Tommy Lasorda, Lovable Leader of the Dodgers, Dies at 93

Tom Lasorda - Getty - H 2017
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Tommy Lasorda

The colorful manager started with the club in Brooklyn as a pitcher, then guided L.A. to two World Series titles as he fit in oh-so-well in Hollywood.

Tommy Lasorda, the boisterous master motivator who “bled Dodger Blue” during his seven decades with the club as a player, scout, coach, manager and ambassador in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, has died. He was 93.

Lasorda, who managed the team for nearly 20 years to four National League pennants and World Series titles in 1981 and 1988, died Thursday night after suffering a heart attack at his home in Fullerton, California, the Dodgers announced. He had been ill for some time.

He retired as Dodgers manager in July 1996, about a month after he suffered a heart attack and underwent an angioplasty to clear a clogged artery. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1997, the same year his uniform No. 2 was retired by the club.

Most recently, Lasorda served as a special adviser to Dodgers chairman Mark Walter. He was there in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 27 when the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series.

"In a franchise that has celebrated such great legends of the game, no one who wore the uniform embodied the Dodger spirit as much as Tommy Lasorda," Dodger president and CEO Stan Kasten said in a statement.

With his infectious personality, impeccable comic timing and gift for storytelling, the colorful son of Italian immigrants was showbiz through and through, a perfect fit in Hollywood.

Frank Sinatra promised him that he would sing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium if Lasorda ever became manager of the team, and so he did on Opening Day in 1977. Lasorda once put Don Rickles in uniform and let him sit in the dugout, and legend has it he sent the comic out to the mound to make a pitching change.

Lasorda also counted Ronald Reagan, Robert Wagner, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Milton Berle and Tony Danza among his buddies, and Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were” at his son’s funeral in June 1991.

When Lasorda was a left-handed pitcher in the Pacific Coast League with the Los Angeles Angels (then a Dodgers’ minor-league team before their move from Brooklyn), he met legendary movie gangster George Raft.

“I started a big fight one game and afterward he was waiting for me to say, ‘That was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” Lasorda told the Los Angeles Daily News in a 2013 interview.

He played Coach Cannoli in the Rodney Dangerfield soccer comedy Ladybugs (1992) and appeared as himself in Ed (1996), a Matt LeBlanc movie that revolved around a baseball-playing chimpanzee. He also showed up on episodes of Fantasy Island, Police Squad!, CHiPs, Hee-Haw, Who’s the Boss? and Arli$$.

Lasorda, born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 22, 1927, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 1945 and pitched for their minor-league team in Concord, North Carolina. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he struck out 25 batters in a 15-inning game and singled in the winning run.

In 1949, the Dodgers got him from the Phillies, and he made his major-league debut in August 1954. Later, he was sent down to the International League club in Montreal so that Brooklyn could use his roster spot on a young, hard-throwing left-hander by the name of Sandy Koufax.

Only one of the greatest pitchers in history could keep him from the big leagues, he often joked.

After 14 seasons in the minors and mere cups of coffee in the majors — he finished with an 0-4 record and 6.52 ERA — the Dodgers released him in 1960 but hired him as a scout a year later. In 1966, he became the manager of the Dodgers' rookie-league club in Pocatello, Idaho, then moved up the ladder, piloting farm teams in Ogden, Utah, Spokane, Washington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Los Angeles brought him to the big leagues in 1973 to serve as third-base coach. While waiting for longtime Dodgers manager Walter Alston to retire, he spurned managing offers from Atlanta, Montreal and Pittsburgh.

When Alston finally hung things up after 23 seasons, Lasorda was named skipper on Sept. 29, 1976. At the start of the 1977 season, the team began a “Dodger Blue” marketing campaign, and the cheerleading Lasorda was all in, talking about “bleeding Dodger Blue” and praying to “The Big Dodger in the Sky.”

His new Dodger players — many of whom played for him in the minors — would run through a dugout wall for him.

“He has the gift of juicing players up and making them do things they don’t even know they have in them,” former second baseman Davey Lopes said.

“He was the best motivator of people I have ever seen in my life,” ex-Dodgers pitcher Tommy John told Sports Illustrated in 2014. “He made you want to come to the ballpark every day.”

Away from the ballpark, Lasorda used his people skills to craft a lucrative career as a motivational speaker (though he never charged for church or school appearances) and product pitchman, and he addressed troops at more than 40 military bases around the world.

“There are two things about Tommy I will always remember,” Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully said in a statement. “The first is his boundless enthusiasm. Tommy would get up in the morning full of beans and maintain that as long as he was with anybody else.

“The other was his determination. He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher. He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination, and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent, and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

Lasorda could use foul language with the best of them in the locker room — anyone who heard his profanity-laced 1978 tirade after a reporter asked him for his “opinion of Dave Kingman’s performance” after the slugger homered three times against L.A. knew that — but he always claimed his wife of 70 years, Jo, never once heard him curse.

After the Dodgers fell in the World Series in 1977 and 1978 to the Yankees, his 1981 club bested New York in six games to capture the title. And his decision to use a gimpy Kirk Gibson as a pinch-hitter in the opener of the 1988 Fall Classic — Gibson homered in the bottom of the ninth to win the game — catapulted the upstart Dodgers to a five-game triumph over the Oakland Athletics.

He compiled a 1,599-1,439 record as Dodgers manager before being succeeded by his former shortstop, Bill Russell.

For the 2000 Summer Olympics, Lasorda, then 73, came out of retirement to manage Team USA to the gold medal in Sydney. He told his players that the Olympics were bigger than the World Series, and the young Americans upset heavily favored Cuba. He counted that as his greatest achievement.

One battle, however, the roly-poly Lasorda could not win.

“When I thought smoking was a weakness,” he once said, “I took a pack of cigarettes from my pocket, stared at it and said, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ The answer was me. Then I took a glass of vodka and said to it, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ And again the answer was me. Then I took out a plate of linguine with clam sauce, looked it in the eye and said, ‘Who’s stronger, you or me?’ And the answer came back, ‘Linguine with clam sauce.’ I cannot beat linguine.”

In 2014, a food stand named Lasorda’s Trattoria opened behind the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium.

In addition to his wife — whom he met in 1949 while pitching for the minor-league Spinners in her hometown of Greenville, S.C. — survivors include their daughter, Laura, and granddaughter, Emily. He was the godfather to nearly a dozen of his players’ children.

The Dodgers — make that baseball — will never encounter the likes of Lasorda again.

“When you say you’re a Padre, people ask, 'When did you become a parent?' When you say you’re a Cardinal, they tell you to work hard because the next step is pope,” he said. “But when you say you’re a Dodger, everybody knows you’re in the major leagues.”