In his first 14 seasons, La Russa produced eight postseason appearances and a World Series championship. He's the franchise's winningest manager. Loosened up some, too.
All of that is good for second place in the hearts and minds of the team's fan base who cannot forget the magic of the Herzog years. The all-Busch Stadium II team, voted on by fans in 2005, is headed by Herzog, the man from small-town New Athens, Ill.
"Tough act? That's not how you look at it, you've got a job to do," La Russa said. "But I don't think, popularity-wise, Whitey, no matter how long he's not been around he's not going to lose his place."
It's been 20 years since Herzog, who'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this weekend, last managed a game for the Cardinals. For much of that time, fans pined in vain for his return.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who replaced Herzog as Cardinals manager in 1990, believes the recognition is long overdue for the 78-year-old Herzog.
"He was a tough customer, the ballclub always took on his personality," Torre said. "Whitey in my opinion is a very brilliant baseball mind, never afraid to fail. I'm just happy he's in the Hall of Fame and think it should have happened before now."
La Russa feels the same way.
"It's been coming," he said. "I don't think there was any question he was going to get in, it was just a matter of time. He had a great career."
It seems like yesterday for some who were around to witness the rise of the franchise under the imaginative leadership of the man — after he was a white-haired little boy — known as the White Rat.
Herzog played eight mostly forgettable seasons in the majors. He was a career .257 hitter and never had more than 38 RBIs in a season. His fame came later.
The Cardinals hired Herzog as manager midway through the 1980 season and shortly thereafter added general manager to his title. After stops in Texas, California and Kansas City, where he led the Royals to 90 wins and their first AL West title, he immediately put his stamp on the Cardinals, engineering three blockbuster trades involving 21 players at the winter meetings after the '80 season.
He acquired a pair of Hall of Famers, reliever Bruce Sutter from the Cubs and shortstop Ozzie Smith from the Padres.
"He sort of changed what being a general manager was all about, making deals that he put together as a manager which is sort of like we do in football. 'If you want this player, you're going to have take this one, this one and this one,'" Torre said. "I thought it was pretty brazen, but it made sense."
The Cardinals won their first World Series in 15 years in 1982, and took NL pennants in 1985 and 1987 with a team built for speed and a style of play known as Whiteyball.
Herzog recalls that when he managed the Cardinals, half of the dozen teams in the National League had artificial turf. Busch Stadium was one of them.
"People used to say we could play baseball because we were in St. Louis," Herzog said. "We were a good turf team, but we also were a good team on the road."
Herzog was so successful that fans long ago forgave him from walking away from the job. Herzog resigned in July 1990, frustrated with what he perceived as a greedy, self-centered generation of players.
The Cardinals have been a huge regional drawing card ever since. The new Busch Stadium is 5 years old, yet before every game fans spend time snapping photos around the statues honoring the team's greats and scrutinizing personalized bricks.
"It didn't start with him and it didn't end with him, but his contribution was to really build the foundation for what the Cardinal Nation is," said broadcaster Rick Horton, a relief pitcher for Herzog with the Cardinals. "He educated the fans. He was a really good communicator about the game."
Horton was a member of the '90 team that was expected to contend but was only 33-47 when Herzog quit. He describes the season up to that point as "bizarre" and "almost surreal."
"It was a low point and it seemed as if Whitey's authority was being taken from him, and I guess that's how he'd say it," Horton said. "He was losing some of his grip on players, maybe, but it was just a weird time.
"And we were underperforming big time, which was so different from teams in '85 and '87 that overperformed in a very big way."
Horton plans on being in Cooperstown for the induction ceremony. Slugger Jack Clark, too.
"He loved the game very deeply and if you're around him, you get excited about the game," Horton said. "It's infectious, his passion for the game.
"When you're around Whitey it's like, 'Oh yeah, this is why I love this game."