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Today in Cubs history: Tony La Russa’s single Cubs appearance

The longtime MLB manager was a Cub... for one game.

This article originally ran three years ago when I was looking for material to publish during the pandemic shutdown.

Since today is the 50th anniversary of this game, I thought I’d run it again. Of course, Tony La Russa had an, uh, interesting managerial stint since this article was last published.

With a couple of minor changes acknowledging that, here’s the story of TLR’s one game as a Chicago Cubs player.

Even with 1970s-era long hair and sideburns, the visage in the Cubs uniform above is instantly recognizable as Tony La Russa, who later became famous as a manager of the White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals... and then White Sox again, thanks to his buddy Jerry Reinsdorf. That’s an entirely different story than the one I want to tell you here, which is of TLR’s single appearance on the field in a Cubs uniform.

The photo above is clearly from spring training 1973, given the background shown. It’s also interesting because of the small number on the helmet within the “C”. The Cubs identified players’ helmets in this way in the 1960s and 1970s.

La Russa was one of the last “bonus babies” signed before the MLB draft was instituted. Signed out of high school in June 1962, the rules of the day required the team that signed him, the Athletics, to keep him on the big-league roster for a specified length of time before he could be sent to the minor leagues for development. These rules ruined a lot of young players’ careers and helped lead to the creation of the draft.

Anyway, TLR played in 34 games for the A’s in 1963 and then spent the next four years in their minor-league system. Injuries kept him from becoming the player the A’s hoped he would be, and he was eventually sold to the Braves in August 1971. He played in just nine games for Atlanta, and while La Russa was on their Triple-A Richmond roster in August 1972, the Braves traded him to the Cubs for reliever Tom Phoebus.

Phoebus had been a useful starter for the Orioles in the late 1960s, even pitching in the 1970 World Series for them, but by the time the Cubs got him in 1972 he was just about done. He pitched in Triple-A for the Braves in 1973, then retired.

La Russa, who was 28 at the time the Cubs acquired him, reported to spring training in 1973 in Scottsdale, where the Cubs then trained. The Tribune posted this optimistic report on him from then-batting coach Lew Fonseca:

“LaRussa [sic] has impressed me more than any other newcomer,” Fonseca began. “He has a lot of desire, a quick bat and he spreads the ball around real well. He is an excellent two-strike hitter. He can be fooled and still have enough strength to poke the ball through the infield.”

Sounds like a useful player, right? La Russa made the Opening Day roster.

Friday, April 6, 1973 was Opening Day at Wrigley Field, a fairly mild afternoon (64 degrees at game time, per the boxscore), with the Cubs facing the Montreal Expos. Fergie Jenkins spotted the Expos a pair in the first inning and the Cubs responded with one in the bottom of the frame.

The score remained 2-1 heading to the bottom of the ninth. Joe Pepitone led off with a single. Cleo James ran for Pepitone and Ron Santo followed with what should have probably been a double-play grounder. But Montreal second baseman Ron Hunt booted it and both runners were safe.

Here is where La Russa begins his Cubs career. He pinch-ran for Santo.

Glenn Beckert walked to load the bases and Randy Hundley also drew a walk off Mike Marshall, who had entered for that at-bat. The bases-loaded free pass tied the game.

Mike Marshall retired Don Kessinger on a popup and struck out Jim Hickman, who was pinch-hitting for Cubs pitcher Bob Locker.

That brought up Rick Monday. The game appeared headed to extras, but Monday worked a walk off Marshall, scoring La Russa with the winning run. Here’s TLR stomping on the plate as Expos catcher John Boccabella and plate umpire Tom Gorman watch:

I remember this Opening Day well; it was just my second opener. La Russa was such a late addition to the roster that he wasn’t on the printed scorecard — I had to write his name in:

(You’ll note that with La Russa added, there are 26 players shown on the card. Dave LaRoche, a lefthanded reliever, was on the disabled list.)

La Russa’s Cubs career lasted nine more days. He was on the roster through April 16, but did not play in any of the six games in that span. (Two games at Pittsburgh were postponed during that time.) On April 17, the Cubs activated LaRoche from the disabled list and outrighted La Russa to Wichita, then their Triple-A affiliate. Here’s the transaction as reported in the Tribune:

TLR hit .259/.340/.328 in 107 games and 380 plate appearances for Wichita, but never returned to the big-league Cubs roster, not even as a September callup.

He played four more Triple-A seasons in the Pirates, White Sox and Cardinals organizations and then retired as a player. He was named manager of the White Sox Double-A affiliate at Knoxville in 1978 and moved up to their major-league coaching staff halfway through that season when manager Larry Doby was fired. In 1979 La Russa was managing the Sox’ Triple-A affiliate — then at Iowa — when the Sox again fired their manager, Don Kessinger, and La Russa began his long MLB managing career August 3, 1979.

In addition to all that, though, La Russa can always say he scored the winning run for the Cubs on Opening Day. It happened 50 years ago today, Friday, April 6, 1973.