Tommy Lasorda lived an outsized life — larger, certainly, than the average, soft-tossing journeyman pitcher — and he was equally comfortable leading with his chin or his heart, threatening a punch or offering a hug. Always in Dodger Blue.
Lasorda, who passed away Thursday night at the age of 93, is the 22nd winningest manager of all time, holder of a 1,599-1,439 record compiled over 22 seasons, all of them spent with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lasorda’s death came just 72 days after the Dodgers wrapped up their first World Series win since he led them to the 1988 World Series. He said at one point during that drought that “God could take (me)” after the Dodgers won their next series, but when he was reminded of that by the Los Angeles Times’s Dylan Hernandez in an interview in March, he responded that he’d changed his mind.
“I’m going to see if I can make it to 120,” Lasorda told him.
Lasorda was the ultimate company man, who spoke about “bleeding Dodger blue” and “the great Dodger in the sky.” And even though the title of his autobiography was My Way, it still seemed fitting, since his way was the Dodgers way and, for a time, vice versa. He was still a presence at Dodgers functions into his 90s and seemingly always around the field or at Dodger Stadium, invariably turning discussions to his five great loves: the Dodgers; Jo, his wife of 70 years; America; baseball; and, yes, himself. He was baseball royalty in a court-jester kind of way.
Mostly, though, he was a Dodger. A Hall of Fame Dodger, voted into Cooperstown in 1997 by the Veterans Committee. Lasorda appeared in 26 big league games as a left-handed pitcher between 1954 and 1956: eight with the Brooklyn Dodgers and 18 with the Kansas City Athletics, who were jokingly referred to as a Dodgers farm team. Lasorda also had a couple of stops in the New York Yankees system after originally signing with the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur out of Norristown, Pa., in 1945. His relationship with the Dodgers began in 1948 when he was selected in the minor-league draft, and he played 251 games for their triple-A Montreal Royals affiliate before becoming a full-time manager in 1965 with the Dodgers’ Rookie League affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho.
Montreal was an open city when Lasorda played there, and he took full advantage — not just as a member of the Royals, but again later when he’d return as Dodgers manager and, well, crash a restaurant, often with pals. The Royals held a “Tommy Lasorda Day,” and he would hang out with members of the Montreal Canadiens. He had memories of the “Richard Riot,” and claimed he was there at a restaurant called the Chic-N-Coop when Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante sketched out a design for the first goalie mask on the tablecloth over a lunchtime discussion about catchers’ masks. Montreal also figured in two incidents that very much became part of the Lasorda story.
Best known, of course, was “Blue Monday,” Oct. 19, 1981, when Rick Monday slugged a two-out, ninth-inning homer to give Lasorda’s Dodgers a 2–1 win in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Olympic Stadium. The Expos never did make it back to the post-season until the franchise moved to Washington, D.C., while the Dodgers went on to beat the Yankees in six games and claim their first World Series since 1965. Lasorda had lost his first two trips to the World Series as Dodgers manager but would win again in 1988, a series remembered for a gimpy-legged Kirk Gibson’s homer in Game 1 off of Dennis Eckersley.
Another enduring and, in some ways, endearing image of Lasorda in Montreal occurred on Aug. 23, 1989, when the Expos mascot, Youppi!, was allegedly ejected for pounding on the top of the Dodgers dugout at Olympic Stadium. He had already been chased away by Lasorda earlier in the game – which would last 22 innings and end in a 1-0 Dodgers victory — and would officially be ejected when he returned in pyjamas and flopped down on top of the dugout. Lasorda was blamed, but in a 2017 interview, Claude Hubert, who was in the mascot costume that day, said the third base umpire mistook Lasorda’s protestations – that they were actually directed at rowdy fans. Six years later Lasorda would get in a fight with the Phillie Phanatic after watching the Phanatic perform a skit that, in Lasorda’s view, desecrated the Dodgers uniform.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) January 8, 2021
Lasorda, who would also manage the gold-medal winning U.S. baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, followed the legendary Walter Alston, who managed the Dodgers from 1954-76. In his book The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, James notes that while teams often struggled to convert managers into company men in the 1950s and 1960s, “with the Dodgers, it took,” citing Alston and Lasorda’s malleability in dealing with the front office and, especially, ownership. Lasorda was part of a remarkable managerial tree the seeds of which were planted by Branch Rickey while the Dodgers were in Brooklyn. After playing for Alston in Montreal, Lasorda joined the likes of Don Zimmer, Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch, Gil Hodges, Clyde King, Preston Gomez, Danny Ozark, Roger Craig and Roy Hartsfield, the first manager in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays, as major-league managers to have played, coached or managed in the minors while Rickey was in charge.
Lasorda was very much in the mould of the classic ’70s manager, many of whom were, as James describes them, “little noisy guys in the Leo Durocher tradition.”
In addition to breaking down the styles and tendencies of many of the game’s notable skippers, James finished each section with a paragraph about what that manager would have done without professional baseball. Of Lasorda, James wrote: “He’d have tried different things until something clicked. He’d have had a few prizefights, tried his hand at promoting fights, and maybe gone on to become Angelo Dundee. If that hadn’t worked he would have gone to Hollywood, maybe wound up as a Norman Lear-type behind-the-scenes power. If that didn’t work, he might have become a New Age television guru, a titan of late-night television, hawking kitchen utensils specially designed to improve your karma. One way or another, he was going to make a million dollars a year.”
Lasorda managed nine – nine – rookies of the year, including Rick Sutcliffe, Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Piazza. He was also the first big-league manager for Orel Hershiser, Mike Scioscia, Dave Stewart, Chan Ho Park and Pedro Martinez, though the 1993 trade that sent Martinez to the Expos for Delino DeShields is often laid at the feet of Lasorda, as Martinez believes Lasorda thought him too scrawny to be a starter.
True, that says as much about the Dodgers’ rich history of scouting and player development as anything else, but at least Lasorda didn’t gum up the works. That is Lasorda as a manager in a nutshell: he liked setting lineups – easy to do with the talent at his disposal – and his teams relied on defence, speed and starting pitching – particularly starting pitching. Eight of his teams led the majors in complete games at a time when managers such as Tony La Russa were converting starters such as Eckersley into relievers. He had success at a time that the game was going through all manner of economic and social changes, an old-school guy who somehow hit the right tactical and especially emotional tone during times of rapid acceleration.