The Umpire Strikes Back, the memoir former major league arbiter Ron Luciano wrote in 1982, was a Dad Book. That is, it’s a book sons would buy for the old man on Father’s Day, both because there was a stack of them on clearance at your local Caldor or B. Dalton or wherever and because you had no idea what else to get him. Soon you would see it on the shelf in his office flanked by sporty tomes by Howard Cosell and Lou Holtz. There, or at the top of the basket of magazines in the john, wedged against old issues of Field & Stream.
I read bits and pieces of The Umpire Strikes Back as a kid, when I would read anything baseball-related and vaguely humorous. In my memory, it was fun and light as air; I hadn’t given the book much thought since age 10. Dad books aren’t written to endure, really, and it seemed reasonable to let it go. So it was surprising, when I re-read the book over the last month, to find that The Umpire Strikes Back is a desolate, crushing, supremely lonely book: one of the saddest sports books ever written, in fact, and all the sadder for hiding behind a Dad Book’s brave face.
The work of authors who kill themselves often and understandably feels haunted, more so than the work of self-annihilating artists in other media. Perhaps this because literature is such a solitary affair, constructed and enjoyed alone, interior and isolated. For all the pleasures in the writing of Sylvia Plath or David Foster Wallace, there is also this other thing: the tendency to parse every sentence for some coded message of despair, some sudden light beamed down into the depths of that great sadness. This can be distracting, obviously, and oftentimes does these books—which were written by living writers, not by their fraught ghosts—a disservice. With The Umpire Strikes Back, where the literary significance is near-negligible and Luciano's jovial personality is the whole show, the pressure to reverse-engineer a tragedy is overwhelming. Reading what purports be a light-hearted look at life in the major leagues by a man who went on to take his own life, as Luciano did in 1995, is an intensely disorienting and weird experience; every joke (and there are many) arrives with an implied sob.
Luciano grew up in Endicott, New York and played football at Syracuse at the same time as Jim Brown, but injuries derailed an NFL career before it even started. His connections with the Detroit Lions won him an invite to work as a general manager for a minor league Tigers affiliate. Once in Florida, though, Luciano eschewed this gig to attend umpiring school. He writes about this chain of events as if fate directed him along this inglorious path.
As Luciano began his slow, undignified climb to the major leagues, he compensated for his lack of knowledge about the game by constantly chatting up players, managers, and even fans, as if hoping to acquire their expertise by osmosis. He developed theatrical calls, aiming hand-pistols at runners and screaming OUTOUTOUTOUTOUT as he emptied an imaginary clip; the hope was that, even if he was wrong, he’d at least be remembered. Luciano made sure to volunteer for every dumb stunt local owners put on both so he would be seen as a good sport and team player, and so he would be seen, period.
Once in the bigs, he constantly got in trouble with league American League president Lee MacPhail, usually for engaging in behavior that dared suggest baseball might be fun. Even if MacPhail wasn’t a fan, Luciano’s antics brought himself attention immediately, at a time when the average fan would have struggled to name even one umpire. A 1974 Sports Illustrated profile painted Luciano as “a rebel, an individualist,” which says more about the staid atmosphere of baseball at the time than it does about the umpire. (His birdwatching hobby was counted among his acts of wanton individualism.)
By the end of the decade, he became president of the umpires’ association through what amounted to determined nudging, positioning himself nearest to the door during union meetings so he could be the first man to talk to reporters waiting outside, and therefore appear to be important; he understood this, correctly, as the most important factor in being important. Luciano’s tales from behind the plate made him a favorite on the winter banquet circuit, a hot stove tradition that’s nearly gone the way of the dodo, and eventually landed him a gig doing color commentary and profiles for NBC’s Game of the Week. The Umpire Strikes Back was the culmination of all this, a huge bestseller that blazed the “wacky sports” trail of the 1980s later trod by The Hall of Shame series, Miller Lite commercials, and an infinite loop of blooper reels.
Much of Umpire is given over to these Strange But True Baseball Stories, some of which the author witnessed, others related third-hand; it’s not always clear which is which. In the cracks between, we get a glimpse of an intensely lonely profession, and at a man who seemingly endures it so the rest of the world will pay him some attention. What kind of attention doesn’t matter much: he’s happy, if that’s the word (it almost certainly isn’t) to have others laugh at his suffering, constantly put down by everyone he encounters and himself. If Rodney Dangerfield and Rupert Pupkin collaborated on book about umpiring, Umpire is what they would have produced.
Luciano continually reminds the reader that, for an umpire, there are no home games or holidays. “There are few things more depressing,” he assures us, “than celebrating a beautiful July fourth by eating hamburgers in a restaurant with Ken Kaiser.” He details the ailments the stress of the job has given him and his fellow umpires; ulcers, blood clots, heart attacks. He shares little of his personal life, but the fact that his failed marriage is dispatched in exactly three short paragraphs (“The most positive thing that came out of my marriage was was that I learned to appreciate the traveling.”) tells us all we need to know. His tortured, almost Shakespearean relationship with Earl Weaver, on the other hand, takes up nearly half the book.
The saddest thing Luciano admits in Umpire is that an umpire’s greatest desire is to get the game over with as quickly as possible. This isn’t because they’re eager to get on to anything else -- see above re: “Ken Kaiser, hamburgers with”—so much as it is to avoid being embarrassed. The fewer plays that happen, the fewer chances an umpire has to screw them up and receive negative attention. It’s a paradox, then—and one that grows sadder through the book, and sadder still given the context provided by Luciano’s death—that the game is also the only thing that can quench Luciano’s burning desire to be noticed; the sooner it is over, the sooner he is silenced. He is conflicted, always, and haunted by two opposite terrors: the fear of being exposed as a fraud who doesn’t know what he’s doing and the fear of being completely ignored.
Umpire ends with Luciano recounting an otherwise meaningless mid-season game between the A’s and Brewers. It was a closely contested affair that ended with him delivering an emphatic called strike three on a “perfect slider” from future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, stranding the tying run at third. As pitcher and catcher shake hands, Luciano admits, “I wanted to shout to them, ‘Don’t go, don’t let it be over, I’m having too much fun. C’mon, let’s play just one more inning.’” It’s hard not to get the sense that Luciano isn’t really asking for more baseball. He’s asking for more himself.
The success of Umpire led to four more anecdote-filled books and some commercial gigs for Luciano, but the end of the 1980s put his brand of Wacky Sports Humor (a brand he had all but pioneered) out of vogue. Luciano returned to his hometown of Endicott, living with relatives in relative seclusion for the rest of his days. He was found in his sister’s garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, in January of 1995. A note he left behind contained funeral instructions but no explanation, though some theorized he was hit hard by his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.
After Luciano’s death, friends described him as very different from his umpiring persona, a man uncomfortable in his own skin. David Fisher, who co-authored his books, said, “He was born in the wrong body,” a football physique wrapped around a gentler soul. “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.”
Luciano did get out, though, if seemingly never quite far enough. But Luciano did make it, for whatever that’s worth and whatever small comfort it might have given him in the moment. Go back to your old man’s library, and you’ll probably see Umpire in the same spot where it was left 20 years. Same creases in the cover, same cracks in the spine. There are copies moldering in bathrooms across America right now, untouched, silently falling apart, begging to be noticed, still very much there.