Baseball legend Tony La Russa’s true passion: animal rescue

When the time comes to memorialize Tony La Russa, they’ll say he’s one of the greats. He leads a team of talented professionals — some of the best around — and to many, he’s a hero. I just hope that history won’t forget his contributions to the world of baseball as well.

You see, Tony La Russa is a true animal advocate. In addition to managing the St. Louis Cardinals, he founded and heads Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) — one of the most successful animal shelters in the country. And if you think he’s just some wealthy sports figure who threw money at cause and slapped his name on a building, you’re sadly mistaken.

Listen to the Road to Rescue interview with ARF founder Tony La Russa on Animal Radio Network.

Rescue dogs: a view from inside

In the off-season, he’s at ARF nearly every day, and he and his wife Elaine — who’s he quick to credit with so much of ARF’s success — have envisioned and brought to fruition some of the most innovative developments in animal sheltering.

Inspiration into reality

If the story were a Hollywood movie, they’d say it was too sweet to be believeable. A feral cat living under a baseball stadium wanders out into the middle of play one evening. The team manager wants to turn the cat over to a municipal shelter, but grows concerned she’ll be put down when he learns that space there is so limited. So, he starts his own no-kill animal shelter.

Sure, that’s a simplified version, but that feral cat (later christened Evie, after Oakland As team owner Evie Haas) was truly the inspiration for La Russa’s founding of ARF in 1990. It was hardly, however, La Russa’s first foray into the world of animal welfare. For years, both he and his wife have actively advocated on behalf of animals, traveling to shelters around the country helping raise money and awareness. And they’ve both been vegetarians since 1977, a rarity, if not complete anomaly, in the world of professional sports.

Animals rescuing people

Though ARF in name is an animal shelter — a place to adopt a cat or dog — to call it that only paints a small part of the picture. It’s more like a community center with classrooms, a summer camp, and a spay/neuter clinic. You can even hold your child’s birthday party there. What’s more, the campus is a place one actually wants to spend time. The facilities are gorgeous with clean warm condos for the animals and acres of beautiful walking trails.

And while ARF’s mission is about rescuing as many companion animals as they can, they’ve developed an entire curriculum devoted to “animals rescuing people.” Called People Connect, this set of programs was designed to tap that innate comfort — and sheer joy — animals elicit and channel that directly to people in nursing homes, schools, and rehabilitation centers.

Clearly, La Russa’s spirit is the driving force behind the innovation and success of ARF. When I ask him whether he’s more passionate about baseball or about animals, he tells me it’s not even close. “I spend eight months out of the year doing baseball, twelve months doing ARF,” he says. “Our family, myself — we choose this passion.”

I have to admit I don’t watch a lot of professional sports, and before our interview, I only had the vaguest notion of who Tony La Russa is. But I can tell you that from here on out I don’t care who La Russa is managing, I’ll always enthusiastically be rooting for his team. Because clearly, he’s constantly going to bat for mine.