For more than five decades, Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker have had a, well, complicated relationship. A lot of it has been shaped by competition between the pair — for division titles, on behalf of the players each of them managed, even for the same roster spot. Their falling-out has become famous, as they constantly found themselves on opposite sides of some of baseball’s nastiest rivalries. Their most notable communication has come shouting at each other on the field — and rarely speaking outside of the ballpark.
But Baker, 73, and La Russa, 77, are baseball’s two oldest managers, and finally, it seems, time has healed. During the recent weekend series between the Astros and White Sox, it appeared that fences are being mended, based on how Baker and La Russa described the evolution of their connection.
“A lot of that stuff that happened with us was when we were in the same division,” said Baker, who explained that the funeral of a cherished teammate helped begin the thaw — in an unlikely place.
Pitcher Bob Welch played with Baker on the Dodgers, sharing in a championship with him in 1981, and later, La Russa managed Welch for the Oakland Athletics, including in 1989, when the A’s won the World Series. But Welch was widely beloved for far more than what he did on the field, and so when he died suddenly at age 57 in 2014, friends and family were devastated. Baker and La Russa were among those who attended the services for Welch, and as Baker recalls, another former player of both of them encouraged them to talk. Coincidentally, Baker remembered, they did so — while standing at adjacent urinals.
Then, after Baker’s Astros beat the White Sox in the playoffs last year, he received a letter from La Russa, Baker said last weekend. Baker declined to share the specific words — partly, he said with a laugh, because he couldn’t remember them — but La Russa said they were complimentary. Baker said that Melissa Baker, his spouse, encouraged him to accept La Russa’s gesture. And afterward, Baker called La Russa to acknowledge the letter and continue the conversation.
There was a lot to talk about. Their decades-long tradition of ill will began more than 40 years ago, in 1971, when La Russa and Baker were both with the Atlanta Braves at different stages of their respective careers. La Russa, a utility infielder, was working to extend his career when the Athletics sold his contract to the Braves in August of that season so that he could continue to play. Baker was 21, working to establish himself in the majors, and what Baker remembers is that the Braves kept him in the minors to allow La Russa to play in the big leagues. Baker was called up that September, near the outset of a playing career in which he became a star.
La Russa, who retired two years later, would go on to become one of baseball’s best and winningest managers, and when he was hired in the midst of the 1986 seasons to take over the Athletics, he remembers that one of the best clubhouse guys on the team was a 37-year-old outfielder — Dusty Baker, who played his final game for La Russa. The two men had a conversation at the end of that season about Baker returning in some capacity for the ’87 season. Baker kept himself in shape, he says, but never heard from the A’s again. (La Russa says now that he was under the impression that Baker wanted to continue playing, but that if he had known Dusty was ready to move into coaching, he would’ve talked to him about a job on his staff.)
Baker became manager of the Giants in 1993, taking over the other Bay Area team opposite La Russa’s Athletics. They shared the city for two years before La Russa shifted to the Cardinals, another NL team. By the time he and Baker squared off in the 2002 playoffs, hackles were raised — in Game 1, the two yelled at each other on the field after Kenny Lofton spun out of the way of a high fastball. Baker downplayed the exchange after the game. “I mean, what thing with Tony?” Baker said. “If there had been a thing, somebody would have thrown some blows or something. There was no thing. We had a discussion.”
In the next season, Baker moved to the Cubs — meaning that he and La Russa and their players were competing for the same division title. There, their exchanges grew more tense. When La Russa suggested that the Cubs’ Kerry Wood sometimes threw at hitters, Baker responded, “I’ve heard Tony say things before. As far as I’m concerned, tricks are for kids, and I don’t take kindly to threats.” On Sept. 3, 2003, the Cubs’ Matt Clement hit the Cardinals’ Dan Haren with a pitch, and subsequently, Haren hit Clement. Baker and La Russa screamed at each other from opposing dugouts, with Baker repeatedly jabbing a finger in La Russa’s direction.
But the exchanges would continue. Baker once said, “The Cardinals didn’t like you beating them. They weren’t used to the Cubs beating them. Most of the time they were used to having their way with the Cubs.”
Their communication dissipated, even as Baker moved on to the Reds in 2008. In 2010, Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips referred to the Cardinals as “b—-es.” When he came to the plate for a game in August and tried to greet Yadier Molina on the knee with his bat, Molina confronted Phillips, and so began one of the worst baseball brawls in recent history. At one point, players from both teams crashed against the netting behind home plate, with Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto kicking Cardinals catcher JasonLa Rue in the head. Baker and La Russa jawed at each other, and both were subsequently suspended.
Two years later, when La Russa managed the NL All-Star team, Cueto and Phillips were not picked for the NL All-Star team, Baker suggested that it was because of the Cardinals-Cubs battles. La Russa responded that he felt betrayed by Baker. “I’m really upset about it,” he said. “There was a knife in the back there that I don’t think I’ll forget.”
How deep the bad blood went, only La Russa and Baker know. But as La Russa once said of his exchanges with Baker, and sharing the same division as Cubs and Cardinals managers: “We play a bunch of times, and at the end of the day, one of us is happy and one of us is unhappy. That changes the relationship right there. But we’re still friends.”
Now, two of the longest-tenured managers in baseball are back on good terms — at least for the most part. La Russa ranks second all-time in career wins and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Baker is 10th all-time in career wins and soon he will pass one of his former managers, Walt Alston, and move into ninth place. Baker has not won a World Series as a manager, but La Russa mentioned over the weekend that this should have no bearing on whether Baker should be elected, after a life in baseball that includes 1,981 hits and 242 home runs before he managed a game.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” La Russa said plainly.
In the years to come, there might be a day when Baker will make a Cooperstown speech that will surely be one of the most interesting, in a lifetime in which he’s befriended everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Henry Aaron. And La Russa could be seated behind him to welcome a peer into baseball’s most important fraternity.