7/24/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Success wasn't always easy for Hall's new skippers
Cox, Torre, La Russa all experienced struggles early in their managerial careers
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
Hired to be fired.
That's what we say about managers, and we say it because it's true, even for those who one day wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre combined to win 7,558 regular-season games, 17 pennants and eight World Series. Only Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy won more games. But La Russa, Cox and Torre had to swallow their share of disappointment, including the ultimate blow to one's ego, on their way to enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y. Hall of Fame coverage begins at noon ET Sunday with MLB Tonight live from Cooperstown on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com and the At Bat app, with the induction ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.
"You learn to have patience, that's for sure," Cox said. "If ownership can learn along with you to have that patience and keep you around, [that would be better]. I feel bad for a lot of managers. So often when we work, we get a club that's not a good club by any means, and that could be the only job that some guy gets. It's unfortunate in that respect."
All three started their managerial careers in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. It was a great time for the South but not necessarily the Braves.
Cox, then 37, was hired to take over the Braves in 1978, only one year after a 101-loss season that was so bizarre that at one point, Ted Turner put on a jersey and went into the dugout to manage the team he owned. The Braves were only a little better with Cox at the helm, going 69-93 and remaining in last place in the National League West.
"Well, it was in a rebuilding mode, no doubt about that," Cox said. "We got overmatched quite a bit. We had Phil Niekro, and we had Phil Niekro, basically, and that was it. You learn from that."
Cox tried to look beyond the won-loss record to develop the players he had. That 1978 team included Dale Murphy, who moved from catcher to first base (on his way to center field) and Bob Horner, and along the way Cox got to help show players like Glenn Hubbard, Bruce Benedict, Tommy Boggs and Steve Bedrosian how to be Major Leaguers.
"The rewards of that are making the guys a little bit better, working with them and getting better, and growing up into [their careers]," Cox said. "When I got fired, I thought we had a pretty good team and might be able to do something, finally. And then when Joe Torre took over, they won that year. Joe did a great job of getting them over the hump."
Cox lasted with the Braves only through 1981, guiding them to a 266-323 record in four seasons. Their best finish under him was fourth place. But he wasn't unemployed long.
"I was lucky," Cox said. "Pat Gillick signed me to a contract [to manage the Blue Jays] the very next day."
Torre went to Atlanta on the rebound. He was the first of the three new Hall of Fame managers to start his career, taking over the Mets under unusual circumstances 45 games into the 1977 season. A 36-year-old bench player at the end of a career in which he had nine times been an All-Star, he was hired to be a player-manager to replace Joe Frazier on May 31.
Torre never wrote his own name into the lineup, however, and says he always knew he was only biding time until his retirement as a player, which came after a final at-bat on June 17.
"I was named manager two weeks before we traded Tom Seaver," Torre said. "We knew that was going to be the case. … We were going to leave me on the roster just until they decided who they were going to trade Tom Seaver to and how many players were going to come back that were Major League level."
Torre lasted with the Mets through 1981. They never won more than 67 games in a season. He said he tried to adopt philosophies he had picked up while playing for Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst while with the Cardinals.
"He never forgot what it was like to be a player," Torre said of Schoendienst. "That was the one thing that really caught my attention while I was a player. When I became a manager, I didn't want to all of a sudden have guys who were my teammates one day and then I was their manager the next day, and have them see I became somebody else. I tried to stay the same person as a veteran player becoming a rookie manager."
Unlike Torre and Cox, La Russa had not distinguished himself as a player. He jokes that he would like his playing records "expunged,'' as he's often been reminded of his .199 average over parts of six seasons. La Russa's insecurities were real when White Sox owner Bill Veeck and general manager Roland Hemond promoted him from Triple-A Des Moines to replace Don Kessinger late in the 1979 season.
"I got there, and I felt thoroughly unprepared," La Russa said. "I wasn't a good player; I was a lousy player. I had only managed a little bit. I did manage in the Dominican during the winter."
But La Russa said he had been mentored well by Loren Babe while working as a player-coach in the Minor Leagues, as well as by Paul Richards, who was on the White Sox staff. Hemond gave La Russa time to implement his cerebral style of managing as the organization shifted from Veeck's ownership to a group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.
A complete unknown when he was hired at age 34, La Russa was often roasted by the Chicago newspapers and even the team's broadcasters, especially Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall. La Russa credits Reinsdorf for sticking with him when public opinion was against him.
"I'm still really surprised he hung with me in '81 and '82, the start of '83," La Russa said. "I was hanging on by my fingernails and had no expectation I would have a long career."
Unlike Torre and Cox, La Russa got the first franchise he managed into the playoffs, as his '83 "Winning Ugly'' team recovered from a 25-31 start to win 99 games and run away with the AL West. But LaMarr Hoyt, Rich Dotson, Floyd Bannister, Greg Luzinski and Tom Paciorek weren't nearly as productive the next season, and it was the beginning of the end for La Russa in Chicago. Reinsdorf dismissed him in 1986, at the recommendation of short-lived GM Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, and still second-guesses himself for it.
"Where I went wrong, I should have known Harrelson really wasn't the right guy for the [GM] job," Reinsdorf said. "I should have let him go instead of letting him fire Tony. That was the mistake I made."
The A's hired La Russa fewer than three weeks after Reinsdorf sacked him, and it wouldn't be long before Oakland's new skipper started winning pennants. Cox didn't win his first until after he'd been dismissed twice, moving between the front office and the dugout in Toronto and Atlanta. Torre had been let go three times before he got a chance to be part of the Yankees' dynasty.
But all's well that ends well. Or, in this case, really well.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.