A peacock among pigeons: Ron Luciano, baseball’s last celebrity umpire

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YOU couldn’t miss the big lug. 

In a line of work defined by stoic discretion, everything about umpire Ron Luciano was an exclamation point in boldface. He turned a baseball field into his chalk-lined, tobacco-spitting living room. He chatted with fans and players and coworkers and ate stadium treats between innings. Where a fist pump sufficed, Luciano, 6’4” and hovering around 300 pounds, became Yosemite Sam, “shooting out” the unlucky runner with an outoutoutoutoutout. As one writer observed, Luciano didn’t call players out (or safe)—he all but attacked them. 

His 1982 best-selling memoir The Umpire Strikes Back cemented the back-slapping, self-effacing storyteller who unfurled shtick and family-friendly anecdotes with everyone from Terry Gross to Bob Huckabone. When he autographed one of his books, he took his time with the signature. It’s not just legible, but graceful, starting with a loop and ending with a flourish. Many copies are personalized. He wanted to know the person who was about to spend time with him. 

Standing well above 6 feet and nearing 300 pounds, Ron Luciano towered over many he came across on baseball fields, even when he wasn’t overseeing a father-son game, as he did in Kansas City in the late 1970s. (Photo courtesy of John Wathan)

Ron Luciano was a bona fide celebrity and not just because he was a major league umpire. (Ten are enshrined in baseball’s hall of fame, most recently Doug Harvey, who called his last pitch in 1992.) Imagine an ump today—whose time in the limelight is largely limited to their professional shortcomings—with widespread appeal. In the 20th century, that was a novel concept. Bill Klem never shilled diet root beer or Toyota Camrys. Jocko Conlan never got smooched by Morganna the Kissing Bandit on The Pat Sajak Show. Back when entertainment wasn’t so fractured and a family’s lone screen was its television set, Luciano, for a little while, was a presence. There he was, yakking with Johnny Carson. And wasn’t that him on Saturday Night Live? 

Yet, recalls longtime American League umpire Rocky Roe, who was mentored by Luciano his rookie year, “it was always a contradiction in life for Ronnie.” The game he adored, that brought him fame, tortured him when he stepped on the field. The woman he worshiped, who loved him ceaselessly, boxed him in. He did everything for others—a fifty in his nephew’s pocket, a few dollar bills for the poor Bowery soul squeegee-ing the windshield, picking up a stranger’s lunchtime check—and little for himself. 

Millions of people knew who Ron Luciano was. But, in the end, nobody really did. 

KIDS don’t grow up wanting to be umpires, Luciano once observed. Umpiring was his third stab at a career, if you don’t count helping out with the family restaurant in his hometown of Endicott, NY, a town of 13,000 about seven miles west of Binghamton. As a teen, his mother, Josie, pulled him from school to lug kegs into Perry’s Grill, where the jukebox played all night and lulled Ronnie to sleep in the family’s upstairs apartment. 

Ronnie, who had two older sisters, was the man of the house. Perry, his father, died when Luciano was 11, and the dynamics of the family were cast forever. Josie’s world revolved around her only son and Ronnie, in turn, did whatever he could to make her happy.

The work at Perry’s never stopped, but Josie let Ronnie stay after school for sports. He was a big kid who played hoops and baseball but gravitated to football. It was far easier, he joked later, to hit a lineman in the chops than to hit a baseball in the sweet spot. Luciano, who was not heavily recruited by big-time colleges, wanted to attend Syracuse University, where his Uncle Nick had played. The school’s freshman football coach, Les Dey, told the high school senior he’d have to lose 40 pounds to make the team. He dropped the weight and ended up an All-American tackle blocking for Jim Brown. Luciano was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1958; injuries, a hallmark of his college career, continued. He was out of pro football by 1961. 

