Oakland A's: Where Does Tony La Russa Rank Among Team's Greatest Managers?
With the recent retirement of Tony La Russa last month, many experts have weighed in on his greatness and otherworldly value to the game of baseball. The real question is, how do we as fans appraise a manager’s contributions exactly?
When a baseball manager retires, sometimes it’s hard to really feel any emotion. As a fan, you dig deep to emit sadness, but only if he is a true legend of the game. When we hear that a manager has retired, we do feel bad, but not in the same way as we would if a ballplayer retired.
At the end of the day, it’s extremely difficult to get emotional during a manager’s retirement retrospective. There are very few in-game instances that allow for us to cheer on the manager. All that can be done is to measure him based on his pile of wins and number of championships. And La Russa has his fair share of both. However, there is more to La Russa’s career than just win totals. As a true innovator and visionary, La Russa will be lauded for the intricacies he administered to change the game of baseball.
Taken as a whole, La Russa’s career is one of the best in his sport’s history. He built his managerial résumé with great independent stints with three different teams. But individually, how does each stop measure on by itself?
With one of his teams being with the Oakland Athletics, where does La Russa rank among this franchise’s greatest managers? Here’s a look at the top five skippers in Athletics franchise history.
Long before there was Billy Beane’s Moneyball, there was Billy Martin’s Billy Ball. Taking over an Athletics team that was in a terrible late-70s rut—culminating in a 108-loss season in 1979—Martin took his downtrodden group of players and turned them into a winning ballclub with his own marque of baseball. Martin was deemed so successful that he was named Oakland’s general manager in 1981.
Known for overusing his starting pitchers and implementing a base stealing arsenal on offense, Martin somehow managed to take his team of nobodies into a playoff team. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Athletics advanced to the American League Championship Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees.
The native of nearby Berkeley did a remarkable job of molding his players, using his own style to build them into a cohesive unit. He was able to squeeze out the talents of each of his players. In fact, A’s outfielder Rickey Henderson credits Martin for helping him become the base stealing icon he is known as today.
Unfortunately, Martin’s tenure in Oakland was rather brief. Following the 1982 season, his third with the A’s, Martin was fired. Though he did not stand the tests of time with a plethora of wins or playoff series victories, Martin will forever be tied to the trademark blue-collar brand of baseball that Oakland has always been synonymous with.
Taking over a two-time defending World Series championship team is not an easy task. The victorious precedence has been embedded, and living up to that standard can be a stressful prerequisite to the job. For any manager—anyone—the burden to continue that winning formula can be a demanding task to take on.
For Alvin Dark, it apparently wasn’t too difficult.
Inheriting a squad that had won back-to-back World Series titles in 1972 and 1973, Dark was not overwhelmed by any pressure to win, and he guided the A’s to their third straight World Series title.
In some instances, taking over a team that is so incredibly gifted can be humbling. How does one step in and do what everyone else in the organization has been accustomed to—win? Dark never let the success of the A’s wane. Instead, he kept winning. And despite owner Charlie O. Finley’s meddling—and them Fightin’ A’s turmoil—Dark kept the ship on course.
Though he only managed for two short seasons, his tenure was surely a success. Under Dark’s reign, the A’s won two more division titles—for a streak of five in a row—to go with their third straight championship. Even though they had the talent to back up their accomplishments, Dark was the one who showed them the light.
Tony La Russa
The mid-80s were another period of inferiority for the Oakland A’s. After Billy Martin was fired in 1982, the Athletics went on to have three consecutive years finishing no higher than fourth in the AL West and did not won more than 77 games in a season. To inject some life into the organization, the A’s hired Tony La Russa, who had previously guided to the Chicago White Sox to the ALCS in 1983, a year that saw him take home the American League Manager of the Year Award.
It was unlikely that the A’s knew La Russa was on the precipice for a Hall of Fame managerial career when they hired him. Their instinct was to transform a moribund team that had dawdled for the better part of the decade. Little did management know that La Russa was about to lead the best team in the major leagues, along the way revolutionizing the game of baseball.
Applying his quirky and analytic methodology to ordinary in-game strategies, La Russa implemented the use of bullpen specialists, primarily for specific matchups, and oftentimes for no more than one inning of work. Ultimately, the role of the modern-day closer is credited to La Russa. His thoughtful views of baseball tactics, along with the most talented farm system in baseball, allowed La Russa to flourish as a manager.
In his 10 seasons, La Russa led the Athletics to four post season appearances and three World Series, winning once in 1989. He oversaw a star-powered clubhouse, featuring the likes of Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, et al. Under his reign, the A’s boasted three Rookies of the Year, three MVPs and two Cy Young Award winners.
However, due to the fact that the heavily favored A’s lost two World Series in both 1988 and 1990, La Russa never quite solidified himself as one of the greatest in the game.
That is, not until he won twice in St. Louis.
Guiding a team to consecutive World Series titles is a tremendous achievement. Only 11 men have done so in baseball history.
Dick Williams is one of them.
As manager of the Oakland A’s dynasty during the early-70s, Williams guided his team to three division titles and two consecutive World Series championships. However, if it were not for the miserly business approach of owner Charlie O. Finley, who knows how many titles the A’s could have won with Williams at the helm?
Williams was a devoted manager, who backed and supported his players, who were underpaid and publicly abashed by Finley. Williams decided to leave instead of saluting Finley when he really didn’t respect him.
Still, for his two consecutive titles, the only such achievement in the team’s history in Oakland, Williams gets recognized as one of the greats in franchise history.
When it comes to greatest managers in Athletics history, the conversation starts and ends with Connie Mack. The man is synonymous with the Philadelphia Athletics and vice versa.
His numbers are unapproachable, and they support his greatness.
In his 50 seasons as manager of the Athletics, Mack won 3,731 games, nearly 1,000 more than the next closest win total. He won nine American League pennants and five World Series titles, the latter being the third-most in Major League history.
But Mack was more than a manager to the Athletics, he was also a part-owner of the franchise. He cared deeply about his ballclub and devoted himself to the business of managing his team and making them successful both on and off the field.
Under his stewardship, the Athletics become one of the most accomplished franchises in baseball history. For his dedication alone, Mack would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. But for his overall contributions, and winning record, Mack is truly a baseball immortal.