And soon Gibson would, launching the most famous home run in Dodger history.
Throughout the season, Gibson had been the team’s fiery leader, but a leg injury left him barely able to walk — let alone able to play in the World Series. After the batboy’s message, Mr. Lasorda hurried to talk with Gibson in the clubhouse. Gibson said he was available to hit, if he was needed to face the A’s closer, Dennis Eckersley.
For all of his life, Mr. Lasorda, who died Jan. 7 at 93, was a master motivator with a profane, highly effective kind of bravado. He knew Gibson had made his career hitting sliders like the one Eckersley threw so well. And he knew Gibson as a ferocious competitor, even by the standards of professional athletes.
Those two qualities, Mr. Lasorda determined, might take precedence over Gibson’s injury. He decided to let Gibson hit.
Ever the gamesman, Mr. Lasorda didn’t want the A’s to know that. He instructed Gibson to take his warm-up swings in the clubhouse instead of in the on-deck circle, so the A’s wouldn’t know he was coming.
Gibson’s home run gave the Dodgers the victory, prompting one of the most famous calls in broadcasting history by national radio announcer Jack Buck: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”
The longtime Dodgers radio announcer, Vin Scully, who was working the television broadcast for NBC, said, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
The Dodgers eventually won the series in five games, a huge upset against a team that had a major-league-best 104 wins during the regular season.
As Gibson rounded the bases, pumping his right arm, Mr. Lasorda burst out of the dugout. A TV camera captured him waving his arms in delight, creating perhaps the singular enduring image of his career, which dated to 1945. Mr. Lasorda waited at home plate for Gibson, then hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
Thomas Charles Lasorda was born in Norristown, Pa., on Sept. 22, 1927. His parents were Italian immigrants; his father was a truck driver. The second oldest of five brothers, Tommy loved to do two things: fight and play baseball.
A left-handed pitcher, he signed a minor league contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. His two years with that organization, 1945 and 1948, were sandwiched around two years in the Army.
He once struck out 25 batters in a 15-inning game, at the time a professional record.
After Mr. Lasorda’s contract with Philadelphia ended, the Dodgers, then in Brooklyn, drafted him. Over the next five decades, he would spend all but one season with that club in a variety of capacities. Mr. Lasorda said often that if he were cut, he would “bleed Dodger blue.”
In 14 seasons in the minors, he threw punches and pitches with similar enthusiasm and, apparently, frequency. He fought so often that his wife, the former Jo Miller, whom he married in 1950, started saying, “Please don’t start any fights,” before he left for the park each day, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
As a major league player, Mr. Lasorda picked up a record of 0-4 in 26 games across parts of three seasons (1954-1956), two with the Dodgers and one with the Kansas City A’s.
He spent more than a decade as a scout and later as a minor league manager before becoming the Dodgers’ third base coach in 1973. He took over as manager three years later. Mr. Lasorda found immediate success, winning National League pennants in 1977 and 1978 and World Series titles in 1981 and 1988.
In the 21 full seasons Mr. Lasorda managed the Dodgers, he had only two Hall of Fame players at or near the peak of their careers, pitcher Don Sutton and catcher Mike Piazza. The Dodgers drafted Piazza as a 62nd-round afterthought only as a favor to Piazza’s father, a childhood friend of Mr. Lasorda’s.
The Dodgers’ scouting director was not initially impressed by Piazza, who was drafted as a first baseman. Mr. Lasorda insisted that the scouting director watch Piazza hit.
“I finally said, ‘I tell you what, if we brought a shortstop in here and he swung the bat like that, wouldn’t you sign him?’ ” Mr. Lasorda told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “He said, ‘Yeah, if he was a shortstop.’ I said, ‘What if he was a catcher?’ He said, ‘I’d sign him if he was a catcher.’