Ron Luciano, third row, far left, with his Union-Endicott high school teammates, was a talented football player who was an All-American lineman at Syracuse (Photo credit: Pete Croatto)

Equipped with a master’s degree from Syracuse, he returned to Endicott to teach public school. But Luciano hated the kids. (“Children should not be allowed to be born,” he told Terry Gross in a 1982 episode of Fresh Air. “You should be born at the age of 65 and then grow younger, because it’s just a waste of so many years of your life.”) Itching to get back into pro football, he called Detroit Lions and Tigers owner Spike Briggs for a job. Luciano, to Briggs’ shock, declined an offer to be a college scout. “I knew I’d go insane sitting in a thousand press boxes,” he recalled. Briggs, instead of hanging up on Luciano, promised to find the young man another job. In the winter of 1963, Briggs offered an escape plan: become the general manager of the Tigers minor league team in Lakeland, Fla.

Luciano had no idea what that job was. 

“You try to get the town to come see the ballplayers,” Briggs explained, “and you try to keep the ballplayers from destroying the town.” 

Luciano happily left teaching—and endless disputes over students wearing dungarees—after the 1963 fall semester. He had tons of time and no idea what a general manager did. So he headed south six weeks before the start of spring training in 1964 and enrolled in a baseball school. Turned out it was Al Somers’ Umpire Instructional Course. He went anyway. At least, he figured, he’d know the rules by Opening Day. 

RIGHT from the start, he loved it. He was on the playing field without the pesky inconveniences, like injuries or the weight of losing. If someone gave Luciano grief, he didn’t have to go anywhere—they did. He was the boss. It was a dream. 

The on-field behavior—talking with fans during lulls, screaming out calls—emerged early. As he endured the lower levels of pro ball, he grew more confident. Coming out of his shell provided shelter from angry fans. “Whaddya yelling at me for?” he bellowed after punching out a player on a called third strike. “He’s the one who struck out.” 

He sought publicity like Brooks Robinson pouncing on a bullet down the line. If a team needed a contestant for the cow-milking contest, he put on a pair of coveralls and worked those udders. If the local radio station wanted a take on Rochester manager Earl Weaver, his nemesis, Luciano unfurled a few barbs. Minor league officials cringed. But he had talent. “That big fellow will be a major league umpire within two years,” longtime Independent League umpire Augie Guglielmo told The Syracuse Post-Standard in 1966

In 1967, after only four seasons in the minors, a frustrated Luciano felt he should have been in the bigs and even considered finding another line of work. Ed Doherty, the supervisor of minor league umpires, urged Luciano to be patient: The American League was expanding in 1969 and would need new umps. He couldn’t promise Luciano a promotion, but the young umpire’s reports were mostly positive. 

Doherty was prescient. In 1969, Ron Luciano started his career as an umpire in the American League and by his second season, he felt comfortable. He began to entertain the fans. Luciano was made for TV—everything about him was large and over-the-top—though he denied being a “television umpire.” There was no such thing; he was only responding to the action, he wrote. 

Even with its recent hurry-up adjustments, baseball has always had room for characters—the demonstrative cut-up; the noble, bed-hopping guardian of the game; the ebullient phenom—to sustain the mythology.

Baseball frowns on any kind of subversiveness that would draw unwanted attention to the umpires: it wants straight arrows, people who can be pointed to as exemplary, invisible citizens.

Bruce weber

The role umpires have here is minimal. 

“Baseball frowns on any kind of subversiveness that would draw unwanted attention to the umpires: it wants straight arrows, people who can be pointed to as exemplary, invisible citizens,” Bruce Weber wrote in his 2009 book, As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires.

Luciano was a peacock in a parking lot full of pigeons. “You prayed for Ron to be the home plate umpire in the Game of the Week that we were doing,” says Michael Weisman, former executive producer at NBC Sports. “Ron behind home plate, I felt, was going to add Nielsen ratings points to the telecast because he was that entertaining. … You never knew what he would do.”

Fans and players loved his style. The showmanship invited scorn from the American League office, but, like any good actor, he understood timing. Luciano told John Wathan as much when he interviewed the Kansas City Royals catcher for his third book, The Fall of The Roman Umpire

“He was very adamant about trying to do his best all the time,” Wathan recalls. “He knew he had the flair. … He wasn’t going to use it in a close ball game. He was going to try to get the calls right.”

