Tommy Lasorda: The Fight of ’56 and the Birth of a Hall of Fame Manager

 

This is a piece I wrote about ten years ago. I included an abbreviated version in my book, The League of Outsider Baseball, and always liked by illustration of the young Tommy. So, without further yapping, here’s my story of Tommy Lasorda’s early career as a southpaw who dreamed of playing for his beloved Dodgers.

Here’s an illustration I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. As a kid growing up, Tommy Lasorda was always the Dodgers manager. Just like winter would bring snow to my New Jersey town, come spring, Tommy Lasorda would be there in the Dodger dugout. When I started to collect baseball cards I was always more fascinated with the older cards and would spend my time gawking at the expensive ones safely secured in the card dealer’s glass case. It was while pining over some of these ancient pieces of cardboard that I saw a familiar name staring back at me: Tom Lasorda. The face was young and cherubic, but it was unmistakably the current Dodger manager. The card was dated 1954 and I thought it was really neat that here the guy who was leading the Dodgers to all these pennants was once a player for that same team. That encouraged me to look further into the career of Tommy Lasorda, but was let down when I found just a brief 3 year, 18 game career in the record book. But Lasorda’s career prior to managing the Dodgers merits a closer look and the Infinite Baseball Card Set is here to do just that…

Before he became known as the perennial manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda was a crafty left-hander whose dream was to one day pitch for his favorite team.

Growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Lasorda was a die-hard fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Signed by the Phillies out of high school, he squeezed one minor league season in before being drafted into the army in 1945. After his discharge, Lasorda came roaring back in 1948, and while pitching for the Schenectady Blue Jays, struck out a record 25 batters in a 15 inning game against the Amsterdam Rugmakers, winning his own game by hitting an RBI single. Lasorda then continued on his tear by striking out 15 in his next start and then 13 in the game after that. His performance against the Dodgers affiliate in the league, Trois-Rivieres, gained the attention of their manager, Ed Head. When Philadelphia left him unprotected during the off-season, the Brooklyn Dodgers snatched him up on Head’s insistence. Assigned to the Class A Greenville Spinners, Tommy Lasorda was now on his way up the ladder leading to Ebbets Field.

After a 7-7 record in Greenville, he impressed the Dodgers enough to be sent directly to their top farm team in Montreal. In his first year Lasorda was 9-4, and the next year led his team to the Governor’s Cup championship with a 12-8 record. These Montreal Royals teams of the early 1950’s were just jam-packed with future Dodgers-in-waiting. Managed by Walt Alston, who would go on to manage the Dodgers for 23 years, the 1951 pitching staff boasted Joe Black (the next season’s National League’s Rookie of the Year), Jim Hughes, Bud Podbielan and Chris Van Cuyk, all of whom had serviceable careers in the majors.

Lasorda was immensely popular with the fans in Montreal. His teammates called him “Walkie-Talkie” for his ability to jaw non-stop and for his expert bench-jockeying. He was also tough as nails, and International League hitters learned to never dig in against the loud-mouth left-hander. He backed up his head-hunting fastball with his fists as well, and he left a trail of on-field fights in his wake. Lasorda was driven by the desire to win, and finally after another good season as the ace of the Royals staff, he got his chance at the big leagues – but not with Brooklyn.

The lowly St. Louis Browns purchased Lasorda after the 1952 season, and although pictures were even taken of the eager lefty in a Brownies uniform, the deal fell through and he was sent back to Montreal. Although obviously disappointed, Lasorda turned in yet another good season going 17-8 and leading the team to the Governor’s Cup Championship, and then on to victory in the Junior World Series against the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees top farm club. By now Lasorda had a respectable 52 wins and 25 losses for Montreal. He was perched on the top rung of the Brooklyn farm system and it was just a matter of time before the big club gave him a chance.

