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La Russa played professional baseball until he was 32. Now 45, he says he should have quit when he was 24 because he kept getting worse. He is exaggerating, but not by a lot. He was a mediocre player. A lot of excellent managers were marginal players. Which is to say, they made playing careers out of the margin that mind could give them.
Earl Weaver, who won 1,480 games and had a .583 winning percentage through 17 seasons as manager of the Baltimore Orioles, never made it to the big leagues as a player. Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers, the only manager to win 800 games in each league, was a :218 hitter in his only year playing in the majors (1959, with the Phillies). Whitey ("Baseball has been good to me since I quit trying to play it") Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals is regarded as the National League's Spinoza. In his playing career he drifted through four teams in eight years, putting together a .257 batting average.
La Russa was born and raised in Tampa. His mother, though born in Tampa, is of Spanish descent, and his father, who is of Sicilian descent, also spoke Spanish. La Russa spoke Spanish before he spoke English. That has proved to be a considerable advantage for a manager in an era in which nearly 20% of all players under contract in professional baseball are from Latin America.
Managing was far from La Russa's mind when, on the night he graduated from high school in 1962, he signed as a shortstop with the Athletics. The A's were then in Kansas City and were the toy of Charlie Finley. La Russa got $50,000 for a signing bonus. He was 17 and the world was his oyster. The next year he was in the major leagues for 34 games, 44 at bats, 11 hits. He could not know it at the time, but when that season ended, he had already appeared in a quarter of all the big league games of his playing career.
Back in Tampa after the 1963 season, he arrived late for a slo-pitch Softball game with some friends from high school. La Russa went straight to short without warming up. It was filthy luck that in the first inning a ball was hit in the hole. He fielded it, fired to first and tore a tendon in his arm near the shoulder. He played with a sore arm for 15 more years. Along the way he collected two shoulder separations, a knee injury and chips in his elbow. In 16 years as a professional player, he had 176 at bats in 132 major league games for the A's, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. His career batting average was .199. He never hit a home run.
His best season persuaded him that his best was not going to be good enough. In 1972 he hit .308 for Richmond, the Braves' Triple A club, but he was not called up to the parent team. Convinced that his playing career had a low ceiling, he turned toward another line of work. La Russa had already earned his B.A. from the University of South Florida; after five off-seasons at Florida State Law School he had his J.D. degree; he was admitted to the Florida bar in 1979. However, by then he was heading for managing.
It is said that the study of law sharpens the mind by narrowing it. But the study of anything narrows the mind by concentrating attention and excluding much from the field of focus. La Russa is the fifth major league manager to possess a law degree. The four other lawyer-managers, Branch Rickey, Miller Huggins, Hughie Jennings and Monte Ward, are in the Hall of Fame.
La Russa was 34 when, with 54 games remaining in the '79 season, he became manager of the White Sox. There have been younger major league managers. Roger Peckinpaugh, for one, took over the New York Yankees in 1914 at 23. But by 1989, La Russa was managing in his 11th season, three more than Peckinpaugh managed. If La Russa stays in a major league dugout until he is 65—and he can if he wants to—he will have managed 31 seasons, more than anyone but John McGraw (33) and Connie Mack (53).
Mack was born the year after Fort Sumter was fired upon and died the year before Sputnik was launched. His record of most seasons as manager is one of baseball's most secure. Mack guided the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901 to 1950, but in the years between the tenures of Mack and La Russa, no one managed the A's for more than three consecutive years. Longevity isn't as long as it once was.
Until recently baseball management was not very meritocratic. The game served as a haven for some managers and coaches who were not particularly good. This haven existed because baseball people were kind to their pals. To the familiar classifications of social systems, like aristocracy and plutocracy, add a new category to cover the peculiar governance of baseball: palocracy, i.e., government by old pals. Baseball has traditionally been run by men whose lives have intertwined for decades. They have known one another from the rocky playing fields and spartan offices of the low minor leagues all the way up to the manicured diamonds and well-appointed suites of the majors.