Tommy Lasorda is driving to his dentist in Beverly Hills. The dentist, Dr. Roger Lewis, is, like most of the millions of people Lasorda knows, "outstanding," which is fortunate because the Dodger manager will have a bridge replaced this day and will be in the chair for nearly two miserable hours. Lasorda is nonetheless chipper as he swings his Chrysler New Yorker through the Wilshire Boulevard traffic. He's wearing a checkered coat, blue slacks and a blue shirt mostly concealed by a sleeveless white pullover sweater, this last article being a Lasorda sartorial trademark. His jaunty demeanor masks a certain fatigue. He had been to a charity ball at the Beverly Wilshire the night before, Dec. 12, honoring, among others, that good friend of his, Frank Sinatra, and he and wife Jo hadn't made it home to suburban Fuller-ton until past three in the morning. Frank, Tommy and their whole crowd—Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Milton Berle and his wife, Frank Jr., Dionne Warwick, Angie Dickinson, Ed McMahon and his wife, et al.—had gone for a late supper at Matteo's after the party, and those things will go on. "Frank never sang better than last night," says Lasorda. "I was a little worried because he'd had a sore throat. Say, there's Frank now." Not in person, mind you, but Ol' Blue Eyes could be clearly heard on the Lasorda car radio—tuned always to either KMPC or KPRZ, the big-band stations—singing Witchcraft.
The Beverly Wilshire party—for the City of Hope—was the third major show-biz event Lasorda had attended in the past month. He had himself appeared on a nationally televised All Star Party for Frank Sinatra, and he had sat in on a White House reception for Kennedy Center honorees Sinatra, James Stewart, choreographer Katherine Dunham, director Elia Kazan and composer Virgil Thomson given by another good friend of his, President Ronald Reagan. The Marine officer charged with announcing the guests had been startled when the President interrupted the Lasorda introduction to greet him personally, "Tommy, how are you?"
"This was the second time I've been to the Kennedy thing," Lasorda says. "The first one was for Cary Grant. He's a good friend of mine. I tell you, only in this great nation of ours could the third-string pitcher on the Norristown, Pennsylvania high school team, the son of an Italian immigrant, be friends with some of the greatest entertainers in the world." Lasorda has so many famous friends, one half expects him to call out, "Charlie, say hello to Di and the kid," or "Yuri, where you been keeping yourself?"
But he's still capable of awe. "Did you hear that speech Richard Burton gave for Frank at the All Star dinner?" he inquires, waving at a passing cabdriver. "Bee-yootiful. Outstanding. And do you know that he asked to sit at my table that night? I didn't even think he knew what a baseball was for. Well, he told me that when he was in the hospital one summer, about all he did was watch the Dodgers on TV. He's an outstanding baseball fan." By now Lasorda is in high gear, talking and singing along with the enduring crooners of KPRZ—"I look into your green eyes...."
Lasorda was more or less swept into office as the Dodger manager in 1977 on a wave of Hollywood enthusiasm. He had met Sinatra in '76 through yet another good friend, the late Pat Henry, an Italian-American comic who had been the singer's warmup act. "Pat called me once when we were playing in Chicago," Lasorda recalls. "I was only a coach then. Anyway, Pat says, 'Come on over to the hotel. Frank Sinatra wants to meet you.' Now, that was a thrill for me. I grew up respecting that man for his talent. Surprisingly, Frank and I struck up an immediate friendship. He's an outstanding baseball fan. Finally, after we'd talked awhile, he says to me, 'Tommy, you should be manager of the Dodgers.' I said, 'Lord willing, someday I will.' He said, 'I think so much of you that when you become manager, I'll come out and sing the national anthem.' I looked over at Pat and Jilly Rizzo [a longtime Sinatra crony] and asked them, 'Is he serious?' They said, 'When this guy says something, you can take it to the bank.' Well, that September they named me the manager for '77. And on Opening Day Frank came through. My family and I just love him and his family."