Several umps didn’t like him, the late Ken Kaiser, a friend and crew member, wrote in his memoir. Luciano was filming commercials, invited onto talk shows, profiled in magazines and newspapers. Ricphard K. Rein, who profiled Luciano for People, sat in the Fenway Park stands one game near first base, Luciano’s spot for the day. The umpire chatted with Rein between pitches, even revealing that Red Sox star Jim Rice wasn’t going to see a ball after he demonstratively argued with home plate umpire Bill Haller over a called third strike. 

Rein knew the source of Luciano’s appeal: he was an everyman, a guy who humanized a foreboding, yet anonymous occupation. 

THE cameras and the beat writers didn’t catch everything. Mike Reilly, a big-league umpire from 1977 to 2010 who spent his early years alongside Luciano, put it best: he made a newcomer to the show feel like the best umpire to come from the minors. 

Reilly, a Battle Creek, Michigan, native, was working at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in front of family and friends in 1979 when Tigers’ Hall of Fame manager, Sparky Anderson confronted him. After the inning, Luciano headed to second base, took Reilly’s hand, and raised it skyward like he had just knocked out Muhammad Ali.

Richie Garcia’s first game behind home plate ended with him ejecting three Rangers—manager Billy Martin, bench coach Frank Lucchesi, and infielder Dave Nelson—and Luciano racing to the plate and literally picking up the rookie ump. What a great job you did! I’m so proud of you! Al Clark joined Luciano’s crew in 1976. The night before the season opener in Arlington, Texas, the rookie ump met his colleagues. Luciano, by then a celebrity in his world, greeted Clark with that giant, gap-toothed smile and genuine enthusiasm. You’ve got a great reputation. I look forward to getting to know you and working with you. Clark swelled with confidence; his body buzzed with adrenaline. He could not wait to get out there. 

Luciano was really George Bailey in the body of Frankenstein’s monster. A charity softball tournament for Binghamton media members remains a cherished memory for Lisa Vallone OKeefe, then an intern at radio station WAAL, more than 40 years later. Luciano, the guest umpire, went all out for an event he could have easily dismissed. When he talked with you, he listened. Everybody felt like they knew him. He’d eat a meal out and a stranger would pull up a chair and start yakking, says Rick Stefano, his hunting and fishing buddy. Luciano welcomed all with aplomb. HOW YA DOIN’? Sometimes he paid everyone’s bill in the restaurant. “You never reached into your pocket with him,” Stefano says. “Never.” 

The gregarious goofiness that defined Luciano’s celebrity was a constant coping mechanism, says his nephew Kevin Walton, a former minor league umpire. Luciano struggled with feeling that he belonged in the majors, despite at least one player poll that rated him as “superior.” He lived in constant fear of making a mistake. Crippled by ulcers, including one that caused him to leave a game in 1972, he’d swig from a bottle of Mylanta before heading to the field. 

“Ronnie was a better umpire than he gave himself credit for,” says Roe, a major league umpire from 1979-2002. Luciano umpired playoff games and a World Series. He was twice elected president of the Major League Umpires Association, and in 1979 helped lead an umpires’ strike that lasted until May 18, forcing MLB to use scabs. The umpires’ gains included an increased pay structure—$4,000 more at the bottom and $10,000 more at the top—as well as a two-week in-season vacation after a year on the job. Roe thought the immense comic figure fans saw allowed them to overlook the real person, a sensitive, caring soul who wanted a simple, stress-free life. “He was a sweetheart, but you can’t be a sweetheart dealing with Billy Martin and Earl Weaver,” he says, referring to two of baseball’s most combative managers.

Away from the public, Luciano was quiet, reticent. Colleagues say Luciano wasn’t much of a drinker or a socializer. He carried a book everywhere and traveled with a compact volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies. (“You’re too smart to be an umpire,” Bill Haller, Luciano’s friend and longtime crew chief, would quip.) 

“He really enjoyed being with the guys, but his fellow umpires, most of them had families and had other things to do and that’s when he was sort of by himself,” says Gayle Denkinger, the widow of longtime American League umpire Don Denkinger, Luciano’s friend. ”He didn’t have any interest. He just seemed to be by himself.”

“I’ve been in 50 states and in four different countries, but I’d never leave the area,” Luciano told Barry Meisel, the sports editor at Pipe Dream, SUNY Binghamton’s student newspaper, in 1978. “It’s the most beautiful area in the country.” 

