It is a rare day when three of the greatest of all time, in anything, wind up sitting next to each other, smiling, laughing and crying. It happened in Orlando, Florida, on Dec. 9 as the Hall of Fame elected Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who are probably the three best living managers and three of perhaps the seven greatest managers in the history of baseball. And on Sunday in Cooperstown, New York, they will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame.
La Russa, Cox and Torre managed a combined 91 years, won 7,558 games, made 45 playoff appearances, won 17 pennants and won eight World Series. After Connie Mack and John McGraw, the winningest managers of all time are La Russa (2,728), Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326). That five, plus Joe McCarthy and Earl Weaver, might comprise the list of the best managers ever, and there on that Dec. 9 day sat three of them, the greatest managerial class in Hall history.
These three won for so long, they won with multiple strengths, with virtually no weaknesses, and each had the ability to adapt to today's player. La Russa's greatest asset was managing the game. Cox's was managing the players. Torre's was managing the owner.
"Tony never missed a thing. Never," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "At times in games, you found yourself managing against him. If you ever squeezed, and he didn't know it was coming, that's a pretty good feeling for a manager." It rarely happened. La Russa was so good with the strategy of the game, so secretive, that he was known to have his trainer, Barry Weinberg, not the third-base coach, give a sign because the opposing team wouldn't be watching the trainer. "If [Weinberg] pulls out his tongue depressor," Rich Donnelly, former coach for the Pirates and Marlins, said with a laugh, "it's a steal."
In the late '80s, La Russa essentially invented the way bullpens are used today, with setup men with defined roles, lefty specialists and closers who pitched only one inning. He'd occasionally hit his pitcher eighth, not ninth, in the batting order in hopes of having more men on base for the middle of his lineup. On an obvious bunt play, instead of having his first baseman charge toward the plate, he'd have his second baseman, who was a better athlete with better hands.
The game was such a competition for La Russa, and every game, no matter how small, mattered. Many years ago, before the third exhibition game of spring training, he called his Cardinals team together for the daily morning meeting and said, "We're 1-1. I'd rather not fall under .500." Any day, ask La Russa how he was doing, and he'd answer, "I'll tell you in about four hours." By then, he'd know whether his team had won or lost the game.