Okay, so the title is embellished. Technically, Tommy Lasorda is a legend due to his twenty-one years as the Dodgers’ manager. And he did suit up in an A’s uniform for a half season back in the franchise’s fruitless and largely forgotten Kansas City days. This is the tale of what is, to me anyway, one of the more interesting footnotes in Athletics total franchise history.
Long before manifesting his legend as the Dodgers’ two-time World Series-winning manager, Thomas Charles Lasorda was a small, ruddy-faced left-handed pitcher in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. His repertoire consisted of the following:
A fastball that had less heat than an unplugged toaster. “He was a shitballer,” Ed Mierkowicz, a long-time minor-leaguer who faced Lasorda said during a 2010 interview. “He threw a lot of crap up there. You had to be patient with him.”
A big overhand curveball that made catchers’ lives miserable. “He had that 12-6 curve and catchers would hate him because he'd bounce it so often,” recalled Glenn Mickens, a former teammate. “He'd beat the catcher to death.”
But Lasorda was nothing if not a competitor. “He'd knock his own mom down if it meant winning a ballgame,” Mickens said. “Talk about a competitor, he was amazing!” Bellicose in deportment, he was not above starting a fight if the moment called for conflict. On at least one occasion with the A’s he touched off a brawl while on the mound. In particular, to hear Lasorda tell it, there was an animus-tinged rumpus involving Billy Martin (or “Banana Nose,” as Tommy claimed to have dubbed him) on the sacred soil of Yankee Stadium that spawned out of Lasorda’s insistence on buzzing Yankee towers with purposely errant tosses.
But let’s start at the beginning.
After four outstanding years pitching in Montreal for the Dodgers’ top minor-league affiliate, Tommy Lasorda received his first call-up to the big leagues in August 1954. Lasorda made four relief appearances, and was battered around to the tune of five runs on eight hits in nine total innings pitched. Displaying a lack of command that was partially his calling card, Lasorda also walked five batters. He received another call in 1955 and was even worse, surrendering six runs on five hits in four innings across four games. His one start came that year, on May 5, in front of a paltry 7,056 fans at Ebbets Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. Lasorda lasted just one inning, allowing a single run but walking two hitters and throwing three wild pitches. The last wild pitch brought Wally Moon, a swarthy man with a world-class unibrow, plateward as Lasorda ran from the mound to cover. The ensuing collision left Tommy with a bloody leg. Lasorda finished the inning, but could barely walk and manager Walter Alston had no choice but to pull him from the game. Tommy’s next appearance was a little over two weeks later, coughing up five runs over two frames in a 15-1 loss to the Pirates. By June, the Brooklyn brass decided they had seen plenty from Lasorda and dispatched him back to Montreal. In his place, Dodgers called up a nineteen-year-old southpaw with a supersonic fastball but, like Tommy, had barely made acquaintance with the strike zone. Over time, Sandy Koufax would corral his stuff and go on to a twelve-year, Hall-of-Fame career. Lasorda’s contract was sold to the Kansas City Athletics after the season; presumably, he would never wear a Dodger uniform again.
Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Tommy Lasorda blocks the plate against Wally Moon in 1955. Lasorda eventually had to leave the game with an injured knee. The next year, he was sold to the Kansas City A’s Photographer unknown.
In 1956, the Athletics were beginning their second season in K.C. after calling Philadelphia home for fifty-four years. The A’s were bad – they lost 91 games in 1955 after dropping 103 in ‘54 – and had been bad for several years before that. Their last season over the .500 mark was a lackluster 81-73, fifth-place finish in 1949. As the team’s fortunes dwindled, so did the home attendance at Shibe Park. Owner/manager Connie Mack, who had controlled the team since its founding in 1901, was in his eighties and his health was deteriorating; on top of that, a financial deal struck in the late 1940s as a result of familial contretemps left the franchise coffers in disarray. At the time, Mack’s three sons also owned shares of the Athletics. Roy and Earle Mack, Connie’s two oldest sons from his first marriage, sought to buy out Connie Jr., their younger brother from Connie Sr.’s second marriage, with whom they had no affection for. To raise the capital to buy out their sibling, Roy and Earle mortgaged the club through Connecticut General Life Insurance, plunging the team into a deep debt that, coupled with the abating patronage in the stands, left the ballclub in a dire predicament. The other American League owners, displeased at receiving a paltry share of the gate receipts from Shibe, pressured Roy and Earle to either sell or move the Athletics. After some initial resistance, the brothers capitulated, pawning the A’s off to Arnold Johnson, who made millions selling vending machines but also owned the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees’ top farm club. Johnson moved the A’s to the Paris of the Plains and folded the Blues. The big-league Athletics would go on to essentially replace the minor-league Blues as a farm team for the Yankees (more on that later).