He was a hunter and a fisherman. He loved birdwatching, a respite from the job’s pressures. New York’s Southern Tier—woodsy, not too far from the Finger Lakes—was perfect to immerse himself in the solitude. The towns and villages here are not overwhelming and feature no whiff of a cosmopolitan, don’t you wish you were us? air. When people talk about small-town life they could be describing any of the stops after leaving Ithaca, home of Cornell’s perpetual youthful enthusiasm and an increasing number of high-rise apartments. All you do is head east on Route 79.

Back in the day in Endicott, a person could build a career at Endicott Johnson Shoe Company, which opened in 1899. There was a housing program, companywide picnics. Then IBM opened its first plant in 1911. Ten years later, there were 25 buildings—more than a half-million square feet. Washington Avenue, the main drag, teemed with people. And when Uncle Ronnie returned to his longtime home at 105 Badger Avenue, oh man. The kids never knew what would happen. Forget an ice cream cone from Pat Mitchell’s. Uncle Ronnie bought 10 pints and had you guess all the flavors. Trips to the grocery store, Jim Roma’s, turned into Dionysian events. 

It was always about more. On Christmas, his sister’s Dee’s house in Whitney Point overflowed with gifts for the four Jester kids—air hockey, Pong, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. He bought the loudest, most obnoxious toys from Radio Shack and never forgot to bring batteries, says Richard Walton, his nephew. Then Uncle Ronnie played with them for hours. He was good like that. One time, the kids built a snow ramp for their sleds. Uncle Ronnie took a turn. Instead of going over the ramp, he plowed through it, leaving a cartoon-shaped “U” in his wake. 

Ron Luciano (at left) loved living in Endicott, N.Y., for its nearby natural beauty and the community he had built there. He was happy to mow his neighbor’s lawn. (Photo courtesy of Dave Norton)

“He did everything for us,” Jane Broglio, Luciano’s niece, says. 

Sometimes they went on the road with him. Jonathan Jester, Jane’s brother, couldn’t believe Uncle Ronnie was on a first-name basis with superstars like Rod Carew and George Brett. And he busted their balls! (“I haven’t forgotten that fuckin’ call.” “Come on, let it go George. How do you play remembering that shit?”)

They’re part of his world. Women aren’t allowed to enter the Yankees clubhouse. With Ron Luciano? It’s fine, it’s fine. Toni DiNunzio, his cousin Nick’s wife, who arrives with a cheap Kodak Brownie, is now a reporter. Come on in! The curly haired guy in the car is not Cosmo Parisi, his dear friend and high school football teammate, but Cuban slugger Tony Perez. Come on through. Have a good game! 

He could pause in Endicott. 

He also found easy comfort here: he had his flannel and bib overalls, the apparel of an avid outdoorsman who could spend hours sitting in a duck blind or tree stand, letting the silence wash over him. He was happy watching someone hunt or fish. He had that decaying Chevy Blazer, a lawn chair wedged between the two front bucket seats, that shed rust whenever it hit a pothole. The gigantic recliner where he held court, eating a mound of pistachios until his fingers and lips turned crimson. Uncle Ronnie didn’t notice. The kids laughed and laughed. 

WEREN’T they happy? Polly Dixon and Ron were newlyweds, when every day swells with the promise of your wedding song. They had decided to live in Chicago, an American League city, where she had a job with TWA.

And now, after two years as husband and wife, he says, it’s done. 

She booked the umpires’ flights for TWA; Ron was in charge of the crew’s travel arrangements. They hit it off over the phone—his wit captured her attention—and decided to date when he returned to Chicago. They saw each other when he worked White Sox games at Comiskey Park. They met in 1970 and married in 1975. 

“We fell in love,” she says. “It’s that simple.” 

She spent the offseasons in Endicott. They had rituals. She made him piles of vegetables to lose weight. He loved them. Every Thursday, a treat: a bucket of fish from Long John Silver’s. They went together to spring training, leaving behind those bleak, endless central New York winters. 

You’ve never seen such a strange combination, says Richard Walton, Luciano’s nephew and frequent hunting and fishing companion. She was upscale; he was all outdoors. Gayle Denkinger couldn’t spot any closeness. The couple operated in separate orbits; they didn’t seem to enjoy each other’s company. No, no, no. There was a moment Dixon summoned nearly 50 years later. They were in the living room of a rented house outside of Endicott. The fireplace was crackling. She recalled, I have a man I love. There’s enough money. We have family here. This is good. 

She wanted answers. He offered none. “It’s over,” he said. That was it. He told his attorney the same thing. Therapy? Forget it. He was too busy with baseball.

Maybe, she says now, he didn’t know himself. 

Ron Luciano and Polly Dixon parted amicably. No one, they decided, was at fault. They hugged. Perhaps they said “I love you.” Dixon never got her answer.

FIVE years after his wedding day and roughly three years after his divorce, Ron Luciano was out of baseball. 

“The whole thing just got to him,” says Nick DiNunzio, Luciano’s cousin. In his last few years as an ump, Luciano wrote in 1988’s Remembrance of Swings Past, he felt the pressure from fans to perform and from the league office not to. He retired before the 1980 season started. Luciano joked that when he called American League president Lee MacPhail with his decision, he heard champagne bottles pop in the background. 

“The big suits in the American League office never liked Ronnie and were pushing him toward the retirement door,” the late umpire Durwood Merrill wrote in his memoir. Kevin Walton says the league office and other umpires wanted Luciano to stop the theatrics, which was how Luciano battled his imposter syndrome. Merrill was among them. He felt Luciano “spent too much time with his eyes in the stands and his head in the clouds.”

NBC Sports courted him hard, Luciano said, offering a salary that was triple what he had made as an ump. The job was a strategic risk: Luciano was the color guy for NBC’s back-up game of the week, which had limited exposure and was mostly rain delay insurance. That game now had potential to be “more interesting and more fun,” says Michael Weisman, the former executive producer at NBC Sports. 

It was a disaster. 

Luciano couldn’t toggle between the action on the field with what cameras showed on the monitor. The terminology of the booth confused him. He struggled with pronunciations , and every game seemed to feature Garth Iorg going five-for-five or Joaquín Andújar pitching. “The people that watched were hardcore baseball fans,” Weisman says. The mistakes Luciano made were jabs with a pointy stick at the fans who started their day with coffee and the box scores: a player struggling at the plate actually had a 12-game hitting streak; a country kid was really from the Bronx. Viewers began to expect the gaffes. Local writers were merciless. His anecdotes, which killed over dinner and drinks and at production meetings, droned on during the game. It came down to preparation. “Frankly,” Weisman says, “he didn’t do the work.” 

NBC Sports let Luciano go in early 1982. Major League Baseball “didn’t object to our hiring him,” Weisman says, “but I guarantee they were glad when I fired him.” 

HE wasn’t out of the spotlight for long. 

David Fisher, a veteran writer who once worked in the MLB commissioner’s office, was reading on the daybed in his Long Island beach house while the Yankees game provided background noise on the portable black-and-white TV. It was an ideal way to spend a rainy Saturday summer afternoon in 1981. 

The reverie broke. Who is that? 

Ron Luciano was being interviewed during a rain delay. I could write a very funny, terrific book with him, Fisher thought.

John Boswell, Fisher’s agent, agreed. Luciano and Fisher spent a week at Mount Airy Lodge, the romantic getaway that invited guests to have “a fine winter time in the Poconos.” The place was just about deserted. It was a blast. They sat and talked. Fisher recorded at least 30 hours of stories from Luciano and wrote the book proposal. Bantam, which had just recently begun publishing hardcovers, offered “far more money than we had ever expected,” Fisher says. (Luciano told a reporter the advance was $100,000, the equivalent of about $335,000 today.) About six months later, the manuscript was finished. 

When Ron Luciano autographed one of his books, he took his time with the signature. It’s not just legible, but graceful, starting with a loop and ending with a flourish. Many copies are personalized. He wanted to know the person who was about to spend time with him. 

