Tony La Russa finalizes separation from Animal Rescue Foundation

WALNUT CREEK — The Animal Rescue Foundation announced this week that the venerable East Bay non-profit had parted ways with its founder, Tony La Russa, and his family, capping “30 years of a successful partnership” in pioneering efforts to find permanent, loving homes homes for stray and abandoned cats and dogs.

The announcement from ARF didn’t specify why La Russa and his family were stepping away from the organization he co-founded when he was the manager of the Oakland A’s in the early 1990s. This also isn’t the first time there’s been an announcement that the baseball legend and his Alamo-based family had separated themselves from ARF, which had become synonymous with the family’s brand of local philanthropy.

Two years ago, the organization was in turmoil over allegations that ARF’s leadership nurtured a “toxic” workplace culture, rife with bullying, favoritism, retaliation, and ageist and racist comments. In April 2021, La Russa initially joined with his wife, ARF co-founder Elaine La Russa, and daughters Bianca and Devon La Russa, in resigning from the board of directors, saying they could no longer “support or participate in ARF’s current leadership.”

However, La Russa subsequently came forward to say he stood by its leaders, longtime ARF executive director Elena Bicker and board chairman Greg McCoy, telling this news organization that they had been unfairly targeted for complaints. He also said he would continue to support ARF and its mission, as he had done the past 30 years.

Neither Tony La Russa nor members of his family could immediately be reached for comment. It was not immediately clear if the former A’s manager or other family members returned to work with ARF in some capacity over the past two years. In its announcement Monday, ARF also did not refer to those leadership issues as a reason for the parting of ways, only saying that the change marks “ARF’s evolution and response to today’s challenges in animal welfare.”

The announcement also referred to ARF as “an independent entity” and suggested that the La Russa name eventually would be dropped from the organization’s title. “In the coming year ARF will create a new brand to reflect the organization’s values, mission, and vision,” the statement said.

“We take this path with gratitude for all that the La Russa family has contributed to ARF’s advancement and extend our warmest wishes for success in their future endeavors,” CEO Susan Lee Vick said in the statement. “At the same time, we’re tremendously excited about ARF’s expansion and new directions.”

McCoy, the board’s president, also said, “This organization has never been stronger. We look forward to ARF’s next lifesaving, life-enriching innovations.”

Vick replaced Bicker as the organization’s top executive in January after Bicker announced her retirement. In a brief statement, ARF’s marketing manager Cole Kuiper said Bicker’s departure didn’t have anything to do with the leadership controversy two years earlier. “Elena Bicker’s retirement was solely related to the fact she and her husband both planned to retire in 2022,” Kuiper said.

The La Russa family’s departure also is not related to La Russa’s announcement in October that he was retiring from his job as manager for the Chicago White Sox, Kuiper said. Then the oldest manager in Major League Baseball, the 78-year-old said he was retiring for good, citing health concerns that kept him out of the dugout for the final five weeks of the season. La Russa told ESPN in October that there had been an issue with a pacemaker he had implanted the previous February. During those weeks away from the game, a second issue was diagnosed, EPSN said.

La Russa previously retired from baseball after leading the Cardinals to a win at the 2011 World Series and refocused his attention on ARF, at one point volunteering up to 25 hours a week, according to a 2018 IRS financial disclosure form. La Russa’s origin story with ARF and his family’s dedication to the organization helped grow it into a mainstay of the East Bay nonprofit community.

The La Russa family founded the organization after a stray cat wandered onto the playing field during a 1990 game between the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. After La Russa and his wife learned the cat would likely be euthanized because the East Bay didn’t have a no-kill shelter, they established an organization to rescue dogs and cats from high-kill shelters and help them be adopted into loving homes.

The organization’s mission and La Russa’s connections won ARF support from enthusiastic volunteers and famous friends in sports and entertainment, who helped with annual fundraisers like its annual Stars to the Rescue. ARF soon grew grew into a preeminent Bay Area animal welfare nonprofit, responsible for more than 47,000 animal adoptions and operating out of a gleaming animal shelter, veterinary hospital and community center in Walnut Creek. In 2019, ARF announced a major expansion, with the launch of its “Pets and Vets” program to pair veterans with rescued service dogs.

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