Tommy Lasorda’s passing wasn’t much of a surprise—he’s been in failing health for years now—but it was nonetheless shocking. Knowing that the baseball world is without one of its longstanding, premiere personalities will do that. Lasorda died Friday at age 93.
Lasorda was a gigantic figure, in bulk and presence alike. He reveled in his rotundity, to the point that his pasta-borne figure seemed almost necessary to constrain the force of his personality—that if he’d somehow been a slender man, he might have exploded from the pressure of his own id.
It’s not overstatement to say that Tommy Lasorda was the most important figure in the Dodgers organization since the time of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the heyday of Walter O’Malley. He gave his life to that team, spoke endlessly about bleeding Dodger blue and talking to the Big Dodger in the Sky. He wanted to live no place but LA, work for no team but the one for which he worked.
So significant was Lasorda that when I set out to write a book about the Dodgers’ 1981 championship season—They Bled Blue was published in 2019—I came to realize that no part of the story could be told without a full understanding of the man. That’s why Chapter 1 is titled The Manager, and why it tells Lasorda’s story starting from the moment he joined the franchise as a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in 1949. The man set the tone for everything to come, especially once he gained some power, and demanded requisite attention. There was simply no other way for me to approach this story. It had to be Lasorda.
The chapter begins like this:
Tommy Lasorda was always a shill. Long before he became a fount of managerial enthusiasm and brand fealty, he was a shill. Back when he was a career minor league pitcher, and then a scout, and then off to manage in remote minor league outposts like Pocatello and Ogden, in the employ of the Dodgers nearly every step of the way, even then he was a shill. The guy loved his team and wasn’t shy about letting the world know it.
I have heard from some people who take offense to the word “shill” in this context, who view it as a pejorative. Not me, not here. To me, the word shill is a complete sentiment, describing somebody wholly given to whatever he may be selling, and Tommy Lasorda never stopped selling the Dodgers. I could think of no more apt term to describe the genuine fervor behind Lasorda’s love for his ballclub, which came to define him in so many ways.
Lasorda is remembered for being a rotund ball of energy whose embrace of LA’s celebrity culture brought new levels of glitz to the Dodgers’ clubhouse. This is fine, but it also helps obscure the fact that he won two World Series and four National League pennants and two Manager of the Year Awards and helmed four All-Star teams. More even than that, to me, was the depth with which he cared about the players in his charge. This passage, from They Bled Blue, describes a period during the 1976 off-season, shortly after Lasorda was hired to manage the team:
To make sure his players knew precisely where he stood, Lasorda wrote each of them a letter explaining the privilege he felt in having a team like the Dodgers under his direction. The players had never seen anything like it. He followed the letters with phone calls to discuss his expectations for the season. He spoke to Bill Russell about stealing more bases. He told Garvey that he wanted to see more power. He suggested to Davey Lopes that an uptick in walks could make him the game’s best leadoff hitter. He informed Dusty Baker that a poor 1976 season—Baker’s first with the Dodgers, in which, hampered by a knee injury, he batted only .242 with four homers—had no bearing on 1977, and that the left field job would be his for the duration. He even telephoned reserve players, reminding them that any club with championship aspirations needed contributions from across the roster, and that players without starting roles had to become the best backups they could be. The guy long known for surface enthusiasm showed just how deep he could run. Lasorda wanted to reach his players at gut level, and this was an effective first step.
As a chapter, The Manager runs more than 6,000 words, far too long to excerpt here, so I will instead offer select passages, many of them taken from footnotes, that illustrate Tommy Lasorda in an economy of words:
- During his playing days, when Lasorda protested the decision to send him to the minors, GM Buzzy Bavasi asked who should be cut instead. In what would become one of the manager’s favorite stories, Lasorda named a fellow rookie. “If I was in charge,” he proclaimed, “I’d cut that Sandy Koufax kid.”
- As a player, Lasorda fought so much that in 1956 he received a telegram from American Association president Ed Doherty, reading: “Dear Tom, the exhibition you put on last night was a disgrace to baseball. You’re hereby fined $100 and, furthermore, my advice to you is, if you want to fight, join the International Boxing Congress.”
The brawls sparked by Lasorda’s relentless hail of knockdown pitches raised such cumulative furor within the Dodgers organization that in 1960, Bavasi effectively excommunicated the pitcher, kicking him off the Montreal roster with instructions to never return. Lasorda was devastated. Entirely unprepared to do anything else with his life, he pled for another chance. He could reform, he said. He would pitch nicely, toe the company line, do whatever it took. It wasn’t enough. When Bavasi refuted his entreaties cold, the almost-ex-pitcher fired the lone arrow remaining in his quiver and urged his boss to read a letter he’d sent to then-scout Al Campanis years earlier in which he proclaimed undying loyalty to the organization, long before such loyalty was a prerequisite for sustained employment. The GM may have been exasperated, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. Bavasi still wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more of Lasorda’s shenanigans as a pitcher, but he was sufficiently swayed to hire him on as a scout. At age 33, Lasorda’s pitching career was finished.
- There really was no end to Lasorda’s shtick. He taught Bill Russell’s infant daughter Amy her first word: “Dodgers.” After a physical examination, Lasorda mentioned that doctors thought they found a spot on his heart, but soon realized it was actually a Dodgers logo. Sample ramble from the manager: “You’ve heard about the ‘Blue Fever,’ ‘Great Dodger in the Sky,’ ‘Dodger Blue,’ and how Dodger Stadium is Blue Heaven? Well, when nine people died in LA last year, their last words were, ‘Did the Dodgers win?’” Lasorda then labeled the fact that the Dodgers had in fact won “a great Blue coincidence.”
- When Lasorda was a coach under Walter Alston, the Expos made him a lucrative offer to become their manager. He turned them down, saying, “I just couldn’t see myself telling people about the big Expo in the sky.” When Alston finally retired, Lasorda signed a one-year pact for $50,000, called it “the greatest day of my life,” and noted that the Dodgers had botched the negotiations. “If you’d have waited just a little longer,” he told Walter O’Malley, “I would have paid you to let me manage.”
- When Lasorda finally became manager in LA, someone noted that he had already received more ink than Alston had in 23 years on the job.
I’ll close with a quote from longtime Dodgers trainer Herb Vike, who worked with Lasorda in Spokane and Albuquerque before joining him in Los Angeles. “Tommy believed,” Vike told me. “He believed all the time. He went around the clubhouse and all over the field, saying, ‘I believe, and you gotta believe.’ Everything was Dodger blue. He said his blood was Dodger blue. He would preach to the ballplayers and he would preach to the crowd. He had everybody believing in the Dodgers.”
He most certainly did. Here’s to Lasorda getting to see one last championship before he departed.