While Hall-of-Fame manager Tommy Lasorda will forever be associated with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Montreal will always hold a special place in his heart. Back in the 1950’s, Lasorda enjoyed significant stints with the International League’s Montreal Royals where he took the mound at Delorimier Downs. The winningest pitcher in Royals history, Lasorda led the franchise to five Governors’ Cup championships. He went on to win two World Series titles with the Dodgers during his two decades as manager. We recently caught up with the 88-year-old Dodgers executive and world-renowned baseball ambassador to learn more about his love for the CH.
What are some your favorite memories of watching the Canadiens while you were based in Montreal during the 1950’s?
TOMMY LASORDA: When I played there, they had a really good team, a powerhouse. They were so great. They dominated the league year after year after year. I enjoyed the players, and many of them came to our games. Many of them were friends, too. Montreal is certainly a hockey city, but their fans thought enough of me to have a Tommy Lasorda Day. For that to happen to a baseball player was very, very unusual because hockey was the main sport. They presented me with a car and lots of gifts. That, to me, was such a wonderful present. I was very, very proud to be able to be a part of Montreal for those years.
Who were some of the players you got to know during your time in the city?
TL: So many of them – “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey, Toe Blake, Butch Bouchard – they all came to the baseball games. Bouchard was also the president of our ball club [beginning in 1957 after serving as director of the club in 1956]. Doug Harvey was a baseball player himself, too. I also remember when Jean Beliveau came up to the big club with the Canadiens. He was a tremendous player. He added so much to the team. All of them spent so much time meeting with the fans.
What was it like having those guys out at the ballpark watching the Royals play?
TL: It was an honor for me to have them there. They were die-hard heroes in the city of Montreal. They were all leaders for many, many years. We had the chance to spend time together. They’d come out for lunch with us after games. I remember I was having lunch with Jacques Plante at a restaurant called The Chic N Coop and we were talking about catchers and how they wear masks. That’s when he started drawing something on the table cloth about his famous mask, and then he decided to wear one in games.
You experienced the Richard Riot first-hand in 1955. What do you remember about it?
TL: I can remember when Clarence Campbell suspended the “Rocket.” People destroyed the city. They turned over the trolley cars and everything. That just showed me how popular one man can be. I was certainly hoping that they didn’t suspend him because I figured there was going to be a problem if it happened. He was huge. He was like gold in Montreal.
You saw the Canadiens win multiple Stanley Cup titles during your stay in Montreal. What impressed you most about the team?
TL: They were just so dominant. They had an empire. Then, Detroit came on and had the same type of success the Canadiens had. The Red Wings had great players, too. I rarely got a chance to go out and catch their games, but whenever I could be there, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t easy getting tickets. The games were always sold out. When they celebrated those championships, though, the tremendous support they got from the people of Montreal was impressive.
Just how special was it coming back to Montreal when you managed the Los Angeles Dodgers?
TL: It brought all of the memories back, for sure. I got to see many of the people that I had seen when I played there, and I had the chance to go back to some of my favorite restaurants. I went to DaVinci’s all the time when I played for the Royals. It was always so great to go back to a city that I thought the world of, but I was destroyed when they lost the Expos franchise. They should never have lost it. I actually had the opportunity to go to Montreal, too. They wanted me to come on board as the manager, but I turned a three-year contract offer down to be with Los Angeles. Had I moved, though, I know I would have loved being there. I’ve said this before – Montreal deserves to have a major league team.
You had an infamous run-in with Youppi! back in August 1989 at Olympic Stadium when he jumped on the Dodgers dugout. You actually had him ejected from the game. It was the first time that a mascot had been ejected in Major League Baseball history.
TL: I was going to hurt him. (Laughs) You can tell him – ‘Lasorda still wants to get you.’
What’s it like being a Canadiens fan in Los Angeles, where the Kings are a pretty successful team, too?
TL: Right, well I don’t say much about that. (Laughs) Luc Robitaille invited me out to speak to the team one time. I enjoyed it. Luc was an outstanding player and he’s still a great friend. I see him every time I go to games. We always talk about Montreal.
Do you check in on how the Canadiens are doing from time to time?
TL: Yeah, I always do that. I became a Canadiens fan because a lot of them were my friends. I always felt like I was a part of the hockey scene in Montreal. Back then, I did my best to follow along, too.
If you had to tell someone who hadn’t been to Montreal about it, what would you say?
TL: It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The churches are beautiful. The people are wonderful. If you want to go somewhere for vacation, I always say – ‘Go to Montreal.’ It’s a great place. I would have lived there if it wasn’t so cold. (Laughs)
Interview conducted by Matt Cudzinowski.