San Bruno baseball legend Tom Lara, the founding father of Joe DiMaggio League youth baseball, has died. He was 89.
Lara died July 17, joining his beloved wife Connie of 69 years, who passed away November 15, 2013. Lara passed away at his San Bruno home surrounded by his family. He is survived by his three children, Tom III, Linda and Paul.
An Oakland native, Lara founded the Joe DiMaggio League in 1967 along with local baseball aficionados Charlie Ellis and Carl Vallero. Through the sponsorship of several local businesses, Lara started his first team, the Merchant Rams, from which San Bruno youth baseball blossomed at San Bruno Park.
“I always knew where to find my dad,” his youngest son Paul said. “I’d just go down to the field and hang out with all the players. It was a home away from home.”
On June 11, 1988, the main diamond at San Bruno Park was dedicated to Lara and named “Tom Lara Field.”
“It was always Tom Lara’s field,” Former San Bruno manager Lee Graf said. “It was only a matter of time before it was named for him.”
When Lara founded the now famed Joe DiMaggio League, it was one of three teams he started at San Bruno Park; in doing so, he utilized each of the facility’s three baseball diamonds. He started a Midget League team for ages 11-12, a Teener League team for ages 13-14, and the Joe D. team for ages 16-18.
“What happened on the field was left on the field,” Paul said. “That’s what I loved about my father.”
A World War II veteran, Lara gained the sponsorship of the San Bruno Lions to grow the local baseball teams. Soon he enlisted the sponsorship of the club Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2517, which still sponsors San Bruno Joe DiMaggio to this day.
Growing up in Oakland, Lara excelled in baseball from an early age. He attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School before transferring to McClymonds High School, from which he graduated in the early 1940s.
According to his daughter Linda, Lara had an opportunity to pursue a career in professional baseball, but instead chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
“The Yankees wanted to draft him at the time because they saw how good he was,” Linda said. “But he decided to go into the Navy.”
In 1944, while on shore leave in San Diego, Lara set out on an extraordinary journey to marry his high school sweetheart, Connie.
The two originally met at the Portola Fox movie theater in Oakland. According to Linda, it was love at first sight when Lara met Connie in the lobby. He resorted to sitting behind her in the theater and pulling her ponytail to get her attention and the two soon began dating. It was after Lara enlisted in the Navy that they intended to marry.
Because the two were still teenagers, they could not legally marry in California, where at the time the required age to marry was 21. So, the couple planned to elope in Arizona. According to Linda, Connie made the trip to San Diego to meet Lara, but arrived a day before he was due to port. So, he made arrangements for her to stay at a friend’s house. Because she had never met the friend, however, Connie insisted on spending the night by sleeping at the airport.
The couple still met the next day as planned and on September 24, 1944 they were married. After Lara was discharged from the Navy, they lived in Oakland for several years before relocating to San Bruno.
In 2013, after a battle with cancer, Connie passed away shortly after the two celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary.
“When Connie passed away — she did so much for him — it just took a lot of his energy away,” Graf said.
Graf recalled the opportunity to coach with Lara from 2000-02, and credited him with being one of the most influential figures in local baseball coaching.
“He told me how to do things the right way,” Graf said. “He was so interesting. He had a way with people. He knew how to treat people the right way so he could get the most out of his players.”
According to Paul, the culmination of Lara’s dedication to the sport was in the main field at San Bruno Park being named after him.
“It was the most exciting and triumphant time,” Paul said. “He felt like he was on top of the world.”
Services will be held later this week at St. Robert’s Church, across the street from San Bruno Park. Rosary service is open to the public and will begin Thursday at 7 p.m. A memorial mass will be held Friday at noon. Following Friday’s service, a reception will be held at San Bruno Park. An exhibition game in honor of Lara will be played between San Bruno Joe DiMaggio and Daly City Joe DiMaggio Friday at Tom Lara Field. First pitch is scheduled for approximately 2:30 p.m.