Obituary: Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021)

RIP to Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, who guided the Dodgers to four National League pennants and two World Series titles in 20 years of leading the team. Over the course of his seven-decade career as a player, scout, coach, manager and front-office executive, Lasorda became one of the game’s biggest personalities. He died on January 7 at the age of 93. Lasorda, who started as a pitcher, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1954-55) and Kansas City Athletics (1956) before serving as a manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 until 1996.

Lasorda had been in poor health and was hospitalized before Thanksgiving 2020 for an undisclosed illness. According to MLB reports, he was placed on a ventilator at one point before he was released just days ago. The Dodgers announced that Lasorda had “suffered a sudden cardiopulmonary arrest at his home at 10:09 p.m. [on January 7]. He was transported to the hospital with resuscitation in progress. He was pronounced dead at 10:57 p.m.”

In a statement, Dodgers legendary broadcaster Vin Scully remembered Lasorda for his boundless enthusiasm. “Tommy would get up in the morning full of beans and maintain that as long as he was with anybody else,” Scully said. Dodgers President.CEO Stan Kasten added, “In a franchise that has celebrated such great legends of the game, no one who wore the uniform embodied the Dodger spirit as much as Tommy Lasorda. A tireless spokesman for baseball, his dedication to the sport and the team he loved was unmatched… Tommy is quite simply irreplaceable and unforgettable.”

Lasorda is survived by his wife of 70 years, Jo, as well as a daughter, Laura. His son, Tom Jr., died in 1991 at the age of 33. He was a gay man and died from complications of AIDS, neither of which his father ever publicly acknowledged. He should not be forgotten either.

Thomas Charles Lasorda was born in Norristown, Pa., on September 22, 1927. He said that he grew up in a tough neighborhood, where a young man could easily fall under the influence of gangs and crime. “It was my loyalty to my parents and the love of baseball which kept me on the right track,” he later said.

He attended Norristown High School and was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945 as a 17-year-old left-handed pitcher/first baseman. For a time, Lasorda’s hitting looked more impressive than his pitching. He debuted with the Concord Weavers in ’45 and had a 3-12 record and 4.09 ERA in 27 games, including 13 starts. He also appeared in 40 games in the field and hit a respectable .274, albeit with just one home run. That was the only season he was used as a two-way player. Lasorda was inducted into the Army and missed the next two seasons to serve in the military.

Even though he was out of professional baseball, Lasorda continued to pitch for Fort Meade and Fort McClellan. He returned to pro ball in 1948 with the Schenectady Blue Jays of the Canadian-American League. He had a 9-12 record but showed he was capable of some pretty impressive mound feats. He once struck out 25 batters in a 15-inning game against Amsterdam and singled home the winning run, too.

After the 1948 season, Lasorda was claimed by the Dodgers organization that would last pretty much the rest of his baseball career, given or take a few seasons as a minor-league pitcher. He turned in a pretty good season for Class-A Greenville in 1949, winning 7 games against 7 losses and posting a fine 2.93 ERA. After that season, the Dodgers moved him up to AAA, and he stayed there for pretty much the rest of his career.

Early on in his time in the Dodgers organization, Lasorda was brought to their training camp at Vero Beach and was given a chance to pitch in an intra-squad game. The nervous lefty walked the first four batters he faced. Manager Charlie Dressen came out to give him the hook, and Lasorda protested. “I’ve waited four years for this chance, and now I walk one man for each year. Don’t take me out!”

Lasorda joined the Montreal Royals in 1950 and spent the next four full seasons there, with the exception of a month he spent in the St. Louis Browns organization in 1953. The Brownies acquired his contract in February and returned him to the Dodgers in March — reportedly, Browns owner Bill Veeck didn’t have the $50,000 to pay for Lasorda and had to send him back. Lasorda’s wins gradually increased from 9 in 1950 to 17 in 1953, and his ERA dropped down to 2.81 as well. By the end of the ’53 season, Lasorda was still just 25 years old. He completed 12 of his 29 starts and struck out 122 batters in 208 innings. He had developed a very good curveball (as well as an effective brushback pitch) and was determined to get a long sought-after promotion to the major leagues.

