It must have seemed like a smart thing to say at the time, but Texas Ranger manager Doug Rader should have thought twice before impugning the aesthetic sensibility of the Chicago White Sox. “They’ve been winning ugly,” he said. And suddenly the warweary fans of the traditionally downtrodden Sox found their rallying cry. In late August, when the Rangers returned to the Windy City to drop a brace of games, they were met by 30,000 furious partisans, many of them sporting “Winning Ugly” T-shirts and waving “Who’s Ugly Now?” banners. All of which brought the Chicago Tribune to dub Rader “the reigning villain of Soxdom, surpassing even Tony LaRussa.”
What? Tony LaRussa, the Sox’s very own manager? Yes, but, you see, the crack was meant to be amusing, and now it can be taken as such by the fans. Tony LaRussa is their hero because the long-lowly Sox have, incredibly, devastated the western portion of the American League, clinching their first division title since they won the pennant in 1959, which in turn was their first since the 1919 “Black Sox.”
Yet the Tribune’s joke was also a dig at those same, always vociferous fans. As recently as May 26, when the team record was a sorry 16-23, LaRussa was everybody’s favorite black mark on the Pale Hose. “The Sox cannot win with Tony LaRussa as manager,” stated veteran broadcaster Harry Caray, who took his patter to Wrigley Field and the Cubs. Hearing whispers of has-been, catcher Carlton Fisk was irate at being rested for his .164 batting average. Indeed, the atmosphere at Comiskey Park became so forbidding that Elaine LaRussa stopped bringing the manager’s two daughters to the games. Says Elaine, “I don’t want anyone to keep them from thinking their daddy walks on water.”
Things started to turn around after the All-Star break. Led by Lamarr Hoyt, the pitching staff began to sparkle when it twirled; Ron Kittle started freezing ropes into the left-field stands to become odds-on for Rookie of the Year, and Fisk silenced those who’d buried him prematurely by hitting at a .334 clip, giving him a shot at MVP. Most of all, the team started “winning ugly”—by using all 25 men, many cast-offs, to the limit of their limited ability. Observed former White Sox owner Bill Veeck: “They are third from last in batting, fifth in pitching, and they’re in the middle of the pack defensively. The Yankees are ahead of them in all statistics [but wins and losses].” The difference, says Veeck, is the manager.
Actually, Anthony LaRussa Jr. dimly remembers being a Yankee fan at 6 or 7, pitching imaginary no-hit ball for them daily against the front steps of his aunt America Bernardo’s house. His dad, Big Tony, a milkman by trade, was too busy to play anything but weekend dates. Fortunately, his mom, Oliva LaRussa, was willing to field balls from her only son in the alley behind their apartment (located over a gas station in the Italian and Cuban Ybor City section of Tampa). In fact, Tony was more or less hemmed in by the national pastime. A family friend was the “Señor” Al Lopez, who skippered the Sox to their last series. Lou Pinella, now a real Yankee, was Tony’s sandlot buddy.
LaRussa became a top-notch shortstop who was courted by most of the major-league clubs. Alas, he probably enjoyed his best moment as a pro the day he signed with the Kansas City Athletics for a then whopping $50,000 bonus. In 16 years in the majors and minors, he slogged between “gosh, I don’t even know; tons of teams.”
But Tony always had more on the ball than just his mitt. During those 16 years he earned a B.A. at the University of South Florida and a law degree at Florida State. In 1972, playing in Richmond, Va., he met and later married Elaine Coker, who waited on his table at the Cattleman restaurant. Seven years later he was sitting in another restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa when he received a call from Veeck. He had just 1½ years as a manager in the minors, but Veeck wanted him to pilot the senior club in Chicago. “I wasn’t thrilled,” he admits. “I was afraid it might be a no-win situation.”
Off-season the LaRussas live in Sarasota, Fla. in a large comfortable home, befitting a manager in the bigs. But in Chicago they rent a tiny one-bedroom house in a tract development. Reportedly, Tony recently asked team owners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf, “Can I buy a house now?” Reportedly, they replied, “Keep on renting, Tony.” LaRussa blushes when asked about the story. “That’s an old joke among managers,” he says evasively. But, as Einhorn has always said, “Winning is the bottom line.” Einhorn is a true White Sox fan.