Tony La Russa Retires: Leaving On Top Is A Rare Feat In Sports

Manager Tony La Russa celebrates with the World Series trophy after the Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 6-2 in Game Seven of the MLB World Series at Busch Stadium on October 28, 2011 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Charlie Riedle-Pool/Getty Images)

Tony La Russa managed the Cardinals to the World Series championship last Friday.

On Monday, he announced his retirement, going out as a winner.

How hard is this feat to accomplish? As actor Brent Jennings, playing Ron Washington in "Moneyball", said, "It's incredibly hard."

So difficult, in fact, that it has never before been done in baseball history. No other manager has won a World Series title and retired immediately after. Some, in fact, have gone on to less-celebrated career-enders; the all-time managerial leader in wins, Connie Mack, won five World Series, but none in his last 19 seasons. Casey Stengel managed seven Yankees teams to World Series wins, but finished his career managing the woeful expansion Mets. Joe McCarthy also won seven World Series and never had a losing season, but managed six years after his last title.

In more recent years, championship managers Bobby Cox and Joe Torre both went out with postseason appearances, but lost their final series.

We have to look to other sports to find men in these positions -- all called "head coach" rather than "manager" -- who went out the way La Russa has following the Cardinals' great postseason run.

NFL coach Bill Walsh was recently quoted by Theo Epstein, when Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs, as saying that after about 10 years, both a team and a management person should move on. Walsh took his own advice, quitting the San Francisco 49ers after ten seasons and three Super Bowl wins, the last one in 1988, his final year as a coach in the NFL.

In the NHL, Toe Blake, coach of many great Montreal Canadiens teams, won eight Stanley Cups and retired after the last of them in 1968, and Scotty Bowman, generally recognized as the greatest coach in NHL history, left coaching after his final Stanley Cup season in 2002.

Red Auerbach, whose basketball coaching career predated the start of the NBA, won titles in each of his last eight seasons, then retired from coaching -- to a long and successful career as a Celtics executive. To underscore how difficult this is to do, Phil Jackson nearly did it when he left the Chicago Bulls after winning six titles. But he came out of retirement to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, and won five more championships there -- only to hang on one season too long, searching for his second six-peat. The Lakers fell short in 2011 and Jackson is now retired.

A salute, then, to Tony La Russa for his unique feat in baseball history, and for knowing that perhaps the best time to bow out is at the top of your profession.

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