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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.
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.