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Remembering Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers Legend Who Cast a Long Shadow

The longtime manager and baseball lifer died at age 93

Ringer illustration

Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda died Thursday at the age of 93. While the news of his death was hardly shocking—he’d been suffering from cardiopulmonary issues that kept him hospitalized from early November until his final days—the loss of such a titanic figure nonetheless rattled the baseball world.

Lasorda’s career began in 1945, when the Norristown, Pennsylvania, native signed with the Phillies as an amateur free agent at age 17. He joined the Dodgers as a minor league pitcher after the 1948 season, and apart from a year-and-a-half sabbatical with the A’s and Yankees in 1956 and 1957, Lasorda remained with the organization for the rest of his life—as a player, minor league manager, coach, big league manager, interim GM, vice president, and most recently a special adviser.

Few people have embodied an organization the way Lasorda came to define the Dodgers. He played with Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, and coached third base under manager Walter Alston. He handed big league debuts to Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo, and Pedro Martínez. In 1988 alone, Lasorda oversaw Orel Hershiser’s 59 consecutive scoreless innings, called on Kirk Gibson to pinch hit in Game 1 of the World Series, and did childhood friend Vince Piazza a solid by spending a 62nd-round pick on his son, Mike, then a junior college first baseman.

Lasorda’s Dodgers won the World Series that year, his second and the franchise’s most recent until Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, and Co. finally muscled the team over the line last October. In parts of 21 big league seasons, Lasorda led his clubs to 1,599 wins, 22nd-most all time. Only two managers won more games while managing only one club in their careers: Alston, Lasorda’s predecessor, and Mike Scioscia, his protégé.

In those 21 seasons, and long after, Lasorda became not just one of the most respected and successful managers in baseball, but also a totemic cultural figure. Stocky and pugnacious, avuncular and florid, Lasorda was the managerial archetype: an inspirational leader, a walking folk dictionary, a committed teacher, and an evangelist for the national pastime. Lasorda achieved legendary status even before his career was over, as a sort of fin de siècle John McGraw or Casey Stengel.

Lasorda’s last on-field contribution to the game came as manager of the U.S. team that won gold at the 2000 Olympics, a sort of emeritus appointment that put a tidy bow on such an influential career. But he never strayed far from the field. In the hours after Lasorda’s death became public knowledge, tributes poured in from longtime friends and colleagues, former players, and even Dick Vitale. Many Hall of Famers are so eulogized. What’s less common are the stories like Ross Stripling’s, who recalled the time Lasorda told him, then an anonymous rookie ball pitcher, that he’d make the majors. Or the one Angels GM Perry Minasian told about his father, Zack, a longtime big league clubhouse attendant who got his start when Lasorda hired him to help run the minor league clubhouse in Ogden, Utah, in 1966. Or the story about Lasorda, at age 89, dropping in on the LSU baseball team to talk shop and hand out pointers at batting practice.

Lasorda wasn’t just a Hall of Fame manager; he was everywhere, like baseball’s version of Waldo or the Holy Spirit. Few have cast such a colossal shadow over the game.

Glenn Burke died on May 30, 1995, from complications from AIDS.

Burke played 225 games over four major league seasons, a little more than half of them as a reserve outfielder for the Dodgers in the late 1970s. On the last day of the 1977 regular season, as the Dodgers were on the verge of clinching their first pennant under Lasorda, Dusty Baker hit a home run, and Burke greeted him with what’s now considered to be the first high five in history.

Immensely popular with his teammates, Burke also befriended Lasorda’s son, Tom Jr. The younger Lasorda was a prominent figure in the gay social scene in Los Angeles, and his friendship with Burke soured the relationship between player and manager. Before the 1978 season, Dodgers GM Al Campanis offered Burke a bonus if he got married. (Campanis is most famous for going on Nightline in 1987 for the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut and telling Ted Koppel that Black people didn’t have the mental capacity to become field managers or general managers.) Campanis traded Burke to Oakland that May; a 2014 New York Times article cites Baker and Davey Lopes among the Dodgers players who believed Burke was traded because he was gay.

Tom Lasorda Jr. died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, at the age of 33. A year later, Peter Richmond wrote an extensive article for GQ about the complicated relationship between the Dodgers manager and his late son. Therein, Richmond recounted a conversation in which the elder Lasorda, laboring under immense grief, articulated his reluctance to express his feelings in front of his team or even his extended family.

“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he told Richmond.

It’s a moving statement, in its own way. In regarding public displays of grief or emotion as weakness, Lasorda is not particularly unusual, let alone unique. To people of a certain gender and generation, it’s the default, and within that context Lasorda’s grief still bled through the page.

But when Richmond asked Lasorda whether having a gay son was difficult, the conversation turned.

“My son wasn’t gay,” Lasorda told Richmond. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”

Lasorda told Richmond that the medical report stated that his son died of pneumonia, which is only partially true. It also lists pneumonitis as the cause of death, due to “probable acquired immune deficiency syndrome.”

Lasorda never publicly reversed either statement about his son.

In 1980, the A’s hired another accomplished, big-name manager, Billy Martin, who reportedly introduced Burke to his new teammates by using a homophobic slur. Burke played his last MLB game that year, citing injuries as his reason for retiring at age 27. In 1982, Burke came out in an interview with Inside Sports magazine.

Over the past decade, MLB and the wider baseball community have sought to remember Burke as a trailblazer, the kind of forerunner who might inspire a player who comes out during his career, and not after. But living in the closet takes a toll, particularly when the people who can decide one’s future are so obviously hostile to one’s identity. Burke briefly walked away from the A’s in 1979 before retiring for good a year later, and told Inside Sports that injuries alone did not derail his career.

“I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing,” said Burke. “But put it all together, and it was too much.”

The myriad tributes to Lasorda after his death illustrate just how many players—and others throughout the game—Lasorda impacted in his 70-odd years in baseball. Early in his career, Burke felt a similarly strong bond with Lasorda, according to a 2011 ESPN the Magazine story on the origin of the high-five. But that story also connects Burke’s relationship with Lasorda’s son to the deterioration of his relationship with his manager.

“Glenn had such an abundance of respect and love for Tommy Lasorda,” Lutha Davis, Burke’s sister, told writer Jon Mooallem. “When things went bad at the end, it was almost like a father turning his back on his son.”

A big shadow is the product of mass, of stature, of gravitas. But it also blocks out the light.