In the early 1970s, lefty pitcher Bob O’Brien made an unlikely and mercurial rise from unheralded draft selection to big-leaguer. His stay in professional baseball was brief, but along the way he became the subject of one of Tommy Lasorda’s greatest motivational stories.
Robert Allen O’Brien was born on April 23, 1949, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Robert and Marjorie (Dandois) O’Brien. His maternal grandfather, Al Dandois, was a longtime usher at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field whose tenure included the 1927 World Series. O’Brien was two when his parents moved with him and his younger brother Danny to Fresno, California. The elder Robert O’Brien had worked as a crane operator for Pittsburgh Steel. In Fresno he designed and developed hydraulic lift gates for large vehicles.
Bob O’Brien became active in youth sports. At the age of eight his enthusiasm for baseball led him to the pitcher’s mound, where his talents would rise above others in the area.
At Fresno’s Hoover High School, O’Brien carved a reputation as one of the city’s top performers in both basketball and baseball. In his senior season of basketball, even though he stood just 5-foot-8, he averaged 15.4 points per game to lead all scorers in the city of Fresno.1 But in baseball O’Brien shone even more brightly. The southpaw fashioned a 10-1 record as a senior, striking out 105 batters in 72 innings.2 The highlight of that 1967 season was a game in which O’Brien set an area record, striking out 22 batters in a nine-inning game against Merced High School. He did so while suffering from the flu and a 103-degree fever, and only after pleading with his coach that he be allowed to pitch.3 Following the season, The Fresno Bee selected O’Brien to its All-Metro team.4
O’Brien pitched collegiately at Fresno City College.5 During his sophomore season he posted a 7-1 record with an 0.51 ERA. He earned all-league and team MVP honors.6 O’Brien was subsequently selected in the fourth round of the January 1969 draft7 by the Los Angeles Dodgers and was signed by Dodgers scout Bill Brenzel.
O’Brien was assigned to Ogden in the short-season Single-A Pioneer League. Ray Malgradi, the Ogden manager, made O’Brien the starting pitcher for the season opener. From his eight-strikeout performance on opening night, O’Brien established himself as a big-league prospect.8 With a crackling fastball and a sharp-breaking curve, O’Brien racked up strikeouts in record fashion. He fanned 15 in a 4-0 win over Salt Lake City, 17 in a 5-0 shutout of the Billings Mustangs, then another 15 in an August game when Ogden beat Twin Falls to clinch the Pioneer League pennant.9 On the final night of the season, O’Brien capped a successful debut campaign by striking out 16 and hitting a home run in a 5-4 win over Idaho Falls. O’Brien’s 186 strikeouts broke the Pioneer League record for a single season.10 He also led the league in innings pitched (120) and shutouts (4). His 1.65 ERA was second best in the league, as was his win total (11). Pioneer League managers selected O’Brien to the all-league team.11
The 20-year-old then made a rare leap from the bottom rung on the minor-league ladder all the way to the top. His promotion was the result of fierce lobbying by the Dodgers’ Triple-A manager, Tommy Lasorda. O’Brien enjoyed an impressive spring training, which included a perfect three-inning stint for the big club in an exhibition game against the New York Mets.12 The organization planned for him to spend the 1970 season with their Double-A affiliate. Lasorda, however, had taken a liking to O’Brien. “He’s got what we call in baseball a lot of bulldog in him,” the manager said, prefiguring the nickname he later bestowed on Orel Hershiser.13 Lasorda proved persuasive, and O’Brien was assigned to the Spokane Indians in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
For those who expected O’Brien to be overmatched, it never materialized. He won 13 games and lost just 3, with a 3.40 ERA, and was named to the PCL all-star team.14 “He’s just great; he’s my kind of ball player,” Lasorda said.15
Playing for Lasorda made O’Brien the subject of a legendary and oft-told story by the Hall of Fame manager. “The day I knew I could motivate players was in Spokane in the Pacific Coast League. We had a little lefthander on the mound named Bobby O’Brien. He had two outs, bases loaded, late in the game. I went to the mound to talk to him. I said ‘Bobby, I want you to look up at the Big Dodger in the sky. I want you to look at this as maybe the last hitter you will ever face in your life. If you give up a hit, you will die. You will face the Lord knowing you failed, and you died. But if you get this guy out, you can face the Lord knowing you got this guy out. So what do you want to do, get this guy out or die?’ He said, ‘I want to get this guy out.’ So I left the mound and he gave up a two-run single. I went back to the mound and said, ‘Bobby, what happened?’ He said, ‘I was so afraid of dying I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing.’ That’s when I knew. I actually convinced him that he might die if he didn’t get this guy out. Now that’s motivation.”16
O’Brien’s Triple-A season earned him an invitation to major-league spring training. Before leaving Fresno for camp in 1971, he married his longtime girlfriend, Connie Gasaway. Their union would produce three children: a daughter Kelli and sons Sean and Chad.
