Twenty-seven years ago, Tommy Lasorda was an NBA rookie. Try to picture that today and the mind strains (as did the buttons on Lasorda's Dodger double knits before he discovered Slim-Fast): Lasorda loping upcourt, stride for stride with Oscar Robertson, while trying desperately to make it in the league—as a referee.
Thai's right. The ump-baiting skipper who can cuss a Dodger-blue streak once dispensed technical fouls to NBA coaches who dared to badger him. "A referee?" says Los Angeles pitcher Orel Hershiser. "Are you serious? That's like telling me Al Capone was once a cop."
We are serious, Orel. In his autobiography, The Artful Dodger, Lasorda suggests in passing that if he weren't spending his springs and summers these days ordering squeeze plays in Chavez Ravine, he might well be in Inglewood, whistling L.A. Laker forward A.C. Green for illegal defenses. "I was a good enough official to work two NBA exhibition games," Lasorda recounts, "and if Al Campanis had not asked me to move to California in 1963, I would have ended up in the NBA."
Having leaped on that lead, scoured the public record and solicited the testimony of other principals, we assembled the rest of the tale. What you are about to read is a true story.
October 21, 1990
Forty-five years ago, Norristown, Pa., was smack in the heartland of pro hoops. There, just north of Philadelphia, an enterprising fan could toss rotten fruit at visiting teams from both the Eastern Basketball League and the fledgling NBA. Local kids who grew too tall to sneak into games but were too small to play in them often aspired to officiate. In fact, Earl Strom, who recently retired after completing five decades as an NBA ref, is from nearby Pottstown and knew Lasorda when both were youngsters.
Lasorda, however, concentrated on baseball and bare-knuckle brawling, passions he often practiced simultaneously while growing up in Norristown. His career as a basketball player came to a halt after a few months in the Army in 1946, when, as a 5'9" guard, he led the break at Fort Meade, Md. Alas, Lasorda was bounced from the squad—for fighting—and prudently returned to baseball.
By 1950 he was out of the service and pitching for the Triple A Montreal Royals of the International League. One afternoon in Rochester, N.Y., in a game against the Red Wings, seven of Lasorda's teammates were ejected for arguing a call. For the next several innings, plate umpire Sid Borgia endured constant slurs from a reserve in the visitors' dugout.
"He didn't know if I was Irish, Jewish, Italian or what," says Borgia, recalling Lasorda's nonstop insults. So Lasorda barked a different ethnic epithet at Borgia for each flag that flaps outside the UN. Borgia finally fingered—and thumbed—the culprit, and years later he still twitches when recalling the name: "It was Lasorda."
We pick the story up again in 1961. The cup of coffee Lasorda nursed in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Kansas City Athletics had long since cooled, and he was scouting in Pennsylvania for the Dodgers. Without ever having officiated so much as a high school basketball game, Lasorda talked his way into a part-time gig with the mercenary moonlighters who made up the Eastern League's officiating crew.
Perhaps all the tomato-paste cans lobbed at Lasorda in those days were what eventually led him to market Tommy Lasorda's Chunky Marinara Sauce. We may never know. We are certain, though, that, such inspiration aside, adjudicating Eastern League games was not a good gig. Says Strom, who worked one season in the league, "You fought your way out of the gym every night." After ejecting Bill Spivey, the seven-foot star for the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons, five minutes into a home game one night, Lasorda had to leave town on bruised shins, courtesy of a high-heeled octogenarian at courtside.
Mercifully, he was delivered from such indignity after three seasons. In 1963 the NBA was desperate for a few modest men. Officials were paid $50 a game and dispatched on endless road trips by train, and they lived for weeks out of suitcases. Recalls one referee, "We thanked god for the Ban-Lon shirt."
Strom, by then a five-year veteran of the NBA, lobbied the big league in behalf of his boyhood acquaintance. Lasorda had little to lose: He could keep pursuing his as yet unpromising dream of coaching one day in the Dodger organization or he could write to the NBA's supervisor of officials and seek to join the men in Ban-Lon. Lasorda requested a tryout.
The supervisor of officials studied the application. The supervisor sighed. "Now I've got him," said the supervisor, a former International League umpire named Sid Borgia. "Now he can take some of the abuse he gave me."
While Borgia claims that he held no grudge against "the s.o.b.," he did pair Lasorda with Jim (Jam-a-Day) Duffy—so nicknamed for the daily pickle he got in during his days as a baseball umpire with the American League—and sent them out to work a series of exhibition games through the Midwest. Duffy once hustled a heckler into the officials' dressing room after a game and dunked the man's head in a sinkful of water. Only later did Duffy learn that he had nearly drowned the team's majority stockholder.
Jam-a-Day and his rookie partner were assigned four preseason games between the Detroit Pistons and the Cincinnati Royals. Strom remembers Cincinnati coach Charlie Wolf as being "a straitlaced guy."
"He carried a halo on his head," says Borgia. "If you said so much as 'Jesus Christ' to the guy, he'd report you to the Pope."
As any Dodger will tell you, Lasorda is fond of peppering his discourse with colorful phrases. "Tommy likes to throw around a few F-notes," says Strom. "And Duffy had the mouth of a longshoreman." Wolfs notorious whining moved both partners to soliloquies unmentionable.
After two games as a coach having to endure profane attacks by the officials, Wolf had had enough. He reported the duo not to the Vatican but to the NBA office in New York City. "I can't take any more of those two foul-mouthed guys," Wolf told Borgia over the phone. "You've got to get 'em out of here." Today, Wolf remembers making the call, but through all these years he never knew who Duffy's partner was.
In any event, Wolf's review did in Lasorda, and he never worked another game. In a matter of months Campanis, who was the Dodgers' scouting director at the time, wooed Lasorda west to scout Southern California full-time for the team.
Twenty-seven years, and as many miles of linguine, later, Lasorda, who was promoted to manager in 1977, has led the Dodgers to 1,183 wins, four pennants and two world championships. He has forged close friendships with Frank Sinatra and most of the maitre d's in National League cities. He has grown with his own celebrity, peaking at 218 pounds in the summer of 1988 before settling on "a delicious thick shake for breakfast, another one at lunch, and a sensible dinner." Above all, Lasorda today seems a man who would have been incapable of laboring in the obscurity of zebra stripes all these years.
Even so, he insists—right there on page 99 of The Artful Dodger—that he would have found permanent employment in the NBA had he not moved to L.A. nearly three decades ago. Lasorda, 63, might even be running the floor today alongside Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan for 48 minutes a night. He could be keeping pace with the world's greatest athletes for 82 games a season, as Strom did for so long. Who knows, Lasorda might even....
"Forget about it," says Borgia, interrupting the reverie. "We always had two rules for referees: no eyeglasses and absolutely no potbellies."