Most Dodgers fans remember 1981 because of Fernandomania, the first extended baseball strike and their team’s exciting World Series victory over the New York Yankees, but for me it was the summer of Tommy.
It was my privilege to be a fledgling baseball writer and a fly on the wall for all of those memorable events, and I experienced them through the prism of this sometimes cartoonish character with a personality that was way bigger than his squatty body and more entertaining than a Friars Roast.
Tommy Lasorda, who died on Thursday at the age of 93, wasn’t the greatest tactical manager and he wasn’t always the affable teddy bear you saw on TV, but he was a legitimate Hall of Famer nonetheless.
No one loved the game more. No one promoted it harder. No one else would have thought to say during his early years as manager that he loved the Dodgers so much that when he died, he wanted their schedule to be placed on his tombstone every year so he could go on working for the team into eternity.
He was part dramatic actor and part jester, much like some of the celebrities who populated his office or the Dodgers dugout on any given day. He was a father figure to every young Dodger who got called up from the team’s then-Triple-A minor league team in Albuquerque and, well, the huggiest manager in the history of baseball, though that part of his act wore a bit thin as that star-studded Dodgers team of the late 1970s and early 1980s grew into a world champion.
There was no question that Lasorda was a great motivator and a dynamic public speaker, even though he was prone to some salty language and found himself on the wrong end of some hilarious audiotapes that are still just a Google search away.
The Mother’s Day in 1978 when Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman hit three mammoth home runs at Dodger Stadium, a reporter made the mistake of asking Tommy after the game what he thought of the big slugger’s performance.
“What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance,’' he replied, his voice rising. “What the (expletive) do you think is my opinion of Kingman’s (expletive) performance …” and off he went on a tirade that in today’s social media world would have gone viral and gotten 10 million views in a matter of hours. He passed away during the YouTube generation, but I’m not sure he would have survived in it in those days.
Somehow, a career minor league pitcher from Norristown, Pennsylvania, who pitched a grand total of four innings for the 1955 “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers and finished a brief major league career with an 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA, ended up being one of the most famous sports figures in the world.
It was heady stuff working at Dodger Stadium in those days. It was not unusual for Tommy to introduce you to an Oscar winner between bites of pizza in the moments after a big win or a discouraging loss.
It was a mixed blessing to be introduced to the late, great comedian Don Rickles when your last name was Schmuck, and that became a running gag in a Dodgers dugout where Rickles was a regular pregame guest.
Of course, what else would you expect at a ballpark that was right off Sunset Boulevard and right down the street from Hollywood — a ballpark where 50,000 people would brave the notorious L.A. rush hour to be in their seats for the wacky celebrity ballgame on Hollywood Stars Night?
If you want to know how much of a celebrity Lasorda was in his managerial prime, it wasn’t unusual to be interviewing him after a game while Frank Sinatra sat quietly in the corner of his office.
His baseball achievements were certainly Hall-worthy. He managed the Dodgers in four World Series — including in each of his first two seasons as a major league manager — and won two of them. His teams won the National League West division in eight of his 20 full seasons and he ranks 21st all-time with 1,599 managerial victories even though he was hired to his only major league job at the relatively advanced age of 49.
Lasorda began his managerial career as a winner and went out the same way. He won division titles in his final two full years as Dodgers manager — albeit in the strike-shortened 1994 and ’95 seasons — and his team reached the playoffs again in 1996. But a heart attack ended his managerial career in June of that season and longtime Dodgers shortstop and coach Bill Russell replaced him.
Though Lasorda wanted to continue managing following that health scare, he transitioned into a variety of roles with the Dodgers, including interim general manager, special adviser to ownership and baseball ambassador.
When his candidacy for the Hall of Fame was being evaluated by the Veterans Committee in late 1996, he was asked for assurance that he would not manage again before being elected and inducted the following year.
He kept his promise, sort of. He didn’t manage in the majors again, but he did come back in 2000 to manage Team USA to its first Olympic Gold Medal in baseball.
Lasorda suffered a second heart attack in 2012 while in New York for the June amateur draft, but bounced back quickly and dealt with that health setback in typical Lasorda fashion.
“The doctors confirmed I do bleed Dodger blue,” he said in a statement released by the team. “I’m looking forward to being back at the stadium to cheer on the Dodgers.”
Former Sun columnist Peter Schmuck covered the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Orange County Register from 1981-1983. He covered sports for The Sun from 1990 until retiring in May.