On June 8, 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers carried out a routine, unassuming roster move, one that would years later prove to be one of the most impactful transactions in franchise history. They activated the unproven rookie Sandy Koufax, who began the season injured, and outrighted their struggling reliever, Tom Lasorda, to the minors to make room.
They were two pitchers on different paths— one just beginning his quest to be the greatest of all time, and the other on his way out of the majors. Lasorda stuck around for one more year after he was sold to the Kansas City Athletics, and bounced around the Yankees minor league system before winding up back on the Montreal Royals in 1958. He was released in 1960, and he ended his playing career with a 0-4 record and 6.52 ERA.
Unable to imagine a life without baseball, Lasorda immediately sought out a scouting position with the Dodgers, and from there, began his lengthy career with the team as a coach, manager, and executive. By the time he retired as the Dodgers’ manager in 1996, Tommy had brought the team two World Series championships in 1981 and 1988, along with four pennants and eight division titles during his twenty years as skipper.
Even in retirement, Tommy Lasorda remained involved with the Dodgers in some capacity or another, and his influence on the organization’s culture is still felt today. He became one of the most beloved characters in Los Angeles sports lore, and was a revered member of the baseball community.
The baseball lifer, who spent over seven decades in Dodger Blue, passed away last week after a lifelong battle with heart problems. Lasorda was 93 years old.
Everybody Had A Tommy Story
“He could make you laugh. He could motivate you. He could bring you confidence. He could question something to get you to think differently. And he could love you. And he could do all of that in about five minutes. There’s only one of him. There’s only one.”
Throughout his life in baseball, Tommy Lasorda left his impression on generations of players, from the days of Don Sutton and Tommy John, to Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, to Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler.
Everyone who met him has their own personal story about a time when Tommy made the effort to encourage them, bark at them, or offer some advice… and usually some combination of the three. Lasorda’s circle extended far beyond the players he coached and came to include clubhouse staff, security guards, hot dog vendors, and the 56,000 fans that could fill up Dodger Stadium on a sunny afternoon.
He was always quick with a joke or a good story and never shied away from the spotlight, which made him popular in Los Angeles with friends like Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. It didn’t matter if you were eight years old or 48, if you loved baseball (and especially the Dodgers), Tommy would take the time to talk to you.
…Even the Umpires
“Sometimes you’ve just got to let an umpire know that you’re not satisfied with his decision. That they’ve missed the play in your opinion. Not that it’s going to do you any good, but you’ve got to let them know.”
If you were an umpire, you could bet Lasorda would have some choice words for you as well.
Lasorda became known for the way he came huffing and puffing out of the dugout, arms pumping and red in the face as he marched up to give an umpire a piece of his mind. Of course, there’s his infamous tirade from the 1978 World Series, when Reggie Jackson stuck his hip out to deflect a throw in a rundown, leading to a key run scoring on the play and an eventual Yankees comeback. There was also the expletive-laden mound visit to Doug Rau in the 1977 World Series, and Tommy’s ongoing feud with the Phillie Phanatic and other mascots around the league. Lasorda was nothing, if not passionate.
Sometimes, Tommy would get himself ejected for little reason other than to fire up his team and to give the fans a show. He turned swearing into something of an art— and was never one to mince words with anyone, least of all struggling pitchers.
More Than a Manager
“I tried to tell people before I went over there, this is bigger than the World Series. People thought I was wacky for saying things like that.”
-Tommy Lasorda on the 2000 Olympics
It was Tommy Lasorda’s magnetism, that colorful and engaging personality that made him such an excellent ambassador for baseball after his managing career was finished. He wanted to share his passion with people all over the world, and after he retired, Lasorda worked to promote baseball globally late into his 80s.
Lasorda spent 14 seasons in the minor leagues as a player, and six more as a manager before taking over the major league club later in his career. It was there Lasorda first managed what would become known as ‘The Infield’ of the 1970s, featuring Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey.
Lasorda’s extensive experience in the minor leagues made him a major proponent of minor league baseball, and he spent much of his time post-retirement promoting minor league teams and working with the Dodgers’ farm players. Lasorda was a vocal supporter of the Great Lakes Loons years before they became affiliated with the Dodger organization, and even had a section of the ballpark dedicated to him— Lasorda’s Landing. He visited the stadium at least once a year, to engage with fans and cheer on the team.
Tommy Lasorda was also committed to growing baseball’s following internationally and did all that he could to act as an ambassador for the sport on the world stage. In Japan, Lasorda worked as a guest coach for the Tokyo Giants in 1965, and helped them to set up their scouting and player development system. He later returned as a manager, first when he took the National League All-Stars on a tour of the country, and again years later when he led the Dodgers in a two-game series against the Daiei Hawks, to celebrate the first year of the Fukuoka Dome.
Lasorda also represented the United States in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when he managed a rag-tag group of college players and minor league veterans to a gold medal and an underdog victory against a dominant team from Cuba.
With the Dodgers, Tommy helped to ease the transition of Hideo Nomo as the Japanese superstar adjusted to life in America. He also mentored a young Chan Ho Park as he became the first Korean-born player in the majors. And after he retired, Lasorda served as a consultant for the Osaka Kintetsu (now Orix) Buffaloes in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. He helped to turn the struggling club around by bringing over ex-major leaguers and players from America, and helped to plan promotions to fill the ballpark and generate interest in the sport.