Lasorda's car is waved on by a traffic cop, who, recognizing the great man, salutes him. "The thing about people in the entertainment business," Lasorda continues, as the radio plays Helen Forrest's I Don't Want to Walk Without You, "is that we in sports are celebrities to them. We're their escape from their jobs just like they're our escape from ours. I remember once I went to a birthday party for R.J.—that's Robert Wagner, a good friend of mine—and he took me over to meet Miss Bette Davis. I was thrilled. I said to her, 'Thank you for so many great moments. You are to your industry what Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax are to mine.' She looked at me and said, 'I really sympathized with you when Joe Morgan hit that home run off Terry Forster that knocked you out of the playoffs.' Turns out she was an outstanding baseball fan. They all are. I'll tell you another story about that. Not long ago I was speaking at a banquet in Toronto, and Ted Williams was in the audience. He's a good friend of mine. After the dinner we went back up to his room and sat around talking about hitting. Finally he said to me, 'Hey, you're a good friend of Frank Sinatra, aren't you?' I said I sure was, and he said he wished that the next time I saw Frank I'd tell him what a fan he was of his. I said, 'Why don't you tell him yourself?' Now, it's 3 a.m. in Toronto, but I grabbed the phone and called Frank in Palm Springs. 'Francis,' I said, 'there's someone here who'd like to say hello,' and I put Ted on the line. Well, Ted Williams goes on for five or 10 minutes on how much he admires Frank Sinatra, then he hands the phone back to me and Francis says to me, 'Tommy, I can't believe I just talked to the great Ted Williams.' "
As the car pulls up in front of Dr. Lewis' building, Sinatra on the radio and Lasorda are doing a duet of Nancy (With the Laughing Face).
Lasorda's singing voice isn't entirely unpleasant, though it tends to crack in the higher reaches, but his penchant for singing along with his idols can prove disconcerting to passengers in his automobile, for there are occasions when the idol may be performing live. Dodger coach Joey Amalfitano recalls the time in Houston he and Lasorda were driving with Lasorda's good friend, singer Vic Damone. "Now, I'm impressed that we've got Vic Damone in the same car with us," says Amalfitano, "but I get my courage up and I ask him, 'Mr. Damone, of all your hit songs, what would be your personal favorite?' He looks at me and smiles, and the next thing I know he's actually singing Because of You. I couldn't believe it. We're getting a private show. I was thrilled. Then, the next thing I know, there's another voice singing. It's my manager. We've got a private show by one of the great pop singers and my manager is drowning him out!"
Lasorda could be described as a frustrated entertainer if it weren't for the fact that he's onstage so often he is an entertainer. Bill Shumard, the Dodgers' director of community services and special events, is the front-office employee assigned the unenviable job of keeping track of the team's manager in the off-season. According to Shumard's official schedule, Lasorda will have made 70 public appearances between last Oct. 18 and Feb. 15, but this isn't the actual figure because Lasorda is famous for accepting speaking invitations on the spur of the moment. Once, a high school in the little Southern California town of Lancaster had a fire and wanted Lasorda to speak at a fund-raiser. Eager to help, Lasorda made a late-night call to one of the school's coaches. "This is Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers," he addressed the coach. "Yeah," came the reply, "and this is Christopher Columbus." When the coach hung up, convinced he'd foiled a prankster, Lasorda called him back. "This," he repeated, "is Tommy Lasorda...." Two months later, the guest speaker at a fund-raising banquet for the school was Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Lasorda himself can't count the number of appearances he makes, but he does know he loves them all, whether, as with the Lancaster engagement, he's doing it without compensation or receiving a fee of $3,500 to $10,000. "I won't take a dime from churches or schools," he says, but he can be costly for those who can afford him. His appearances range from a guest spot on the Hee Haw show in Nashville to a "motivational" talk to Merrill Lynch executives in Los Angeles. By the time spring training begins, he will have spoken at DePaul, Valparaiso, North Carolina at Charlotte and Southwestern Louisiana universities, at the Saskatoon, Canada sports dinner, at St. Rita's Church in Sierra Madre, Calif., at the New York and the Southern California Baseball Writers' associations' dinners, at a prayer breakfast for the U.S. Air Force in Los Angeles, at the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, to Armour-Dial executives in Phoenix and to the Catholic bishops in St. Louis. He has even opened a presidential press conference—this at the urging of his good friend Larry Speakes, the White House press aide.