Long before he earned his Hall of Fame credentials as a manager with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda was a pitcher with Major League aspirations, and for one summer in 1948, he did his mound work right here with the Schenectady Blue Jays.
Although he made only 32 pitching appearances that minor league season with 18 starts before moving on, a strong bond with the lefty and the Electric City was created, and it’s never gone away.
“He is the most famous baseball player to come out of Schenectady,” city historian Chris Leonard said.
Lasorda died Thursday of a cardiac arrest at the age of 93, and while the Norristown, Pennsylvania native gained much notoriety as a World Series-winning manager and an ambassador for the Dodgers and baseball in general afterward, in Schenectady, he’s remembered as the beloved ace of a .500 team who on a magical summer evening struck out a league-record 25 batters at McNearney Stadium.
“He made friends quickly. The fans liked him,” Schenectady County historian and former Daily Gazette sportswriter Bill Buell said. “He was a little bit young and wild. He was a very colorful character.”
“Tommy worked on a beer truck for the McNearney’s at the end of the season for a few months, so he became well known around town even though he wasn’t a celebrity yet and he was only 20,” said Frank Keetz, a former history teacher at Bethlehem Central High School and a Schenectady resident for 30 years, who has written several books on professional baseball in the area, including one on the Schenectady Blue Jays.
Lasorda posted a 9-12 record during his one-season stint with the Blue Jays, which included that 25-strikeout performance in a 15-inning, 6-5 win over the Amsterdam Rugmakers in late May 1948. He collected the game-winning hit, too.
“He singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 15th inning against the Amsterdam Rugmakers, the game that he also pitched the entire game and struck out 25 batters,” Keetz said. “He blew up a picture of the newspaper and framed it and it was always hanging in his office when he was managing the Dodgers. He would bring in his players and show it to them.”
Lasorda had two hits in that 15-inning game, which was the back end of a doubleheader. He scattered 11 hits, and fanned the last batter he faced from the second through ninth innings. Keetz said that Lasorda was a promising prospect who possessed a good fastball. However, he was prone to control problems, and in that marathon game against the Rugmakers, he walked 12 batters.
“It was the second game of a Memorial Day doubleheader, and McNearney Stadium was filled to capacity, more than 4,000 people.” Keetz said. “Use your imagination, but it must have been a great scene.”
Lasorda belted a pinch-hit home run to win a game in extra innings for the Blue Jays later in the season. He saw action in 58 games overall and batted .211 in 133 at-bats.
“He was the star of the 1948 team,” Leonard said.
Lasorda became good friends that summer with Schenectady Police Officer Guy Barbieri, and Harry Leva, the long-time proprietor of Baum’s News Room on State Street.
“Guy and Harry used to tell great Tommy Lasorda stories,” Buell said. “The best one I remember is Tommy missing the team’s bus trip to Canada, so he ended up taking a taxi the whole way. The McNearney’s paid the bill, but they weren’t very happy about it.”
Lasorda was known well for his love of baseball, a connoisseur of food and drink and for his quick wit which he dispensed with regularity.
According to a Daily Gazette story from 1999, Lasorda was the guest of honor at a dinner at the Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series in Dublin, Ohio, where the Schenectady Junior Blue Jays amateur team was competing.
“You know, 51 years ago, I played for the Schenectady Blue Jays, and they’re here today,” Lasorda said at the start of his speech. “I’ve got a story about Schenectady. I was there for two years playing with the Blue Jays. For the first six months, my parents didn’t know where I was because I couldn’t spell Schenectady. I told ’em I was 10 miles from Albany.”
Lasorda began pitching professionally in 1945, missed the 1946 and 1947 seasons while serving in the United States Army, and continued to hurl through 1960. He compiled a minor league record of 136-104 in a 406-game career with the Concord Weavers, Schenectady Blue Jays, Greenville Spinners, Montreal Royals, Denver Bears and Los Angeles Angels. As a Major League pitcher he went 0-4 in a 27-game career with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Kansas City Athletics from 1954-56.
“He made a quick transition,” Leonard said. “Baseball people understood he was a guy who knew the game.”
Lasorda became a scout in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in 1960 and later managed several of their minor league teams. He eventually rose to become the third base coach of the big club in 1973, and became its manager late in the 1976 campaign and stayed in that spot through 1996.
“He was a good manager. A smart manager,” Leonard said of the National League Manager of the Year in 1983 and 1988. “He was successful for a long time.”
Lasorda led the Dodgers to a 1,599-1,439 regular season record, and his teams went 31-30 in the postseason. The Dodgers won World Series titles in 1981 and 1988, four National League pennants and eight division flags under the 1997 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and 2006 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
“The image that comes to mind is of him jumping up and down when Kirk Gibson hit the home run [in the 1988 World Series off Dennis Eckersley],” Amsterdam Mohawks president and general manager Brian Spagnola said. “It’s an image you never forget, the way he was so giddy.”
While serious between the lines, Lasorda had some funny moments, as well, including several bouts with the Phillies mascot. Away from the field, he appeared as himself on TV shows, including “Who’s the Boss” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and made an appearance in the movie “Ladybugs” with Rodney Dangerfield.
“You loved his antics,” Spagnola said. “He was very entertaining.”
Known as a manager who was generous with his praise for good work, Lasorda afterwards became the Dodgers vice president, general manager, senior vice president and special advisor to the chairman.
Lasorda guided the 2000 United States baseball team to the Olympic Games gold medal in Sydney, Australia.
“I made guys believe; I made them believe they could win,” Lasorda said in a 2013 interview with ESPN. “I did it by motivating them. I was asked all the time, ‘You mean baseball players that make $5 million, $8 million, $10 million a year need to be motivated?’ They do. That’s what I did.”
Lasorda, who had his No. 2 uniform retired by the Dodgers in 1997, was on hand when they won the 2020 World Series championship.
“Everybody loved Tommy Lasorda,” Leonard said. “He was a good guy.
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