Lasorda’s mouth was already making headlines, as papers called him the International League’s “loudest and most annoying bench jockey.” In 1955, Lasorda was told that Dressen, then managing the Senators, had discounted Lasorda’s chances of making the Dodgers. “Tell him he ain’t counting me off this censored club,” Lasorda told the reporter — minus the word “censored,” I’m sure. “He’ll have enough trouble cutting his own censored club without he should try to cut this one. That little censored bantam rooster, who does he think he is?”

Source: The Plain Speaker, June 18, 1961.

Lasorda’s break finally came in 1954. He won 14 games for Montreal and was brought to the majors on August 1, when the team sent pitcher Bob Milliken to the minors. He made his debut on August 5 in an eventual 13-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. He worked 3 innings and gave up 3 runs on 6 hits in 3 innings, including a solo homer to catcher Bill Sarni. Lasorda appeared in a total of 4 games for the Dodgers and allowed 5 runs in 9 innings, with 5 walks and 5 strikeouts. Lasorda’s 1955 season was of a similar nature. He was brought up from Montreal in May, appeared in 4 games and was drilled for 6 runs in 4 innings. He was sent back to the minors with a 13.50 ERA.

This is how Lasorda described his demotion: “Buzzy [Bavasi] called me in and says he’s sending me to Montreal. I say you can’t do that. I won 15 games there last year. He says who else can I send down if not you? I say send that kid, that lousy pitcher Sandy Koufax, down. He ain’t pitching, any way. Buzzy said the rules wouldn’t allow it. {Koufax was a bonus baby and couldn’t be demoted.] So now I tell everybody that it took the greatest pitcher in baseball to get me off this club!”

The Philadelphia Athletics bought Lasorda’s contract in the spring of 1956, ending his relationship with the Dodgers for a spell. He made the team out of spring training and picked up his only career save in his first American League appearance. With two outs in the ninth inning and the Athletics leading Detroit 2-1 with the tying run on second base, Lasorda was summoned from the pen to face Earl Torgeson. After throwing a wild pitch to allow the baserunner to move to third, Lasorda retired Torgeson on a grounder to second base to preserve the win.

Lasorda was actually a pretty decent reliever for Kansas City. He started a few games and had much less success there. His luck ran out when the Yankees pounded him for 5 earned runs in a 2-inning start on June 6 and then hit him for a couple more runs in a relief appearance the very next day. Those two outings blew his ERA up from 4.07 to 5.72. He never had a scoreless outing again, and after Cleveland rocked him for 5 runs in a third of an inning on July 8, Lasorda’s ERA had inflated to 6.15.

Lasorda was traded to the Yankees soon after and assigned to their AAA team in Denver, and rumor had it that he didn’t go quietly. Right after the pitcher departed Kansas City, A’s manager Lou Boudreau was seen wearing dark glasses — possibly because of an eye infection, but possibly because Lasorda didn’t take news of his demotion well and left Boudreau with a black eye before leaving the clubhouse.

Lasorda’s major-league career as a pitcher ends there. In parts of 3 seasons, he appeared in 26 games and had an 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA. He struck out 37 batters in 58.1 innings and walked 56.

The Yankees kept Lasorda in AAA Denver through the middle of 1957 before sending him back to the Dodgers. He had his best season as a pitcher in 1958, when he went 18-6 with a 2.50 ERA for Montreal. He also had 16 complete games and 5 shutouts. He was working as a player-coach-road secretary-interpreter-father figure for the younger players and helped light a fire that led the Montreal Royals to a first-place finish in the International League. He may have done too good a job, as the IL President Frank Shaughnessy had to tell the Royals’ manager Clay Bryant, Lasorda and infielder George “Sparky” Anderson to ease up on the umpires or else.

Lasorda’s playing career ended in July of 1960. He was in the midst of a terrible year on the mound and was released in order to become a scout for the Dodgers in the Pennsylvania area. He won 136 games in a 14-year career in the minor leagues, including 107 with the Montreal Royals. He also won 10 playoff and Little World Series games for the Royals, making him the franchise’s winningest pitcher.

