SCHENECTADY — There’s a baseball that’s been rattling around in my desk drawer at work for about 30 years.
The brown coffee stain on it is clearly visible; the Tommy Lasorda autograph — just his name, in marker ink of indeterminate color — is not.
Hank Caputo, then the general manager of the Schenectady Mohawks, gave it to me after having met Lasorda at some event.
As you may well know, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager, who died at the age of 93 on Jan. 7, was a favorite son of sorts in Schenectady in 1948, as a pitcher for the Schenectady Blue Jays of the old Canadian-American League.
The Blue Jays played at 5,000-seat McNearney Stadium at the end of Jackson Avenue. After the team folded in 1957, the hulking shell of the ballpark, a reminder of Lasorda’s 25-strikeout performance in 1948, still cast a shadow over Stadium Golf Club until it was torn down in 2002.
But I didn’t have to rely on a faded autograph on a coffee-stained baseball to get some sense of his connection to the Electric City … people have stories.
So I reached out to Dave Pietrusza, the Amsterdam native and Glenville resident who is best known as a U.S. presidential historian and author, but has also branched into baseball history and has served as national president of the Society for American Baseball Research.
And luckily, 81-year-old Larry Feldman, a frequent email correspondent and a lifelong Schenectadian, reached out to me.
They’ve both talked to Lasorda, Pietrusza in his capacity as a documentarian and Feldman as a fan at a Lake Tahoe banquet on Sept. 28, 2001, 17 days after 9/11.
This is what they had to say:
“He was wild as hell.”
That’s the sidebar to the 25-strikeout game, which took place between the Blue Jays and the Amsterdam Rugmakers before a packed house at McNearney Stadium in late May of 1948.
Lasorda struck out 25 batters over the course of 15 innings and drove in the winning run for a 6-5 victory, a Bunyan-esque performance that still echoes. “Tommy Fans 25 Ruggies In 6-5 Win,” the Schenectady Gazette subheadline reads.
Not to be lost in that story is the fact that Lasorda, who ended the second through ninth innings with punchouts and struck out George Morehouse six times in seven plate appearances, also gave up 10 hits, walked 12 and hit a batter.
“Some of these guys, there was a reason they didn’t make the majors [as a player],” said Pietrusza, who captures that day in his book “Baseball’s Canadian-American League,” published in 1990. “Unreal game. Then in his next two starts, he struck out 15 and 13. Yipes.”
Pietrusza also details how Lasorda hired a cab to a game in Quebec when he missed the team bus and an incident in Gloversville when the Blue Jays pitcher was approached by a bookie in a pool hall to throw a game.
“You know the gambling story with Lasorda?” Pietrusza said. “One time he was in Gloversville, and he was approached to throw a game by gamblers. He said, ‘Forget it.’ He goes out there and is knocked out of the box in the first or second inning. And he’s walking past the gambler afterwards, and the gambler says, ‘Tommy, you should’ve taken the money.’ And Tommy went after him, like, to kill him.”
Pietrusza saw the crusty and flamboyant side of Lasorda’s personality first-hand when he interviewed the Dodgers manager in the dugout at Montreal’s old Olympic Stadium for a 1994 documentary called “Local Heroes,” about big baseball names who passed through the Capital Region at some point in their careers.
“It was before a game, and what I remember most tellingly is there weren’t too many people in the stands, but they wanted an autograph. I think he gave it to them, but he flung it back at them, violently almost,” Pietrusza said with a laugh. “Also, if you go to the documentary, I determined not to intrude. The only time you can see me is the bill of my cap, because Tommy kept rampaging forward through the interview.
“He’s a very, very forceful guy. And you have to be to be a major league manager. And he also didn’t have the major league name quality. If the major leagues hired a Mel Ott or Ty Cobb, a big name, then you can give him a little slack. You get a Lasorda or a Whitey Herzog, you earn your stripes.”
Lasorda’s Schenectady exploits were always a source of storytelling around Baum’s Newsroom on State Street, where proprietor Harry Leva and his cronies Hank Caputo and Schenectady Police Department veteran Guy Barbieri held court.
In fact, Barbieri served as the Blue Jays’ trainer, traveling secretary and groundskeeper, and is quoted in Pietrusza’s Can-Am book.
“Guy Barbieri told me for the book that Tommy was cocky,” Pietrusza said. “I mean, when he got out there, don’t talk to him about anything. He wanted to strike out everyone, and he’d come in and say, ‘Why, that so-and-so, I’ll get him next time.’
“Tommy would fight at the drop of a hat. He wouldn’t take any guff from anybody. If there were ballplayers fighting, he’d be the first one in the scuffle. The first one in anything.
“The book also says he took a job managing a Schenectady bowling alley. He says he soon quit when he learned it was a front for a bookie joint in the basement.”
“We had this kinship.”
That’s what Feldman said, upon meeting Lasorda in Lake Tahoe in 2001, Feldman’s hometown printed on his name tag.
Feldman’s father, Leo, was a well-known businessman in Schenectady and took him to games at McNearney, but Larry was too young to have seen Lasorda play.
So when he met Lasorda after the keynote speech, he asked for the autograph to be made out to his dad, because “I’m sure my father met Tommy [as a Blue Jay]. There’s not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that my father met Tommy. And he knew the McNearneys very well.
“When I brought the [autographed] ball back, it touched him.”
Lasorda opened the speech with a joke, but then took a somber turn, in light of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that had taken place less than three weeks prior.
“From that point on, Mike … geez, it’s tough to talk about,” Feldman said. “He went into how it was a time we all needed to come together, we needed to stay strong. He had people in tears. And why I choke up now is because if he were giving that same speech today, it would be so appropriate at this moment in time. He addressed the times, he got very serious and it was like a kumbaya moment.”
Lasorda spotted Feldman’s name tag and immediately asked if he was familiar with Ferrari’s restaurant.
“I said, ‘I eat there probably once a week,'” Feldman said. “He remembered Jimmy Barbieri as a Dodger from Schenectady, although he didn’t coach him. He just talked about him as a very scrappy ballplayer, which is the way Lasorda played the game and probably why he made an impression on him.”
Feldman said he and his wife don’t get out these days, because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Top of the list for when they feel it’s safe to be in public, though, is some Italian food at Ferrari’s.
“And I will raise a glass to Tommy.”
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