Pitching in Greenville, S.C., where he finished 7-7, Tom Lasorda took a wife. He married a local woman whose family didn’t exactly rejoice bringing into the nest of Southern Baptists an Italian Catholic, particularly one with the unique personality of Lasorda.
Searching their memories, folks in Greenville could never recall encountering someone quite like Tom. It suggested the story told by the late husband of Debbie Reynolds, Harry Karl, who accompanied his wife on location at a backwoods town in Kentucky.
A villager kept staring at Karl, who, uncomfortable, walked away. The villager followed and kept staring.
Harry finally asked, “Is anything wrong?”
The guy answered, “No, I just ain’t never seen a Jew before.”
In Greenville, the bride’s family, not to mention the bride, never had seen anyone the likes of Lasorda, whose marriage has now lasted 40 years.
Tom was an unlikely figure, too, to become manager of the Dodgers after the retirement of Walter Alston. The club’s owner at the time, Walter O’Malley, worried whether Lasorda was mature enough to lead major league players.
O’Malley also disliked managers who were kicked out of games, and in the minors, Tom usually captured, or contended for, that title.
Managing Spokane, he got kicked out one day before the game even started.
But O’Malley’s son, Peter, and Vice President Al Campanis supported Lasorda, persuading the owner to try him.
And 14 years later, Lasorda not only remains on the job but has been tendered a contract extension of two years.
If he lasts, that would take him to 65, consummating one of baseball’s most interesting adventures--a mad odyssey, in fact, in which Tom has soared to riches on a rocket of energy and with a fund of inventive ways to get paid.
The commercial empire he has built is astonishing, said to produce revenues greater than what he earns as senior manager--on the same job--in baseball today.
As a public speaker, his fees are high, rarely less than $10,000, and unlike his pitchers, he will work every day.
Lasorda also does TV and radio commercials. He endorses products. He markets spaghetti sauce. This is a fat cat, if you will pardon such reference to one enlisting diet powder as a client.
Recently, Tom activated his baseball pension, which had reached its maximum payout--$112,000 a year. A millionaire, Lasorda no longer needs the Dodgers, or anyone else, but the job continues to offer carbonation, and his dedication to selling tickets is unmatched by managers anywhere.
Lasorda goes through life moving tickets, selling the Dodgers to audiences throughout the land. He sells the Dodgers to the press. He sells them to people downing their pasta e fagioli in the places in which he eats.
“Hey, paisan !” someone yells, spotting Lasorda making his way through the restaurant.
This can trigger three minutes from Tom on Dodger Blue.
Some detractors laugh at Lasorda, describing his act as wilted, his appetite for a buck insatiable.
But he has traversed a long, hard road from a flat in Norristown, Pa., where he slept on the third story, one above where the heat from the coal stove ended.
A scout, minor league manager and big league coach, Tom struggled most of his life to pay the tabs, taking on winter work as a manager in the Caribbean.
Bagging the job as manager of the Dodgers, he would land, luckily, in baseball’s least-nervous environs. Walter O’Malley was asked one day why he kept Walter Alston for 23 years.
“It is my belief,” the owner answered, “that if you keep one manager 23 years, or hire 23 managers for a year each, your results will be roughly the same. The organization usually dictates your place in the standings.”
The line of succession in the Dodger front office picks up this philosophy, proof of which is Peter O’Malley sticks faithfully with Lasorda, good seasons and bad.
And now Tom puts the arm on two more years, at a time he doesn’t need it but seems to owe it to his Muse to go on.
A lot of prose has been devoted to the celebrity wall Lasorda maintains in his office, where autographed photos of the greats appear.
But if he consorts with the Sinatras and the Rickleses and the Iacoccas, he never has chosen to live among them, retaining, for all his bankroll, the same modest tract house he bought in Fullerton for $27,000 shortly after the Dodgers arrived in California.
“Everything is relative,” he once explained. “Compared to Beverly Hills, my house is humble. But compared to Norristown, it is a palace.”