Reports of the time indicate that the release was triggered by a falling-out between Lasorda and Bryant, and the scouting job was meant to be something that ended at the conclusion of the season. However, Lasorda’s personality and baseball instincts were impossible to overlook. He made friends easily, including those of the Dodgers’ top brass like Buzzy Bavasi and Al Campanis. He could sign a young player in the afternoon and deliver a rousing speech at a church meeting or Elks Club banquet that night. He also was an enthusiastic proponent of the Dodgers, and he knew how to look for intangibles that other scouts might overlook when evaluating a player. He was one of many scouts who pursued outfielder Willie Crawford, but he became so close to the family that he even delivered the eulogy at Crawford’s grandfather’s funeral. It was such a beautiful speech that the family didn’t listen to any other contract offers except Lasorda’s.

Dodgers fans greet Tommy Lasorda after he returns to Los Angeles after winning the 1981 World Series. Source: The Des Moines Register, October 30, 1981.

The Dodgers named Lasorda as manager of the Pocatello Chiefs in the Pioneer League in 1965, kicking off his managing career. He stayed in the low minors with the Dodgers for several years, posting winning records pretty consistently with teams in the Pioneer League and the Arizona Instructional League. He moved up to the Dodgers’ AAA teams and saw the same success, and he was named the Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year in 1970, when his Spokane team won the Pacific Coast League pennant by 26 games. Many of the players who would become standouts for the next decade or so — Steve Yeager, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Bill Buckner — had Lasorda as their minor-league manager.

Lasorda made it back to the majors when he was added to the Los Angeles coaching staff in 1973. Speculation grew that he would take over the role of Dodgers manager after Walt Alston retired.

“You’re gonna be a big-league manager some day,” predicted Minnesota manager Billy Martin after a chance meeting with Lasorda. “The only thing you gotta learn to do is control that temper of yours.”

Billy Martin said that.

Lasorda had his chances to manage elsewhere; Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Kansas City made offers. He was the rare managerial candidate who only wanted one job, and he waited patiently for Alston to retire, which he finally did near the end of the 1976 season. Lasorda managed the final four games as the team’s first new manager since before the team moved to Los Angeles.

Lasorda was the embodiment of The Dodger Way before it was known as such. He was a larger-than-life persona who was a perfect fit for the larger-than-life city of Los Angeles. He schmoozed with Hollywood’s stars like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Milton Berle. He lived for Italian food and fine cigars. In spite of a team that had a wealth of talented players, including an All-Star infield, he became the face of the franchise. He said things like, “I get up in the morning and I open my eyes and I thank the big Dodger in the sky because I’m the luckiest SOB in the world,” and he meant every word of it. His rah-rah, bleed-Dodger-blue approach may not have worked for everyone on the team, but it was hard to argue with the results.

Lasorda was one of baseball’s top pitch men, advertising video games, weight loss plans and even his own line of pasta sauce and popcorn.

Don Sutton, who seemed pretty cool to Lasorda’s hiring initially, bought into the system. “This is the best club I’ve ever been on,” he said of the ’77 Dodgers. “It possibly would have won anyway. But that we won with ease is a tribute to Tommy. He is a master psychologist who preached from opening day that we could go all the way and convinced us of it.”

Reggie Smith, who had a reputation as a troublemaker in Boston, blossomed into an MVP candidate with the Dodgers. He said Lasorda didn’t care about Smith’s prior reputation and took the time to get to know him. They even ate dinner at each other’s houses. “Tommy’s the only manager I’ve ever seen who’s taken a personal interest in every player. He has compassion and understanding,” Smith explained.

The Dodgers won the NL pennant in each of Lasorda’s first two full seasons as manager, losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series in 1977 and 1978. Undaunted, the Dodgers returned to the World Series in 1981 and beat the Yankees for a spot of revenge. Lasorda picked up his other World Series championship in 1988 when the Dodgers upset the Bash Brothers of the Oakland A’s in 1988.

