Ron Luciano on Life as an Umpire in the 1970s
A few months ago, the memory of devouring Ron Lucianoâ€™s four collections of tales and anecdotes from his umpiring days when I was a kid led me to look up the story of his suicide in 1995, 15 years and one month ago today. In the process, I discovered a long interview he gave back in 1982, soon after his The Umpire Strikes Back book came out and became a best-seller. I thought the Seamheads audience might want to hear what Luciano told the Christian Science Monitor about the business of umpiring in the late â€˜60s and â€˜70s. Here’s Ron talking about the not so glorious days.
Luciano on Earl Weaver and meeting him on the field in 1965: “The first night I ever met Earl Weaver in the minors. I ejected him in the third inning. The next night, I threw him out in the second inning. The third night, he didn’t last through the first inning.
“On the fourth night, Weaver came to home plate with the lineup card and said, â€˜Are you going to be as horsebleep tonight as you were the other three nights?’ So I threw him out before the game ever began. And our relationship has been going downhill ever since.
”I don’t poke fun at anyone [in the book] but Earl. Before we went to press, I got the galleys and went to Earl and said, ‘Let me know if there’s anything you don’t like in there. His reply was, ‘What are you, nuts? You treated me twice as bad on the field. This is nice.’
”He also said probably 30 percent of the book was fiction. And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. The part where I say you will go directly from the dugout to the Hall of Fame — fiction. The part where I say for 11 years you were one of the best managers I’d ever seen — fiction. The part. . . .’ ”
About his showmanship: ”People ask me all the time if I stood in front of a mirror to practice these calls. Look at this body and look at this face (a face made for radio, he calls it); would you stand in front of a mirror? Of course not. Everything I did out there was spontaneous. If the third baseman made a diving play, it was never just, ‘he’s out;’ it was ‘Oh boy, what a super, terrific play!’
”I might fool around on a wide open play when the score is 6-0 in the eighth, but not in a 1-1 extra-inning game. There’s a lot of difference, but they could never see that. Look, a double play takes 3.8 seconds, and even as dumb as I am I can concentrate that long. There’s a lot of dull time in a baseball game, and that’s when I’d fool around.”
About life on the road: “The road can drive you crazy. Counting spring training, we may work 200 games a year, and every one is on the road. A ballplayer has 81 games at home.
“I once went four months – from March 3 to June 28 – without seeing my wife once. I remember the dates because, on June 29, we decided to get a divorce. This job is perfect for broken marriages and alcoholism. I haven’t had a drink in two years. I was up to a fifth a day. I saw it coming and said, ‘Not me.’”
About the umpireâ€™s nature: “We’re four men controlling 40,000 people, most of whom aren’t so sure they want to be controlled. We’re men with huge egos, huge wills. My ex-wife says we’re all mind-benders.
“Many times I’ve known I was dead wrong, but I convinced millions of people I was right . . . in a split second.
“Every night we have to meet a challenge with a TV camera looking over our shoulders. And believe me, when you’ve had two open dates in two months, you don’t always feel like being challenged.”
About cheating: “I’d love to cheat Weaver’s team, but I’m not bright enough to do it. I tried to teach (catcher) Bill Freehan a lesson once. I was going to stick it to him good. I was so worked up telling myself, â€˜Don’t make yourself look bad. Wait for a close pitch to call wrong, that the first pitch to Freehan was right down the pipe and I yelled, ‘Ball.â€™ I was so mad that the second pitch was a curve that bounced twice and I yelled, ‘Strike.’
“By then, I was the one who had learned the lesson. I’d made a total fool of myself. I vowed I’d never do it again, and I haven’t. You can’t spend your whole life turning your brain into a machine that automatically makes the right decision instantly, and then say, ‘OK, brain, tonight we’re going to turn the circuits backwards to get Weaver.’”
About Ted Williams: “When Ted Williams managed Washington, he was constantly picking the umpires’ brains. He said, ‘You guys see more baseball closer up than anybody. Nobody should know more about it than you do. Tell me if you think this Rodriguez can hit the inside fast ball. See if my right-hander isn’t overthrowing a little.’”
And about the trials of being an umpire: “The umpires have kept this game honest for 100 years. We’re the only segment of the game that has never been touched by scandal. We gotta be too dumb to cheat. We must have integrity, because we sure don’t have a normal family life. We certainly aren’t properly paid. We have no health care, no job security, no tenure. Our pension plan is a joke.
“We take more abuse than any living group of humans, and can’t give back any. If we’re fired without notice, our only recourse is to appeal to the league president. And he’s the guy that fires you. That’s gotta be unconstitutional.
“If you ask for one day off in a seven month season, they try to make you feel three inches tall. If you call in sick, you’re hounded and ostracized by the brass. Umpires must be the healthiest people on earth, because none of us ever gets sick.
“Nestor Chylak (age 57) had a stroke last month. Three weeks later, he wanted to come back to work. I guess if Nestor had just a little integrity, he’d have been back the next day.
“They’ve even tried to replace us with an electric eye, one year in spring training. Hell, it didn’t take the catcher five innings to figure out he could stick his glove out and trip the electronic plane and make every pitch a strike.”