One such promotion occurred in the days leading up to the 2001 NPB All-Star break when Lasorda orchestrated an American presentation of a baseball game at the Osaka Dome. The event included an English-speaking public address announcer and classic American stadium food items, as Lasorda set out to replicate an authentic American ballpark experience, down to demonstrating how to best prepare and enjoy a Dodger Dog in the broadcast booth (with mustard and sometimes, onions).
He then served as Official Ambassador and spokesperson for the inaugural World Baseball Classic in Japan in 2006, before being honored with the Order of the Rising Sun in 2008 for his work in promoting and developing baseball in the country.
A Baseball Lifer
“I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.”
Above all else, Tommy Lasorda just loved baseball. After all, he gave over seventy years of his life to the sport. The manager once summed up his passion for the game: “Guys ask me, don’t I get burned out? How can you get burned out doing something you love? I ask you, have you ever got tired of kissing a pretty girl?”
Tommy Lasorda never seemed to get tired of baseball, a conclusion made evident by the 3040 games he had under his belt as manager. He took an active role during his tenure, and even continued to throw the team batting practice late into his 60s.
The only thing that eventually stopped Lasorda was his heart attack in 1996, and he reluctantly retired after two decades as the Dodgers’ manager. “I felt that even though the doctors had given me a clean bill of health, that for me to get into uniform again, as excitable as I am, I could not go down there and not be the way I’ve always been,” Lasorda said.
Even after his retirement from managing, Lasorda stuck around in a number of roles for the team, including a stint as the Dodgers’ interim general manager in 1998 and as Senior Vice President. Even as his health declined, Lasorda was never far from Dodger Stadium as the team attempted to make one last championship push.
Forever a Dodger
“I’ve already told my wife that when I do go I want our home schedule attached to my tombstone. I want people who are in the cemetery visiting their loved ones to say, ‘Let’s go to Lasorda’s grave and see if the Dodgers are playing home or away.’ Hey, I love this organization so much I want to be working for it even after I’m dead.”
Tommy Lasorda’s 71-year tenure with the Dodgers was the longest of anyone in the franchise’s storied history, which stands out even among legends like Don Newcombe, Vin Scully, and Jaime Jarrín. He often joked that he had Dodger Blue blood running in his veins, which for all anyone knew, could have been true.
But as Lasorda grew older, he still wasn’t satisfied. He still wanted to see one more World Series. The Dodgers had gotten close in the years since Tommy left the dugout, and were in the middle of a seven-year streak of division titles, though they so far had little to show for it in October. Lasorda was a game away in 2017, when Dave Roberts and the Dodgers took the cheating Astros the distance in a seven-game series. But it wasn’t enough.
Finally, in 2020, amid a shortened season and a global pandemic, Tommy Lasorda got to attend one last World Series victory as the Dodgers got the best of the Tampa Bay Rays in six games. He was able to join in the celebration down on the field, and feel the confetti rain down on him one last time.
Dave Roberts was able to share the moment with his predecessor, “For him to make his way to Texas to be with us and see it in person speaks to his determination, his stubbornness a little bit, his compete, all of that,” Roberts said. “He just let anyone know the importance of putting on this Dodger uniform and what it means to be a part of this organization.”
Tommy Lasorda meant a lot to a lot of people.
When news broke of Lasorda’s death, much of the baseball community came together to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. At the same time, however, some struggled to reconcile their memories and views of the legendary manager with resurfacing accounts regarding Lasorda’s relationship with his son, Tommy Jr.
Tommy Lasorda, Jr. was a gay man, a fact which his father occasionally disputed to the press. When his son died of AIDS, Lasorda also initially rebuffed reports and insisted it was pneumonia, unwilling to recognize his son’s sexuality.
There was also the fallout with Glenn Burke, a young outfielder and friend to Tommy Jr. when his dad managed the team. Burke was a baseball pioneer, and the first player to come out as openly gay during his career. Despite showing some flashes of talent, the Dodgers traded Burke to the Athletics in 1978, and there was tangible suspicion that he was traded at least in part, because of his sexuality.
Despite many of the admirable qualities Lasorda had, and all of the progress he made in growing the game, learning that he also contributed to a homophobic culture within baseball at the time is very disappointing. It’s a culture that unfortunately still persists today, as evidenced by people like Thom Brennaman using homophobic slurs over the air as recently as last season.
Ignoring Lasorda’s role in permitting this kind of attitude to exist would only ensure it remains in place, to the detriment of the sport and its fans. So while you can appreciate the many far-reaching positive effects Lasorda had on baseball and its development, it’s also necessary to address his mistakes, so that we can work to heal the damage those attitudes have caused to the marginalized players and communities within the sport.
It’s okay to mourn Tommy Lasorda, and what he meant to baseball, to Los Angeles, and to the Dodgers. It’s also valid to still feel hurt and disappointed in him for his failings with the LGBTQ+ community. Plenty more undoubtedly feel conflicted as they attempt to reconcile the two images of the manager. And that’s okay too.
Tommy Lasorda is survived by Jo, his wife of seventy years, as well as their daughter Laura, and their granddaughter Emily.
“I bleed Dodger blue and when I die, I’m going to the big Dodger in the sky.”
-Tommy Lasorda, 1927-2021
Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)