But, there's more to that chapter of the La Russa story. While he toiled as a minor league skipper, La Russa was also studying to earn his law degree. Tony struggled with how to rationalize his fledgling legal career with his other dream of managing in the big leagues. As the latter became a reality, the former became less important. But, it wasn't quite that simple to leave behind.
La Russa had graduated from Florida State University's School of Law in 1978 but hadn't taken the bar exam. In the meantime, he managed that 1979 Sox team to a respectable 27-27 record over the last two months of the season. But a condition was attached to him returning to Chicago the next spring.
La Russa recounts the story. "Mr. Veeck said, "I'll bring you back for '80, but you must pass the bar." So that's what I did. In late October, I took Florida. I got my license. Before spring training in January, 1980, I joined a two-man firm in Sarasota."
The manager did become a real lawyer for a short while. "I went in for a few days. I was more getting ready for spring training. The only work they gave me was an elderly lady who was making a bid to restore her competency. She had been in a home and her family had challenged her competency and she wanted her competency back. They were messing with her money."
"So, I did the research. As we were going to court, the thing got delayed. When it actually came up, it was March and I was already in camp with the White Sox. One of the two partners, they took it. I was just an add-on. Still, they always claim that I lost my case."
"I never really stepped foot (in a courtroom) and I lost my one case. It got delayed and I've been managing ever since. For a number of years, back there they'd still list me as counsel. In fact, there is probably still a firm down in Sarasota that still lists me."
I asked if he enjoyed being a lawyer. The reply was quick and definite. "No. At that point, I was captivated by the managing thing."
La Russa did acknowledge, however, that it was a good safety net to have in case he lost his managing job with the White Sox. "Believe me, those first couple of years, it was imminent", said La Russa.
For La Russa, he couldn't have scripted it any better. "It was unusual. Things just came into place. I couldn't believe it. Managing parts of two years and Mr. Veeck says, "You want to manage here?" But, we had a bad club and that usually doesn't mean you survive very long."
"He wouldn't give it to me unless I agreed to take the last part of the bar. And, I took it. The multi-state is the one that drives everybody nuts. It is such a crazy test. But, somehow I must have guessed right. I passed it. Most people don't study for it. That is why they fail."
"But, the Florida part, it's pretty straightforward. I was at the Winter Meetings – the first Winter Meetings that I ever went to – in Toronto. And, my wife called as I was just getting ready to come home. She said, "I've got the letter from the Florida Bar right here. Do you want me to open it?" At first I said, "no". But then, "shoot, go ahead." It said I passed."
He is still a card-carrying lawyer today. "I've got my bar card right here." La Russa pulled out his wallet, looking back and forth among the miscellaneous items in it. "I pay dues every year – I am an inactive member. I think they put a note at the bottom of mine that says "Very inactive"", La Russa cracked.
"There it is – Florida bar." La Russa held up his identification card. "Number 000756, member since 1980", he read proudly.
I asked La Russa what impact his law degree had with the umpires over the years. He definitely views it as a hindrance. "I think it works against me. I always know it when an ump says "Counselor, you're not going to win this one" before I ever open my mouth."
La Russa did admit that any real problems are the exception, rather than the rule. "Most of the time it is good-natured", he acknowledged.
But, in the late ‘70's, La Russa's "other" career was not common knowledge as it is today. "Back then, not many people knew what I was doing. But, since then, I've made it clear that I am a baseball man, not a lawyer."
That he is. Yet, only four other men in the history of the game shared La Russa's twin vocation and all four of those other manager/lawyers are in the Hall of Fame: Monte Ward (New York Giants, Brooklyn and Providence, late 1800s), Hughie Jennings (Detroit, 1907-20, New York Giants, 1924), Miller Huggins (Cardinals and New York Yankees, 1913-29) and Branch Rickey (Browns, 1913-15 and Cardinals, 1919-25).
Still, Cardinals fans appreciate the fact that La Russa's teams' record on the baseball field is far superior to his record in the courts of law.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.