Tommy Lasorda often said he “bled Dodger Blue,” and few followers of baseball would dispute that. During his 71-year association with the team he came to symbolize the Dodgers more than anyone else with the possible exception of longtime announcer Vin Scully. Moreover, he loved the fans passionately, and they loved him right back.
Thomas Charles Lasorda was born on September 22, 1927 in Norristown, Pa. one of six boys. His scrappy, bombastic, pugnacious personality was an outgrowth of his upbringing. Money was tight, there were many mouths to feed, and it was not easy to hold one’s own among five brothers. Young Tom was a “go-getter.” He was always working to make a few extra bucks. For instance, during summers among the many jobs he had were as a bellhop and laying track for the railroad.
Baseball was his ticket out, so to speak. He was a good enough pitcher to attract the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies who signed him directly out of high school in 1945 as an undrafted free agent. After serving two years in the military he was drafted by the Dodgers in the 1948 minor league draft.
Lasorda, a lefthanded pitcher, possessed limited talent as a player. He languished for 14 years in the minor leagues and often played Winter Ball for teams in the Caribbean. He appeared briefly in the major leagues with the Dodgers and KC Royals, and never won a game, going 0-4. During his only start for the Dodgers in 1954 he tied a dubious major league record by throwing three wild pitches in the first inning after which he was removed. For good measure, he was spiked by one of the players who was scoring after one of those wild pitches. After that debacle he was sent to the minors, never to return as a player. Lasorda always said, with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, that the Dodgers had to make a tough choice between keeping him or another young wild lefty by the name of Koufax, and it took one of the best pitchers ever to displace him.
Lasorda spent some 20 years working his way through the Dodgers minor league system. He started at the bottom and eventually worked his way up to AAA. He did everything. He was a scout, coach, manager, sold tickets and even cooked team meals. He accompanied several players as they rose through the Dodgers minor league system all the way to the majors. Among the many players were infielders Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Roy Cey who were to play together for the Dodgers for a record 11 1/2 consecutive years. By the time he got to the Dodgers, he knew the players and their abilities and they knew and respected him and his abilities. Some 75 of the players he managed in the minors made it to the majors (not all with the Dodgers).
Probably, his best achievement as a scout was recommending Mike Piazza, even if it was by accident. In high school Piazza was an infielder of pedestrian ability and achievement. Lasorda was a close friend of the Piazza family which lived in the Norristown area. He convinced the Dodgers to draft him as a special favor to him. They were reluctant. They did not want another infielder, but they needed a catcher. So, Lasorda told them “sure he can catch,” even though he had never played the position. The Dodgers drafted him in a late round. We all know how Piazza turned out.
He made his mark as a manager for the Dodgers from 1976 – 1996. During that span he won 1,599 games against 1,439 losses. He won two World Series (1981 and 1988), four pennants, eight division titles, and his teams were almost always in contention. I will always remember those two WS. The Dodgers were big underdogs in both, yet they prevailed in large part due to Tommy’s leadership. In 1981 they had to come from behind in both the playoffs against Montreal and the WS against the Yankees. They lost the first two WS games, then won four straight. The other noteworthy thing about that Series is that my seven year-old son, Matt, who was a Yankees fan, abruptly switched allegiance to the Dodgers during the Series. I still like to remind him of that.
The 1988 win featured a dramatic victory against the Mets who had a much better record and had dominated the Dodgers during the regular season. Then, the Dodgers upset Oakland in the WS aided by an otherworldly performance by pitcher Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson’s dramatic homerun. Gibson was injured and could barely walk, yet he homered off one of the best relief pitchers at the time. (I will never forget Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck’s iconic call “I don’t believe what I just saw!).
He was voted Manager of the Year twice. In addition, he led the US Olympic baseball team to a Gold Medal in 2000. From time to time, some critics questioned his strategic moves, but there was no denying his proficiency as a motivator, handler of players, and his popularity with the fans. He was a superb ambassador of the Dodgers and of MLB, in general.
When he was hired, ascending from the job as third base coach for the Dodgers, he was replacing a very successful manager, Walter Alston, who had held that post since 1954 winning four World Series and numerous pennants. A reporter asked him if he felt any pressure replacing such an iconic manager. He said, “no, I’m worried about the pressure on the guy who is going to replace me some day.” Everybody laughed at the obvious joke, but 21 years later it came true.
Tributes for Lasorda from contemporaries have been pouring in. For example:
- Longtime LA Times columnist, Jim Murray: “Some managers are worth five games a year to their franchise. … Tommy Lasorda is worth …. a few hundred thousand in attendance.”
- The LA Times opined that he had “achieved near mythical status among loyal Dodger fans.”
- Hall of Fame Dodgers announcer Vin Scully recalled his “boundless enthusiasm, his determination, his self-belief and his competitive spirit.”
- Commissioner Rob Manfred called him “one of the finest managers our game has ever known.
I actually met Lasorda a few times at Spring Training. I found him to be gracious and entertaining. Once, he signed a baseball for my grandson, Mason. The fans would always respond to him with love and enthusiasm as he did to them. There really was mutual love and admiration between them.
Lasorda passed away from a heart attack on January 7, 2021 at the age of 93. He was fond of saying that when he died he would be “going to the big Dodger in the sky.” Hopefully, he is there now, watching over his favorite team.