Tommy Lasorda, the upbeat, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager who enthusiastically embraced Hollywood celebrities during his Hall of Fame baseball career but never forgot his Norristown roots, died Thursday night of a heart ailment.
Mr. Lasorda, 93, had a lifelong love affair with the Dodgers, an organization that infatuated and employed him for most of his long life. He was a fan as a youngster, a pitcher in the mid-1950s, a scout in the 1960s, a major-league manager for two decades, and in his later years an ambassador and administrator for the team.
“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,” team president and CEO Stan Kasten said in a statement. “A tireless spokesman for baseball, his dedication to the sport and the team he loved was unmatched. He was a champion who at critical moments seemingly willed his teams to victory. The Dodgers and their fans will miss him terribly. “
A left-handed pitcher initially signed in 1945 by the Phillies, Mr. Lasorda went to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948′s minor-league draft. In 26 major-league appearances over three seasons with the Dodgers and Kansas City Athletics, he never won a big-league game, losing four.
A successful minor-league manager, he was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ flamboyant third-base coach when, at the end of the 1976 season, he succeeded Walter Alston as their manager.
His energetic and loquacious nature provided a marked contrast from the laconic Alston’s. Mr. Lasorda talked constantly about bleeding Dodger blue, argued vociferously with umpires and others, and utilized his managerial pulpit like few before or since. His Dodger Stadium office became a pasta-laden haven for Hollywood celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, and Dyan Cannon.
If it all bucked managerial convention, it worked. His first two teams won National League pennants. Although they lost to the Yankees in both the 1977 and ’78 World Series, the Dodgers returned the favor in 1981, defeating New York in six games for the first of Mr. Lasorda’s two championships.
“He did it with the most unashamed mixture of emotion, passion and exhortation that probably ever accompanied a team of baseball professionals to the top,” New York Times columnist Joseph Durso wrote of Mr. Lasorda at the time.
Overall, in 20 years as L.A.’s manager (1977-96), Mr. Lasorda compiled a 1,599-1,439 record. That victory total ranks 22nd all-time. His team won a second World Series in 1988, defeating the heavily favored Oakland A’s in five games.
He was voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1997, the same year the Dodgers retired his No. 2. Then in 2000, displaying an unabashed optimism to the world, he guided an underdog U.S. baseball team to the Olympic gold medal in Sydney.
Though Mr. Lasorda liked to present a positive image, he could be famously cranky. Once, for example, he tussled with the Phillie Phanatic, and a 1978 postgame question about Dave Kingman’s three-homer game against his Dodgers triggered an obscenity-laced tirade that was captured on tape.
Bill Plaschke, the Los Angeles Times columnist who authored a book on him, I Live for This: Baseball’s Last True Believer, wrote that Mr. Lasorda might have been “the most popular baseball figure in the world, but he is also perhaps the most complex.”
“He can be lovable, vengeful, unselfish, unkind, tender and tough, all at the same time,” Plaschke said.
Appreciated by his players and by fans of the Dodgers, Mr. Lasorda’s tireless cheerleading often made enemies elsewhere, particularly in the media.
“He is overbearing to some,” began a UPI profile of the manager shortly after the 1988 Series, “an overweight loudmouth who spouts baseball clichés and hogs the limelight as if it were a plate of pasta.”
For some reason, Mr. Lasorda had a short fuse with mascots. In addition to the Phanatic, he also feuded with the San Diego Chicken and Montreal’s Youppi. The most notorious of those incidents came at Veterans Stadium in August 1988, when the angry manager wrestled with the Phanatic after the mascot had abused a blow-up dummy wearing Mr. Lasorda’s uniform.
“I was always upset about him taking my shirt and putting it on some dummy and then running over it,” Mr. Lasorda explained 17 years later. “I didn’t particularly like that and I told him. I said, ‘I don’t want you to do that anymore.’ The next time … I went after him and I bopped him down a little bit.”
Born to Italian immigrants in Norristown’s working-class East End on Sept. 22, 1927, Mr. Lasorda was one of five brothers. Strongly influenced by his mother’s cooking, his father’s work ethic, and the Catholic church, he nonetheless credited the sport he would champion for the rest of his life with saving him from the streets.
“It was the Depression and lot of the guys in the neighborhood were getting in trouble,” he said. “Baseball stopped me from that.”
He attended Holy Saviour elementary school, across the street from the family’s Walnut Street home, then Rittenhouse Junior High and Norristown High.