“I said, ‘Okay, he’s a catcher.’ He said, ‘He’s not a catcher.’ I said, ‘He’s a catcher now. Sign him. All he wants is a chance.’ ”
Piazza became the 1993 National League rookie of the year, slugged 427 home runs and is widely considered the best-hitting catcher in baseball history.
Despite the lack of elite players, Mr. Lasorda continued to win. “I still can’t believe the team we fielded,” he told ESPN.com of the 1988 team. “Jesus! We had Danny Heep in the outfield. I told Danny Heep one time he’s so goddamned slow, if he got in a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third.”
Mr. Lasorda fought in the majors only with umpires, berating them in language as blue as his blood. He used a similar style in dressing down Dodger players. Those diatribes always took place behind the scenes, never in public. The point was to motivate his players, and he preached the value of hard work.
“When you walked away from one of his talks, you felt like you could run through a brick wall,” Burt Hooton, who pitched for Mr. Lasorda in Los Angeles for 10 years, told Lasorda biographer Colin Gunderson.
Uncle Tommy, as he was known, knew how to use hugs as well as harangues. “Tommy can kick you in the pants one day, but the next day he’s your best friend,” pitcher Orel Hershiser, who played for Mr. Lasorda’s Dodgers for 12 seasons, once remarked to Sports Illustrated. “He wants to be everyone’s friend, but he lets everyone know he’s boss.”
As manager, Mr. Lasorda compiled a 1,599-1,439 record. But it was the way he won that made him a popular fan favorite. He shared profane stories and told motivational parables that were as true as they needed to be.
Mr. Lasorda called managing the 2000 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Sydney the crowning achievement of his career. His team comprised “washed-up has-beens and rejected minor leaguers,” as Salon.com put it.
But Mr. Lasorda so often told his players they were better than the heavily favored Cubans that they believed it, even though it was untrue.
“What’s lost in the surface image is Lasorda the competitor, Lasorda the serious baseball guy,” said Jeff Katz, the author of “Split Season 1981: Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and The Strike That Saved Baseball.”
Katz, the former mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, added that Mr. Lasorda would never be seen as smart as Tony La Russa, who managed the A’s in 1988 and was widely considered one of the game’s most astute tacticians. “But you know he was.”
Mr. Lasorda liked to be seen on the town or in the clubhouse with show-business personalities such as Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles or with titans of politics and business, from Ronald Reagan to Lee Iacocca. He was a better pitchman than pitcher, appearing in commercials for Slim Fast diet drink and Glad garbage bags and lending his name to pasta sauces and restaurants.
In the end, his never-ending belief that things would work out for him came true.
“I look back at my life, and I’m still in awe of it, still can’t believe how it has turned out,” Mr. Lasorda told the Daily News of Los Angeles. “Who ever could have dreamed that the son of an Italian immigrant from Norristown, Pennsylvania, who was a third-string pitcher on his high school team his senior year would become the manager of the greatest franchise in Major League Baseball for 20 years?”
Mr. Lasorda died after suffering cardiac arrest at his home in Fullerton, Calif., and being taken to a nearby hospital, the Dodgers announced.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Laura Lasorda; and a granddaughter. His son, Tom Lasorda Jr., had AIDS and died in 1991 from pneumonia.
A heart attack in 1996 forced Mr. Lasorda to retire as a manager, but he never left the game. He wept when he found out in 1997 that he had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, calling it “the most precious day of my life.” He was just the 14th manager to be so honored.
“There are managers who have certainly won a lot more games and a lot more things,” longtime Dodgers broadcaster Scully told the Star-Ledger. “But Tommy’s passion got him there.”
He traveled the world, always ready to talk about baseball.
“Like I told my wife,” Mr. Lasorda told Florida Today, “when I die, I want it put on my tombstone, ‘Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.’ ”
Long after he stopped managing, Mr. Lasorda remained a presence with the Dodgers. He was in the stands in October 2020 when the Dodgers won the World Series, 32 years after he guided the team to its last title.
Read more Washington Post obituaries: