The Lore of Lasorda
The legendary former skipper of the L.A. Dodgers on the state of baseball, his most-prized possession, extraordinary life and much more
In the entertainment world, there has been a plethora of actors, actresses and singers who have attained star status - and then you have Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. In American politics, there have been thousands of men and women who have been elected to public office over the decades - and then there's George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.
The same is true in the world of sports, which has produced many athletes that, quite appropriately and without hyperbole, deserve to have the word "legendary" precede their names. And yet, there is also an extremely elite clique that rises to the top of the athletic hierarchy.
When it comes to the list of great Major League Baseball managers, there have been many; however, throughout the history of the game, there have only been a dozen or so skippers who have carved out their niche as true legends: this includes the likes of Connie Mack, John McGraw, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston, Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel.
While there will always be passionate debate when it comes to the bestowal of superlatives such as "greatest" and "legendary" within any group, rarely would one listen in on the debate of the all-time greatest baseball managers without hearing the name Thomas Charles Lasorda.
A friend to everyone from U.S. presidents and prominent entertainers, to the fans who occupy the hypoxia-inducing heights of Dodger Stadium's upper deck, "Tommy" is how Lasorda has always been known to those from every walk of life.
Originally from Norristown, Pennsylvania, Tommy's days as an active player for the Brooklyn Dodgers were followed by scouting work and a managing career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Renowned for his ability to motivate his players to a level of play that took the franchise to two World Championships, four National League pennants and eight division titles, Tommy went on to become an instrumental part of the Dodger's front office, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in his first year of eligibility and, today, is a popular goodwill ambassador for both the Dodgers, as well as the game of baseball itself.
Tommy, who will turn 89 this September, recently sat down with Sports Market Report to talk about his career, personal life and much more. We began our conversation by asking if, in spite of suffering through some difficult times and situations, he feels the game of baseball still possesses the romantic quality that made it America's national pastime.
Tommy Lasorda (TL): Things have changed a great deal in baseball - in the world - and those changes all have to do with money. Today, if you're a rookie and play even one day in the majors, your salary is automatically over $300,000. Al Campanis once gave me a yearly raise of a thousand dollars and made me swear I wouldn't tell anybody. I told him not to worry because I was embarrassed to be making that kind of big money. Now every player makes a big salary.
Sports Market Report (SMR): But in spite of the big money, various ethical issues that have plagued the game and what sometimes seems like overwhelming corporate infiltration, baseball still remains strong and Americans love it.
TL: That is very true, but money has made a big difference in the way the game is played from a manager's standpoint. Today, if a manager has a pitcher making $12 million and he allows him to pitch too long, the front office will be on him. They won't let managers push guys like that, and that effects the way a manager works.
SMR: From that perspective, the game has changed dramatically from when you started out.
TL: [Laughing] Oh man! When you think of me, where I started, it's unbelievable. I signed my first contract when I was 16 years old for $100 a month. When the scout came to our house to offer me that contract, I told my mother to have a nice plate of pasta waiting for him. I knew my father didn't want me to sign. He was a smart guy. He spoke very broken English, but he was the greatest philosopher I've ever known. After the scout left, my father said: "No way!" He wanted me to stay in school, but I argued with him and he finally relented.
SMR: What was the best piece of philosophy your father ever gave you?
TL: Every time he wanted to get his point across, he would tell you a story. I learned that from him - the impact a story can have to teach you something. That was how he communicated what he wanted you to know in a way that you could understand. He didn't have much education - I don't even know how much - and he had a hard life. He worked in a rock quarry, and all the dust and particles from the crushing of the rocks got into his lungs. He suffered with cancer and died when he was just 66. But he knew how to make his point with a great story that would inspire you.
SMR: So you got your ability to motivate and inspire players from him?
TL: He taught me a lot, and I knew my job - the responsibility I had as a manager - was to develop my guys and win games. To do that, I had to get them to believe in themselves. The players knew I was always out for them - that I loved them and believed in them.
I remember one time Campanis saw me in a restaurant with some of my players. He called me aside and said: "You can't be going out and eating with the players." I said: "Why not?" He told me that managers shouldn't socialize with their players, and I said, "Oh really. Well this one does!" [Laughs].
I had a different attitude and style. I hugged my players. When Joe Torre came out to become the manager of the Dodgers, he told a reporter that when I was a manager, I was always hugging my players. He told the reporter that people would laugh at me because no manager hugged their players back then.
I had these other managers who would give me a hard time. "What the hell are you hugging your players for?" they would ask. And I would respond, "Hey, they're my meal ticket. If these guys don't like me, they won't perform and I'll be gone." I loved my players and cared for them. They knew that, and that motivated and helped them be the best they could be.
