Tommy Lasorda, legendary Dodgers manager, passed away last Thursday at the age of 93.
He was manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 through 1996; and during his twenty years as manager, the Dodgers won two World Series in the 1980s, four National League pennants, and eight division titles. Lasorda was also conducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 as a manager during his first year of eligibility.
Lasorda’s career with the Dodgers is told through Michael Fallon’s Dodgerland (Nebraska, 2016), which follows the lives of four men, Tommy Lasorda, Tom Fallon, Tom Wolfe, and Tom Bradley as they reflect on the 1977-78 season but also offer up a larger story about California and 1970s America.
Chapter Three: Detours along the Dodger Way
Below is an excerpt from Fallon’s book describing Lasorda’s transition to manager for the Dodgers in 1976.
After the season most of the team’s players at the time continued praising Lasorda’s appointment. Bill Russell, the starting shortstop, said Lasorda had “all the qualifications for the job. He has worked hard, he knows the players and it was a good choice.” Pitcher Tommy John, who had just returned in 1976 from reconstructive surgery on his elbow, said, “I don’t think you could have picked a better man. He has worked in the organization for a long time and paid his dues. I think he will do a good job.” Third baseman Ron Cey agreed that Lasorda was the most qualified man for the job. “He is a tremendous motivator. He believes in hard work. He has meant a great deal in my career as a player. I will try to perform above my capabilities for him.” And star first baseman Steve Garvey pointed out that he had been on four championship teams with Lasorda, two in the Minors and two in the Winter Leagues. “I know as well as I know anything that he is the right man. He is a dedicated man and will do a fine job.”
Lasorda, for his part, was immediately clear about one thing: he had finally obtained the position he long coveted. “This is the greatest day of my life,” Lasorda told the press. “To be selected as manager of an organization I love so deeply, to wake up and learn I had inherited a post being vacated by the greatest manager in baseball, it’s like being presented the Hope Diamond.” That Lasorda was still nervous despite his bluster is clear in how he deflected a few hard questions by reporters, protesting that he had nothing to prove as Alston’s follower. “I just don’t look at it like I’m following a legend,” he said. “If you start defying the pressures of following someone, you’re actually creating pressure within yourself. . . . I don’t want people to be looking back at what Walt Alston did but to look at what Tom Lasorda is doing.” When Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ veteran sportscaster, prodded further, Lasorda was even more defiant: “I’m worried about the guy who is going to replace me.”
With Lasorda in charge of the Dodgers in late September, and Jim Gilliam now stepping into the third base coaching job, the Dodgers split their last four games of the 1976 season to finish with a respectable 90-6 8 win- loss record. Despite this success, however, for the fifth time in the past seven seasons the team ended up in second place behind the seemingly unstoppable Cincinnati Reds, who won their second straight World Series in 1976 by beating the New York Yankees. It was another disappointing season for the Dodgers, and Tom Lasorda was not pleased. Going into the off- season the Dodgers’ new manager was more than eager to begin making his mark on his team. “I have this ‘weight’ problem,” Lasorda said during the off- season. “I just can’t ‘weight’ to get started.”
Lasorda would make several conspicuous moves during the off- season to distance himself from the past regime. Whereas Walt Alston’s office had long been, like the man himself, hard to find, Lasorda immediately moved it, taking over a larger, more centrally located training room. He hung his own personal photos on the cinderblock walls, laid down new carpeting, and brought in new couches that would be used to invite players to postgame buffets. Next, thinking of the hated Reds, Lasorda announced a ban on the color red in the clubhouse. Players could wear no red clothing or accessories anywhere within his sight. This was juvenile stuff, to be sure, but Lasorda brought some humor to the gesture by carrying it to ridiculous extremes. Although he would allow players to continue, should they choose, to chew Red Man Tobacco, he changed the nickname of his pitching coach, the highly regarded Charles Dwight Adams, from “Red” to “Blue.”
With his clubhouse situated to his satisfaction, Lasorda began considering the keys to his hopes for a championship in 1977— his players. In early December Lasorda sat down and wrote each member of the Dodgers’ presumptive roster a Christmas card, informing them it was a privilege to be their manager. “We have the nucleus of a very fine club,” he wrote. “Each of you is gifted with talent and will play a major role in the success of the Dodgers, but there is only one way to win a pennant and that is for 25 players, the coaches and manager to pull and work together. We have to be totally involved and determined to come out of spring training totally prepared.” Throughout his career Lasorda had employed various techniques to motivate his players. He had long treated many of his players like they were his own sons, making sure to know the names of their mothers and the most intimate details of their lives— in order to use them as a spur later. And like any benevolent family patriarch, he demanded, above all else, obedience. In the Minor Leagues Lasorda even trained young players to drop to their knees at his command and shout out their love for the Dodgers. “It was all about getting these guys to visualize the major leagues,” Lasorda said later. “What better way to visualize it than to shout about it?” Once the letters were received Lasorda then called each of the players and told them what he expected them to do during the upcoming season.