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December 13, 2013

La Russa, Cox and Torre built Hall of Fame careers on leadership

When managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre were elected to the Hall of Fame, there was universal agreement that the honor was deserved. Not much to debate when the call is unanimous.

If anything was strange, though, it was that the trio was elected at the same time. Previously only 18 managers had been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., so to get three at once was a first. Maybe that's because understanding the reasons for a manager's success is trickier than admiring the athletic prowess of a power hitter or a starting pitcher.

Cox, La Russa and Torre - baseball’s  winningest managers over the past four decades - coached for a combined  91 years. Their teams played a combined 13,934 games, according to Baseball-Reference.com, a site that tracks the sport’s statistical history.

They leave the big leagues ranked third, fourth and fifth in all-time wins by a manager – La Russa (2,727), Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326). They are topped by Connie Mack, who had 3,731 wins and John McGraw with 2,763.

Mack is most interesting, not just because he wore a gray suit and a straw hat in the dugout, but because he had an overall losing record. His teams lost 3,948 games – a 48.6 winning percentage.

Mack didn’t worry much about getting fired; he owned the team. Few others have enjoyed such job security in a sport where if the shortstop makes throwing errors or the clean-up hitter slumps, it’s the manager who gets fired.

Statistics bear that out. Just nine of the 30 managers heading into spring training next year will have 10 or more years’ experience managing a major league team. Four have not yet filled out a lineup card, and six have two years or less experience on the job. The average tenure is 6.4 years.

Cox, La Russa and Torre were strong leaders – effective executives off and on the field. Fans can argue the decisions each made during a game - a pitching change or a player's failure to advance a runner in an obvious bunting situation. That’s one of the game’s most endearing attractions: We all think we’re managers.

It’s the decisions made away from the field – ones the fans don’t see or understand – that explain why some managers succeed and others fail.

Spotting talent and developing players were trademarks of the three managers who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27. Each was an outstanding motivator - an under-appreciated task when facing the grind of a 162-game season.

Cox was noted for his patience in turning promising athletes into big-league stars. Some managers don’t get the opportunity to build a winning team; the pressure to win today is too great to worry about tomorrow. He did it with Atlanta before moving on to Toronto, where he made the Blue Jays contenders, and then returned to the Braves where they were again playing for championships. He claimed a Series crown in Atlanta, where he also won 14 consecutive division titles.

La Russa, who won three World Series titles, was somewhat different. He was smart, even earning a law degree, and developed a reputation as a manager who looked at the game in unorthodox ways. Consequently, he’d experiment, such as batting the pitcher eighth or using eight pitchers in a game.

Torre had success as a player and later as a manager – more than 2,300 hits and 2,300 wins. While his Yankee squads were packed with all-star level talent, Torre as a manager parlayed winning into enormous popularity. The spotlight of fame shines brightly in New York, and he was able to handle it - a point not to be minimized, especially with George Steinbrenner looking over his shoulder. The bottom line: Four championships in the Bronx.

Current Giants manager Bruce Bochy is now the game’s senior statesman. He has managed for 19 years, winning exactly half of the 3,060 games his teams have played. Most noteworthy, he has won two World Series championships.

It’s questionable whether future managers, even Botchy, will be able to survive dealing with the big salaries and big egos today’s players bring to the park. Expecting others to manage across the decades like Cox, La Russa and Torre did is hard to fathom.

History tends to repeat itself. But in this case, it won't.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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