SMR: Did you ever employ your father's storytelling technique to do that?
TL: One time, when I was managing in the minors, we were in a bad losing slump. We had lost six games in a row, and after that sixth loss, I walked into the locker room and the guys were all sitting around looking like somebody killed their entire family.
So I asked: "What the hell are you guys hanging your heads for?" I wanted to tell them something that would really motivate them, so I said: "Do you guys realize that every sports writer has always believed the greatest team in baseball was the 1927 Yankees? Well, do you guys know the '27 Yankees lost eight games in a row? You guys have only lost six, so let's get out there and turn it around."
I then went out to the car where my wife was waiting for me and she asked what took me so long. I told her that story and she said: "Wow! That must have really made an impression on them." So we were heading home, and a few minutes later my wife asked me if the '27 Yankees really lost eight games in a row. "How the hell should I know? I was just born that year," I told her [laughing]. "But they could have." And that story sure sounded good to those players. It motivated them and, I kid you not, they went out and began winning again.
SMR: Of all the greats of the game you knew - ones you played with, against or even the guys who played for you - was there any one player who stood out the most?
TL: Oh yeah! Ted Williams. No doubt. He was an unbelievable player and a great man. I always say that Ted Williams is the greatest player of all time - and I always get myself in trouble when I say that because it is viewed as heresy by my fellow Italians who believe Joe DiMaggio was sent to us by God [laughs].
SMR: Back when you were a scout, did you ever see a young kid you thought had promise and who then turned out to be a star?
TL: Sure. As a scout, you travel all over, always imagining you'll see a player like no one else has ever seen and that you will find a guy who will go on to become a star.
So I'll tell you a story: One time, I found myself in this little town in Pennsylvania. A guy at the game asked me if I saw anybody I liked. I told him I liked this one kid and the guy asked if I wanted to meet him. I said: "Do you have an Italian restaurant in this town?" He said they did, and I said: "Great! Let's meet there."
Later that day, this kid walks in with a little goatee and I offered him a contract with a $10,000 bonus - which was good money at that time. He said: "I'd love to play baseball more than anything, but I promised my mother I would go to college, so I'm going to have to turn you down."
So then many years later, I had just gotten on a plane heading for LA and the flight attendant came over to me and said: "Tommy, would you mind taking the window seat? I have a passenger who has a bad leg and needs an aisle seat." So I moved over, and who walks in? That kid with the goatee from Pennsylvania - whose name was Joe Namath.
He sat down and I said: "Ya know Joe, had you taken that 10 grand I offered you to play baseball instead of going on to play football, you wouldn't have to be sitting on the aisle with a bad leg."
SMR: While we're on the subject of legends like Williams, DiMaggio and Namath, let's talk about one legend who claims he is ready to retire: Vin Scully.
TL: The Dodgers without Vinnie will be like a guy without his right arm. He has been a sensational contribution to the organization. There is no one else like him, and there never will be. He is loved, admired - he's reached the top of the mountain. If he really decides to hang it up, it will be interesting to see what he decides to do.
But I don't know if he will really retire. He has said that he would before, and then he didn't. I told him to keep on going. I said: "Vinny, you're lucky. You could be 100 years old and still do what you do."
Back when I was still managing, I was at a dinner with him once, and when I got up to speak, I looked over at him and said: "Look at him, sitting there. Not a care in the world. When a game is over, he says 'See ya tomorrow' and he walks out of the stadium. I'm miserable - worrying about everything - so many things, that I'm thinking about jumping off a bridge. And while I'm pulling my hair out, Vinny is home sleeping."
But I hope he sticks around a bit longer. He has built a great name for himself, and the fans love him.
SMR: Speaking of being loved by fans, you have always been a fan favorite.
TL: It amazes me how much love I get from people who all come over and say hello. It happens everywhere I go, and I'm very grateful for that. Back when I was a young player with the Brooklyn Dodgers, I could walk down a street in New York and if I dropped dead right in the middle of the street, people would just step over me. Today, I walk down a street anywhere and everybody's yelling: "Hey Tommy! How you doing?" The truck drivers drive by hollering; people of all ages are waving and smiling. It makes you feel good. I love it.
I've always loved the fans. Whenever I talked about the Dodgers, it wasn't just the team. I always talked about the fans. I used to tell my players we have to win, not just for ourselves, but for our fans. We owe them championships. I have always admired and appreciated the fans. I always wanted to talk with the fans and make them feel like they were welcome at Dodger Stadium.
And when I was managing the team, I was always aware that I represented the Dodgers - the organization, the players and the fans. If I got into a fight in a bar, nobody was going to say: "Tommy Lasorda from Norristown, Pennsylvania, got in a fight." They would say: "Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers got into a fight." So wherever I went, I always represented the organization to the highest degree that I could.
