THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
“Who says the unexamined life is not worth living? Not Tommy Lasorda.” That was how Thomas Boswell began a section of what may be the greatest essay ever written on baseball, and I thought about it when I saw that Lasorda died January 7. He was the third major sports figure to whom I felt a connection who'd passed away in the first week of this New Year, already promising to be in some ways the longest of long winters, and I started thinking about their importance in my memory.
The essay’s called 'From Little Napoleons to Tall Tacticians’ and it appears in Boswell’s book Why Time Begins On Opening Day. He examined baseball managers and found that virtually all of them with extended careers in the major leagues could be placed into one of four categories (a handful of exceptions were mainly former superstar players, like Ted Williams). He defined each category by the personalities embodied in their leadership, and named them after their prototypes from early in the last century.
The Little Napoleon was what John McGraw was called, and managers in his group embodied above all else passionate leadership. They were small, intense, hot-tempered men who wore number 1 – think Billy Martin. The Peerless Leaders, named for Frank Chance, were men of character, rock-jawed leaders who stood tall and sometimes frozen in the face of adversity. Think 'The Major,' Ralph Houk. The Tall Tacticians were based on Connie Mack, managing in his suit with a rolled-up scorecard in his hand; intellectuals, not always tall, but prone to over-thinking things (this essay dates back to long before computerized Sabermetrics). Think Gene Mauch over-managing in the clutch.
And finally, in the section he introduced with Tommy Lasorda, were the Uncle Robbies, descendants of Wilbert Robertson, who managed Lasorda’s own Brooklyn Dodgers, back when they were called the Robins. Boswell said they embodied leadership by wisdom, but the wisdom was that of those who understood, as he put it, that a manager’s job was like being a cruise director, keeping everyone happy over a 162 game season. Or, as Casey Stengel put it, the secret of managing is “keeping the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided”. Uncle Robbies are much more successful than anyone thinks they have any right to be, especially in well-structured, well-run organizations, and because that’s what the Dodgers were, Tommy Lasorda was a perfect fit for them.
Lasorda was often said to “bleed Dodger blue”. He was a Dodger for 71 years, but not always. He was from Pennsylvania and signed originally with the Phillies. In 1948, pitching for their Schenectady farm team in the Can-Am league he struck out 25 Amsterdam Rugmakers in a 15 inning game. The Dodgers took him in a minor league draft in 1949, and he holds record for most wins (107) with Brooklyn’s top farm team, the Montreal Royals. In his first major league inning he threw three wild pitches and got spiked by Wally Moon trying to stop him scoring after the third. He pitched in eight games for the Dodgers in 1954-55, and went 0-4 for the Kansas City Athletics in 1956, after which he returned to Montreal, where he was popular. In 1961 he began scouting for the Dodgers, then managing in their farm system. In 1973 he became third-base coach for Walter Alston, a prototypical Peerless Leader, and when Alston retired replaced him as manager in 1976, staying until midway through the 1996 season and winning 1,599 games in the majors. Not bad for a cruise director.
My favorite Lasorda story, as I remember it, came when Fernando Valenzuela was pitching a no-hitter. In baseball you cannot mention what is happening, lest you jinx the pitcher, and the atmosphere gets tighter and tighter the nearer you get to the end of the game. The Dodgers were leading, but in the top of the ninth Lasorda called for someone to pinch-hit for Fernando. The dugout froze. “What, you got a problem with that?” he said, and everyone burst out laughing. Relaxed, Valenzuela completed the only no-hitter of his major league career.
I met Lasorda when I worked for MLB, in spring training in Vero Beach, and wondered how he didn’t get killed, because there were no dugouts, just wooden benches for the players along the baselines, like a summer camp, and Tommy seemed to pay no attention to anything on the field, chatting with people (like us) including fans, joking with the players, and basically making himself a prime target to get bonked by a foul ball. He and the Dodgers were committed to international baseball; in 2000 Lasorda managed the US Olympic team that finally managed to beat Cuba and win a gold medal: I’ll bet Uncle Robbie worked perfectly with those youngsters. Tommy died at 93; he’d been in bad health for a long time, but it was as if he willed himself to stay alive and watch the Dodgers win the 2020 World Series. After all, he bled Dodger blue.
Being identified with just one team makes you more important than most people to a city’s image. That’s what it was like for Floyd Little in Denver. The Broncos’ halfback died on New Year’s Day at 78. He played his nine-year career in Denver, was first-team all-AFL in their final season as a separate league, and a five-time all-star. His stats are not overwhelming, but he went into the Hall of Fame in 2010 because people remembered him as a Curtis Martin-type runner, consistent for a long time, and as a leader on some not very good teams, kind of like Ernie Banks in baseball.
