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Tommy Lasorda’s Death Starts a Conversation About His Son

The Dodgers manager loved Tommy Jr., but publicly denied that he was gay and that he died of AIDS complications. Friends of both men hope to remember them by discussing their relationship.

When Penelope Spheeris heard that Tommy Lasorda died on Friday at 93, she knew many people would be touched by the sad news, particularly in Los Angeles. The city has long been her home and it is also where Lasorda became a baseball icon, leading the Dodgers to two World Series titles during his Hall of Fame career.

But Spheeris’s mind quickly turned to someone else in the Lasorda family that she had known and missed: his son, Tommy Jr., known as Spunky, who was gay and died in 1991 at 33 from complications from AIDS. She cried.

“I always felt that it should be more public that Sr. had a son that was gay and gorgeous and everything that Tommy was,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday. “He was a very, very memorable person.”

There is much to remember about Tommy Lasorda Sr.’s long life in the public eye: his outsized personality, his profane humor, his success leading teams, his decorated career, his charitable side and his burning love of the Dodgers. In recent days, others have also been discussing and learning about another part of Lasorda’s story — his relationship with his son — and what it said about society and baseball culture at the time.

“My son wasn’t gay,” Lasorda told Peter Richmond, who wrote about the duo’s complicated relationship for GQ magazine in 1992, in some of his few public comments about his son.

“No way,” he continued, with some expletives sprinkled in. “No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a monkey, too. That’s not the truth.”

Lasorda also rankled at reports that his son was an AIDS patient. He told Richmond, “I don’t care what people … I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”

In a recent commentary piece for the Los Angeles Blade, Karen Ocamb, a former news editor for the publication, claimed that Lasorda had once acknowledged at a charity event that his son was gay and that he had died of AIDS. Lasorda’s family did not respond to a request from The Times seeking comment.

Spheeris, 75, was glad more people were talking about Tommy Jr. because the topic was more hush-hush at the time. She said Tommy Jr. didn’t want people talking about his sexuality either, because he wanted to protect his father’s wishes. She found that sad but said Tommy Jr. did not resent his father over it.

Spheeris, a director who made such films as “Wayne’s World” and “Suburbia,” got to know Tommy Jr. in Los Angeles in the 1980s. They met at a punk rock club.

“I remember really clearly the moment I first saw him: he was sitting alone on the edge of a sofa and everybody in there was like all punk and they were all dressed in black, but he was wearing a white suit,” she said. “I know it sounds weird, but he had kind of a glow around him.”

Tom Lasorda received many tributes after the news of his death spread on Friday. The pylons at Los Angeles International Airport were illuminated in “Dodger Blue.”
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

They became fast friends, hanging out at his apartment in West Hollywood or in the nearby clubs. She called him a sweet, gentle and loving person with an impeccable sense of style. She said one reason she related so much to him was because her own brother, who was killed by a drunken driver in 1984, was gay, and many of his friends died of AIDS complications because the medical treatments were not as advanced as they are now.

Spheeris said Tommy Jr. and his father loved each other. Tommy Jr. would be excited to meet his father for a meal or at Dodger Stadium, where he would sit in the dugout before games.

“He told me he liked going because he could flirt with the guys,” she said, laughing. “But he could never say that to his dad obviously.”

She added later: “I don’t want to be mad at Tommy Lasorda Sr. I don’t want to be mad at somebody who just passed away and somebody that everybody loves. What I’m going to be mad at is the culture that allows that kind of thinking. That’s what I don’t like. Could you imagine? It was such a struggle between the two of them to try and balance keeping Sr.’s. legacy and career on track while having a gay son in such an environment where people just have no tolerance for gay people.”

While his father was the Dodgers’ manager, Tommy Jr. befriended Glenn Burke, an outfielder on the team, which strained Burke’s relationship with his boss. Burke is the first player in Major League Baseball history to come out to his teammates during his playing career. He came out publicly in 1982.