Despite his friendly approach, Lasorda’s infamous temper could return in a heartbeat. Ask any umpire who made a questionable call on the field or a reporter who asked what Lasorda considered a dumb question. See below for a couple of pretty classic Lasorda clips (there are curse words — many in fact — so consider yourself warned). Lasorda once got in a heated argument with former friend and coach Jim Lefebvre in the 1979-80 offseason that culminated with Lefebvre socking him in the nose.

Oh a lighter note, his personality also made him a prime target for his team’s pranksters like Jay Johnstone, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse. They stole his Sinatra photos off the wall of his office and replaced them with photos of themselves. They locked him inside his room in spring training. The hotheaded manager took it in stride, though.

“When I was a youngster, I wasn’t what you would call an altar boy. I did a lot of things wrong, and I was sorry for them. I repented. I went to confession. I thought maybe the statute of limitations had caught up with the punishment due me and the Lord had forgotten,” Lasorda said. “But I think now I have gotten my penance. Johnstone, Stanhouse and Reuss. That is my penance on Earth. The Lord is now saying, ‘Tom, it’s all caught up to you.'”

Lasorda’s oversized personality (and frequently, his oversized stomach) made him an easy target, and it led some people to dismiss him as a cheerleader who hugged his players too much. However, he was a sharp tactician. The Dodgers won the ’81 World Series in part because he outmanaged Yankees skipper Bob Lemon. He intentionally walked a batter in the climactic Game Six to bring up Yankees pitcher Tommy John in a key situation, which forced Lemon to counteract with a pinch-hitter. The move worked, as the Yankees replaced the tough John after just 4 innings with George Frazier, who allowed 3 runs in an inning of work to put the Dodgers ahead for good.

Lasorda was named NL Manager of the Year twice, in 1983 and 1988. He also finished in the Top Five four other times. He had a career record of 1,599-1,439 for a .526 record. The Dodgers, over his 21 seasons at the helm, had a few bad years but never a long stretch of futility. They finished in first place eight times and second place six times, with just six losing seasons.

The Dodgers lost 99 games in 1992, falling to sixth place in the NL West. Injuries to key free agents like Eric Davis, Juan Samuel and Darryl Strawberry forced the Dodgers to try untested rookies. Some, like Jose Offerman, Eric Young and Lasorda’s godson, Mike Piazza, turned out pretty well, but at the time, people were starting to question if the 64-year-old Lasorda was the right man for the team. He was thought by many to be the figurehead, approving the moves that were being made by his coaching staff, notably Bill Russell. He guided the team to a .500 finish in 1993 and then two first-place finishes in 1994 and ’95. The 1994 season was wiped out by the players strike, and the ’95 Dodgers were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs, losing three straight games to the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1996, Lasorda suffered a mild heart attack and had an angioplasty on June 26. He was also treated for an ulcer and was hospitalized and about a week. He missed a total of 30 games during the season. Still, the Dodgers were fighting with a 41-35 record when Lasorda announced his retirement as the Dodgers’ manager. He was named a team vice president, and Russell assumed the duties of Dodgers manager.

“It’s not the end for me,” Lasorda said at his press conference announcing his retirement. “It’s the beginning of a new era for Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers. I know I can give a lot to this organization, one that I love dearly, and I’ll do anything that is asked of me.”

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Lasorda retired as the 13th winningest manager in baseball and one of only four to spend 20 straight years managing the same team, joining Connie Mack, John McGraw and Walt Alston.

Lasorda was named an interim general manager in June of 1998, a role he held for about three months. He was then named senior vice president that September. While he traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador to baseball, led the U.S. team to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia and was a spokesperson at two World Baseball Classics, he was never away from the Dodgers for very long. In one of his last public appearances, he watched the Dodgers win the 2020 World Series over Tampa.

“When I die,” he famously said, “I want inscribed on my headstone, ‘Dodger Stadium was his address but every ballpark was his home.'”

Lasorda was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, along with Nellie Fox, Negro Leagues legend Willie Wells and Phil Niekro, who proceeded him in death by a couple of weeks. At the time of his passing, Lasorda was baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer. Willie Mays, at the age of 89, now holds that title.

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