As a boy, Mr. Lasorda displayed the voracious appetite that would be a constant in his life. His father was convinced he had a tapeworm. For his school lunches, his mother sometimes packed a half-dozen pepper-and-egg sandwiches.
“When we win, I’m so happy I eat a lot,” the rotund Mr. Lasorda, who didn’t smoke or drink, once explained. “When we lose, I’m so depressed I eat a lot. When we’re rained out, I’m so disappointed I eat a lot.”
Mr. Lasorda became a sought-after public speaker and a tireless advocate for many charities. Throughout his long life, he returned constantly to Norristown for testimonials, family visits, and pure nostalgia.
“No matter where I’ve gone to, I’ve never forgot where I grew up,” he once said of the Montgomery County borough. “Norristown, to me, was golden. Norristown, to me, will always be my love.”
A pitcher who adopted the nickname “Mungo” as an homage to the Dodgers’ Van Lingle Mungo, he perfected his baseball skills playing endlessly in vacant lots and at Elmwood Park, where, he liked to say, he stole his first base and his first glove.
After the Phillies signed him, Mr. Lasorda spent two years in the Army. In 1948, playing for Schenectady, N.Y., he set a professional record with 25 strikeouts in a 15-inning game. That caught the eye of a Brooklyn scout, and in that year’s draft of minor-leaguers, the Dodgers plucked him from Philadelphia’s system.
Several years at triple-A Montreal ensued before he appeared in eight games with Brooklyn in 1954 and 1955. The Dodgers, he enjoyed telling people, had sent him down in 1954 to make room on their roster for Sandy Koufax. Brooklyn won the World Series in ’55, and while Mr. Lasorda was not on the postseason roster, he did get a ring.
Purchased by Kansas City, he pitched in 18 games in 1956, his final season, compiling an 0-4 record and a 6.15 ERA. He also played several seasons in Cuba, where he acquired a halting grasp of Spanish, an asset that helped him with the many Hispanic players he managed in L.A.
Traded to the Yankees late in 1956, he never rose above triple A, and the Dodgers reacquired him the following season. By 1960 he was done, but the Dodgers kept him on as a scout. Six years later, Mr. Lasorda at last found his niche when he was named manager of the team’s Class A club in Pocatello, Idaho.
His enthusiasm and motivational skills ignited young talent, a gift he attributed to Ralph Houk, who had managed him in the Yankees system.
“Ralph taught me that if you treat players like human beings, they will play like Superman,” he said. “He taught me how a pat on the shoulder can be as important as a kick in the butt.”
With the Dodgers, he managed an astonishing nine rookies of the year. In the minors, Mr. Lasorda’s teams won five league championships at various levels in eight seasons. In 1970, he was named minor-league manager of the year for guiding Spokane to the triple-A Pacific Coast League title. Albuquerque won him a second PCL crown in 1972.
Promoted to the Dodgers in 1974, he was Alston’s talkative and animated third-base coach. He also was the heir apparent, and three years later, when Alston retired at 65, Mr. Lasorda succeeded him.
With a core of players he’d managed in the minors — Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey — Mr. Lasorda had immediate success. Those Dodgers defeated the Phillies in the 1977 and 1978 NL Championship Series.
His teams also captured division titles in 1983, 1985, 1988, 1994, and 1995. After his 1996 retirement, Mr. Lasorda was named the Dodgers’ vice president. He served as their interim GM for the second half of the 1998 season after Fred Claire’s firing. For the rest of his life, he was the Dodgers’ ambassador to the world. He also made cameo appearances in several TV shows and films.
“Fifty years from now, we’re still going to know Tommy Lasorda as a great ambassador to baseball,” said Orel Hershiser, the star pitcher of the champion ‘88 Dodgers. “And I think that’s going to be the No. 1 thing on his resume.”
Among the nine rookies of the year Mr. Lasorda managed with the Dodgers was future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. It was the manager’s friendship with Piazza’s father, Norristown native Vince Piazza, that led Los Angeles to make the unheralded catcher a 62nd-round pick in the 1988 amateur draft.
Mr. Lasorda, who suffered a heart attack soon after his retirement, was married to his wife, Jo, for 70 years. They lived in the same modest home in Fullerton, Calif., for most of that time and had two children: a daughter, Laura, and a son, Tom Jr. His son died in 1991. Although AIDS was listed as the cause of death, Mr. Lasorda always insisted his son was not gay.