Associated Press

Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ general manager at the time, offered Burke bonus money if he married — something he later said was not a bribe but because the Dodgers encouraged family stability and maturity on their roster. (Campanis was fired in 1987 for racist comments he made about Black people in a television interview.) Burke, who was Black, turned down the offer.

Burke was traded to the Oakland Athletics in May 1978, an unpopular move in the Dodgers clubhouse. Two of Burke’s teammates, Davey Lopes and Dusty Baker, later said Burke was traded because he was gay. In the 2010 documentary “Out: The Glenn Burke Story,” former Athletics teammate Claudell Washington said manager Billy Martin introduced Burke to his new team with a homophobic slur.

Since then, a few more players, umpires and officials have come out. The most prominent: Billy Bean, who became M.L.B.’s first ambassador of inclusion after his playing days. Still, in recent years, several players, like Kevin Pillar and Yunel Escobar, and the broadcaster Thom Brennaman had to apologize for their use of homophobic slurs.

But baseball’s culture has progressed since Lasorda’s days, said Dave Pallone, a former M.L.B. umpire who said he was fired in 1988 for being gay. He came out publicly soon after and wrote a book titled “Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball.” He said attitudes in the sport slowly began changing as more people come out publicly.

“Hopefully that helped to move the tide along and maybe baseball culture will get better,” Pallone said. “And with the younger people playing in the game, and younger people in management, that the game will change as far as openness toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and it won’t be so tough for fathers and mothers who are part of the game of baseball to accept their sons and daughters.”

Photofest
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Pallone, 69, said this in a phone interview on Friday evening, the same day Lasorda died of a sudden cardiopulmonary arrest. Pallone considered Lasorda a friend and mourned his loss. He had fond memories of their time together during and after their on-field days; Lasorda came on Pallone’s radio show once and told him that he should never have lost his umpiring job.

Pallone, though, said he never talked to Lasorda about his coming out in 1990. Nor did he ever speak to Lasorda about his son following Tommy Jr.’s death. Pallone, who used to see Tommy Jr. at games, didn’t feel like it was his place to broach the subject.

“There was no question that he had a difficult time with it,” Pallone said about Lasorda. “But on the other side of that coin, Tommy was very generous person outside of the baseball field. We had our differences on the field, but he was also fair. He was generous off the field. If he could help you with something, he would do it. So you try to look at the whole picture, especially then when I was a closeted gay man. Even though I knew in my heart what was going on, I also wanted to try, just like I do now, and look at the whole person.”

Pallone said that although Lasorda’s public comments about his son were horrible, he attributed Lasorda’s attitude to, among other things, a macho culture, a generational gap, a Catholic background “and him being Italian, like my father was Italian.” He added, “It’s a hard thing to accept a son’s sexual orientation when it isn’t what you’re used to.”

When Tommy Jr. died, Lasorda, his wife and their daughter were at his side, a family spokesman told The Los Angeles Times at the time. Lasorda was absent from the team for three days. He later told G.Q. that he cried a lot about his son’s death but never around the team.

“I had him for 33 years,” Lasorda told the magazine. “Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I could have seen God, and God said to me, ‘I’m going to give you a son for 33 years and take him away after 33 years,’ I’d have said, ‘Give him to me.’”

Pallone said he believed Lasorda funneled his grief into his charitable work, often geared toward helping youth. In 1997, Lasorda and his wife donated $500,000 through the Thomas Lasorda Jr. Memorial Foundation to maintain a public gym in Yorba Linda, Calif., not far from where they lived. The facility was renamed the Thomas Lasorda Jr. Field House.

Pallone, who became a motivational speaker giving presentations on diversity to companies, schools and teams, said he had brought up Lasorda’s story in his talks.

“The story is that you don’t close doors on your family,” Pallone said. “You just can’t close doors, period, because you never know how it’s going to hurt you. And that’s what happened with Tommy.”

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