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Tommy Lasorda’s spring training with the St Louis Browns

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The Hall of Famer’s legacy in Southern California didn’t begin with the Dodgers

Bendix Meets The Browns
This is from five years earlier, in 1948, when William Bendix was in spring training in San Bernardino promoting his movie, ‘The Babe Ruth Story,’ (the only photo I could find of the Browns in San Bernardino).
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Tommy Lasorda is synonymous with the Dodgers, but his lifetime in blue might have become a career in brown. For about five weeks nearly 70 years ago, Lasorda spent a spring training with St. Louis.

Heading into the 1953 season, Lasorda was 25 years old, and pitched in the Dodgers’ farm system for four years. The previous three years were with Triple-A Montreal, with Lasorda going 35-17 with a 3.35 ERA in 489 innings.

But he couldn’t yet breakthrough to the majors on a team that won the most games in the National League over the previous three seasons. Opportunity came in the form of a trade, or rather a sale. The St. Louis Browns purchased Lasorda and shortstop Billy Hunter from the Dodgers. The sale price was somewhere between $120,000 (a 2003 article by Rick Hummel in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned $50,000 for Lasorda and $70,000 for Hunter) and $140,000 (from They Bled Blue, Jason Turbow’s book on the 1981 Dodgers).

The Associated Press report noted the sale of Lasorda was conditional that he made the Browns roster. First Lasorda had to report to San Bernardino, California, where the Browns held their spring training.

The other subplot was Browns owner Bill Veeck trying to move out of St. Louis, where the Browns were the little brother of the winning Cardinals. In mid-March 1953, the Braves announced their move from Boston, where they ranked eighth in the eight-team National League in attendance in the previous two seasons, to Milwaukee, where they would lead the NL in attendance the next six years, before the Dodgers moved west.

The Browns were trying to move to Baltimore, which posed two problems. For one, the American League owners weren’t as willing to approve such a move as the NL owners did for the Braves. And the Orioles were a Triple-A team in Baltimore, a minor league affiliate of the Phillies.

International League executive Jack Dunn told the Baltimore Sun on March 14, 1953, “This thing isn’t a strong possibility, as I’ve heard and read. Too many things can happen to stop it. If the American League says no, if our league says no, if I say no, if Veeck says no, or if Mayor D’Alessandro says no, there’ll be no move.”

Both former Dodgers with the Browns were from Pennsylvania, Lasorda from Norristown and Hunter from Punxsutawney. Lasorda told the Baltimore Sun he had some International League experience pitching in Baltimore. “That’s not too far from my home,” Lasorda said. “I’d like to play close to home — Norristown, Pa. — but that’s a tough park. I won only two or three games here in three years, but I would try it.”

As it turned out, Lasorda did pitch well enough that spring to finally reach the majors. On the train ride from San Bernardino to St. Louis, Browns pitching coach Harry Brecheen told Lasorda that he made the team, and would join a rotation that also included fellow rookie Don Larsen, Dick Littlefield, Virgil Trucks, and Brecheen.

But the ride took a turn during a stop in Phoenix, when manager Marty Marion called Lasorda into his room. From Hummel in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2003:

But also waiting in Marion’s room was Veeck. The controversial, financially taxed owner told Lasorda he had been promised $2 million to move to Baltimore but that the New York Yankees had blocked the move at that point.

...

“I’ve got to turn you back,” said Veeck.

Veeck hadn’t yet paid the agreed-upon transfer fee to Brooklyn, so Lasorda was returned to the Dodgers, or rather to Montreal, where he had his best season to date in 1953, winning 17 games with a 2.81 ERA in 208 innings.

Lasorda finally reached the majors in 1954, and pitched for parts of two seasons with Brooklyn and part of 1956 with the Kansas City A’s. By 1957, Lasorda was back with the Dodgers, where he stayed for the next 64 years.

Lasorda pitched 14 years in the minors, and nine of them were in Montreal, including before and after his spring 1953 tryst with the Browns. Lasorda in Montreal was 107-57 with a 3.45 ERA in 1,461 innings.

The less-controversial Browns move to Baltimore eventually came to fruition one year later, but only after Veeck sold the team. But a number of histories could have been altered had Lasorda remained with the Browns for more than just one spring training.