O’Brien arrived at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, as a non-roster player. Even so, he had an outside chance to be in the big leagues in 1971. “We’ve got a boy named Bob O’Brien – we’ve been looking for good left-handed relievers and he should help us,” said Dodgers’ director of player personnel Al Campanis.17 With each spring outing, O’Brien’s chances of making the Dodgers improved. Four innings of one-hit ball against the Cincinnati Reds drew praise from Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager. Underscoring Lasorda’s view, Alston said, “I’m very high on the boy. I like his stuff, but I like his guts even better. I don’t think he’s afraid of anything.”18
O’Brien helped his cause further with three innings of one-hit ball against the California Angels. On the final weekend of spring training, he received a major-league contract, completing what the Spokane Spokesman-Review called a “rapid and spectacular” rise through the Dodgers’ farm system.19
O’Brien’s big-league debut came in the sixth game of the 1971 season. Los Angeles trailed San Diego, 7-5, when Alston called on the now 5’10” 170-pound rookie to pitch the seventh inning. The first batter O’Brien faced, Cito Gaston, hit a home run. The next, slugger Nate Colbert, had already homered twice in the game. O’Brien worked carefully to Colbert and walked him. A wild pitch sent Colbert to second base. O’Brien stopped the bleeding right there, however, by striking out the next three batters he faced. In the eighth inning, his final inning of work, he retired the side in order.
In the weeks that followed, inconsistency – particularly with his curve ball – plagued O’Brien. He got into only two games during the month of May. On June 2, facing Montreal at home, Dodgers starter Bill Singer suffered a groin muscle injury in the second inning. O’Brien was summoned from the bullpen to replace him. Over the next six innings, he was stellar. He allowed just three hits, struck out three, walked two, and gave up one run – a seventh-inning home run by John Bateman off a hanging curveball – as the Dodgers won, 7-1. “It was something I dreamed about as a kid – winning my first major league game. I had looked forward to the day it would come, and it really feels great,” O’Brien said.20
Almost three weeks later, Singer aggravated his injury and O’Brien was called upon to make his first big-league start. It came against the St. Louis Cardinals and their ace, Bob Gibson. O’Brien pitched a complete-game shutout as the Dodgers won, 4-0. He scattered six hits and walked only one. Dodgers catcher Tom Haller said O’Brien “hit the corners well. He was around the plate all night.” Walter Alston again echoed Lasorda in his praise: “I like his moxie; he was tough when it counted.” 21
O’Brien drew another start at home against the Padres four days later. He was knocked out of the box in the second inning, winding up with a no-decision, but Alston still handed him the ball to take his turn in the rotation four days after that in Chicago. Through six innings he allowed five hits and did not walk a batter. The Cubs’ lone run was unearned. In the seventh inning, however, 93-degree heat and high humidity took a toll.22 O’Brien surrendered three consecutive singles and was removed from the game, which the Dodgers eventually lost, 3-2.
O’Brien’s performance earned still another start, one week later on July 6 against the Cubs in Los Angeles. This time he ran into trouble in the third inning. He allowed three runs on four hits and a walk, although an error by shortstop Maury Wills resulted in all three runs being unearned. In the fourth inning, O’Brien got an out, but then gave up two hits and came out of the game. The very next day, Alston brought O’Brien in to pitch the ninth inning against the Cubs. He entered the game with the Dodgers trailing 4-1 and was hit hard. O’Brien surrendered a double, three line-drive singles, and two runs. A ninth-inning Dodger rally fell short as they lost, 6-5.
When the All-Star break arrived, the decision was made to send O’Brien back to the minor leagues. In 14 big-league appearances, including four starts, he won two and lost two and compiled a 3.00 earned-run average, with 15 strikeouts and 13 walks in 42 innings.
Upon joining Spokane, O’Brien pitched a complete-game shutout to beat the slumping Hawaii Islanders, 10-0.23 Unfortunately, this game was not indicative of O’Brien’s performance with the Indians. He remained in a starting role for the rest of the season and in his 10 starts finished with a 3-5 record. His ERA was an unsightly 6.35.
