It is a night game at Yankee Stadium, and in the bottom of the ninth New York is trailing and down to its last out. The count runs to one ball, two strikes. The next pitch flirts with the outside corner, “Strike three!” bellows Ron Luciano from the stands. But the man in blue behind home plate signals a ball. Luciano holds up his watch and grouses, “It’s 10:30, for Chrisake—I would’ve called him out.”
Until three seasons ago, Luciano would have been able to. From 1969 to 1979 he was rated by players one of the American League’s best arbiters and by everybody its No. 1 showboat (he shot players “out” with his index-finger pistol, waved hankies at boo-birds). Combine these traits with a keen sense of humor and the services of writer David Fisher and the result is a book of diamond anecdotes, the best-selling The Umpire Strikes Back (Bantam, $12.95).
Luciano, 45, quit his profession early, he claims, because he “was tired of making decisions” on the field and because he was asked to become a color commentator on NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week telecasts. “My TV contract was the worst you ever saw,” he says with a laugh, but it was more than the $32,600 he made as an ump, at a time when utility infielders were into six figures. “I’m not a color man,” Luciano explains. “I’m a storyteller. I got stories that last five minutes. So I start one about a player. Meanwhile, on the field, the bases are loaded and the batter hits a grand slam. Now, I don’t give a damn about the home run, because I’m telling my story. If you shut off the audio and just watched the game, the home run was great. Or if you shut off the video and just listened to me, I was absolutely superb. But you could never mix the two, so I didn’t work out.” He and the network parted company after two seasons.
Now, flogging his book on the talk-show circuit, Ron has discovered a better forum for his gifts. “I am just terrific at that,” he says without a trace of modesty. “The key is just to take over the show and tell your own stories. Like, on the Tonight show, I just out-talked Carson. I had my lines rehearsed, and I just took off. I feel like I’ve been wearing a mask all my life”—and it’s almost literally true. Before his days as an umpire, he wore a football face mask, as an All-America tackle at Syracuse University and as a pro with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills” (That career was cut short by injuries.)
When not traveling, Luciano, a bachelor since a 1977 divorce, lives at his boyhood home in Endicott, N.Y. with his mother, Josephine, 80. He calls her “a very tough lady,” one whose sharp tongue and spicy language do not conceal her warm heart. Occasionally he drops in at his Binghamton sporting goods store, Ron Luciano’s Sports World, to check sales. “Mainly we lose money,” he says, noting gratefully that the book has bought him a year to search for a new career.
Luciano hopes it will be in showbiz, though he sees himself more as a character than as an actor: “I couldn’t become an Alex Karras, who was once a pro football player like me, because he can do dramatic stuff. I could see myself punching out a horse like he did in Blazing Saddles, because that’s not acting, and I don’t like horses anyway. I took a screen test for an NBC show called Cheers, for the role of an ex-high school football coach who becomes a bartender. But they wanted an experienced actor. Pretty soon I’m going to read for a part in a new fall show where they put a voice to an orangutan. I’ve got a perfect voice for an orangutan.”
He is also putting together a half-hour pilot tentatively titled Ron Luciano’s The Lighter Side of Baseball, which will feature the offbeat and off-the-wall. “We’ll do crazy things,” he says. “Like maybe I’ll interview ‘Chef Jose’ at Yankee Stadium on how he prepares those gourmet meals of hot dogs and beer. Maybe we’ll have a top detective search a spitball pitcher to try to find the stuff he uses to doctor the ball. [Baseball Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn always said I should take my act to Hollywood. Nobody’s ever listened to me. Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody did? How hard could it be to learn lines? I learned ‘ball-strike-fair-foul-safe-out.’ ”