Cooperstowners in Canada: Tony La Russa

Team photo of the 1968 Vancouver Mounties. Tony La Russa is in the second row second last on the right. (Courtesy of Joe Nossek).

Team photo of the 1968 Vancouver Mounties. Tony La Russa is the second-last player seated on the right in the second row. (Courtesy of Joe Nossek).

Tony La Russa used to be a Mountie.

No, not that kind of Mountie, although the legendary skipper, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27, does have a law degree.

What we’re referring to, however, is La Russa’s 1968 season with the Oakland A’s Triple-A Vancouver Mounties. The soon-to-be Cooperstowner was once a scrappy 23-year-old second baseman on that club which boasted six players – La Russa, Joe Nossek, Marcel Lachemann, Rene Lachemann, Steve Boros and Dave Duncan (absent from the photo above) – that would go on to enjoy successful big league managerial and coaching careers.

“We had a smart team, but we sure didn’t play very well (the Mounties posted a 58-88 record),” Nossek told me in an interview in October. “I guess it’s like they say, ‘If you can’t play it, coach it.”

La Russa toiled in 122 games for Vancouver that season and led the club in triples (8) and finished second to Nossek in hits (109). That was his seventh season in the A’s organization after they had signed him out of Jefferson High School in Tampa, Fla., in 1962.

On that Mounties squad, which was owned by 2013 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Nat Bailey, La Russa also suited up alongside two Canadians – Wayne Norton (Port Moody, B.C.) and Vern Handrahan (Charlottetown, P.E.I.).

But that season isn’t La Russa’s only link to the Great White North, here’s a rundown of some of his other Canadian connections:

– La Russa enjoyed a 16-year professional playing career from 1962 to 1977 that included big league stints with the Kansas City/Oakland A’s, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. Aside from sharing a dugout with Norton and Handrahan, La Russa also played with Canadian southpaw Ted Bowsfield (Vernon, B.C.) on the 1963 Kansas City A’s and for one game with Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) on the 1973 Chicago Cubs. Both Bowsfield (1988) and Jenkins (1987) have been elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

– Speaking of Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers, La Russa was managed by Toronto native Jimmy Williams while with the A’s Triple-A Iowa Oaks in 1969. Williams, who played 18 seasons in the minors, including three with the Montreal Royals, later became a coach with the Baltimore Orioles. He was the first base coach on the O’s 1983 World Series-winning squad. Williams was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

– La Russa’s 34-year professional managerial career started with the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate in Knoxville in 1978. By my count, La Russa managed six Canadians over the course of his career (player’s birthplace, team, years that La Russa managed them): Vince Horseman (Halifax, N.S., Oakland A’s, 1992 to 1994), Dave Wainhouse (Toronto, Ont., St. Louis Cardinals, 2000), Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont., St. Louis Cardinals, 2001), Cody McKay (Vancouver, B.C., St. Louis Cardinals, 2004), Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C., St. Louis Cardinals, 2005) and Blake Hawksworth (North Vancouver, B.C., St. Louis Cardinals, 2009-10).

– Vancouver native Dave McKay, the only Canadian to compete in the first game in Toronto Blue Jays history, was a coach on La Russa’s staffs in Oakland and St. Louis from 1986 to 2011. McKay was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. “Tony gives everything to the game of baseball,” McKay told me in a 2008 interview. “He’s just always thinking about the team, the team he’s playing against, the team he’s going to be playing against next week. He’s always ahead of everybody else.”

– La Russa was ejected from 87 games during his big league managerial career. Twice he was turfed by Montreal native Jim McKean. McKean, who was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, ejected La Russa for arguing balls and strikes on October 3, 1987 and for instigating a confrontation with Brewers slugger Jeromy Burntiz in a bean brawl on May 28, 2001

– The Blue Jays battled La Russa’s Oakland A’s squads in two American League Championship Series. The A’s defeated the Jays in five games in 1989, while the Jays prevailed in six games in 1992. The best regular season record that the A’s posted under La Russa against Toronto was in 1988 when they went 9-3.

– The Blue Jays swept the last series they played against a La Russa-led squad. Toronto prevailed in all three games against the Cardinals in an interleague series in St. Louis from June 24 to June 26, 2011. That was one of the lowlights for the Cards in a season in which they eventually won the World Series.

– From 1996 to 2004, La Russa’s Cardinals battled the Montreal Expos at least six times a year. The Cards enjoyed their most success against the Expos in 2003 when they won five of six contests. They fared worst in 1996, when the Expos were triumphant in eight of 12 meetings.

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