He bore down and was 14-4 in ‘54. Former Montreal manager Walt Alston was now skipper of the Dodgers, and in August called Lasorda up to the big club. With Brooklyn in a do-or-die race for the 1954 pennant, Lasorda was eager to show what he could do on a big league level. He got into his first game on August 5 against the Cardinals. He pitched three innings in relief and gave up 6 hits including a home run and had three earned runs pinned to him. He rode the bench for a full month watching the pennant slip away from his beloved Dodgers. Dying for a chance to help his team, he complained to Alston who told the lefty that he had brought him up for his attitude, not his talent. His former skipper felt that Lasorda’s mouth was more of an asset to the team than his arm, and had thought that the enthusiasm he brought to the clubhouse would help inspire Brooklyn to the pennant. This was devastating to Lasorda, and for the first time he harbored doubts about his ability to play on a major league level. By September the Dodgers were out of the running and Lasorda was able pitched in two more games, throwing a total of four scoreless innings and giving up a single hit.

Lasorda made the big club in 1955, but was cut after only appearing in four games, including one on May 5th where he tied the Major League record for three wild pitches in one inning. Sent back to Montreal to make room for bonus-baby Sandy Koufax, Lasorda started off terrible, obviously letting his disappointment get in the way of his pitching. Now 27 years-old he was coming to the realization that his career was on the down-swing. However, Lasorda discovered that he had other talents besides pitching – he worked well developing the younger players and he had a natural leadership quality that drew others to him. Bolstered by his new-found talents he started to pitch well, and by the end of the season had led Montreal to yet another International League pennant. Although the Dodgers seemingly had given up on Lasorda, the Kansas City Athletics took notice and bought Lasorda’s contract. He was a big leaguer again, but not for long. He pitched in 18 games for the A’s and lost 4 before he was traded to the Yankees who sent him to their Denver affiliate. After the season ended, he petitioned the Yankees to sell him back to the Dodgers, which they did.

So in 1957, Tommy Lasorda found himself in Los Angeles one year before Brooklyn did. As a pre-cursor to their planned move to LA, the Dodgers had to purchase the existing minor league team, the Los Angeles Angels. A long-time top Chicago Cubs farm team, the Angels were coming off their championship 1956 season that many call the greatest minor league team of all time. With their purchase by Brooklyn, the Cubs transferred all their players elsewhere and Lasorda was tagged to help bolster the pitching staff.

The Pacific Coast League for decades were thought to be almost on a par with the major leagues, with many players actually refusing to go to the big leagues because of better playing conditions and salaries found out west. Rivalries were hot and heavy among certain PCL clubs, and in 1957 Lasorda inserted himself right in the middle of the biggest one, going down in league history not for his pitching, but for his temper.

The Angels had a long-term history of fights with their cross-town rivals the Hollywood Stars. Already in the decade there had been a number of on-field altercations, including a horrific televised riot in 1953. In what became known as “The Fight of ‘57,” Lasorda was on the mound for the Angels and had given up a home run to Hollywood’s pitcher, Fred Waters. Now by the rules of baseball, the next batter, Spook Jacobs, had to go down. Not only was Lasorda pissed at giving up a homer, to give one up to a fellow pitcher was just embarrassing. Lasorda, who never shied away from giving a batter a little chin music, fired a ball directly at Spook, who hit the dirt. Picking himself up, Jacobs said nothing and stepped back in the box. Remember – this was the unwritten law of baseball.

On the next pitch, Spook (look him up and you’ll see where the name came from) bunted the ball back towards the pitcher. The second unwritten rule of baseball says that after throwing at a batter, that pitcher better expect a little retaliation in return. Lasorda of course knew this. Jacobs figured Lasorda would field the bunt and have to stand on first base, thus enabling him to get the chance to spike the pitcher. But Lasorda didn’t field the ball. Instead, he charged at Jacobs and hit him from behind. All hell broke loose, and the ensuing fight lasted 35 minutes.

All-in-all, it was a terrible season for Lasorda and the Angels. In their last season in the Pacific Coast League, the team finished in 6th place, a far cry from their historic 1956 squad. Lasorda was 7-10 and the next season was sent back to Montreal where he began honing his skills as a team leader, assisting Royals manager Clay Bryant in running the team. He also had one of the best seasons of his career, winning 18 games. But Lasorda knew his future was in managing, and from then on everything he did was focused on attaining that goal. By 1965 he was at the helm of the Dodgers rookie league club, and in 1976 replaced his former manager in Montreal, Walt Alston, as skipper of his beloved Dodgers.

Rest in Blue, Tommy, and say hi to the Big Dodger in the sky for me…