Ron Luciano’s books collecting anecdotes from his umpiring days were some of the most popular baseball books of the ’80s: “The Umpire Strikes Back,” “Strike Two,” “The Fall of the Roman Umpire,” and “Remembrances of Swings Past.” When he committed suicide with the exhaust from a car in the garage of his home in Endicott, N.Y., in early 1995 (the afternoon of January 18 to be exact), it surprised outsiders. After the death, the Syracuse Herald-Journal talked about Luciano, who’d been an offensive lineman blocking for Syracuse and Jim Brown in the 1950s.
Luciano’s writing partner Dave Fisher said he was “a gentle, good man who really preferred being by himself, walking in the woods … watching the birds.” He said of Luciano’s seclusion in Endicott as the ’90s wore on and his mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s: “I wanted him to come to New York, come to L.A. He was a terrific entertainer. But it was hard for him, because Ronnie was actually very shy. He never got out of Endicott. And he should have; he needed to.”
Fisher added: “He wanted to please everybody, so he played football. I don’t really think he loved it. He was born in the wrong body. He was never that person.”
At Syracuse, Luciano was named a tackle on Football News’ All-America team, then went into the NFL with Detroit, Minnesota and Buffalo for four years, but he never played in a regular-season game. He umpired in the American League for 11 years.
Fisher said: “Baseball – he was never a fan of the game. He wouldn’t be the kind to sit in front of a TV and watch a game. He was a fan of the umpires.”
Joe Garagiola reflected:
“It doesn’t surprise me that Ronnie was very depressed. There was a far more sensitive side of him that few people knew, and I know he was a lonely guy. Everybody thought every day was New Year’s Eve for him, but I can attest to the fact that he had a lot of August the twenty-thirds and October the fifths.
“I know he was hurting being out of baseball. He needed to be around people and he missed it. I loved him. He was one of the few umpires who didn’t act like he was anointed. I wanted to see him call a guy out. Baseball wasn’t High Mass to him.”
Luciano gave his take on some of the less than glorious aspects of baseball: “When I started, baseball was played by nine tough competitors on grass in graceful ballparks. By the time I finished, there were 10 men on a side, the game was played indoors on plastic, and I spent half my time watching out for a man dressed in a chicken suit who kept trying to kiss me.”
Fellow umpire Davey Phillips said:
“But to be honest, I don’t think he really liked umpiring. I think maybe he was really lonely, but he camouflaged a lot of it because he worked hard to be funny.
“I’ll never forget one game — true story — I’m umpiring at first base and I look down to the plate where Ronnie is and he’s not wearing his mask! Campy Campaneris is the batter and he’s attempting to drag bunt and the pitcher is winding up when I start running toward the plate to call time-out. Campy bunts the ball foul and sees me and thinks I’m calling him out. All of a sudden, both managers, Kenny Aspromonte and Chuck Tanner, are running out of the dugout and I go over to Ronnie and tell him he has no mask on.
“You know what he said? ‘I knew I was seeing the pitches good!'”
A while ago I put together a collection of Luciano’s not-so-fond memories of life as an umpire in the 1970s. Here, from the article, is a bit of what he had to say: “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.”
Here, from the Seattle Times of February 6, 1979, is a picture of Luciano and an article on him on the offseason banquet circuit:
Read more about Luciano in this long retrospective of his career he did for Sports Illustrated, which had written a profile of him in 1974.