Tommy Lasorda will turn 90 on September 22, but he hasn’t let his age or health problems slow him down. Last week, Lasorda was in town to watch the Tulsa Drillers for three days, and I had the opportunity to sit with him and chat with him in the Drillers press box prior to a couple of those games.
Lasorda is best known for his 20 years as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, many non-baseball fans will remember his numerous appearances on television, including as a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He also appeared on Silver Spoons, Who’s The Boss?, CHiPs, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, Hee Haw, Simon & Simon, Everybody Loves Raymond and American Restoration.
It was a pleasure to just mention a baseball player’s name and let Lasorda share a story or two about that person. I asked him about managing notorious baseball prankster Jay Johnstone.
“Jay was always doing something to drive me crazy,” Lasorda said. “One time, I was looking for Jay to have him pinch hit in a game, and someone said he was up at the concession stand ordering a hot dog. So, here come Jay down to the dugout and I told him to go hit. He ends up hitting a home run. Next thing I know, he’s back up there getting his hot dog.”
I mentioned a gentleman who was like a grandfather to me when I worked in the Montreal Expos organization – I wondered if Lasorda remembered Pat Mullin, he was one of the Expos’ roving instructors and would come to Jamestown often.
“Oh, sure I remember Pat, what a great guy,” Lasorda said. “They don’t make them like him anymore. He was not only a great player but also a really good guy.”
Lasorda also shared some stories without being prompted. Like the time Frank Sinatra kept a promise.
“When I was still coach of the Dodgers, Frank Sinatra told me ‘you’re going to be the manager of the Dodgers someday, and when you are, I will sing the National Anthem at a game,’” Lasorda said. “The day I was announced as the new manager of the Dodgers (Sept. 29, 1976) Sinatra called me and said, ‘Well, when do you want me to sing the Anthem?’ So, I said, how about my first game, like this it will be the first game for both of us. See, Sinatra had never sung the National Anthem at a baseball game before that.”
Since Walter Alston retired as the Dodgers manager with four games remaining in the 1976 season, Sinatra was called upon immediately to sing the next day – Lasorda’s first as the team’s manager. Lasorda finished the season with a 2-2, record and the Dodgers finished in second place, 10 games behind the National League West Division leading Cincinnati Reds. The Reds and Dodgers had a very heated rivalry in those days, and Lasorda said the rivalry extended to the managers. Although he had known Reds manager Sparky Anderson for a long time and respected him, he was quick to tell him things would be different now that he was manager of the Dodgers.
“Sparky told me, ‘Alston couldn’t beat us, and you’re not going to beat us,’ but I told him ‘I don’t give a — about Alston. It’s my team now, and we’re going to beat you’” Lasorda said.
The Dodgers had great success under Lasorda during his 20 years as manager, winning two World Series titles (1981 and 1988), four National League pennants, and eight division titles. He compiled a 1,599–1,439 record, and managed nine players who won the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Lasorda came out of retirement in 2000 to lead the U.S.A. baseball team to a gold medal victory at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The U.S.A. team had to get past the heavily favored Cuba team, which had won gold medals at the two previous Olympics.
During our conversation, Lasorda said, “You know, I have eight honorary doctorate degrees. That means I’ve spoken at eight college commencement ceremonies. I like speaking to the graduates and giving them advice.”
Then, almost as if on cue, one young fan stopped by with his father to meet Lasorda and pose for a photo.
Lasorda then told the young boy, “They can take away your shirt, they can take away your shoes, but they can never take away your education. Stay in school and get your education. Don’t hang around with the bad guys. You might not be bad, but people will think you are if you hang around with those kids.”
“Yes, sir,” said the boy.
Due to recent health issues, Lasorda wasn’t expected to make his annual trip to Tulsa, however, just days before, he was cleared by his doctor to travel, and was sporting a cast on his right wrist following a fall he took recently. Now in his 68th season working with the Dodgers in some capacity or another, the current Special Advisor to the Chairman of the Dodgers held forth in the press box dining room, while I and a few others were the fortunate listeners of his timeless stories.
Lasorda’s responsibilities include scouting, evaluating, and teaching minor league players, acting as an advisor and ambassador for the Dodgers’ international affiliations, and representing the organization at more than 100 speaking engagements and appearances to various charities, private groups and military personnel each year. Not bad for a guy who is approaching his 90th birthday.