By The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — The numbers don’t lie. Tony La Russa probably is not only the greatest manager in Cardinals history, but also among the best ever. And that last category would encompass a small handful.
Only two managers have won more than one World Series with the Cardinals. That covers Billy Southworth in 1942 and 1944, and La Russa in 2006 and 2011.
La Russa, Southworth and Whitey Herzog are the only managers to lead the Cardinals into three World Series, with Herzog winning one and losing two as his last two Series teams were crippled by significant injuries to key position players, i.e. Vince Coleman, Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton.
By virtue of his enduring the Cardinals’ managing job for 16 years, longer than anyone else, La Russa naturally holds the lead for regular-season games won as Cardinals manager at 1,408, and losses, at 1,182.
Besides leading his teams to three World Series in the past eight seasons_more than any other manager_La Russa’s record in divisional series is unmatched. Since the landscape changed in 1995 with the three-tiered playoff system, La Russa’s teams in St. Louis played in nine first-round series, winning seven of them. Overall, La Russa’s teams won 23 out of 33 games in the best-of-five competition considered the most pressure-packed of the playoff rounds because there is little room for misstep.
Former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre was in more divisional series, at 14, but his teams did not quite equal La Russa’s winning percentage. Torre was 7-5 in divisional series with the Yankees and 2-0 with the Dodgers.
Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel has had his teams in five consecutive divisional rounds but has won only three. He lost to La Russa’s Cardinals this season.
What sets La Russa apart on a national level, for one thing, is that is he just one of two managers to win World Series in both leagues. He won two with the Cardinals and one with Oakland. Sparky Anderson had two with Cincinnati and one with Detroit.
Only Casey Stengel (10), Joe McCarthy (nine) Connie Mack (eight), John McGraw (eight) and Walter Alston (seven) have led teams to more World Series than La Russa’s six.
But what stands out even more is that La Russa managed for 32-plus straight seasons starting in August 1979 with the Chicago White Sox, missing only two weeks in 1986 when he was fired by the White Sox and then hired by Oakland.
Only Mack, who also owned the Philadelphia Athletics and managed for 53 seasons and set the mark for wins at 3,731, managed more seasons in succession than La Russa.
McGraw, second in wins at 2,763, or 35 more than La Russa, managed in 33 seasons but was in and out of the job in both 1924 and 1925 with the New York Giants and then lasted only 40 games with the Giants in 1932.
To manage in 33 seasons as La Russa did, means working long enough to manage against fathers and sons like the Bonds, the Griffeys, the Hairstons and others. It also means managing through varying styles of play and shifting balances of power.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the game is a little different than it was back then,” said Detroit’s Jim Leyland, the new active leader in managing wins at 1,588.
“In those days, the players tried to please the managers. In today’s world, the managers try to please the players.”
Leyland, speaking from his Pittsburgh home, was exaggerating, but only slightly.
“And contract situations are different, too,” he said. “The players are guaranteed five years longer than you are.”
Leyland is La Russa’s friend and once coached for him with the White Sox. But Leyland can be objective about the matter, too, and for his money, La Russa is “No. 1. He’s arguably the best of all times in my book.
“Why not?” Leyland said.
“Certainly for the last 35 years. But he’s probably the best of all time.
“The one manager (Mack) owned the club and Tony was going to pass the other one (McGraw) in wins next year.”
Leyland, who managed against La Russa in the National League with Florida and Colorado and in the 2006 World Series and in interleague play with the Tigers, cited several areas in which he considered La Russa unparalleled.
“Tony never worried about the moves he made and he never worried about how he would answer for them after the game,” said Leyland. “Whatever team he was managing, he never cared.
“And that wasn’t something that just happened at the end. He did what he thought was the best thing from the first day he managed the White Sox.
“We manage for the fans. We don’t manage with the fans. It’s like (former manager) Terry Francona would say: ‘If you manage with the fans, soon you’ll be up there with them.’
La Russa, said Leyland, “trusted his gut. He trusted his preparation. He was unbelievable. Relentless.
“There wasn’t anybody among managers who didn’t respect him. Whether they all liked him or not, I don’t know. But they all respected him.”
Too much, sometimes, Leyland said.
“Tony had the great knack of making other managers worry about him and what he was going to do. That’s not good when you’re the other manager,” Leyland said.
This happened several times in the recent postseason and one move stands out particularly.
With Texas lefthander Derek Holland, the Rangers’ best pitcher on the mound in the eighth inning of Game 6, La Russa sent up righthanded-hitting backup catcher Gerald Laird to pinch hit.
Texas manager Ron Washington lifted Holland for righthander Mike Adams and La Russa, employing his last position player, switched to lefthanded-hitting Daniel Descalso, who would get two key hits before that momentous game had ended.
Leyland watched on television as La Russa made his decision to retire official Monday.
“It’s a great day. It’s not a sad day,” said Leyland. “He looked so much at peace with himself.
“It’s a wonderful conclusion, going out on top. How can you be sad about that? I was a little emotional watching it but it doesn’t get any better than that.
“He had a wonderful run in St. Louis. But it wasn’t easy stepping into that situation following the likes of Joe Torre and Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst. And the other Hall of Famers like Lou Brock and Bob Gibson and Stan Musial, I know Tony worked his butt off to gain their respect. They’re not that easy to win over.
“(Managers) like Joe Torre and Lou Piniella were great players. They had to lose the players’ respect. Guys like Tony (who was not a good player) had to earn the players’ respect. But he didn’t try to worm his way in. He earned his way into that fraternity.”
Leyland noted that La Russa, after he came on the job in 1996, “had a great appreciation of Cardinal history.
“Now it’s ironic,” said Leyland, “that he’s going down as the greatest manager in the history of the Cardinals.”
The Cardinals have won 11 World Series, two directed by La Russa. Only three of those other championship clubs have been managed by men who didn’t go into the Hall of Fame — Gabby Street in 1931, Eddie Dyer in 1946 and Johnny Keane in 1964.
The others were Rogers Hornsby (1926), Frankie Frisch (1934), Southworth (1942, 44), Schoendienst (1967) and Herzog (1982).
In the summer of 2014 at Cooperstown, N.Y., it will be La Russa’s turn.
“He’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer,” Leyland said.