I never got politically involved or did anything to hurt the organization. I just always tried to be the best I could be. I love this organization, and I'm going to die a Dodger. I've had many opportunities to leave the organization but would never do it. I turned them all down because I wanted to always be a Dodger.
SMR: You have also always been gracious when it comes to signing autographs for fans. Of the hundreds of thousands of autographs you've signed, do you have any memory of one that really stands out?
TL: I've always signed for the fans - so many different things: balls, bats, caps, photos, anything. But as for one that stands out, I remember one time when I was up in Seattle doing a speaking engagement at a college. After I spoke, I was signing autographs and this beautiful - and I mean beautiful - girl came up and sat down next to me. She was just gorgeous, and she asked me if I would sign her ear. That was a new one to me. I told her I don't sign body parts, and she pulled her hair back and took her ear off and handed it to me.
SMR: What? You mean it was a prosthetic ear?
TL: [Laughing] Hell if I know what it was. It was this rubbery thing, and I was sitting there holding her ear and looking at it and getting goose pimples. I was thinking: "What the hell is this all about?" So I told her that I don't sign ears, and she just started pleading with me to sign it. So I was torn. I didn't want to disappoint her, so I signed this rubbery ear and handed it back to her. She pushed her hair back again, put the ear back on, thanked me and walked away. That one I will always remember [laughing].
SMR: Tommy, do you collect anything? Do you have any items from your career?
TL: I've never been a collector of anything, although I do have hundreds of beautiful telegrams I received from people over the years expressing their love and appreciation - presidents, movie stars - Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles. But I have never collected anything from my years as a player or as a coach. I just didn't save anything.
I could have saved my uniforms or bats or gloves, but back then, when I was playing, nobody ever thought about that. Nobody ever thought that stuff was worth saving or would ever have any value. I have nothing. I never thought of keeping any of that stuff. Now all that stuff has become an industry.
SMR: What about your trading cards? You must have a collection of them. Or, at the very least your 1954 Topps rookie card.
TL: I do have some of the cards. People have given them to me over the years, but I never really collected them. I'll tell you this, there is one thing I have from my career that I treasure the most: When I retired, Eric Karros presented me with the wristwatch I wear. It's a sign of how much the players loved me, and I never take it off. Most players are happy to get rid of managers [laughs], but that wasn't the case with me.
When you get something like this watch, you know they really cared about you and are going to miss you. Of all the things I've received over my career, this wristwatch means the most to me. I love it because it came from my players. Every time I see Andre Ethier, he always tells me he wants me to leave him my wristwatch when I die. I tell him: "Hey pal, don't be worried about my watch because I just may outlive you" [laughs].
I know I'm going to live to be at least 100, and maybe longer than that. I just know that because I have a plan - a system to make that happen.
SMR: Interesting, so what's your plan?
TL: I keep moving around so God can't find me. God starts looking for people to take when they slow down and stop moving. So every day, I'm up and doing this and doing that, moving around from here to there, so he never knows exactly where I am.
SMR: Sounds like a good plan. By the way, how are you feeling these days?
TL: Good. Really good. But I've got to lose 30 pounds. One of the owners of the Dodgers - I'm not going to tell you who - said to me: "Tommy, I don't like the way you look. You're too heavy." So he made me a deal. He said if I lose 30 pounds, he'll give me a million dollars. So I'm battling to get the million.
He gave me a year to do it. So I figure if I get close to the deadline and I see I'm not going to make it, I'm going to go to my doctor and have him cut off one of my legs because there's no way I'm going to lose out on getting the million [laughs].
SMR: So are you watching what you eat?
TL: Yeah, I watch every mouthful as it goes in [laughs]. But I am going to be getting serious about it here soon, because I can't lose out on that million dollars. So I do a little exercise. I don't overdo it, but I stretch every day to keep my muscles loose and I have a weight machine I use.
SMR: When you reflect on the incredible life you have already lived, what are your thoughts?
TL: It's been a tremendous life that I still can't believe. When I signed that first contract as a kid, I couldn't believe that happened to me. I went out and bought a suit at Robert Hall's for $7.97. It had a jacket with two pairs of pants, and I thought I was something - owning a suit! I never thought I would have a life like I have had. When you look at where I came from and where I am now, it's just tremendous.
When I think of what God has given me, I sometimes wonder why I have been so blessed. That's why I plan on sticking around a lot longer, because I enjoy every day and it amazes me how much love I get from people. It's been an incredible life that I can't even believe. I never thought I would have a life like this.
And I always want people - especially kids - to know that no matter how down you may be in life, you can still become something. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. I'll never stop saying that. The only time I'll ever stop is when I stop moving. That's when God will find me and it will be time for me to go.
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