Montreal Royals legend Tommy Lasorda pitches his way into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
Baseball legend Tommy Lasorda knows a thing or two about miracles.
In his final appearance with the Montreal Royals in 1960, struggling against the Buffalo Bisons, the lefty starting pitcher loaded the bases with nobody out. Royals manager Clay Bryant wanted to yank Lasorda, but 33-year-old Lasorda ignored Bryant and instead gazed up at the sky and prayed for something – anything – to get him out of the jam.
Lasorda remembers the moment like it was yesterday. "I looked up and said, ‘I never asked you to get me out of a jam before but I’m askin’ you now.’ Billy William the ump says, ‘Come on!’ And I said, ‘Wait a second, I’m talkin’ to God!’"
As described by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, what happened next was something of a miracle: "The next batter hit a line drive that caromed off third baseman George Risley’s glove into the mitt of the diving shortstop Jerry Snyder’s glove. Snyder flipped it to second and it was relayed to first to nail a pair of stray runners. Lasorda’s last pitch with the Royals resulted in a bases loaded triple play!"
Lasorda beams when he is reminded that, with 107 wins in nine seasons, he is the winningest pitcher in the history of the Montreal Royals, the fabled Triple A franchise of the Brooklyn – and later, Los Angeles – Dodgers. The Royals launched the careers of everybody from Sparky Anderson and Gene Mauch (also the Expos’ first skipper) to Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson, the man who broke pro baseball’s colour barrier with the Royals in 1946.
"Montrealers opened their arms to Jackie Robinson," Lasorda remembers. "For me, he was one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever seen."
Lasorda himself signed with the Royals in 1950 at the age of 21. Today, he ranks as the all-time Royals leader in wins, games pitched (251) and innings pitched (1,461), and led Montreal to five Governors’ Cups (International League Championships) from 1951 through to 1954, and in 1958. He won the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher Award in 1958 for compiling an 18-6 won-loss record with five shutouts.
Lasorda later went on to great fame and fortune managing the L.A. Dodgers for 20 years, and today, after almost six decades with the franchise, remains a special consultant to team chairman Frank McCourt.
But for his years with the Royals, Lasorda on June 24 will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I had a great love for Montreal," Lasorda recalls. "I used to eat in Little Italy. I lived off of Jean-Talon [Boulevard] on Waverly. [Then, in the days of Jarry Park] if you hit a homer over the left field fence it would roll down Waverly. I always wanted to live in Montreal [year-round] but the winters were just too cold."
One of Lasorda’s favourite memories at Delormier Downs, the 25,000-seat stadium the Royals called home, was when "they had a day for me… Usually [Montreal] had days for hockey players. I remember The Rocket, Doug Harvey, Toe Blake, Butch Bouchard and Jean Beliveau. One time I was eating with goalie Jacques Plante in a restaurant called the Chicken Coop and he was drawing something [on a napkin]. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He drew the first hockey mask. He said, ‘I want a mask like your catchers wear.’"
Plante, in 1959, became the first goalie to regularly wear a mask.
It was also around this time that Montreal Star sportswriter Al Parsley coined Lasorda’s nickname, "Walkie-Talkie" Lasorda. "He gave me that name because I did a lot of hollering," Lasorda laughs.
Lasorda turned down a three-year contract in 1975 to manage the Montreal Expos. ("I would have made $50,000 my first year with the Expos," Lasorda told Baseball Digest. "I was making $18,000 with the Dodgers [but] I loved the Dodgers and wanted to stay with them.") But he would do a whole lot more hollering coaching the Dodgers.
One such moment came at the Big O in August 1989 when Rick Dempsey hit a homer off Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez to give the Dodgers a 1-0 win in the 22nd inning. Most memorably, Lasorda also had Expos mascot Youppi tossed from the game in the 11th inning – the first time a mascot had ever been thrown out of a major league game.
Lasorda remembers the crowd went absolutely nuts. "But Youppi was making a racket on the dugout roof. So I just reached over and pulled him down!"
(Youppi returned in the 13th inning wearing pyjamas and carrying a pillow and went to sleep on the home dugout roof.)
When the Expos moved to Washington, D.C., Lasorda says, "I was very disappointed in the people who allowed it to happen. I tried to warn them: Build a [new] stadium and keep baseball in the city. You couldn’t follow the flight of the ball [in Olympic Stadium]. The Expos would have been better off staying at Jarry Park. They would never have lost [the team there] because they could draw [fans] there."
Montreal may no longer be home to the Royals or the Expos, but the city still remembers its baseball heroes. And Lasorda is looking forward to attending his June 24 induction ceremony at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s, Ontario.
"I wouldn’t miss it for the world," Lasorda says. "If the good Lord spares me."