By 1956, the A’s were still struggling to win games, and while they weren’t good at manufacturing runs, they were really bad at preventing other teams from denting the plate. Their pitching staffs in the first two years in the heartland were a Who’s Who of “who the hell is that?”, featuring the likes of Art Ceccarelli and Arnie Portocarerro and Lou Sleater and Bob Trice and Sonny Dixon and Al Sima and a legion of other guys you’ve never heard of. So why take a flier on a pugnacious lefty who was just let go by one of baseball’s more successful teams?
It’s not like Tommy Lasorda was a scrub without potential. From 1951 through 1954, pitching for the Montreal Royals, Lasorda posted a composite 57-26 record with a 3.34 earned-run average, and though he didn’t strike out many hitters, the baffling breaker made his humdrum fastball look at least average, and using that combo he succeeded in manipulating Triple-A hitters, a few of whom were top prospects, into off-balance, front-foot-swinging marionettes. Sure, his two previous stints in the Majors, consisting of a 7.62 ERA over 13 outings, didn’t turn out great. But even at age twenty-eight, Lasorda was still young enough to reverse his fortunes and enjoy a productive career.
If nothing else, Tommy was afraid of neither competition nor confrontation, and perhaps he could light a fire into what had become a staid and stale franchise.
Lasorda’s A’s debut came in the season opener in Detroit, on April 17. Manager Lou Boudreau summoned Tommy to the Briggs Stadium mound with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the A’s clinging to a 2-1 lead over the Tigers, the tying runner on second base, and Earl Torgeson at the plate. Lefty on lefty. All he had to do was retire Torgeson for the final out without the runner scoring.
Unsurprisingly for anyone who watched Lasorda pitch for the Dodgers, Tommy immediately unleashed a wild pitch, sending the runner to third base. Okay, fine. The sacrifice fly was out of the question, anyway. Lasorda then bore down and induced a grounder to second baseman Forrest “Spook” Jacobs for the final out. Although the save wouldn’t be created for three more years and become an official statistic for thirteen, Lasorda had essentially notched one, and the “S” is located right next to his name in the Baseball-Reference.com box score for this game.
Three days later, Lasorda was brought into another tight spot, and this time it didn’t go as well. Tom Gorman (not the Tom Gorman who later became an umpire, and certainly not the Tom Gorman who pitched for the Mets in ‘80s) had just allowed a two-run homerun to put the A’s down to the White Sox 5-3, and after Gorman surrendered a single by the Sox’ No. 9 hitter, relief pitcher Dixie Howell, Boudreau had to make a move. Lasorda entered to face leadoff hitter “Jungle” Jim Rivera – again, left versus left – tasked with keeping the game close. Rivera singled. First and second. Rivera was then forced out at second on a grounder to first base. Two outs, runners at first and third. If Tommy could retire Nellie Fox the A’s would confront only a two-run deficit in the bottom half of the inning.
Lasorda walked Nellie Fox. Of course he did.
Lasorda then walked Larry Doby, scoring Howell. Six-to-three.
Sherm Lollar, who later would manage in the Oakland A’s minor-league chain but in 1956 was a respected veteran catcher who would appear in seven All-Star games for his career, mercifully popped out to end Lasorda’s second A’s appearance. The White Sox held on to win as Howell, clearly not tuckered from running the bases, retired the A’s in order.
Lasorda’s third appearance, a three-inning relief stint against Cleveland at Shibe Park on April 26, was perhaps his best big-league outing to date. His command still wavered – he walked three – but he allowed just one unearned run (the result of an error by shortstop Mike Baxes) on two hits, while also fanning three (two in his first inning of work). The A’s were already down 10-2 when Tommy entered to start the sixth, so it was about as low-leverage a situation as Boudreau could find for him. A little over a week later, at Yankee Stadium, Boudreau called on Lasorda to intentionally walk Elston Howard with runners on second and third in the eighth inning of a tie game. Gorman entered and allowed Howard, plus three others, to score. Poor Lasorda was charged with a run in zero innings pitched, the first run to appear on his ledger (the run he forced in via the bases-loaded walk to Larry Doby was inherited), so his ERA jumped from bagels to 2.45.
After a largely uneventful two-batter stint in a 7-4 loss at Baltimore (he allowed an inherited run to score and spiked a wild pitch that ultimately proved harmless), Lou Boudreau elected to give Lasorda a start. It would be Tommy’s second career start, after the one for Brooklyn in which Wally Moon nearly amputated his leg. It was a decision made of necessity; yes, Lasorda had been pitching well, but the A’s were scheduled to play a Sunday doubleheader in Cleveland. Art Ditmar spun a complete game for KC in a 5-2 victory to open the twinbill. The second game would be Tommy Lasorda’s time to shine and prove once and for all that he belonged at the sport’s highest level.
Lasorda wasn’t awful. He survived the first two innings, allowing just two hits, no walks, and committing a throwing error on a pickoff attempt, but no runs crossed the plate. The third did him in: after retiring the first two batters, he characteristically lost the strike zone, walking Jim Busby and Bobby Avila back-to-back. Then he left one over the plate that Al Rosen deposited over the right-field fence for a three-run homer. Boudreau left Tommy in to pitch the fourth, and the pitcher responded by retiring Cleveland in order. But he had thrown a lot of pitches, and, owing to his role as a reliever, simply wasn’t stretched out enough to work much longer. At a minimum, he kept the game from getting out of hand, even if a 3-0 deficit could be considered insurmountable by the modest standards of the 1956 Kansas City Athletics, who would go on to lose 102 games.
For the rest of the ‘56 season, Lasorda toiled mainly out of the bullpen, but would be given sporadic starting assignments. He fared poorly in most of his starts, save for two: pitching into the ninth on May 28 against the White Sox, giving up three hits and 10(!) walks but allowing just four runs; and a 6⅔-inning, three-run late-June outing that showcased his potential as a back-end rotation stalwart, though he also surrendered five walks and tossed his sixth wild pitch of the season. He also experienced some turbulent waters in relief, such as giving up two runs on a hit and three walks in an inning-and-a-third on June 9 in Baltimore. Or his July 8 outing against Cleveland, in which he surrendered five runs in a third of an inning, walking three and striking out nobody.
During their thirteen-year stint in Kansas City, the Athletics traded so many players to the Bronx that they became derisively known as little else but a farm club for the Yankees. There was the deal sending Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar, and Bobby Shantz to New York for Billy Hunter and an assortment of other warm bodies. Also: Ryne Duren, Harry Simpson, and others for Billy Martin and Ralph Terry. Virgil Trucks in a deal to reacquire Simpson while also taking on a sore-armed Bob Grim. Sending Terry back to the Yanks in exchange for Johnny Kucks, Tom Sturdivant, and Jerry Lumpe. Roger Maris for Norm Siebern, Hank Bauer, Marv Throneberry, and Don Larsen.
Tommy Lasorda for Wally Burnette.
No one ever mentions Lasorda-for-Burnette when discussing the bevy of A’s-Yankees trades during the mid-to-late 1950s, and generally for good reason. Mainly because it was a trade that did not work out for either club. In contrast, the Maris-for-Larsen swap on December 11, 1959 has for many years been held up as the cause célèbre that had subsequently rendered the other deals tame. This is especially true in hindsight. Three years earlier, the baby-faced Don Larsen had become the first, and still only, pitcher to toss a perfect game in a World Series. An extraordinary accomplishment, to be sure, considering the Brooklyn Dodgers had four future Hall-of-Famers in that day’s lineup, but Larsen had always been a mediocre, unremarkable pitcher. His record through the ‘56 regular season was a pedestrian 30-40, with a 3.82 ERA and just 327 strikeouts across 671 innings. Larsen went 10-4 in ‘57, but he got off to such a terrible start that by the end of May his earned-run average was still over 6.00. In ‘59, the Yankees were a third-place club, they were looking to add more pop to their lineup, and thus Larsen was expendable. Maris had made the American League All-Star team as a twenty-four-year-old, hitting .273 with 16 homeruns as the Athletics’ everyday right fielder (except for a bout with appendicitis, during which their backup, a man named Dorrel Norman Elvert “Whitey” Herzog, filled in for him). Maris had potential. Bauer, the Yankees’ starting right fielder, was thirty-six and his best days were far behind him. Maris-for-Bauer was a steal for New York, even without factoring in Larsen, who peaked with the perfect game and remained largely mediocre thereafter, spending the next several years bouncing from team to team, and throwing his last professional pitch in 1968 for the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A team in Tacoma, Washington. Maris, of course, went on to hit 61 homers for the 1961 Yankees, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record, and would win two MVP awards and seven All-Star Game selections.
Lasorda for Burnette? Yeah. Afterthought. Understandably so.
Lou Boudreau had seen enough. Three days after Lasorda’s disastrous outing against Cleveland, the A’s pulled the trigger on the deal with the Yankees for Burnette. Burnette would spend two more seasons with the Kansas City A’s and would be out of baseball by 1959. Lasorda spent the balance of the 1956 season playing for the Triple-A Denver Bears, a very good team that would ultimately be swept in the American Association finals. Pressed mainly into starting duty, Lasorda posted a 3-4 record, and a 4.99 ERA while toiling alongside the likes of Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Ralph Terry, Marv Throneberry, and future big-league manager Darrell Johnson, who nineteen years later would pilot the Boston Red Sox to the World Series. But it was his manager, Ralph Houk, who left the biggest impression on him. “Ralph taught me that if you treat players like human beings, they will try to play like Superman,” he recalled years later to author BIll Plaschke. Those seeds would bear fruit soon enough.
The Yankees sold Lasorda to the Dodgers in May 1957, and he would spend three more seasons back in the city of his greatest triumphs, Montreal. In 1958 Lasorda would post an 18-6 record while helping the Royals win the International League title, a 4-1 final series victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, an unaffiliated team owned by Jack Kent Cooke. Tommy threw his final professional pitch in 1960, at the age of thirty-two, drawing his release in July after posting an 8.20 ERA and allowing an average of 2.3 baserunners per inning. His waning performance wasn’t the sole reason why he was let go. Lasorda had worn out his welcome. He started too many fights on the field and couldn’t help getting under the skin of the people running the Royals. Tommy was still popular with the Montreal fans, but from the club’s perspective, the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze. Hell, there wasn’t even much juice to speak of anymore, and what little was left was way too tart.
His release was in the form of a letter from general manager Buzzie Bavasi that effectively decreed a lifetime ban from the Dodgers. “It was like my whole world had collapsed,” Tommy told Plaschke.
Lasorda phoned Bavasi and begged to return in some capacity, and had the GM read a letter that he had written to scouting director Al Campanis professing “his undying love for the Dodgers and his willingness to do anything for the organization.” Impressed by the letter, Bavasi hired Lasorda to work for the team as a scout, kicking off a thirty-six year post-playing career that saw Lasorda evolve from scout to minor-league manager to big-league third-base coach (he had a front-row seat to watch his former club, the now-Oakland Athletics, vanquish the now-Los Angeles Dodgers, in the 1974 World Series), to Dodgers’ manager (and exacting revenge on the A’s in 1988).
Lasorda was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 for his managerial exploits – a 1599-1439 regular-season record, four National League championships and two World Series titles. He was also elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 for his nine seasons with the Montreal Royals, during which he became the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, games pitched, and innings pitched. (The Royals became the Syracuse Chiefs in 1961 and are currently the New York Mets’ top farm club.)
But for a half-season, sixty-six years ago, he was an Athletics left-handed pitcher, even if very few people either know or remember.
Baseball-Reference.com (SportsReference LLC; Sean Forman, Founder/Owner).