If you wanted to be known and if you wanted to be seen in the 1960s, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was the place to be.
Every U.S. President from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon stayed there. The Rolling Stones hung out at the pool.
The hotel was most famous for its nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, where the biggest names through the year performed, including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Marilyn Monroe and The Supremes.
Tom Lasorda, then a young and up and coming baseball manager, loved to go to the Grove. He became best of friends with the hotel’s catering manager, Eddie Minasian.
Minasian was working at the Ambassador on June 5, 1968, the night when U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Minasian and Karl Uecker, a maitre d’, were responsible for escorting Kennedy through the hotel kitchen immediately after winning the California primary. It was there, near the serving pantry, that Sirhan Sirhan pulled out a .22 caliber and began firing.
Minasian and Uecker flew towards Sirhan and slammed him against a table, but the shots kept coming.
Kennedy was pronounced dead 26 hours later.
Zack Minasian remembers awakening to the news on TV, seeing reports that five others were shot, and not knowing if his dad was one of them. His dad called at 4 in the morning from the police station, saying he had to give a statement and assuring his son that he was Ok.
“That experience changed his life forever,’’ Minasian said. “He was never the same. He never talked about it. Not one word to me. Not a single word.
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“There were a lot of conspiracy theories going around that there was more than one shooter. Tommy (Lasorda) suggested to him that maybe he should leave the state. He took off in 1970, moved to St. Louis, and never said why. Maybe he knew something, I don’t know. It made no sense.
“But something sure made my dad leave quickly.’’
Eddie Minasian moved to Chicago in 1972, ran the Continental Plaza, which turned into the Westin Hotel on Michigan Ave., becoming friends with the scouts and baseball teams that often stayed at the popular hotel. He opened Ditka’s Restaurant, too. He died in 1990 at the age of 59.
Now, more than a half-century later, a relationship that began with Lasorda and Eddie Minasian, and extended to Minasian’s teenage son, Zack, and young Dodgers outfield prospect Bobby Valentine in the summer of 1968, is responsible for producing one of this generation’s first families of baseball.
Zack and Barbara, his wife of 47 years, have three sons in baseball. Perry is the new general manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Zack is the pro scouting director of the San Francisco Giants. Calvin is the Atlanta Braves clubhouse and equipment manager. And the oldest, son, Rudy is an attorney in Chicago who helps former players with estate planning.
“If not for Tommy and Bobby,’’ Minasian, 69, said, “I’m not sure any of us are ever in baseball. They were the ones who opened the door for me, and that gave the opportunity for my sons. We owe everything to them.’’
The Minasian baseball family tree began in 1966 when the Los Angeles Dodgers hired Lasorda to become manager of their summer rookie-league team in Ogden, Utah. Lasorda needed someone to help run his clubhouse. He picked Eddie Minasian’s 13-year-old son, Zack, who had his summer free.
They spent the next three summers together, staying at the Ben Loman Hotel in Ogen for $1 a night. In the summer of 1968, along came Valentine, a hot outfield prospect from Southern Cal. Valentine and Lasorda forged a father-son relationship, while Valentine and Minasian became best friends.
Valentine, while being recruited to Southern Cal, actually met Eddie Minasian a couple years earlier at the Cocoanut Grove. It was on his recruiting trip that Southern Cal provided a date for Valentine, instructed them go to the backdoor of the Cocoanut, where Minasian led him to a front row table to watch The Supremes.
“Everyone knew Eddie,’’ Valentine said. “He ran the place. And it was the place to be. Everyone associated with the Dodgers went there. Tommy was trying to be a somebody. Really, it’s where it all started.’’
It was the summer of ’68, with Lasorda managing an Ogden team featuring Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek and Valentine, that became legendary in Dodger folklore.
“We had these awful, 10-to-12 hour bus rides,’’ Minasian said. “When we drove into a truck stop, Tommy told me to go inside the restaurant and tell them we got 25 guys on the bus. I’d go inside and tell them that we’d eat there if you provide a free meal to me and my manager.
“If they turned me down, I’d come back on the bus, and say, ‘Sorry guys, they’re closing,’ and go onto the next truck stop a few hours away and do the same thing. It went on like this all summer.’’
They went their separate ways after the ’68 season. Valentine went to the big leagues with the Dodgers. Lasorda was promoted to become the Dodgers’ Class AAA manager in Spokane, Washington. And Minasian graduated from high school, worked two years as a Dodgers bat boy, was planning to be Lasorda’s clubhouse manager in the Dominican Republic in the winter of 1973, only to stop off in Chicago to see his parents when he met Barbara at a church social. He never made it to the Dominican. He married Barbara six months later, moved to Chicago and became a retail packing product salesman.
It was in 1988 when the Texas Rangers had a trip into Milwaukee with Valentine as manager, and Minasian met him for lunch. Minasian conceded that he was disgruntled at work, and was open for change. Valentine told him about a job opportunity. He could run his new restaurant in Arlington, Texas, for a few minutes, but there was about to be an opening for the visiting clubhouse manager. He’d be perfect.
Minasian jumped on it. He flew to Texas, bought a home without his wife even seeing it. Headed back to Chicago. Loaded up the van with the four kids. And was off to renew his first love in a baseball clubhouse.
“I think back to how everything fell into place,” he said. “How blessed are we? If Bobby and (former Rangers GM) Tom Grieve didn’t offer me that job, I don’t know what I would have been doing.’’
Certainly, without Valentine, perhaps no Minasian is even involved in baseball today. He was the one responsible for luring Minasian back into baseball, and with Minasian working the clubhouse, the kids took full advantage of their surroundings.
“I think these kids were born to be successful,’’ Valentine says. “They were lucky to be born to a spectacular mother and father. And because of their dad’s relationship with Tommy, I got to know Zack.”