Ron Onesti: Really gonna miss my “Uncle” Tommy Lasorda
As current President of The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, and someone who has been blessed to call Tommy Lasorda a close friend for over thirty years because of it, I was deeply saddened this week as we lost another American hero.
The Hall of Fame began as an Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame in 1977 by George Randazzo, the President of the organization for 42 years. Lasorda got wind of the project and became a life-long supporter, transforming the organization into one that recognized athletes of Italian extraction in all sports in 1978.
My job as a volunteer with the organization was to produce many of its special events including the Annual Induction Gala. And each year, Tommy was a featured speaker whose words were always a highlight of the evening.
Every story about him refers to his “Larger-than-life” persona. I can definitely attest to that! No matter what huge sports figure was in the room, he was the one everybody wanted a picture with. And unlike many celebrities we brought in, he loved to talk to people. Over the countless times I have been in the same room with him, there was not one instance I can remember when he wasn’t surrounded by a group of smiling and laughing fans.
He was great to talk baseball with. One of my favorite stories was about Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Gibson was initially held out of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ lineup with injuries to both legs and was actually getting therapy in the clubhouse when Tommy had this gut feeling to call him in to pitch hit. It was the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, and the Dodgers were down 4-3 to the Oakland A’s. Tommy called in Gibson, who accepted the challenged and limped to the plate.
The count went to no balls and two strikes with two out. After a few more pitches, Gibson swung hard and hit a two-run, walk-off home run, barely able to make it around the bases! “God was with us, and so was the wind, that day,” Tommy said. The home run won the game for the Dodgers by a score of 5–4.
As we were building our new Hall of Fame building on Taylor Street, we were also constructing a beautiful Italian piazza across the street that would feature a huge statue of Yankee great, Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio came to the ground-breaking ceremony, plunging his gold shovel into the gravelly hole that was to ultimately be his grand tribute.
Just prior to that, Joe was to ring the opening bell at the Chicago Stock Exchange. I was coordinating our day with Joe, so I put together a tight schedule of activities. Its not every day you have a living legend asking you, “What’s next”!
7:00am Breakfast. 8:15am In the limousine. 8:45am Arrival at the Stock Exchange. 9:00am Bell ringing ceremony. 11:00am Back in the limo. 11:45 Lunch. It went like that for two days.
It was myself, George Randazzo, Gary Hall, Race Car legend Chip Ganassi, Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, Tommy and Joe. We walked in and you would have thought Elvis ENTERED the building! There was a thunderous applause for the Yankee (and Dodger) greats.
The one thing I did not plan on was the length of the “Bell ringing ceremony”. I fittingly had a baseball bat for Joe to ring the bell with. Right on que, he opened the trading floor by hitting the bell with the bat. That was the extent of the “ceremony”! I thought there were speeches, photos, etc. But there was nothing else!
Joe then looked at me at 9:03am and asked, “What’s next?”
Ummm, lunch at 11:45 I thought to myself. That was almost three hours from now! So I asked Pat Arbor, then Chairman of the Exchange if we could sit in his office for a bit. Of course, he could not be a more accommodating host.
For almost two hours, we all sat back and witnessed Tommy Lasorda and Joe DiMaggio talk baseball. It was incredible. They both agreed that Gehrig was the best player ever. Well, that was with Joe out of the running. They talked about Ty Cobb, Gabby Hartnett, his buddy Yogi Berra, the New York Giants moving to Joe’s home town area of San Francisco and the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles. Just awesome baseball stuff that any fan would relish witnessing.
We had our 13th Annual Tommy Lasorda Open Golf Tournament this past August. This was the first year he missed it, but still, he sent a video thanking all who attended. His warm, grandfatherly presence was felt by all 180 golfers.
I spoke to him just a few weeks ago. I called him to get his memory of Jackie Robinson, the first African American in Major League Baseball, as “Italian American Athletes and Race Relations” is an exhibit I am working on for our new Hall of Fame. Tommy was with the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie played.
“Jackie was a great man. Not only was he a strong, and smart player, but it was the courage he showed at every game that made him legendary as well. It was tough to watch sometimes, but he never let them see it get him down,” Tommy said.
As much as Tommy spoke at events all over the country, he really only had a few of his “go to” jokes he would use. So we would sit together about thirty minutes before every gala and go over the jokes he used the year prior so as not to repeat any.
I would say, “OK, you did the Gerald Ford one, the one with the duck and the one about Yogi (Berra).”
Then he would tell one like, “My wife Jo was upset and said that I loved Baseball more than her. I told her that is probably true, but at least I like you more than football and hockey!” Tommy would smile.
Then, at the end of every one of his motivational and comedic talks, he would say, “Tonight, as you lay your head on your pillow, thank God for all he has given you, and say a prayer for Tommy and The Dodgers.”
To be honest, I don’t believe I ever actually did that. And being a Cubs fan, not sure I can, with any conscience pray for the Dodgers. But now, I WILL thank God for Tommy and the time he shared with all of us. He was a gift to us all, no matter what sport you loved or what race you were. But if you happened to have any Italian blood in you, you got an extra smile from him. But as long as you eat pasta and listen to Sinatra once in a while, Tommy will forever watch over you!