On December 2, while O’Brien was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic with the Licey Tigres, the Dodgers made a major trade with the Baltimore Orioles. They acquired one of the game’s top sluggers, Frank Robinson, along with reliever Pete Richert, in exchange for four prospects: Doyle Alexander, Royle Stillman, Sergio Robles, and O’Brien. “I think Alexander and O’Brien are good major leaguers,” said Chicago White Sox manager Chuck Tanner. “When I managed Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League, I said at the time that I felt they were as good as any pitching prospects in the entire league.”24
In his first spring training with the Orioles, O’Brien impressed. He allowed just one run in 10 innings. “That ain’t bad – not at all,” said Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ manager. “I think Bob O’Brien will be another Dave McNally in time. He’s an intelligent kid with a good assortment of pitches.” 25 O’Brien battled Mickey Scott for the final spot on the pitching staff. The Orioles chose to go with Scott, largely because he was out of options and could not go back to the minor leagues without first being offered to every other club via waivers.
O’Brien was assigned to Rochester, Baltimore’s Triple-A farm club in the International League. Expectations were high. Craig Stolze, sports columnist for the local Democrat and Chronicle, wrote, “Bob O’Brien of Rochester will be among the best left-handed pitchers in the league. He could be the Red Wings’ big winner.”26 That prediction would not pan out.
O’Brien was named the starting pitcher for the Red Wings’ home opener on April 20, 1972, at Silver Stadium. On that afternoon in western New York, he endured conditions unlike any he had faced before. A strong wind and overcast skies kept the temperature at 45 degrees. Fans were wrapped in blankets and overcoats.27 O’Brien was ambushed for three runs in the first inning on a triple and two homers, but recovered to pitch into the sixth inning. He gave up six hits, walked four and was scored upon five times in a 9-6 loss to Charleston. “I wasn’t prepared for a day as cold as today. Next time, if it’s this cold, I’ll have to throw more pitches before the game,” he said.28
In O’Brien’s second start, he struggled with his breaking pitches and was removed without retiring a man while trailing, 2-0.29 Rain hit in the third inning to wash out his third start. A dropped fly ball let in the only run of the game to spoil a three-hit effort against Toledo on May 9.30 The loss left O’Brien with an 0-3 record. O’Brien finally earned his first win by scattering six singles to beat Louisville, 7-1. A week later, the Red Wings made a change.31 Lacking lefthanded relief pitchers, the club moved O’Brien to the bullpen to fill the void.
Things didn’t go well in his new role. “Hanging curves and an unexpected control lapse badgered O’Brien,” who ended the season with a 5-9 record and 4.50 ERA, “We were disappointed. I’m sure Bobby was disappointed too,” said Jack Pastore, the Orioles’ farm system aide who saw O’Brien pitch. “He may be one of those guys who lost a little confidence after being sent down.”32
O’Brien was removed from the Orioles’ 40-man roster.33 The process made him available to every other big-league club through the minor-league draft. None had interest. As spring training concluded and the 1973 season drew near, one of the surprise moves made by the Orioles’ organization involved O’Brien. He had pitched 12 innings in the spring, allowed only two runs, and was the winning pitcher three times.34 In his final camp outing, however, he struggled with his control, walking seven in four innings. “He couldn’t keep his pitches down,” said Carl C. Steinfeldt, the Rochester general manager.35
O’Brien was assigned not to Rochester but to the Orioles’ Double-A club in Asheville, North Carolina. “Cal Ripken Sr. was my manager. He was a great guy. He told me I had angered some people in the organization. He said, ‘They’re burying you.’ So I told them if they didn’t get me out in two weeks I’d quit,” O’Brien recalled.36 Three weeks into the season, the Orioles loaned O’Brien to Minnesota’s Triple-A club, Tacoma (Washington) of the PCL. O’Brien pitched in 32 games for Tacoma, all in relief, going 2-0 with a 4.50 ERA.
In the 1973-74 offseason O’Brien’s contract was purchased by his original club, the Dodgers. He was assigned to their Triple-A club, which by then was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stan Wasiak, the Albuquerque Dukes manager, declared that O’Brien would be the team’s short reliever. But after getting into six games, with an 0-1 record and an 8.50 ERA, O’Brien, who was just 25, decided to walk away from baseball. “I wanted to enjoy being a dad. I wanted to do other things,” he said.37
O’Brien returned to Fresno, where he enjoyed a long career with one of the largest irrigation equipment suppliers in Central California. Though his major league career was brief, in the decades that followed Tommy Lasorda made O’Brien well known on the banquet circuit through frequent recitation of the story of his motivational prowess.
Last revised: September 7, 2023
Thanks to Bob O’Brien for his memories.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Rick Zucker and checked for accuracy by members of SABR’s fact-checking team.
Ancestry.com, BackToBaseball.com, Baseball_Reference.com, Newspapers.com, Retrosheet.org, and The Sporting News.
1 “Bob O’Brien Grabs Hoover Cage Honors,” Fresno Bee, March 14, 1967: 26.
