August 2, 1979, Don Kessinger resigned from both jobs. It was not the biggest sports story of the day. Yankees great Thurman Munson had died in a plane crash.
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The Tribune's David Israel wrote that Veeck, the Master Showman, was at it again.
"Thursday afternoon, Veeck became the first owner in memory to go out and intentionally hire a genuine clubhouse lawyer. His name is Tony LaRussa, his credentials are from University of South Florida and the Florida Bar Association are in order, and he is up from Des Moines to take over as manager, your honor. He is the new trick. He replaces Don Kessinger in the dugout."
Dave Condon said Veeck "should have reached for St. Jude."
After taking the job, LaRussa revealed that he asked for advice about the art of managing from fellow Floridian and ex-Sox skipper Al Lopez.
"In that park up there (Comiskey), you've got to get a team that lets the other club make the mistakes," Lopez said. "That's what we had in 1959. It's foolish to get a big, slow club - especially in that park."
LaRussa finished 1979 with a record of 27-27.
In November of 1980, after his White Sox finished 70-90, LaRussa appeared on the revival of "To Tell the Truth."
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The Tribune's Bob Verdi reviewed the performance.
"He said he managed a big league baseball team. Panelists let it pass. They must have never seen the White Sox try to turn a double play."
In 1981, things started to turn around for LaRussa. Young players like Harold Baines, LaMarr Hoyt, and Richard Dotson started to reach their potential. New ownership (and the promise of new ownership) allowed the White Sox to spend money for the first time in the free agent era.
This series on the history of White Sox rebuilding projects has changed my perspective on Bill Veeck. I thought Veeck was more of a promoter than a baseball man. Veeck's baseball smarts tend to get lost in the din of exploding scoreboards and midget outfielders.
During the dark days of the late 1970's, Veeck and Roland Hemond found the pieces that led to the White Sox renaissance in the early 1980's. Harold Baines, while not a Hall of Famer, is a White Sox lifer. Britt Burns, Hoyt, and Dotson pitched the White Sox into the playoffs in 1983. Tony LaRussa is one of the best managers in the history of baseball.
During the pre-game show of NBC's broadcast of the 1980 World Series, Bryant Gumbel looked back on the careers of Veeck and Charlie Finley. During the retrospective, Veeck noted that the free agent era drove up the "cost of mediocrity."
An idea that would be fleshed out 22 years later in "Moneyball."
Here's a discussion question for you. What would have happened if the American League owners allowed Ed DeBartolo to buy the White Sox? In that scenario, Veeck would have called the shots. He could run a ballclub with the checkbook of one of the richest men in America.
If DeBartolo ran the White Sox, the 1980's might have been a victory lap for Veeck. One can only imagine what White Sox fandom would have been like if Veeck and Harry Caray ran the circus at Comiskey Park while the team chewed through the AL West in 1983.
They could have won the whole thing in 1983, allowing Veeck to bookend his career with another World Series ring.