LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Tommy Lasorda, the colorful and cantankerous longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who led the team to four National League pennants and two World Series championships in the 1970s and ’80s, has died. He was 93.
Lasorda, who spent more than 70 years in the Dodgers organization, suffered a sudden cardiopulmonary arrest at home Thursday night and was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead a short time later, the team said in a statement on Friday.
“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,” Dodgers chief executive Stan Kasten said in a news release.
“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. Tommy is quite simply irreplaceable and unforgettable.”
Lasorda’s connection with the Dodgers dated back to 1949, when he was drafted as a pitcher while the storied National League club was still based in New York City’s Brooklyn borough.
But Lasorda’s tenure in the dugouts far outshone his playing career and he eventually became one of the team’s most enduring and widely recognized figures through several management changes.
“Tommy Lasorda was one of the finest managers our game has ever known. He loved life as a Dodger,” MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred said in a statement. “His passion, success, charisma and sense of humor turned him into an international celebrity, a stature that he used to grow our sport.”
Former U.S. President George W. Bush, onetime co-owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers in the American League, saluted Lasorda as a “fine ambassador for our national pastime,” recounting the Dodgers great “stepping in as third base coach for a tee ball game” of little leaguers on the White House South Lawn in 2007.
BIG WINS, WIT, PUGNACITY
Fans most remembered him for delivering big wins during his two decades as manager, starting nearly 20 years after then-owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles as part of Major League Baseball’s expansion to the West Coast in ’50s.
Lasorda’s longevity and wit put him in the pantheon of such legendary longtime baseball managers as Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, whose verbal prowess made them media darlings. As manager, he compiled a 1,599-1,439 regular-season record, leading the Dodgers to World Series victories in 1981 and 1988.
Sportswriters could count on Lasorda to pepper interviews with humorous quips. One of his best known was describing “three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happened.”
He stepped down as manager in 1996 after suffering a mild heart attack.
“I felt that even though the doctors had given me a clean bill of health, that for me to get into uniform again, as excitable as I am, I could not go down there and not be the way I’ve always been,” he said in announcing his retirement.
But Lasorda, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, returned to the dugouts to manage the U.S. baseball squad to a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Lasorda also parlayed his blustery persona and burly profile into a side career as a television pitchman for SlimFast-brand diet shakes and other weight-loss products during the 1980s and ’90s. But his affable image in TV ads contrasted sharply with a more combative side.
His pugnacity was infamously caught on tape when Lasorda unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at a radio reporter when asked about a decisive string of three home runs blasted that day by Chicago Cubs slugger Dave Kingman during a 15-inning defeat of the Dodgers in 1978.
Thirty years later, Lasorda drew a different brand of notoriety when convicted Hollywood madam Jody “Babydol” Gibson named him among two dozen celebrities she claimed had patronized her call-girl service. Lasorda denied he ever knew Gibson and threatened through his lawyer to sue before the scandal blew over.
BRIEF BIG-LEAGUE PLAYER CAREER
Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to Italian immigrants, Lasorda got his start in professional baseball at age 18. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, joining their “farm” club system, then serving two years in the U.S. Army.
The left-handed pitcher returned to minor league baseball in upstate New York in 1948 with the Schenectady Blue Jays, gaining notice for a 25-strikeout performance. In 1949, the Dodgers drafted him from the Phillies.
Lasorda made his major league debut on Aug. 5, 1954, with the Dodgers, playing in Brooklyn for two seasons before being traded to the Kansas City Athletics to pitch for a season.
He was sent down to the minors again and retired from pro ball as a player in 1960. He served as a Dodgers talent scout for the next five years.
Lasorda went on to manage a number of Dodgers minor league clubs until 1973, when he returned to the majors as third-base coach. The Dodgers named him manager in September 1976, upon the retirement of 23-year veteran Walter Alston.
Lasorda was known for a hands-on approach in which he continued to pitch batting practice into his 60s. Nine of his players won National League rookie-of-the year honors, a testament to Lasorda’s mentoring talents.
After retiring as manager, Lasorda held various executive posts, including vice president and special advisor, developing the club’s minor league teams, making public appearances and serving as a goodwill ambassador overseas.
Asked when he retired from managing how he wished to be remembered, Lasorda answered: “On my tombstone I would like, ‘Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.'”
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris, Dave Gregorio and Sonya Hepinstall)