Little was a local legend where I grew up, first as a star at Hillhouse High in New Haven. In 1960 I remember Little having a late TD disallowed in an 18-16 loss to Notre Dame of West Haven, costing them an undefeated season; the next week he scored four TDs as Hillhouse knocked New Britain from the unbeaten ranks. But the story around was that Little was not so bright and wouldn’t make it in college. He spent two prep years at Bordentown Military Academy in New Jersey, and their games were reported every weekend in the New Haven Register, then went on to Syracuse, where he carried the mantle, and the number 44 jersey, of Ernie Davis, the great halfback who died of leukemia before he could star in the NFL. After football, Little became a leading light in Denver, making a career as a businessman and giving back, as they say, to the community, putting paid to all those skeptics and their racial stereotyping back in 1961. In 2011 he returned to New Haven, where an athletic center for high schools was renamed for him; it’s where Hillhouse, always a basketball power, plays their home games.
I wondered how different Paul Westphal’s career, which saw him into the Hall of Fame anyway, might have been had he spent it all in Boston, rather than getting traded from the Celtics to the Phoenix Suns. One of the most iconic calls in sports is Johnny Most’s “Havlicek stole the ball”, when John Havlicek saved a win for Boston in the 1965 Eastern Conference finals against Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers. But, while there was Johnny Most calling game five of the 1976 NBA finals in Boston, where Westphal, who died on January 2, stole the ball, the Suns lost the game, and the championship, no announcer in Phoenix could go as crazy as Most had in 1965.
Westphal was a 6-4 guard taken by the Celtics from USC. He could shoot, and he was a better defender than the Celts seemed to think, but his best play seemed to come when things were chaotic, rather than controlled as Boston liked. Tommy Heinsohn (who died in November last year; I wrote about him here) was the coach, and Boston didn’t rush rookies into the lineup. By his third season he was still the third guard, behind JoJo White and Duck Cheney, but he averaged almost 20 minutes and 10 points a game as Boston won its first NBA title since 1969. But when Cheney left, Celtics’ GM Red Auerbach traded Westphal to Phoenix for Charlie Scott, whom he had coveted since his college days: a bigger, longer defender and sometimes explosive scorer.
Westphal immediately turned in the first of five-straight 20 point per game seasons in Phoenix, leading the Suns to the NBA finals. The game was tied 95-95 at the end of regulation, though Boston’s Paul Silas had tried to call a time out when the Celts had none, which should have been a technical foul and a game-winning free throw attempt for Phoenix. The first OT ended 101-101 amidst accusations of the timekeepers manipulating the clock in Boston’s favor. With 20 seconds left in the second OT, Dick Van Arsdale scored to bring Phoenix within one, 109-108, and on the ensuing inbounds pass, Westphal stole the ball, ironically from Havlicek. Curtis Perry, on his second try, put the Suns up 110-109. Havlicek then banked in a running shot with two seconds left and the clock ran out with the crowd storming the court and Boston the winners.
Except the clock should have stopped after the basket. Eventually, the teams came back and one second was put back on the clock. Westphal then called a time out which Phoenix didn’t have, and this time the officials did call a technical foul. JoJo White made the shot, putting Boston up two, but the Suns got the ball at midcourt, and Garfield Heard hit the turnaround Shot Heard Round The World at the buzzer sending the game to its third OT.
The Celts raced off to a big lead, but Westphal scored two late baskets to bring them back within two, 128-126, then missed by the length of a finger tip stealing the ball again at midcourt. It was a magnificent performance, against the team that hadn’t given him the full chance he deserved (Charlie Scott had fouled out of the game in regulation).
Westphal remained tied to the Celtics: eventually Phoenix traded him to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, and eventually Auerbach sent Rick Robey to Phoenix for Johnson, which gave Larry Bird his perfect complementary guard and also removed Robey as an off-court distraction for his buddy Bird. Westphal played for Seattle and the Knicks before ending his career back in Phoenix. He coached Grand Canyon College to an NAIA title, and had a good three year run as coach of the Suns, followed by two with Seattle and then a return to college coaching at Pepperdine.
Of course Westphal, who is in the Hall of Fame, isn’t a legendary Celtic, but as well as Heinsohn, legendary player and coach KC Jones died on Christmas Day, making Westphal’s the third Celtic passing in less than two months. I met Westphal once; I was in Boston sometime in the winter of '74-'75 and was taking the T at South Station when I looked up and saw him standing on the platform, being conspicuously ignored by the crowd. I went up and asked how he’d done that day, he said “we won” and that was that. But I was really impressed that he was riding the T with the rest of us, the unassuming grace of a great athlete. I thought back to that, and realised how fine the lines are in our lives, how easy it might have been for him to stay in Boston and become another of the legends with jerseys in the rafters, and of the strangeness of my own life where I can point to connections, and dredge up memories. A certain kind of baseball, the nature of the place where I grew up, and the fragile quality of even Hall of Fame careers.
Sport can reflect life, if we look past the glittering surface.