Tony La Russa Has Knoxville Roots

The first sports news I heard Monday morning was that Tony La Russa decided to retire. I thought going out on top was the perfect way for Tony to exit.

Tony La Russa (right) as manager of the Knoxville Sox in 1978. It was his first managerial position in professional baseball. Photo from the Tennessee Smokeys website.

I see Tony every off-season. On weeknights, as I often run on a treadmill and work a bit with weights at my athletic club, Tony will be doing his thing there, too — stretches, lunges, weights, walking on the treadmill. Always in Cardinals garb.

When you are finally home after the end of a long baseball season and before the next grind starts, you’d probably like your time to be your own. So, I leave him alone.

While working out, I usually wear a t-shirt with “Tennessee” or “Vols” across the front. I’ve never noticed that he’s noticed. Why would he? His roots in managing professional baseball are probably a faint memory.

***

When I was a student at UT in the 1970s, I attended many Knoxville Sox baseball games during spring quarter. Back in those days, the Sox were the AA club of the Chicago White Sox in the Southern League. They played at Bill Meyer Stadium, located near I-40 on the east side of town, in an old industrial part of Knoxville near the railroad tracks.

Bill Meyer Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee: the former home of the Knoxville Sox. Photo from ballparkreviews.com

That old ballpark doesn’t exist anymore. The grandstand was torn down about 10 years ago. Apparently the field still exists, as it is used by amateur baseball leagues. It has been renamed Ridley-Helton Field in memory of former Knoxville baseball owner Neil Ridley (Knoxville native and former manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates) and former Knoxville native Todd Helton (All-Star with the Colorado Rockies and former UT Vols quarterback).

Back in it’s day, it was a great place to see a ball game, and it hosted a pretty high quality of baseball. AA baseball is the lowest level of minor league ball where players will get called up directly to the bigs. Not as often as from AAA, but it does happen, usually involving pitchers.

Several times a game, a train would roll by behind the third base grandstand, blowing its horn, blaring its sound of nostalgia for baseball-crazy people like me and my friends.

The only problem with baseball at that ballpark was, except for one season, the Knoxville Sox were terrible.

***

My first year attending Sox games, 1975, the club was 63-75. The next two seasons were no better: 61-77, then 50-87. There were very few players from those clubs that made any mark in the majors; pitcher LaMarr Hoyt was probably the best.

Fortunately, for the 1978 season, Chicago owner Bill Veeck decided to hire a very young man, fresh with a new law degree from Florida State University, to manage their AA affiliate in Knoxville — Anthony La Russa, Jr. Five years prior, he had ended an undistinguished playing career in the majors.

His very first season as a manager, the young lawyer skippered the typically pitiful Knoxville Sox to an 83-61 record and the Southern League pennant. Before the season was over, the big club promoted the young La Russa to be a part of the White Sox coaching staff for the last part of that ’78 season.

Going to Sox games that summer at that old yard was great fun. Luckily, I stayed in Knoxville for the summer to continue graduate studies, so I was fortunate to see more than my fair share of La Russa’s budding champions.

Without La Russa at the helm, the next three years saw the Knoxville club regress to the mean: 65-76, 57-87, and 63-80. That’s how good of a manager Tony La Russa was. The rest is history.

And it all started in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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5 responses to “Tony La Russa Has Knoxville Roots”

  1. rockytop78 says :

    I don’t recall that I ever got over to Bill Meyer stadium as an undergraduate in the mid- to late-1970s; but I remember the excitement when I heard that Jim Bouton, former New York Yankees pitching wunderkind and author of “Ball Four” (one of the funniest sports books that I have ever read) was signed to play for the Knoxville Sox in 1977. Bouton’s stay in Knoxville was rather unmemorable; his minor league stats for that year reveal an 0-6 won-loss record with an ERA of 5.26, 19 strikeouts, 14 walks, and 11 home runs given up.

    When I returned to Knoxvegas to practice law some 10 years later, I was a semi-regular attendee at Bill Meyer stadium, especially for the “businessman’s special” — games that started at noon; and several of us young lawyers would go over for these games. It was a lot of fun, and the stadium had a great environment for baseball (by that time the local team was a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate). We saw some good players cycle through, especially when the Class AA Greeneville Braves came through; I saw Ryan Klesko once hit a ball that was still rising when I lost sight of it over the Palm Beach Factory Mill. I was severely disappointed when Mayor Victor Ashe let the new stadium get away to Sevier County; I had hoped that he would locate it downtown on the old World’s Fair site, so I could walk to the games.

    I didn’t know that Tony LaRussa had been a lawyer; but he has managed to do for a living what many lawyers wish they could do — not practice law! My respect for him has just seriously increased.

    • norcalvol says :

      Agree – letting the new stadium drift into another county was really unfortunate. Downtown taverns and eateries could use the business during the spring and summer.

      I read Bouton’s book while in high school – sports’ first “tell-all” book. Outstanding stuff. Also, great insight to the differences between the AL and NL during the late 1960s. A lot of it was why I was a NL fan (and still am).

  2. bert says :

    fred…a little anecdote here…

    while working at the UT bookstore in 1978 i remember tony la russa
    coming in and buying a law book [i rang him up...], which now seems
    odd based on his graduating from FSU law earlier in the year.

    even then he thought he was the smartest guy in the room…uh…wait,
    come to think of it, he was. ;-)

    but, he was easy to recognize since we regularly went to
    knox sox games…

    unfortunately, i’ve never been a fan…always thought he
    underachieved in the playoffs, especially with the A’s back in the day…ie,
    losing to the dodgers in ’88 [..."i don't believe what i just saw"...]
    and getting swept by the Reds, despite being overwhelming
    favorites in both…

    he’s hung around long enough to win a ton of games…so, congrats
    to him…

    • norcalvol says :

      Thanks, Bert, for that memory.
      Did you pump your right arm when you rang him up? LOL.

      I was a big fan of his while at the A’s. Me and my spouse went to many A’s games in the 1988-2003 era. Trememdous teams and players. The biggest disappointments were (a) geting swept by Cincinnati in ’90 (I still can’t fathom how that happened), and (b) the loss to Toronto in the playoffs (which led to the Jays beating my Phils in the WS).

      He is immensely popular here in the Bay Area because of his charitable endeavors, especially ARF (Animal Rescue Foundation).

  3. TK says :

    no damn way LaRussa was the smartest man in the bookstore……hell bert you were there…..you rang him up!!!!!!

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