When Walter Alston stepped down as manager of the Dodgers at the end of the 1976 season after 24 years, the great Vin Scully interviewed Alston’s successor. What pressure, Scully asked, would the new director have on the legend? What Tommy Lasorda said: I’m not worried about the guy I’m about to sue. I’m worried about the guy who’s looking at me.
It was typical Lasorda, and as usual he was right. Lasorda led the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1977 to 1996, posted a .526 winning percentage, won four flags, won the World Series in 1981 and 1988 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. He said Dodger Blue was bleeding, and he meant it. He spent 71 years in the Dodgers’ organization as a player, coach and then as the most famous manager in the club’s history.
It’s funny that Bill Weck wanted to move his team from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1953 for $5 million, and he wanted to take me, Lasorda says. I wanted to play for Baltimore, but the Yankees didn’t accept the move, so it didn’t happen until the following year. The next year I was with the Dodgers. But if that step had been taken last year, my life would have looked very different.
Error! The file name is not specified. J.D. Cuban/Alsport/Getty Images
Lasorda brought Hollywood to the Dodgers. He loved the lifestyle of celebrities; he loved being friends with movie stars, singers and other brilliant people, great people like Frank Sinatra. But most of all, he loved baseball and the Dodgers. During spring training 2013 in Glendale, Arizona, Lasorda, then 85 years old, came to Dodger camp almost every day to help the organization in some way and become Tommy Lasorda.
He loved being Tommy Lasorda.
Most people my age, he says, are either dead or in a nursing home. I give speeches all over the country. But it’s not a job. When you love what you do, you never feel like you’re working.
No one loved baseball more than Lasorda. Joe, his wife of over 60 years, once told him that he loved baseball more than she did, and he agreed, playfully adding, but I love you more than football or basketball.
Lasorda loved the game, and he loved getting by. And he was very good at it, partly because of the positive reinforcement he kept giving his players.
I made the guys believe, I made them believe they could win, he said in an interview in the spring of 2013. I did it by motivating them. I’ve been asked many times: Do you think baseball players who make 5, 8 or 10 million a year need to be motivated? That’s all I’m saying. I did.
Then he smiled.
Error! The file name is not specified. Tommy Lasorda won two World Series – 1981 and 1988 – as manager of the Dodgers. AP Images
Cardinal O’Connor, who presided over a memorial Mass for my mother, once asked me to speak about motivation, Lasorda continued. The day I realized I could motivate players was in Spokane in the Pacific Coast League. We were playing in Tucson. We had a little left on the hill called Bobby O’Brien. He had two outs, bases loaded, at the end of the game. I went up the hill to talk to him. I said: Bobby, I want you to look at the big Dodger in the sky. I want you to think of this as the last killer you’ll ever meet in your life. If you refuse to knock, you will die. You will meet the Lord and you will know that you have failed and died. But if you take the man out, you can meet the Lord, knowing that you take the man out. So, what do you want to do, take this guy out or die? He said: I want this guy out!
So I left the mound and he gave up a two-run single. I went back up the hill and said: Bobby, what happened? He said: I was so scared of death that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing. Then I realized that I had convinced him that if he didn’t get the guy out, he might die. That’s what I call motivation!
Like Bobby O’Brien, Lasorda was rather left-handed when he played.
My work wasn’t very good, he said, but I enjoyed competing.
In his major league career, he has completed 58 sets for the Dodgers and the A’s, going 0-4 with an ERA of 6.52.
I thought I had a chance to pitch for the Dodgers when Walter [Alston] got the job [in 1955], Lasorda said. In 1956, I was 14-5 in Little League. I’ve won more races than Erskine. I’ve won more games than Roebuck. I was drafted in June 1956. I spent the rest of the year on the bench. I never bothered to play.
Error! The file name is not specified. No. 2 Tommy Lasorda, who retired in 1997, is in the Retirement Plaza at Dodger Stadium. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
At the time, Lasorda said one of his teammates, Don Zimmer, overheard a conversation between Dodger coach Ted Lyons and Alston in which Lyons told the coach that Lasorda needed to get in the game.
But, Lasorda says, 57 years later, Walter told Ted: We need him more in the stands. It brings a lot of life to the dugout. I went to Walter and I said: What am I, a cheerleader? I want to pitch. Put me in the game. I can do that. I never had the chance. … But that doesn’t matter now.
It is important to note that Lasorda was a very successful manager with the team he loved the most.
Let me show you something, Lasorda once said, and he took the writer to the office of Don Mattingly, then manager of the Dodgers. On the wall hung a picture of every Dodger manager in the club’s glorious history. See, he said most of these guys only last a few years. A few went a little further. It’s incredible to me. They’re all here, and not many of them have led the Dodgers for long.
He didn’t need to finish his thought. Only Alston, at 21, has led the team longer than Lasorda. What about the man who replaced Lasorda? It was Bill Russell. It took three years. Lasorda was 1976. It wasn’t easy to follow.
But in 2020, 32 years after the Dodgers’ last World Series victory, they finally won again, beating the Rays in six games. Tommy Lasorda, the last manager to win a world championship for the Dodgers, was there in a private suite at Globe Life Field, surrounded by friends and family. He flew in for an exciting Game 6.
He was conscious, he knew exactly what happened in the last outing, said Bobby Valentine, a former Dodger, former manager and close friend of Lasorda. When the finale was done, we all got up in the suite and screamed with Tommy: Oh, yeah! Because that’s what Tommy always said after a big win: Oh, yeah! Then we took a picture with him after the Dodgers won. Of all Tommy’s records, he has the most photos in the world. I’d say it’s 500,000. It’s probably a lot more than that. Mothers taking pictures with their sons in the supermarket. He was always available. That was Tommy.