What often gets overlooked is how Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf trusting another baseball executive as much as Harrelson ultimately sent La Russa on his way to a Hall of Fame career elsewhere.
"When I saw the end was coming for Tony, I called A's president Roy Eisenhardt and said, 'I've either got to fire the GM (Harrelson) or the manager. If we let Tony go, would you hire him?'" Reinsdorf told the Tribune. "Roy said, 'In a heartbeat.' I wouldn't have allowed it to happen if I didn't know Tony was going to get this other job.'"
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On June 19, 1986, the Sox dismissed La Russa after going 523-510 in eight seasons that included the magical 1983 American League West championship. Just 13 days after Harrelson fired him, La Russa landed in Oakland as manager of the A's, where he won his first World Series three years later. The manager for whom Bill Veeck predicted greatness would win two more with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011, the year La Russa retired with a reputation as one of the smartest men ever to sit in a dugout.
Interestingly for Chicago baseball fans, the road that led La Russa to Cooperstown, N.Y., for Sunday's Hall of Fame induction winds back 35 years to 35th and Shields, where the residue of regret remains.
"I made the biggest mistake of my life," Reinsdorf said. "First of all, I made Hawk the general manager. That was pretty stupid. But I've always believed if you had somebody in charge of a department he should have his own people. So I allowed him to fire Tony. It was the dumbest thing I ever did."
Reinsdorf chuckled at the memory. He valued La Russa so much that he wanted to bring him back to Chicago in 1995 but then-GM Ron Schueler resisted. A bond that remains strong began days after the Reinsdorf group bought the Sox in January 1981 when he met privately with La Russa and immediately sensed brilliance. His respect only grew before an inevitable power struggle forced Reinsdorf's hand.
"I just buckled," Reinsdorf said. "The right decision would have been to let Hawk go. I was still too new and too naive. It has been almost 30 years, I still regret it."
Harrelson, La Russa's teammate on the 1963 Kansas City A's, long ago processed any remorse he felt over firing his friend. The two "didn't talk for six or seven years" but eventually cleared the air enough that Harrelson sounded like a big brother lauding La Russa's legacy.
"Tony managed 33 years and only got fired once and you're talking to the (expletive) who fired him,"' said Harrelson, who spent only one season as GM. "Tony will go down as one of the greatest managers who ever lived. He did more to change the culture of baseball than any manager I've seen."
It was that intellect Roland Hemond noticed first when La Russa, now the Diamondbacks chief baseball officer, was a Triple-A player-coach in 1976 with the Iowa Oaks. La Russa later would credit his time around Iowa manager Loren Babe as influencing his decision to bypass a life practicing law for managing. He wrote Hemond a letter in 1978 that led to his first job as the Double-A manager in Knoxville, where one of his players was a promising outfielder named Harold Baines.
"Loren Babe told me, 'Keep track of this guy, La Russa,'" recalled Hemond, 84, the Sox GM from 1970 to '85. "So I set up two visits with Bill Veeck in spring training to get to know him. After the first one, Bill came down and said, 'Loren was right. This is an intelligent young man.'"
When Sox manager Don Kessinger resigned with 54 games left in the 1979 season, Veeck remembered his conversations with the bright young lawyer. Just 34, La Russa took over. La Russa got the news when former Sox executive Walt Jocketty interrupted his lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Des Moines where he was managing the Sox's Triple-A affiliate — good fortune indeed.
Within hours, La Russa flew to Chicago where he inherited a 46-60 team that played .500 the rest of the way. La Russa's arrival captured the imagination of many South Siders, except announcer Harry Caray who liked to say Veeck hired the cheapest manager available.
"Harry destroyed Tony," Reinsdorf said. "I only wish he were alive to see this."
During an interview at the end of La Russa's first season, Caray asked Hemond a typically blunt question.
"Harry said, 'How could you hire Tony La Russa?'" Hemond said. "I answered, 'Harry, this young man has a great mind and feel for the game. I think Tony's going to be one of the great managers of our time.'"
Thanks to the Sox giving La Russa his first opportunity, he was.