"Tomatoes" recalls Laval, days at LSU

Baseball was hardly a commodity in Baton Rouge before Skip Bertman arrived in 1984. It's a good bet even the most ardent of Tiger fan could hardly name five great players from the pre-Bertman era at LSU.

And, other than Harry Rabenhorst, who coached LSU for over half a century, it is doubtful one could recall the name of even one former LSU coach – that is, right off the top of one's head.


Prior to Bertman's arrival, the Tigers had won only three SEC titles in the 90-year history of the program – 1945, 1961 and 1975. Then Skip arrived and the rest is, as they say, history.


Smoke Laval was fired… er, resigned earlier this month as LSU's baseball coach after the Tigers failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in almost two decades.


Since Laval took over in 2002 and won an SEC title in 2003, the program has been in a gradual descent from the upper echelon of college baseball. Earlier this month, Bertman, who moved from the dugout to the AD's chair in 2001, was faced with the most difficult decision in removing his protégé, his hand-picked successor as the empire he so diligently built lay in ruins in the wake of a 35-24 season.


Laval's removal evoked memories of the last LSU coach that was fired… er, resigned. Jack Lamabe was handed his walking papers by infamous athletic director Bob Brodhead in 1983 after his Tigers went 28-21 and posted a 9-12 record in the SEC.



Now, history recalls Bertman brought Laval to LSU as his top assistant in 1984 from the University of Florida. Actually, though, it was Lamabe who was responsible for introducing Laval to Baton Rouge.

A former Major League hurler and later assistant coach, Lamabe took the job as the head coach of Jacksonville University in 1974, where he led the Dolphins to a 118-65 mark in four seasons. In 1977, Lamabe's team upset perennial power Florida State and fell one game short of the College World Series losing to Auburn in the regional final.


Lamabe's star catcher and top hitter on that team? Raymond "Smoke" Laval.


"He was a gamer," said Lamabe, 69, from his living room recliner of his Baton Rouge area home. "He knew the game. How to play the game, call the game for pitchers. He was an intelligent baseball player. He was a great, great student of the game."


In 1979, Carl Maddox came calling on Lamabe bringing the ex Major Leaguer to Baton Rouge. That year, Lamabe's Tigers posted a 34-20 record, a 22-game improvement from the previous season's 12-34 record, which was the largest turnaround in school history.


Laval served as an LSU graduate assistant that season before moving on to coach the next three seasons at Florida.


Ironically, years later, Laval led a resurgence as the head coach of Louisiana-Monroe taking the lowly Indians from a 20-33 record in his first season of 1994 to a 37-20 mark the following year, an improvement of 17 games.


Lamabe recalls SEC Baseball back then and how much things have changed over the years.


"Back then, there wasn't as much parity as there is now," he said. "There is more parity now, especially in the SEC with Mike Bianco, Jimmy Wells, all these connections that are coaching in the league."


While the facilities were meager and the budgets were small, Lamabe enjoyed his days in the dugout at Alex Box Stadium. However, he only wishes he could have stayed longer.


"It was good here," Lamabe said. "The only thing is that I went through four different athletic directors. Carl Maddox hired me. Then coach (Paul) Dietzel came in. Then the (former Florida State) football coach, Larry Jones. (On an interim basis.) Then came Brodhead and he fired me."




Red Sox great Ted Williams visited Lamabe when he

coached at Jacksonville University in the mid 1970s.



Much like Laval, there was some questions as to how Lamabe bid adieu to LSU.


"They said I resigned, but I didn't resign," Lamabe said. "You can look all day, but you'll never find a letter up there in that office that said I resigned."


Resigned or terminated, it didn't really matter. Brodhead didn't bother informing Lamabe about his decision.


"He (Brodhead) called me in and said he wanted to make a change," Lamabe said. "He (Brodhead) said he was looking for Skip Bertman, but if that didn't work out he would keep me. But, I already knew my decision when I walked out of there."


A few days after the meeting, Lamabe was a bit surprised as he read the morning Advocate. There, in the classifieds, was an advertisement stating an opening for the head baseball coaching position at LSU.


"I didn't know it," Lamabe laughed. "I read it in the paper. It was okay though. I don't criticize people. Hell, I have to be judged too. That was sort of burning though. My wife got more upset than I did though."


After five seasons and a 134-115 record (46-55 SEC), Lamabe was removed. Losing the LSU job didn't matter though. With Lamabe's connections to Major League Baseball, he had plenty of options.


"The day after they fired me, Jack McKeon called me and said ‘what do you want to do? You want to manage? You can manage our Double-A club,'" Lamabe said. "I said, ‘heck just let me coach. I have had my experience here trying to handle my bosses, recruiting and all of that.' I told him, ‘just give me my 10 pitchers and let me go.' From that point on, I coached in pro ball for the next 20 years. And coached with them (Padres) in the (1984) World Series."


