He was a true clown prince of baseball, a man of laughter and conviviality, which is why Ron Luciano’s suicide on Wednesday seemed so incongruous and utterly senseless to those who only saw that side of him.
It wasn’t the same on the other, dark side of the camera, away from the public glare, where, presumably, the phone had stopped ringing.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Ronnie was very depressed,” said Joe Garagiola, who was instrumental in luring Luciano off the field and into the NBC television booth in 1980. “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.”
When news of Luciano’s death spread throughout the baseball community, the first thoughts were of the laughter he brought to the game. Those who knew him best - his umpiring crewmates, Bill Haller and Davey Phillips, and Garagiola, with whom he worked for two years in the NBC booth all wanted to recount the laughs for which he’ll be remembered. But as Garagiola observed sadly, this wasn’t who he really was or what he was really all about.
“I know he was hurting being out of baseball,” Garagiola said. “He needed to be around people and he missed it.”
Phillips, who went to umpire school with Luciano in 1964 and then worked alongside him in the American League in 1973 and ‘74, said he never laughed so hard as he did those two years. “But to be honest,” he said, “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 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!”’
As Luciano’s crew chief, Haller can’t begin to count the number of times he had to respond to queries from the American League office on Luciano’s antics. In one game, Luciano decided to station himself in center field, right next to Tigers centerfielder Mickey Stanley. Another time, when he was assigned to a series in Texas, where Billy Martin (with whom he was feuding at the time) was managing the Rangers, he stayed in his hotel room for the entire three days. He could get in trouble with his mouth, too, as when he was asked who he thought would win the pennant one year and replied: “I don’t care, as long as it’s not Baltimore.”
“He hated (Earl) Weaver, and (Jim) Palmer, too,” Haller said. “He was a character, but the American League didn’t know what to do with him.”
When Luciano left umpiring to go to NBC, Phillips remembered, he joked that “they were popping champagne in the American League offices after all the turmoil I caused for (A.L. president Lee) MacPhail.”
He may not have been wrong. In all probability, the baseball establishment was relieved to see Luciano leave the field on his own. He would have been awfully hard to fire. Baseball fans loved him, and for the first few years after his retirement they continued to love him through his three very funny books about his umpiring days.
Ultimately, Ron Luciano ran out of funny stories. He went home to Endicott, N.Y., and seldom heard from anyone in baseball. Garagiola suspected he was hurting.
Luciano’s final call pretty much confirmed that.
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