Tony La Russa's Hall of Fame roots were planted in Chicago

As young manager of White Sox, he soaked in wisdom of Veeck and Co.

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Tony La Russa answers questions at the media press conference at National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Gregory Fisher / USA Today Sports / July 26, 2014)

Typically after White Sox games at old Comiskey Park in 1979, Tony La Russa's most meaningful work began.

La Russa was the new 34-year-old manager, as eager to please his new bosses as he was to learn from them, so if Sox owner Bill Veeck demanded his postgame presence at the Bard's Room, it didn't matter what the clock said. He listened closest to Veeck, even at 3 in the morning — especially then.

"I'd go up there at the end of a game and hear discussions and arguments about what was good baseball and wasn't ... you can't begin to define it," La Russa told the Tribune. "At first Bill invited me, but then he required me to be up there because he knew it was like getting a free education."

La Russa had graduated in 1978 from Florida State's law school but never had received schooling like this. Regulars at the gathering spot upstairs inside the ballpark were general manager Roland Hemond and Veeck confidant Paul Richards, whom La Russa credits with uttering words he lived by as a manager: "Trust your gut, don't cover your ass."

The tables usually featured empty glasses and Veeck commanding full attention as stories flowed like beverages, conversations that taught La Russa most about respecting the game and its fans.

"It wasn't like going to graduate school; it was like going to the baseball academy in the sky," La Russa said. "Bill orchestrated it all, making the sure the discussion was flowing and always about baseball."

When La Russa reflects Sunday on the steps of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he will think of that room and Chicago's role in his professional development — particularly Veeck's. It was Veeck who enlisted Hemond to take a chance on a lawyer with 280 games of minor league managing experience, which carried less weight than Loren Babe's recommendation.

"That is not classic training for a major league manager," said La Russa, now the Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer. "I have looked back over the years, and it all started there in Chicago. They had less reason to hire me than any other job I ever took."

When Hall officials wanted to design his plaque last winter, La Russa remembered those roots — and the risk Veeck took.

"A good example of my respect and appreciation of that opportunity is when I was given the choice of what hat to wear, I chose no logo because no way I wanted to disrespect my time in Chicago or Oakland," said La Russa, who also managed the Cardinals to two World Series titles.

The best times in Chicago came in 1983, after Jerry Reinsdorf's group had purchased the team, when the Sox won the American League West to make the playoffs for the first time in 24 years. La Russa recalled the Sept. 17 division clincher against the Mariners as if it happened last week.

"My favorite memory was the way 'Na-na-na-na' echoed around the ballpark," La Russa said. "It was electric."

It was especially satisfying for La Russa given the skepticism that surrounded his early tenure. Anti-La Russa sentiments became so strong in 1982 that he wore a bulletproof vest during a home series because of a death threat. Announcer Harry Caray made it hard for Sox fans to see the good in their manager by constantly second-guessing La Russa's moves in his inimitable way, a style La Russa knew from 1970 as an A's player during Caray's only year in the Oakland booth.

"Harry made a career of supposedly telling it like it is, endearing himself to the fans, but I watched him in Oakland and what he would do was pick on the most vulnerable guy, and for the sake of 'telling it like it is,' he'd nail you," La Russa said. "I think his motives were not very honorable at all. He wanted to stir the pot, and he pretended he was a friend of the fans. I don't think he was."

Ron Kittle, who played for La Russa from 1983 to '86, built a friendship with his manager that remains strong based on respect for the firm but fair way he treated players. According to Kittle, La Russa was enough of a "nitpicker" to point out the wrong color of shoelace but managed personalities so well that everybody understood their roles.

"There wasn't anybody more prepared to win than Tony La Russa," Kittle said. "There were a few times I wanted to smash him, but way more times I wanted to respect his opinion. I used to joke with him about his gut feelings. I'd say, 'Hey, those are ulcers.' "

Any tension created by the way Hawk Harrelson fired La Russa in June 1986 slowly dissipated. The passage of time helped, as did Harrelson stopping by to shake hands one day in 1992 before a Sox-A's game.

"Life's too short. I appreciate Hawk's knowledge and his love for the game," La Russa said. "It hurt because I was part of the family, and then I wasn't."

On La Russa's biggest day in baseball, the Sox family proudly reclaims the manager who grew up on the South Side, listening to old men educate him about a kid's game.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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