Lasorda, Fox expand Hall's '97 class Negro leaguer Wells also will be inducted with Niekro

March 06, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- For perhaps the first time in his 52-year baseball career, Tom Lasorda was speechless.

He held the telephone to his ear and tears welled in his eyes as Edward Stack of the National Baseball Hall of Fame relayed the news. Lasorda, the man who bled Dodger blue until his heart nearly gave out last season, will be enshrined in Cooperstown on Aug. 3, just months after health problems forced him to end his 20-year managerial career.

"I am deeply overwhelmed," Lasorda mumbled into the phone. "Tell all the guys thanks."

Lasorda, 69, was selected by the Hall of Fame's veterans committee for 1997 induction yesterday along with late Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox and Negro leagues star Willie Wells. They join pitcher Phil Niekro, who was elected by vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America in January.

It was an honor Lasorda dreamed about when he was a kid growing up during the Depression in Norristown, Pa. It was a dream that seemed to die when his playing career foundered after two brief stays in the major leagues and too many years in the minors. And it was a call he finally had reason to expect after a stellar managerial career that included seven division titles and two World Series titles.

"I can't believe that this has happened to me," Lasorda said at a hastily arranged news conference at the Dodgers' Vero Beach training complex. "I never realized I could ever get to this point."

He certainly could not have expected to get there so soon. If not for the two heart attacks he suffered last year, he might still be managing. He became eligible for induction the day he announced his retirement, bypassing the normal five-year waiting period because he is over 65.

Lasorda had the shortest wait for induction since the Hall altered its rules to give Roberto Clemente immediate entry after he died in a 1972 plane crash on a humanitarian mission to help earthquake victims.

It took much longer for Fox, who batted .300 or better six times and was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1959. In 1985, 10 years after his death, he fell two votes shy of election in the slimmest defeat in the history of the BBWAA balloting, and was edged last year by pitcher Jim Bunning even though he received the required 75 percent of the vote from the veterans committee. (Only one former major-league player can be inducted by the committee in any year.)

There was much rejoicing at Dodgertown, where the Dodgers were playing the Montreal Expos in an exhibition game at Holman Stadium. Lasorda received the call in the stadium press box and received a standing ovation from the crowd of 3,275 when his election was announced over the public address system moments later.

Lasorda then walked out of the press box and embraced former Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey, who played under Lasorda in the minor leagues and was on the team that won back-to-back National League pennants in Lasorda's first two seasons as Dodgers manager.

"You made this possible," Lasorda said, his eyes still watery.

The Dodgers would go on to win a world championship in 1981. Lasorda reached the playoffs again in 1983 and 1985 before winning his second World Series title in 1988. He won his last NL West title in 1995, and the Dodgers were in first place when he managed his last game on June 23 of last year.

Lasorda, who is seldom at a loss for words, nearly undermined his chances when he told reporters over the winter that he missed managing and would be interested in returning to the field.

Former Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi, an influential member of the veterans committee, told the Los Angeles Times last week that several members of the committee might be reluctant to vote for Lasorda if they thought that he didn't really intend to stay retired. Lasorda quickly contacted Times reporter Bob Night- engale and said that he was no longer interested in managing.

"I really didn't think I was going to make it," Lasorda said. "I've managed some of the greatest players in the history of the game. They made this happen. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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