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.
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.
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.