(Photos by Pete Croatto)

When Sports Illustrated decided to run excerpts over two issues, Fisher knew the book would be a hit. Released in April 1982, The Umpire Strikes Back spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 

The book is a breezy, anecdote-laden treat for fans, funny and revelatory without controversy, not even a swear word. Luciano admitted that he escaped arguments with managers by inventing rules, since most didn’t know the rulebook’s fine print. One game, he chatted with Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew for so long that the affable, distracted “Killer,” who had just smashed a double, got picked off second base. From Boswell’s perspective, the book’s success lay in the packaging: a colorful personality and a great title, created by Fisher, that evoked one of the most popular movies of all-time. Book sales were helped by Luciano’s infectious personality and ferocious promotion. (He attended Toni DiNunzio’s office parties lugging a box of books he happily autographed for free.) And he was the ideal talk show guest who continued to present himself as a jolly, irresistible character of America’s pastime. 

He could always turn on the charm like a light switch. “Ronnie was always flatlined, except when the game started at 7 o’clock, and then he turned into this person—I don’t think anybody knew him,” Mike Reilly, the former umpire, says.

The darkness came in flashes and, when it did, it seemingly engulfed him. At some Game of the Week crew meetings, Luciano could be somber, barely communicative, Weisman recalls, a big change from his usual heywhatarewedoingwherearewegoing brio. On some visits to Badger Avenue, Broglio could hardly get yes or no answers out of Uncle Ronnie. The next time she was there, he was a barrage of invitations and questions. Why, she wondered then, was it all or nothing with him? 

Years later, the questions would mount as memories of the man tugged at the heartstrings and burrowed into the soul. One factor rarely causes a person to leave early. Kevin Walton believes Uncle Ronnie’s “downfall” started when NBC Sports parted ways with him in 1982. Around that time, he auditioned for “Coach” on Cheers and didn’t get the part. (Boswell, Luciano’s “de facto” agent, brushed it off. The pilot script he had read stunk.) His Binghamton sporting goods store, Ron Luciano’s Sports World, which he thought would support the Jesters, closed in February 1983. Auctioneers liquidated the place, even the fixtures. He wanted to run for New York Senate in 1986, but bowed out that June. Luciano told Binghamton’s Press and Sun-Bulletin that the Senate’s majority leader, Warren M. Anderson, pressured Democratic leaders to abandon him. 

“Being the ex-umpire and finding some way to morph that into a career, it just never totally happened.”

John Boswell, on Ron Luciano

Luciano wrote four more books, but with each one, his relevance dimmed—he was no longer umpiring and wasn’t broadcasting games. Sales dipped with each effort. By 1990, when Bantam published Luciano and Fisher’s Baseball Lite, a paperback wrap-up of 1989’s funny baseball moments, his literary momentum had “sort of petered out,” Fisher says. “We had covered the territory.”

Luciano addressed his off-the-field struggles in Baseball Lite in the self-effacing style that had become his and Fisher’s trademark. 

“It’s not my fault,” he started. 

“The truth is that the thing I’ve been most successful at in my life is failing,” he wrote in a preview to his professional woes. “When it comes to failing. I’m a very big success. It seems that wherever I go, failure seems to follow. Let me put it this way: vampires wear garlic around their necks to keep me away.” 

Luciano loved the limelight and making people laugh, but Kevin Walton says his uncle never found a replacement for the ballfield. “Being the ex-umpire and finding some way to morph that into a career, it just never totally happened,” Boswell says. “I think that maybe also contributed to his sadness.” 

AS kids, the Jester and Walton cousins played Scopa, the Italian card game. One of them made a move to seal the deal and—a pinch on your neck, a paw on your arm. Play this card, he says. Nana needs it. They could never win. And, yes, she kept the quarter ante.

Josie always exerted the biggest pull on Ronnie. 

They lived together (of course, she had the biggest room) and she loved basking in her son’s fame. Phil Rizzuto knew who she was because of Ronnie. In church, she sat in the last pew so the parishioners saw “the quintessential Italian mom, grandmother,” according to Rocky Roe, and had to greet her. 

That’s the way it should be, Luciano declared. She was important. As he criss-crossed the country calling balls and strikes, Josie loomed over Ronnie. He talked about her all the time, Richie Garcia recalled. Bill Haller joked if he’d called Josie today. 

