Who Was Best Manager of Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre Hall of Fame Trio?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2013

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Call it a win for Cooperstown—7,558 of them, to be exact.

It's only fitting that Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre should enter baseball's Hall of Fame together after being voted in unanimously by the Expansion Era Committee. Not only were the three former managers contemporaries who battled each other from opposing benches numerous times, their careers also intertwined in many ways.

For instance, they began their managerial careers in consecutive seasons, beginning with Torre in 1977 then Cox in 1978 and La Russa in 1979. And after Cox and Torre wrote out their final lineup cards in 2010, La Russa did so only a year later.

Then there's this, as Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press points out:

And of course, let's not forget: La Russa, Cox and Torre also rank in third, fourth and fifth, respectively, among career wins in the history of Major League Baseball.

That these three all-time great skippers share that distinction makes each one a rather impressive and appropriate addition to the Hall. It also makes for an interesting debate: Between La Russa, Cox and Torre, which manager was the best?

While that might be an unanswerable question—how do you really pick between such an accomplished trio?—let's run through each bench boss' case, in order of most career wins.

After all, they may be friends off the field, but they were enemies on it, as Cox said at the announcement ceremony:

Why La Russa Was the Best

Obviously, there's the fact that La Russa, who started his managerial career with the Chicago White Sox in 1979, has the most wins of this trio and third-most. Ever.

He also spent a whopping 33 years in that role, which is tied for second-most with fellow Hall of Famer John McGraw. In that time, he led his clubs to six pennants, the same number as Torre and one more than Cox.

Then there's the titles. La Russa won it all three times with two different teams—the Oakland Athletics in 1989 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011, his final season as a manager—which is something neither Cox nor Torre can claim.

La Russa also was a four-time Manager of the Year Award winner—in 1983 with the White Sox, in 1988 and 1992 with the A's and in 2002 with the Cardinals—which is the tied for the most ever (more on that in a moment). Again, he earned that distinction in both leagues.

Beyond all that, there was La Russa's reputation. Dubbed "The Mastermind" by Sports Illustrated in 1990, La Russa was known for seeing and doing things differently. This was especially true when it came to revamping the way relief pitchers were used, for better or worse. La Russa departed from the previously popular multi-inning arms by creating specialty roles that often called for only an inning—or even merely a batter—at a time.

"After 33 seasons as a major league manager, the image is fixed," wrote Tyler Kepner for the New York Times in October 2011. "Tony La Russa is the coolly cerebral strategist, architect of the modern bullpen, never afraid to flout convention for an edge."

Along those same lines, in July 1998, La Russa made the much-debated decision to bat the pitcher eighth in the order—not ninth—something that hadn't been done in nearly 20 years. He would continue that arrangement for the rest of the '98 season and frequently enough in future seasons, as well.

All told and all in the name of producing runs by trying to increase the odds of a hitter getting on base for the top of the order, La Russa batted the pitcher outside of the ninth spot almost six times more than any other manager in history. Conventional La Russa was not.

Why Cox Was the Best

That whole four-time manager of the year thing that La Russa pulled off? Well, in his 29 years as a skipper, Cox matched him. Heck, he even won it in both leagues to boot, just like La Russa did, in 1985 with the Toronto Blue Jays and then in 1991, 2004 and 2005 with the Atlanta Braves.

While Cox did helm the Blue Jays for four successful seasons in the mid-1980s, he'll always be associated with the Braves. He got his start with Atlanta in 1978, but it wasn't until he came back around in 1990 that Cox and the Braves made their mark on baseball.

The team actually finished with the worst record in the sport in the first year of Cox's second stint—he took over midseason for Russ Nixon—but then everything changed. From 1991 through 2005, Cox led the Braves to five pennants and a record 14 straight division titles (not counting the 1994 season that was cut short by the strike).

So even though Cox finished his career with but one World Series championship as a manager despite all of those postseason appearances, he did have an incredible winning percentage:

Cox, Torre and La Russa by Managerial Win Percentages
Bobby Cox2925042001.556
Joe Torre2923261997.538
Tony La Russa3327282365.536
Baseball Reference

No doubt, Cox was fortunate enough to manage a number of gifted players and even a few soon-to-be fellow Hall of Famers, including pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who are up for election this year, as well as John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, who eventually should join Cox in Cooperstown.

Still, Cox knew how to handle and trust his players to get the most out of them, as Smoltz said, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com in 2010:

[Cox] had an uncanny ability to put guys in position to succeed and then lean on them and show that he trusted them. He learned to trust the foundation that he put out on the field and he gave us a lot of respect. We rode a man's instinctive ability to instill confidence in everybody.

And just because no discussion of Cox's "achievements" could be complete without it, here's a reminder that his fiery demeanor often got him thrown out of games. He has a distinct advantage on both La Russa and Torre in that department.

In fact, he owns the most ejections in baseball history with 161.

Why Torre Was the Best

The only one of the three to have any sort of success as a player, Torre was a nine-time All-Star and won the NL MVP Award as a Cardinal in 1971. He actually had a Hall of Fame case worthy of consideration for his playing career exclusively.

And yet, while that was a factor in his election, Torre is going in as a manager, as David Lennon of Newsday clarifies:

In his 29 seasons on the bench, Torre was the most nomadic of this trio, having spent multiple seasons with the New York Mets (1977-1981), Braves (1982-1984), Cardinals (1990-1995) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2008-2010).

Of course, it's the 12 seasons he managed the New York Yankees, from 1996 through 2007, for which Torre was best known.

That's what happens when you help engineer a dynasty that makes it to October every single year, and they go on to win six pennants and four World Series in the biggest media market in baseball.

While Torre did win MOY "only" twice—in 1996, his first year with the Yanks, and 1998, when they won 114 games—he also owns the most rings of this bunch. For many, that is the ultimate measure of "best." To wit, he is one of only five managers with at least four championships.

Like Cox and La Russa, Torre was blessed with the opportunity to manage several incredible players during his Yankee years, many of whom will one day be Hall of Famers themselves, including Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and perhaps Mike Mussina, who is on the ballot for the first time this year, as well as Roger Clemens, who would have been first-ballot if not for suspicions surrounding performance-enhancing drugs. And let's not forget Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill.

Sure, Torre benefited from guiding so much talent for so many years with the Yankees—he was only 894-1003 (.471) prior—but he still proved that he could reach the ultimate goal in the face of all kinds of pressure and scrutiny.

The Verdict

So which of these three managerial titans and freshly minted Hall of Famers was the best?

It's almost silly to select just one when they were each so successful, so memorable in their own way. There's also no "right" answer here, because if you choose one, it's easy enough to argue for the other two.

But if forced to pick, it's hard to go against La Russa, who changed the way the sport was played, and who had the most wins and the longest career of the trio. While his winning percentage isn't up to Cox's standard, it's right there with Torre's, and like Torre, La Russa won multiple championships—something Cox couldn't.

Unlike Torre, though, La Russa can say he won it all in both leagues, which has been done by only one other manager, Sparky Anderson.

Regardless of who was "best," one thing is undeniably clear: After a rare induction-less year for the Hall of Fame in 2013, that three all-time great managers like La Russa, Cox and Torre will be enshrined together next July is a much-needed win for Cooperstown.


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