2 “Four Preps Are Added to Exeter All-Star Teams,” Fresno Bee, June 8, 1967: 34.
3 Terry Betterton, “Fever Fails to Slow Down Pates’ O’Brien,” Fresno Bee, May 3, 1967: 43.
4 Terry Betterton, “Hoover’s Myers Tops Metro Team,” Fresno Bee, June 1, 1967: 37.
5 Baseball-Reference.com has shown O’Brien also attending Texas A&M University and the University of Arizona. According to O’Brien himself, this is incorrect. Research reveals another lefty pitcher named Pat O’Brien who pitched for U. of Arizona in the mid-1960s and was drafted by the San Diego Padres in June 1968. A Robert P. O’Brien pitched in the Padres system in 1969 and 1970. This entry appears to have been commingled with Bob O’Brien’s data.
6 Eddie Lopez, “Lamanuzzi Grabs Rams’ Athlete of The Year Award,” Fresno Bee, May 28, 1969: 46.
7 Baseball-reference.com has also shown O’Brien being drafted three other times. This information too is incorrect – see note 5 above.
8 Ensign Ritchie, “Ogden Triumphs in Opener, Plays Single Game Tonight,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, June 19, 1969: 36.
9 Bob Magee, “O’Brien Fans 15, Blanks S. L. 4-0; Contest Tonight,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, July 23, 1969: 14. Don Warner, “O’Brien Tosses Shutout Victory,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, July 31, 1969: 26. Don Warner, “O’Brien Stops Bees; Two Games Tonight,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, August 11, 1969: 8. Don Warner, “Dodgers Stage Comeback, Win Pioneer Loop Title,” Ogden Standard-Examiner,” August 28, 1969: 27.
10 “Dodger Ace Tops Loop in Pitching,” Ogden Standard-Examiner,” September 7, 1969: 18.
11 “4 Dodgers Land Berths on P. L. All-Star Team,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, September 7, 1969: 18.
12 “Dodgers Down Mets on Homer in 16th,” Palm Beach Post, March 29, 1970: 84.
13 Chuck Stewart, “O’Brien Hurls Gritty Shutout,” Spokane Chronicle, June 8, 1970: 23.
14 “Playoff Bound Indians Dominate All-Star Lineup,” (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, September 4, 1970: 6.
15 Chuck Stewart, “O’Brien Hurls Gritty Shutout.”
16 Tim Kurkjian, “Tommy Lasorda loved the Dodgers and loved being Tommy Lasorda,” ESPN.com, January 8, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/30331870/tommy-lasorda-loved-dodgers-loved-being-tommy-lasorda.
17 Bill Sargent, “Dodgers’ Good Pitch-No Hit Image Shedding with Advent of Sluggers,” Florida Today, February 15, 1971: 1C.
18 Ross Newhan, “Dodgers Drop Plans to Trade Haller; Jeff Torborg on Waivers,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1971: 44.
19 “Strahler Coming; Steve Sogge Sold,” Spokesman-Review, April 4, 1971: 43.
20 “Bobby O’Brien is new Dodger hero,” Lompoc Record, June 3, 1971: 13.
21 “O’Brien Stacks Cards,” Fresno Bee, June 22, 1971: 10.
22 Ross Newhan, “Beckert’s Pain ‘Hurts’ Dodgers, 3-2,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1971: 51.
23 “Big Rally Sends Bevos to Narrow PC Victory,” Daily Chronicle (Centralia, Washington), July 14, 1971: 9.
24 Jim Elliot, “McNally set again after washout,” Baltimore Sun, May 10, 1972: 25.
25 Jim Elliot, “Orioles cut O’Brien, Coggins from roster,” Baltimore Sun, March 31, 1972: 25.
26 Craig Stolze, “Red Wings Weaker,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), April 13, 1972: 53.
27 Jim Castor, “Postponement a Few Raindrops Away,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 21, 1972: 36.
28 Bob Matthews, “Wings Warm Up to Right Field Fence,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 21, 1972: 35.
29 “Richmond Stops Wings, 8-4,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 28, 1972: 37.
30 “Red Wings Gain Split with Hens,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 10, 1972: 51.
31 “Wings Wallop Colonels, 7-1,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 15, 1972: 33
32 Lou Hatter, “Orioles Re-Value Robbie Deal, See Only a Giant Plus,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1972: 39.
33 Jim Elliot, “Orioles keep ‘future stock,’ drop Davis and Shopay from roster,” Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1972: 25.
34 Jim Castor, “Wings Reach Roster Limit by Cutting 8,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 8, 1973: 233.
35 Jim Castor, “Wings Reach Roster Limit by Cutting 8.”
36 Bob O’Brien, conversation with the author on December 15, 2022.
37 O’Brien conversation.