Pro ball was something Lamabe was quite familiar with.


Born in 1936 at Farmingdale, Long Island, Lamabe grew up and attended the University of Vermont for two years, where he lettered as a pitcher. But after running into academic troubles in 1960 (Lamabe says "he flunked out"), he turned to professional baseball where he would play for eight different teams over the next eight years.


While he had his only winning season as a professional in 1963 (7-4) with the Red Sox and recorded the most victories (9) in a single season of his career with Boston in 1964, the most memorable year of Lamabe's career was 1967. Nicknamed "Tomatoes" by famed sportscaster Curt Gowdy because of a constantly sun-burned face, Lamabe played for three different teams that season including the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets.




Jack Lamabe's baseball card.



But he was later acquired by St. Louis when the Cards star pitcher Bob Gibson was hit by a line-drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente breaking his leg. Gibson would return later that season and the Cardinals, featuring Lou Brock and Roger Maris, went on to defeat Boston in seven games capturing the World Series title.


Lamabe came on in middle relief and took the loss in game six of the ‘67 Series. A loss is a loss, but it would go down as a rather memorable defeat. Having already claimed victories in games one and four against Boston, Gibson was given a chance to win three World Series games, a feat accomplished by only two other hurlers. (Lew Burdette won three games in the 1957 series while Mickey Lolich did it the year after Gibson in the 1968 series.)


"(On the bus) after the game, Gibby (Gibson) yelled from the back ‘Hey Lamabe!'" Lamabe said. ‘"Oh hell,' I thought to myself. He was our team captain and everyone looked up to him, so I was a little worried. But he said, ‘thanks for losing that game. (Lou) Brock would have won MVP if we'd have won. Now if I can win tomorrow, I can get it. That'll be good because my old lady was wanting a new car.' And that's the honest truth."


During the course of his professional career, Lamabe went back and forth to Springfield (Mass.) College, where he completed his B.S. and Master's degrees. When his playing days were complete, Lamabe became a pitching coach in Montreal Expo organization before taking the job at Jacksonville and later at LSU.


These days, Lamabe, who suffers from severe arthritis, struggles to get around. However, he still follows baseball and is a big LSU fan. The old coach follows his former team and protégé (Laval) and admitted he thought Laval was in trouble midway through the season.


"Halfway through this year I said to myself, ‘he's in trouble because of his pitching. That pitching is horrible,'" Lamabe said. "I don't know who you blame for that, I guess the people that recruited them. But eventually, the guy who is responsible is the boss, no matter how you look at it."


With an impatient fan base and dwindling attendance figures, Lamabe said he wasn't shocked when the verdict was handed down on Laval.


"No, not really, knowing LSU and all," he said. "I figured it would come. I feel like Skip didn't want to do it. Friendships aside though. (Laval) Had to go and that's what happened.


"People in Louisiana are frontrunners. They want to the Saints to win, LSU to win. They are used to football championships. The basketball team goes to the Final Four, both teams. They want that winner."




Lamabe, today, still lives in Baton Rouge.



Lamabe said it was a tall task for Laval following in Bertman's footsteps at LSU and it will remain a tough coaching job because of the shadow left by the legendary coach.


"It is like the same following the Bear at Alabama or Wooden at UCLA," Lamabe said. "Here, your expectations are so high. Now, with all of the parity in baseball. I mean, the College of Charleston is in the Super Regionals. Oral Roberts beat Oklahoma State. It's tough. The parity is there now. It is unreal."


It has been 23 years since "Tomatoes" Lamabe read about his own firing in the morning newspaper. But that hasn't stopped the old coach and his wife, Janet, from remaining LSU fans.


"My wife and I root like crazy for LSU," he said. "You should have seen us that national championship year (2003 in football)," Lamabe said. "I was jumping all over the place. I fell on my butt. We root like heck for all of the sports. Gymnastics, basketball, softball, all of them."


Even while traveling all over the country coaching professional baseball, Lamabe has remained a resident of Baton Rouge and states he will never leave. Coach Lamabe and Janet are the parents of two children, John and Jennifer, both of whom attended Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge. The Lamabes are the proud grandparents of two little ones, Alex and Sarah.


"I said you would have to get a bomb to get me out of Louisiana," Lamabe said. "I love the people here. I have friends scattered around. Just because I got fired, big deal. I mean, I didn't win enough games."


It makes you wonder if Laval can ever be as forgiving to the same town and fan base as his old coach has been.




Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at matt@tigerrag.com.

Tiger Blitz Top Stories