Paul Sullivan: Is Tony La Russa too old? Would the young Chicago White Sox — and their big personalities — be given freedom by a 76-year-old manager?

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

Shortly before his 87th birthday and after more than a decade of being in the background of the decision-making, Chicago Bears owner George Halas decided to take the reins of the organization from general manager Jim Finks and select a new head coach.

Halas settled on Mike Ditka, the former Bears tight end who was then serving as a special teams coach with the Dallas Cowboys.

At a news conference announcing the Ditka hiring, Tribune reporter Bill Jauss questioned whether Halas had the mental faculties to be making decisions at his age.

“There’s not a senile bone in this body!” Halas replied.

You are only as young as you feel, the saying goes, and in Halas’ mind he was 86 going on 60.

Which brings us to Tony La Russa, the 76-year-old candidate for the White Sox managerial vacancy. As the Sox search for someone to replace Rick Renteria, the idea that a senior citizen such as La Russa can be a viable candidate has been hotly debated on talk radio and the internet.

The Los Angeles Angels granted the Sox permission to interview La Russa — who hasn’t managed since 2011 — and USA Today called him the favorite to get the job.

Whether that’s true or not, La Russa is in the mix, making his age a relevant topic of discussion.

How old is too old? Has the game passed him by? Can young players relate to a 76-year-old manager? And does it really matter as long as they win?

All valid questions.

When news of the Sox’s interest broke last week, I poked fun at La Russa, facetiously suggesting he would fall asleep during a teleconference and misremember the names of his players. Some readers called me “ageist” and called for an apology.

Obviously I was joking, but in fairness to La Russsa, it should be pointed out that I also could fall asleep on a Zoom call, depending on who is Zooming.

I don’t see La Russa as a fit for this Sox team, mostly because of his personality, which was probably the same at 35 as it is at 76.

This is a young, hard-working group that likes to have fun. Renteria let them be themselves, and their personality is one reason the Sox were so enjoyable to watch this year. I’d hate to see anyone come in and stifle that carefree attitude.

Being old doesn’t necessarily disqualify La Russa. Angels manager Joe Maddon, who turns 67 in February, still is one of the sharpest minds in baseball. And if age isn’t an issue, I’d hope the Sox would interview the best out-of-work manager around — 65-year-old Bruce Bochy, who said he would be interested in returning to the game.

The oldest manager to win a World Series was Jack McKeon, who did it with the 2003 Florida Marlins at 72. But McKeon was a fun-loving guy himself, and he entrusted his third base coach, Ozzie Guillen, to basically run the clubhouse. Maybe La Russa would do likewise with his coaches and focus on in-game decision-making, but it seems unlikely.

If I were general manager Rick Hahn interviewing La Russa, my first question would be “Why?”

La Russa already has accomplished more than any manager since John McGraw, who retired in 1932. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He has a comfortable life and a good job as a baseball adviser.

Does he need to pass McGraw for second on the all-time wins list (he trails by only 35)? Does he miss the spotlight? Does he have a strange obsession with working for his close friend, Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who still regrets La Russa’s firing in 1986?

Some people can’t stop and smell the roses, no matter what profession they choose. Minnesota sportswriter Sid Hartman continued to work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune until he died Sunday at 100. He even had a byline on the day he passed.

Perhaps Halas thought he could enjoy his golden years in semi-retirement, but when push came to shove he decided to wade back into the waters in his late 80s to hire Ditka, a move that helped lead the Bears to their only Super Bowl win.

In this space of the Tribune on Feb. 2, 1982, shortly after the Halas-Jauss back-and-forth, In the Wake of the News columnist David Condon defended Halas against criticism he was too old to still run the Bears.

I had just started at the Tribune as a copy clerk and thought Condon was ancient. Suddenly I realize I’m older now than he was when he wrote that column under this headline: “By George, at 87 Halas still going strong.”

“What has been vicious, rash and unfair … is the recent wave of criticism that time has passed Halas by, that he is too old to run a football club, and that a fellow of 87 should entrust his organization to younger geniuses,” Condon wrote. “Well, for long years, the younger geniuses have been tried and found wanting, and finally Papa Bear started answering ‘me!’ whenever someone asked ‘Who’s in charge here?’ “

Of course, Halas was the owner and could do whatever he wanted. La Russa needs Hahn to agree that he’s the right choice — unless Reinsdorf decides to let everyone know he’s still in charge at 84.

It’s an age-old story.

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