Tommy Lasorda has done a lot of good for Dodger baseball, that’s undeniable. But as the tributes come in, as players describe him as their “baseball dad”, I find it hard not to think of one of his biggest shortcomings.
Tommy Lasorda had a gay son. And he never publicly admitted that. Tommy Lasorda, Jr., died of complications of AIDS in 1991. Tommy, Sr., never publicly admitted that. And that decision has had ramifications that still echo through the baseball world today.
When players extol how much Lasorda Senior did for their career, I think about Glenn Burke, a gay player traded away from the Dodgers, likely because of his friendship with Lasorda Junior. Burke was sent to the Athletics, a team that didn’t accept him at all the way the Dodgers locker room did. I think about Burke saying that his time with the Dodgers was the best time of his life. About how baseball excluded him because of his sexual orientation. About how that started not in the Dodger clubhouse, but the Dodger front office. I think about how the high five, a celebration Burke started with Dusty Baker, was embraced by the Dodgers marketing team but the player who invented it was not.
I think about what baseball might look like if Tommy Lasorda had been an advocate instead of a denier of his son’s sexual orientation.
A Loving Father, A Doting Son
Tommy, Jr. was a chip off the old block in a lot of respects, just as loud and flamboyant as his father was, with the added dash of sartorial pageantry. Gregarious, funny, and able to hold a crowd spellbound in a story. He loved the Dodgers almost as much as his father did. He attended nearly every home game and had regular calls from Tommy, Sr., while on the road. Steve Garvey said that Tommy Junior was a better hitter than Tommy Senior, though without the added benefit throwing a curveball like his dad.
According to those that knew Tommy, Jr., the Lasordas were good parents, kind and gracious to all of his friends. The two Tommys had by all accounts a loving if at times complicated relationship. Tommy, Jr., wanted to be his own person, but still wanted to make his father proud. One friend said, “I think he wanted to make his father happy but he didn’t know how. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how. He wanted to please his dad.”
On June 3, 1991, when Tommy, Jr., died, his father, mother, and sisters were by his side. Whatever folks say about his denials, no one says that Tommy Lasorda, Sr., didn’t love and support his son. Which makes it somehow more frustrating to know that he couldn’t acknowledge his son’s gayness.
Player Stats by Average
In the 2020 season, there were 1,026 major league roster slots. According to UCLA Williams Institute, 3.6% of men in the US identify as gay. That means if baseball demographics keep close to the US percentages, we might have seen as many as 36 gay men play ball this summer. But we wouldn’t know that for sure even if it was so, because not one single gay player has come out during their professional career.
Players like Glenn Burke and Billy Bean, as well as umpires like Dave Pallone, none of them were able to come out publicly during their time with MLB. Despite umpire Dale Scott having his long-time partner Mike Rausch listed as his official same-sex domestic partner and Mike having the same ID and privileges that all umpire spouses do, he didn’t publicly come out as gay until 2014.*
This is in no way a dig at these men, but rather an inditement of the atmosphere they worked in. I think their career-long silence says everything we need to know about being gay in Major League Baseball.
We know that there are gay men working in the MLB domain. We know that Erik Braverman, the Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications & Broadcasting for the Dodgers, has come out as gay. It stands to reason, percentages-wise, that there is likely a gay man playing on the field this season. And if there’s not…
If there’s not one single gay man on a major league roster – then Major League Baseball has a Major League discrimination issue.
By 1991, when Tommy Lasorda, Jr., passed away, Dale Scott was working as an American League umpire for five years already. He had been seeing his partner Mike for five years as well. It would be roughly 23 years before Dale would feel comfortable enough to admit it publicly. Billy Bean was in the minors for the Dodgers in 1991, yet he didn’t reveal he was gay until 1999, four years after he retired.
What could their lives have been like if the great Tommy Lasorda had acknowledged his son was gay? That being gay was ok in baseball? Imaging for just a second if he had been even half as enthusiastic, or even just baseline accepting, of his son’s sexual orientation as he was the Dodgers. Imagine what it would mean for a gay child to know that one of the greats had his back. That a legend would be accepting of him in a sport he loved. Would we now see openly gay players in the league? In a time when Jackie Robinson was still sitting in the stands in Dodger Stadium, when baseball was decades past racial integration (though admittedly not past racial tensions), could Lasorda’s influence have changed the sport in a similar way for gay men?
Tommy Lasorda, Sr., is one of the greats, no doubt. And his accomplishments should be lauded. But we have to take an even-keeled look at him, in death and in life, to see the whole picture. We can be inspired by his enthusiasm, his stories, his example. We’re also allowed to be disappointed by what we don’t see – advocation for his own son’s orientation or even just the ability to admit what really happened.
We can be inspired and still want to strive for more in our next generation of heroes. That’s ok.
I don’t think this tears down the Tommy Lasorda legend – the father, the mentor, the storyteller. But to leave out this part of the story does a disservice to the son he loved right until his dying day.
* the first publishing of this had Dale Scott’s career timeline incorrect. Scott came out in 2014 and was a Major League umpire until 2017.
For more on Tommy Lasorda, Jr.: The Brief Life and Complicated Death of Tommy Lasorda’s Gay Son
For more reading on what this means to gay athletes, John Casey Editor at Large for The Advocate.