By Arnie Leshin
Light blue, dark blue, to Tommy Lasorda all that mattered was Dodgers Blue. That was his life as a Baseball Hall of Famer that ended Thursday when he died of a heart attack at the age of 93.
He was winless as a major league pitcher, but successful as a manager. On the mound as a left-hander, he made only one start when the Dodgers, in 1955 in Brooklyn, won their first and only World Series in the borough of churches. He threw three wild pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals and was pulled after the first inning, leaving young southpaw Johnny Podres to win three times versus the rival New York Yankees and celebrate at legendary Ebbets Field.
His short tour on the hill while in Brooklyn brought an 0-4 record with a 6.68 earned run average and 13 strikeouts from 1954-56. Overall, he hurled eight games for the Dodgers and compiled a 7.62 ERA. No doubt that wasn’t his strength in the National Pastime, that began when he became manager of the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1977.
In almost two decades or until he retired as skipper in 1996, his managerial record was a nifty 1,599-1,439. He won World Series championships in 1981 and 1988, four National League pennants and eight divisional titles. In 1997, he was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager. He also guided the United States to a baseball gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Australia Summer Olympics.
He was a master motivator among his players. He bled Dodgers Blue, always knowing just the right amount of confidence or candor required to induce stellar performances.
It was 1981, the baseball strike season, when after a lengthy layoff, his Dodgers won the National League pennant when Rick Monday hit the game-winning home run against the Expos in Montreal. They faced the American League champion New York Yankees, who when in Brooklyn, defeated the “Bums” in seven of eight World Series.
My beat was covering the storied Pin Stripes from the Bronx. And after the Dodgers flew to NYC from Canada, I was at the Sheraton Hotel in mid-Manhattan at the pre-World Series party. LaSorda was all smiles, shaking all hands while sitting with then San Francisco Giants’ manager Frank Robinson, a future Hall of Famer as an elite player. I got into a conversation with LaSorda after he introduced me to Robinson, who I knew from when he played for the Baltimore Orioles in the amazin’ New York Mets five-game stunner in the 1969 World Series over the talented O’s.
Lasorda got right to the point.
“You’ve got to be from New York,” he said, “but I should have known being you covered the Yankees. Will you be in Los Angeles for games 3, 4 and 5, and if so, drop by to say hello and then check out our beautiful ballpark.”
The Yanks won games one and two, and were overly confidence heading across country to the West Coast. Once there, and at the ballpark, I met up with Lasorda at the batting cage, and he said excuse me to whoever he was speaking with, and strolled over to greet me, forgot my name but remembered me.
He didn’t appear upset with the 0-2 effort, and he, pitcher Jerry Reuss and Dodger Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, assured me that they would return to the Bronx up 3-2. He was right, they were right, Dodgers Blue knocked out starter Tommy John and won game six, 7-2. The next time they won it was in 1988 over the Oakland Athletics.
He was ageing, he was frail when the Dodgers won 32 years later over the Tampa Bay Rays. He watched the games on television at home surrounded by his family and friends. While his mobility was slowed, his mind was still sharp. It was also the last times he watched his Dodgers.
He always said he wanted to live to be 100 and see yet another championship flag hung up in Los Angeles. But after having numerous heart problems led to him dying at his home in Fullerton, Calif. He had just returned home on Tuesday after being hospitalized since Nov. 8 with heart issues.
He had spent more than seven decades in the Dodgers’ organization. In 1972, he coached the then-Albuquerque Dukes, who were a Dodgers affiliate, and won the Pacific Coast League title. It was a season in which the presence of Lasorda brought big crowds to Albuquerque. He was popular, he showed up in restaurants, he was what the minor league Triple A team needed.
Five years later, he began his long tour as manager of the parent team.
He had been the oldest baseball Hall ofFamer, now that distinction belongs to the great Willie Mays. who turns 90 in May. Flags at Dodger Stadium were being lowered to half-staff and Lasorda’s No. 2 was painted in the outfield. A jersey with his number hung in the dugout and fans showed up with flowers, candles and Dodgers memorabilia at the ballpark.
Born Thomas Charles Lasorda on Sept. 22, 1927 in Norristown, Pa. his pro career began when he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as an undrafted free agent in 1945 when World War II ended. He missed two seasons while serving in the Army, and returned in 1948 and once struck out 15 and 13 batters to gain the attention of the Dodgers, who then drafted him from Philly. He played in Panama and Cuba before making his major league debut on Aug. 4, 1954, and in ’55 won a ring as a member of the championship team.
He hurled for the Dodgers for two seasons but lost his roster spot when Brooklyn had to make room for another lefty, young Koufax. The Kansas City A’s bought Lasorda’s contract and he was traded to the Yankees during the 1956 season. Sent down to the Triple-A Denver Bears, he was sold back to the Dodgers in 1957 and Dodgers Blue was now his until his dying day.
He had stayed on with the Dodgers as a scout after they released him in 1960, and that was the beginning of a steady climb through the Dodgers’ system that culminated in his 1973 promotion to the big league staff under longtime Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. Four years later, Alston retired and Lasorda stepped in for his long, legendary run.
He was a big hit among the Hollywood crowd, was known for his friendship with the late Frank Sinatra and other stars. In 1977, Sinatra sang the national anthem on opening day of the 1977 season to mark Lasorda’s debut as manager. The walls of Lasorda’s office were crowded with black and white autographed photos of his celebrity friends. To Lasorda, he wished they were instead all in Dodgers Blue colors, but those memories will always live on.