Tommy Lasorda’s Death Starts a Conversation About His Son


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.”

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.”

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.”

“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.”

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.”



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