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What’s it like to be married to Tommy Lasorda?

Joanne Woodward and Joan Miller were classmates at Greenville High in South Carolina.

Joanne went on to marry Paul Newman.

Joan — or Jo, as she’s known today — married Tom Lasorda.

It gets worse: Tommy borrows $500 to get married. “I didn’t know he didn’t have any money,” Jo says.

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This week marks Jo & Tommy’s 61st wedding anniversary, the obvious question: “How could anyone live with Tom Lasorda that long?”

Before Saint Jo can answer, she has to laugh first. It’s been quite the journey, years and years ago someone asking if she’s ever considered divorce.

“Divorce, no,” she repeats. “Murder, yes.”

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A genuine Southern belle, still prim, proper and declining to give her age, she says she was more interested in high school football players than meeting a minor league baseball player.

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Her mother doesn’t like the boy she’s dating, insisting she attend a Greenville Spinners game. A friend introduces her to a skinny Lasorda, and yes, she says, “I have pictures to show he was skinny.”

Her mother and brother like Lasorda. She doesn’t immediately share their enthusiasm. Her mother invites Lasorda to the house for lunch every day. It doesn’t get any better for Lasorda — free lunch and time spent with the girl he’s already told on their first date he will marry one day.

They do so on April 14, 1950, the couple then taking a train to meet Lasorda’s parents for the first time.

“Tommy’s mother doesn’t smile for a month,” she recalls. “It wasn’t the greatest welcome.”

They stay with Tommy’s parents, people everywhere, as Jo recalls.

“We snuck out one night to a motel, but got back before morning,” Miss Prim & Proper says. “Now don’t you write that.”

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Of course not — the story later relayed to Tommy, who says right away, “Toby’s Motel.”

For the next decade Tommy pursues his career in baseball, one minor league audition after the next. “He hit a home run once,” Jo says. “I missed it. And I was there too.

“I kind of had to learn it’s his occupation.”

She remembers a suede purse she takes to the ballpark, but can’t recall anything her husband does on the field. “I can tell you what Gil Hodges’ wife was wearing,” she says.

She’s a hoot, very much her own woman, with no interest in hearing her husband’s opinion on Dave Kingman’s performance.

She knows about the taped, obscenity-filled tirade. “You couldn’t pay me to listen to it,” she says. “It’s ridiculous someone doesn’t have enough adjectives that they have to use the same stupid word.”

Reminded it’s her husband who went off, she says, “I told him you have to have more words in your vocabulary than that.”

She swears in their 60-plus years together, he’s never cussed in front of her. Those who know them say it’s true.

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“My son used to tell me if you could hear Dad in the clubhouse, you’d pass out,” she says. “Good. Keep it there.”

When husband and wife argue, she tells him, “If it happens again, the South will win.” If he starts yelling at the baseball game on TV, she walks out of the room.

She’s no pushover. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She’s had back surgery, two knee replacements, has been fighting an ankle problem for four years and lives with Lasorda.

All those stories, and she never tells him to stop repeating himself. “Let him enjoy himself,” she says. “He only wants to make people feel good. It’s his life; it keeps him going.”

Tommy lives for his next audience, filling a room with his bravado. So what’s it like, she’s asked, to live in his shadow?

“Everyone thinks I’m a wimp because Tommy is so outgoing,” she says. “Who cares what everyone else thinks? I just wanted a family, a home and to be happy. And you know what, I’m happy he’s happy and he can do exactly what he wants to do.

“It’s been a great life and we’ve done so much. Now I just want to do the things I want to do, like clean my garage.”

Tommy’s been telling her for years he’ll do it, but she says, “He has to call me to change a light bulb.”

Recently he left town, giving her the chance to hire four guys to redo the garage. So what happens when Tommy returns? “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Too late.”

They began with nothing, no car and sharing an apartment with another couple in the minors because it’s all they could afford. But in time she’s sitting with presidents, four of them altogether, telling the youngest Bush, “You are the cutest of all the presidents.

“When you get old, you can say things like that,” she says.

She sits next to Cary Grant for dinner, and, “I notice he puts butter on everything.” Then with a grin, she adds, “for the next week I smeared butter on everything.”

Frank Sinatra takes her breath away, Ted Williams as well. She says Peter O’Malley and sister Terry “are the most thoughtful people” she’s ever met. She loves to listen to Billy Graham talk.

As glamorous as life is in the spotlight, no thought is given to moving to Hollywood. She keeps the family home grounded in Fullerton for more than 45 years, “a house,” she says, “that shrinks that head back to proper size when it’s time to come home and take out the garbage.”

They raise two kids, Laura and Tommy Jr., nicknamed “Spunky.” Laura gives Grandma and Grandpa Emily, who is 15 now. “Someone who Tommy can just pour his love on,” Jo says.

Their son dies June 3, 1991, “the lowest of lows,” Jo says. “I know he’s better off in heaven, but it’s the absolute worst.”

She’s a woman strong in her faith, and says, “I know he’s with the good Lord. My mother dies on June 3, 1993. As much as Spunky loves to talk to my mother about old times and Civil War stuff, I believe they’re having a wonderful time together.”

It’s too much for Tommy. “People don’t see him grieve, but he’s broken,” Jo says. “I’m a mess and he doesn’t know what to say. I understand. That’s why it’s better for him to go to work. That’s his fantasy world and I don’t want him to get out of it because he’s so happy there.”

A child’s death ends many a marriage. “But Mom and Dad’s secret,” Laura said, “is they have individual lives and they have lives together. She never tells him who he should be and what he should do. If she goes to the cemetery, she doesn’t tell him he should do the same.”

Jo raises money and 14 years ago opens the Tommy Lasorda Jr. Field House in Yorba Linda. It’s her baby. She continues to fund improvements, next on her list a new basketball floor.

“It’s been a great life,” she says, telling her husband on occasion, “If I go to heaven before you do, I’ll bore a little hole and pull you through.’ ”

Is that his best shot? I ask.

And Saint Jo just laughs.

t.j.simers@latimes.com


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