On road trips, “if she didn’t get the royal treatment from everybody, there was hell to pay,” Kevin Walton says. “Everything he did was for her.” 

“I have no one,” Josie once told her family, “except for Ronnie.”

It was a responsibility Luciano held dear. “He never left home,” Boswell says. “He took care of his mom and almost used that as an excuse to not intermingle more with the rest of the world.” Josie, he thought, was “his justification, his rationalization for a lot of his life.” When the dementia grabbed her, Luciano trooped to the first floor of Vestal’s Willow Point every day. He was upbeat and patient. Former Orangeman basketball player Sonny Spera, a dentist who treated residents weekly at the nursing home, saw Ronnie spoon-feed Josie yogurt, talking to her about his day. The sweetness couldn’t obscure the painful reality: Ronnie was talking to nobody. 

Luciano, Fisher says, always wanted to make people happy, but “Ronnie never appreciated Ronnie.” 

Until the end, Luciano looked out for others. He paid the taxes. Put Billy, named after Billy Martin, in the kennel. His sister, Barbara, who lived with Ronnie, was sent to see Kevin Walton’s family in Colorado. Josie would never know. 

When family members finally cleaned out his bedroom, they found prescription anti-depressants, a quantity spanning years, in the 57-year-old’s top dresser drawer.

“For two or three years, he was in that state of mind and none of us really knew,” Kevin Walton says.

Ron Luciano’s final moments on January 18, 1995, were away from the crowd in the garage of that postage stamp-sized house at 105 Badger Avenue. He started his brown Cadillac, a black hose connected to the tailpipe. He made sure Stefano discovered the scene so a family member was spared the sight of a man once full of life now irrevocably still. 

IT takes maybe an hour to tour Endicott, and that includes stops at nondescript landmarks, and former mayor John Bertoni exchanging pleasantries with friends and neighbors. One stop is Johnny Logan Field, named after the late Milwaukee Braves all-star shortstop and Endicott native. Luciano called games on this field, but there’s no sign here or anywhere else of the most famous umpire who ever lived, the man who loved and stayed in a town too many people have used as a rung on their ladder. 

Endicott is still a great place to live, Bertoni says. But it has been hollowed out by a lengthy industrial devolution. Endicott Johnson is long gone. IBM announced in May that it would not renew the lease on its lone remaining building. As he drove down a mostly empty Washington Avenue on a sunny May morning, Bertoni couldn’t hide his disgust.

Is this still where everything happens? 

“Nothing goes on here,” he says. 

Luciano’s legacy floats in the netherworld between the good old days and the push of progress. In Major League Baseball today, umpires come off an assembly line—the same body shape, the same vanilla temperament. Instant replay and computerized tracking have eliminated the theater and fun from that position. The most famous umpires are infamous: the handful who fans say are the worst, like oft-maligned Angel Hernandez. As baseball continues to turn umpires into mall cops with masks, we are unlikely to see someone like Ron Luciano again. And, besides, who wants to get to know umpires when Shohei Ohtani and Elly De La Cruz are making baseball relevant again? 

The game will go on. The Baseball Encyclopedia is full of indispensable men. Baseball history is not where Ron Luciano’s life resides. He was at his best, umpire Richie Garcia says, around people. “I loved him,” umpire Rocky Roe says. “He shielded the brightness for me.” David Fisher thinks of everyone who approached Luciano, who knew a 30-second interaction meant everything to a starry-eyed stranger. Always, he delivered.

For his family, the stories, not the ones in the books or delivered at rubber chicken dinners, assuage the unanswered pleas for clarity. Uncle Ronnie and his hulking Syracuse teammates playing catch… using little Richard Walton as the ball. Uncle Ronnie and Jane Broglio driving through the endless night from New York City. She woke up to discover Uncle Ronnie with his head out of the side window, battling fatigue while steering the car. Broglio knew the truth years ago: no one else had an Uncle Ronnie in their life. Hers was one of a kind.

This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells and Don Van Natta Jr.. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.

Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto (he/him) is a freelance sportswriter whose work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, Grantland, Poynter, Shondaland, Philadelphia Magazine, Defector, and The Athletic. The author of From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, Croatto lives just outside of Ithaca, N.Y., with his family.