By Jon Weisman
One time, Tommy Lasorda recalled today, Ronald and Nancy Reagan paid a visit to Dodger Stadium. It wasn’t their first time there, nor their last. But on this particular day, Mrs. Reagan told Lasorda that she wanted to see the clubhouse.
“She said, ‘Where’s the workout room?'” Lasorda said. “And I took her to the workout room, and we had a machine (she wanted to try). So Charlie Strasser, the trainer, and I, we put her on this thing, and she did it a little bit, and then we had to lift her off. I said, ‘Charlie, if only we had someone taking a picture of her on this thing,’ but there was no one around to take a picture. (But) she worked out with it. She thought it was great. We lifted her up to get on it, and we lifted her off to get off it.”
Speaking one day after the former first lady passed away at the age of 94, Lasorda had several presidential memories to share, especially of the Reagans, whom he was particularly close to.
They met at Frank Sinatra’s house when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, and on the November 1984 night that he was elected to his second term, Lasorda and his wife Jo were part of the celebration.
“(They) and my wife and I were dancing,” Lasorda said. “We stopped on the dance floor and talked to each other, because he wanted to make sure I was enjoying myself and was happy and everything else. He was proud of me.
“I’ve got this one letter that I really treasure that he wrote to me — how proud he was of me and what I accomplished and everything like that. So we were good friends, and I was proud of them both. She was a wonderful, sweet lady. I tell you, I really enjoyed being around her, really enjoyed meeting her and everything like that. She was great. And they loved each other real dearly.”
Lasorda said Nancy sent a birthday card to him every year until last year, when she had fallen ill.
Perhaps the most remarkable night came in 1980, before Reagan’s first term as president, the year he challenged incumbent Jimmy Carter. That day, Lasorda had a doubleheader — a speech in Iowa, followed by another in Chicago for the Italian-American Hall of Fame (which in 1989 would induct Lasorda himself).
Getting out of the hotel elevator in Chicago, there was a big crowd, and Lasorda was turning back when the center of the crowd spoke up.
“Reagan saw me — ‘Hey Tommy, how are you? Come over and give me a big hug!'” Lasorda remembered. “I said, ‘I got a good feeling you’re gonna win big.’ He said, ‘If I don’t, can you get me a job as an announcer?’
Reagan, of course, began his career after college in 1932 as a sports announcer, during which time he would re-create baseball games from telegraph reports.
“And then that night,” Lasorda continued, “at the big dinner at the Italian-American Hall of Fame, this guy was performing, singing, and all of a sudden somebody walks on the stage and stops the guy singing and takes the microphone away from him. There’s a thousand people in there — what’s going on? The guy says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.’ It was President Carter — he was there.
“So he got up and congratulated the honorees, and he said, ‘Where’s Tommy Lasorda?’ I was in the table right in front of him, and I raised my hand, and I said, ‘Here, Mr. President.’ He said, ‘Come up here — I want to talk to you up on the stage.’ So I go up on the stage, and he said, ‘When I was coming here, my mother said if I saw you, I have to give you a hug. And he gave me a hug.
“So I was hugged that day by the guy who was running for the presidency, and that night the president hugged me. Pretty unusual, huh?”
If you’re wondering why Carter singled Lasorda out for special treatment, it’s because the Dodger manager had also become close with the president’s mother, Lillian — another Dodger guest from time to time, at Dodger Stadium and elsewhere.
“One day, we’re playing in Atlanta, and Lillian and the president, they were with (Braves owner Ted) Turner. So those Secret Service guys come over — they knew me — and they said, ‘Hey, Tommy. Miss Lillian wants to see you. I walked across the field, and she was there with the president and Ted and everything. She gave me a hug, and she whispered in my ear, ‘I tell you right now, I’m pulling for you today.'”
For Dodger fans, perhaps the most meaningful link between the Dodgers, Lasorda and Nancy Reagan is this. On the most beloved night at Dodger Stadium in at least the past 50 years, the night of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, it was Nancy Reagan who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Lasorda takes credit for recommending her appearance, which she used to promote her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, with an assist from Vin Scully.