The comparisons between sports figures are never ending. I am not sure there is ever a right answer, but more of a personal opinion. I feel that much is left to the era one grew up in or when they became aware and began to follow the sport. One of those comparisons in the St. Louis baseball family is that of Whitey Herzog or Tony La Russa and who is the best Redbird manager of all time.
The black and white, look at the record version of the answer is one which takes all comparisons from the argument. If that is what the answer is based on, then there is no comparison, it is Tony La Russa. In his 33 years as a manager he amassed a win loss record of 2728 wins and 2365 losses, giving him a winning percentage of .536. He was the AL Manager of the year three times and once in the NL. When he took over the Cardinals in 1996, over the course of the next 16 years he’d win 1408 games and have a winning percentage of .544. In that time frame he would win three Pennants and two World Series titles. La Russa had seven 1st place finishes and the Birds never finished lower than 4th at any time during La Russa’s tenure.
Whitey Herzog was no slacker. He put together 822 wins and 728 losses with a winning percentage of .530. He stacked in two Pennants and one World Series title during that time. He was also the NL Manager of the year in 1985. However, if the Birds weren’t in the Fall Classic they consistently finished in 3rd, 4th, 5th and even 6th place. Except for 1981, they finished in 2nd.
In Baseball Heaven the answer isn’t as easy as looking at the statistics, awards and titles. There is more to it. There is a deep personal relationship feeling the fans have with the manager. There were many times it was felt that La Russa over analyzed everything. Fans felt he depended too much on statistics with match ups. It was a clear love/hate relationship with Tony. He never charmed the media or the fans for that matter. He won ball games, played who he thought was the best and brought home championships. He would wear his dark glasses even at night in hopes not to reveal any emotion or give anything away to the opponent. Unlike Herzog he kept things at a distance from him.
Herzog was just the opposite. Who can forget Whitey Ball, the White Rat and the Running Redbirds? The big smile, the candid comments, raw sense of humor and those powder blue uniforms. The tobacco chomping Herzog was “old school”. He cussed; he drank beer and could blow up on an umpire with the best of them. St. Louis loved him. There was a mindset that even when the Birds were down that Whitey would take care of it. He warmed up to the media, he played to them. He promoted that good ole boy feeling with the Cardinals. He did have the advantage of having Gussie Busch as the owner of the Cardinals who helped him promote that family feeling.
As great as La Russa was there were fans you could still hear saying “Whitey wouldn’t have done that”. That is probably true. There weren’t many things they did which were similar. They are truly apples and oranges, two completely different styles. I think there was always an underlying resentment of La Russa by Herzog. There may have been a resentment of La Russa for not being more like Herzog by the fans.
Both of these managers had great supporting casts of current and future hall of famers, all stars and beloved characters in Cardinal History. They both won and lost the big game. They both concreted themselves in Cardinal and baseball history. Herzog has already made his way in to Cooperstown and will one day be joined by La Russa. They each won a ton of games and like Frank Sinatra they did it their way. The debate will be unending and who knows maybe Mike Matheny is embarking on a managerial career that will eclipse them all. Only time will tell. Until then for the record, I’m a La Russa guy.