I was a rabid baseball fan growing up. I even won baseball trivia contests. I could name every MVP in history, both American and National leagues, Cy Young winners, World Series winners. I was an encyclopedia and my young head was chock full of statistics.
First and foremost, since I was from Pittsburgh, I was a Pirates fan. And, after Pirates’ great Roberto Clemente died, I had to search for new favorite ballplayer, and a year or two after Clemente’s death, Steve Garvey, the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers burst onto the scene, becoming the first write-in to earn a spot on the All-Star team mid-season in 1974, and at the end of the year, garnering the MVP award.
In the process, I became a Dodgers fan. At the time of Garvey’s ascension to prominence, the Dodgers were managed by long-time veteran Walter Alston, and in 1976, he was replaced by the colorful and showy Tommy Lasorda. I liked Lasorda a lot, for most of my life, until some years ago, I heard the back-story about him and his son, and my attitude progressively changed. Lasorda died on Friday at the age of 93, so I began to think about my complicated relationship with him, and his vehement denial of his gay son.
Garvey was a good-looking guy, but interestingly enough, I don’t recall ever having any sort of a crush on him or any of the Major League players growing up, so my interests were purely platonic. And of course, back in the '70s and early '80s, I wouldn’t admit to anything like that. I even had the occasion to meet Garvey several times as a teenager, and as an adult, and even on those occasions, I didn’t have a sexual interest in him. Was I simply in denial?
It appears there was one person in strong denial all his life and that was Lasorda. I’m going off of memory here, so my facts might be a bit mixed up, but I do know that Tommy Lasorda, Jr. befriended the first out baseball player (he came out after he retired) Glenn Burke, while Burke played for the Dodgers. While he was on the team, it was known that Burke was gay, and that Lasorda didn’t like him because of his sexuality. So, Burke started the friendship with the junior Lasorda, and it raised eyebrows and ire at that time, as it most certainly would have in the mid-1970s in professional sports.
Sadly, Burke died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 41. He was preceded in death by Tommy Lasorda, Jr. who died in 1991, and the cause of his death was attributed to pneumonia. I remember when he died. He was young, and because his father was his father, I did not connect the cause of death with AIDS. I blindly thought the young Lasorda just got tragically sick, but rumors abounded after he died about the real cause of his death, and about his sexuality.
One person who would not admit to this speculation, that he was gay and that he died of AIDS, was his father. I was in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, I can’t remember the exact date, but I was having a conversation with some close friends at a party after I had just come out, and they told me what they heard about Tommy, Jr., and that his father said it wasn’t true. So, I believed his father, because at that time a manly, combative man like Lasorda could not have possibly had a gay son, and one who died of AIDS.
I completely forgot about the whole thing for a few years until former Major Leaguer Billy Bean came out in 1999, and I dove right in trying to read all about it, and about him. I knew Bean well when I was hooked on baseball. He played for the Dodgers, so I was at first filled with disbelief, and then with excitement. Perhaps it’s because that was the first time that I looked at Bean as a man, not a baseball player, and I thought he was hot. I had crossed the line.
I also came across the Lasorda story again while reading all about Bean, since most stories referenced Burke, and Lasorda’s son, and I began to question Lasorda Senior’s explanation. It seemed quite plausible that he did have a gay son who may have died of AIDS. I was disappointed that someone as jovial, honest, and forthright like Lasorda would dispute the authenticity of his son. That seemed so out of character. Or was it?
Tommy Lasorda Sr. spent his entire life in baseball, and as I grew older and learned more about his politics, and his past, I became less enthralled. A few years ago, as baseball was dealing with racial tensions, like other sports, some were calling on the Dodgers to sever ties with Lasorda because he supported former Dodger General Manager Al Campanis when, in the late ‘80s Campanis said that Black people “lacked the necessities” to be managers and front-office executives. Lasorda never back-tracked from that support.
And he never back-tracked from denying his son. Lasorda was entitled to his personal life, and his opinions and the privacy of his feelings, yet at a time when it would have helped so many of us to understand more about the real Tommy, Jr., that never happened, and I’m really sad about that. Even more so, as society changed, and our community became more accepted and as HIV became a manageable disease, and those who fought the battle and lost their lives during the early days of the AIDS pandemic have rightly been called heroes, Lasorda never wavered.
Lasorda professed to loving his son, and was grateful that he had him for 31 years – he did say that much, but as a famous person, and one who was bombastically in the spotlight, just imagine how Lasorda could have helped in those dark days by sharing his story? By putting a face to a scourge at a time when the scourge was so faceless? By ending the rumors, which did more harm than good, by coming forward with the truth? By admitting that denial was wrong, and acknowledging that there was nothing wrong with his son being gay, and nothing dishonorable about dying from AIDS? In a nutshell, could Lasorda have done more at such a consequential and critical time?
Tommy Lasorda was more than a baseball manager. He was an A-lister from the celebrity capital of Los Angeles in the 1970s through the 1990s, and he no doubt came from a generation, and from a profession, that thought being gay was weak, and dying of AIDS was shameful. Perhaps the lesson we can learn from Tommy Lasorda is that the days of denial and obfuscation about who you are seem almost antiquated, and hopefully are heading toward extinction.
There’s a new generation of coaches today, like San Diego Loyal coach Landon Donovan, who pulled his team off the field after one of his players was subjected to a homophobic slur. For this generation of young kids, that’s a real lesson in authenticity and integrity that is far superior to the dark days of the past where humiliation and denial cloaked honesty.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate, a sister publication of Plus.