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Hawk Harrelson fired Tony La Russa and the rest is baseball history

Updated: August 26, 2014 6:44AM

Tony La Russa by the numbers?

Three teams, six pennants, three World Series titles and . . . well, let Hawk Harrelson take it from here.

“He managed 33 years, and he only got fired one time,” Harrelson said this week. “You’re talking to the one ass---- that fired him.”

That stretch with the White Sox between 1979 and 1986 on La Russa’s résumé is the more forgettable part of a Hall of Fame managerial career that included repeated World Series appearances with the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals.

But La Russa, 69, doesn’t wind up in Cooperstown, New York, this weekend without a push-start on the South Side.

“This will be an emotional ceremony,” said Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who also will see Frank Thomas inducted. “But especially so for me to see Tony get in, seeing how much he suffered early in his career and the abuse he took. To see that he proved them all wrong. I just wish Harry Caray were alive.”

That’s a jab at the former Sox and Cubs broadcaster who never held back with his criticism of La Russa, something that quickly turned fans against their young manager. Harrelson — now a Sox broadcaster but then their general manager — remembers one of the toughest days he had in baseball.

“I went down to his office one day after a game, and I said, ‘Tony, I have to do one of two things: I’ve either got to fire you or make you a hero,’ ’’ Harrelson recalled. “He sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, you’re not going to make me a hero.’

“Well, obviously, I did. I made him a [bleeping] hero.”

A hero eventually in Oakland and St. Louis. But not in Chicago.

“The biggest regret I have as an owner is a combination of things,” said Reinsdorf, who bought the team in 1981. “First was hiring a general manager who shouldn’t have been a general manager, and second was letting that same man fire Tony.”

It was a bitter parting. Harrelson and La Russa — ex-teammates in the Kansas City Athletics organization — didn’t speak for six or seven years after the firing. Now, they kid each other about it. Harrelson will be in Cooperstown to honor his old friend.

And La Russa remains one of Reinsdorf’s all-time favorites.

So what went wrong in 1986?

“I didn’t fire him because he’s a bad manager,” Harrelson said. “I fired him partly because he was getting killed by the fans every time he stuck his head out of the dugout.”

Baseball was still dominated by old-school managers back then. La Russa was blazing a new trail, and it took awhile for fans — and broadcasters — to embrace his style.

“Tony had a bigger impact on the culture of baseball than any other manager in history,” Harrelson said. “He was the first manager to bring in an eighth-inning [reliever], then he brought in a seventh-inning guy — the reason being that he could save his closer for later in the game.

“When I broke in, the mantra was that you will only go as far as your starting pitching will take you. Today, the mantra is you’re only going to go as far as your bullpen takes you. And that’s because of La Russa. It has become a battle of bullpens.”

Contributing: Gavin Crowell


Twitter: @ChrisDeLuca

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