ASA Exclusive: An Interview with Tommy Lasorda

The following is an exclusive excerpted interview of legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda conducted by ASA President Lou Schwartz. Lasorda is a longtime supporter of ASA who served as Master of Ceremonies for two ASA Hall of Fame Dinners. Schwartz attended the last-ever spring training game at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., on March 17, 2008, and afterwards he was able to sit down with his old friend for an in-depth interview. (Lasorda was serving as interim manager while Joe Torre was in Japan). The Dodgers are planning to leave Vero Beach, where they have trained since 1948, and move their spring training operation to Arizona.

Lou Schwartz: Can you recall the first time you came here to Vero Beach, Fla.?

Tommy Lasorda: Oh yeah. Sure. I was a young left-handed pitcher with a lot of hopes and dreams. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or what the situation would be like. I arrived here around 10 o’clock at night and I remember when I walked in the room and turned on the light there were five guys in three double bunks. This used to be a Naval Air Base. They had barracks. That’s where we lived. At the time, there were over 700 players here. We had 26 farm teams. Now we have four. I don’t know why they ever cut down. In those days, you had a limited draft. Today you have an open draft. If you drafted a player off a Triple-A club, that closed the door for that club. You couldn’t draft anymore players. Now you can draft as many as you want. But what made it so special here was the tradition. You’d walk into the dining room and you’d see Duke Snyder and Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges or Roy Campanella and you’d go sit right next to them.

LS: Do you remember the first game you played in?

TL: I can’t remember the first game but I know you were assigned to different teams, the red team, the yellow team, the blue team, all different colors. There were 26 different colors. Also, if you had a sore arm, you wore a gray cap. If you had a bad leg, you wore white socks. This way, if you’re hitting the ball and you didn’t hustle, they would know it’s because you had a bad leg.

LS: How much were you making then?

TL: I signed a contract with them for $225 a month. I just wanted to play baseball so I was happy. The food was great here. Mr. Rickey said they had to give the troops good food.

LS: What did you think of Branch Rickey?

TL: He was the most brilliant man I had ever met. He knew more about baseball than anyone else. The next closest to him was Al Campanis. He was a disciple of Branch Rickey. I was a disciple of Campanis and Rickey. I remember looking at the next day’s schedule on the bulletin board and there was a note that said I should report to Branch Rickey at 8 o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t sleep all night. It was like having a meeting with the Pope or something. So the next morning I went over and I met him. He talked to me, worked with me, made me throw the ball and asked me all kinds of questions. ‘Is your mother and father alive?’ Yeah. ‘Does your mother drink?’ No. ‘Does your father drink?’ Yeah. After watching me throw I said, ‘Mr Rickey, do you think I can stay in Triple-A and be successful?’ He raised his eyebrows, bent his head slightly and said, ‘If you don’t, I’ll be up there to investigate.’ When I won the Branch Rickey Award some years ago, that meant so much to me because I played under his umbrella.

LS: Who are some of your all-time favorite players?

TL: At catcher it would have to be Mickey Cochrane or Bill Dickey. At first it would be none other than “The Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig. Second base I’d have to say Rogers Hornsby. For a four-year period he averaged over .400. Hank Greenberg was also one of my favorites. Jimmie Foxx too. Jimmie Foxx got signed by the Phillies late in his career. I was in spring training with the Phillies that same year and I followed him around all spring. In those days, we didn’t train in Florida. They trained up North. The Phillies trained in Wilmington, Del. and the Dodgers trained in Bear Mountain, NY. I just admired Jimmie Foxx so much and I followed him around like a little puppy dog but he didn’t even know I was there. I used to say hello to him but that was the extent of it. What a nice guy though. One of my favorite pitchers was Bob Feller. He was 17 years-old and he pitched against the Cardinals and struck out about 11 or 12 guys. It was an exhibition game. The Indians were playing the Cardinals and Frankie Frisch was the player-manager at the time. When he saw Feller warming up, he took his name out of the lineup and put someone else in at second base. Leo Durocher was up with two strikes and walked away from the plate and the umpire told him to come back and Durocher said, ‘Give it to him. I can’t hit that guy.’ Feller was just awesome. He pitched a couple of no-hitters and eight or nine one-hitters. Another guy you have to respect is Warren Spahn. He won 363 games and he didn’t start winning until he got out of the service.

LS: What did you think of Leo Durocher?

TL: I loved Leo Durocher. I took his number, two. Durocher was my kind of manager. He had an electrifying personality and he would always end up getting you in the ribs. Larry MacPhail must have fired him 10 times.

LS: I remember in the later years of his life I called him up and he was so lonely and angry because some people from the Dodgers were invited to the White House and he wasn’t one of them.

TL: He didn’t make the Hall of Fame until he died and that wasn’t right. He wasn’t that great of a player but he was a dynamic person. But Leo had enemies. He was always getting in trouble. The Commissioner suspended him for one year for hanging around with undesirables. He used to live with George Raft, the actor. Raft was a bat boy for the New York Highlanders, which later became the New York Yankees. I knew Raft quite well. I was with him in Cuba when he ran the Capri Casino. He introduced Durocher to his future wife, Lorraine Day. She was a beautiful girl.

LS: Can you remember any particular great moment from your baseball career that really stands out in your mind?

TL: I had a lot of great moments. I managed the Dodgers for 20 years. It’s hard to believe that there are only four guys in the history of baseball who managed the same team for 20 years or more. One was owner of the team, Connie Mack. Another was part owner of the team, John McGraw. Then there was my predecessor, Walter Alston, and me. It’s amazing. In the 20 years I managed the Dodgers, 210 managers were fired.

LS: But your personality is one of a kind. You can’t buy that.

TL: I’m an ordinary guy though. I’ve lived in the same house for over 40 years. I drive the same type of cars. I dress the same way. But some how I’ve got six honorary doctorate degrees. I’ve got the Tommy Lasorda Heart Institute. I have an asteroid named after me. Only Walter Cronkite and I have asteroids named after them. I’ve dined with Presidents. I spoke at the Nixon Library, the Reagan Library and I just spoke a couple of weeks ago at President Bush’s Library in Texas. I’ve spoken nine times to the Air Force Academy, twice to West Point, twice to Annapolis and at practically every Air Force base in the country and outside the country.

LS: And don’t forget you were the Master of Ceremonies at two of the ASA Hall of Fame dinners.

TL: That’s right. And they were great dinners. But who would’ve thought all these things would’ve happened to me? I’m still in awe by the way people treat me and take care of me. I’ve got a good family. My four brothers all live near me. My father migrated here from Italy in 1920. He was a man that really worked hard. He drove a truck in a stone quarry. I received the Ellis Island Award. The others who received this award were Madeline Albright, the Secretary of State, an author named Frank McCourt, and the head of a big company Shelley Lazerus. They honored us at Ellis Island and gave me a picture of the boat my father came over on. They told us where he boarded the ship, Bordeaux, France, which we didn’t know. They also gave us a list of all the passengers. Lee Iacocca made the presentation to me and in my speech I said, ‘I thank God every night that my father didn’t miss that boat because had he missed it I would probably be addressing all of you today as Pope Thomas the 26th.

LS: Have you had any books written about you?

TL: I just had my second book published. It’s called, I Live for This. The first one was The Artful Dodger.

LS: Is that your life story?

TL: Yes. It covers my life from the time I signed a professional baseball contract at 16 years old. Can you imagine that. Signing a contract at 16 years old.

It was so nice seeing you again Lou. Be sure to visit me when you’re in Los Angeles.