Every so often Ron Luciano receives a registered letter from the American League president that reads something like this: "Dear Mr. Luciano: I am not fining you at this time, but your actions of such-and-such a date once again were unbecoming of a major league umpire." In fact, Luciano expects another of these official missives any hour now because one night last week in Minnesota he clapped his hands and yelled "Salvatore, attababy puisano" when Oakland's Sal Bando trotted back out to third base after hitting a two-run homer against the Twins. Save the postage, Mr. President. The time to send all your "Dear Mr. Luciano" letters is when Mr. Luciano begins to take the game, its people and its environs too seriously.
Luciano has always baffled the gray-flannel members of baseball's Establishment because they cannot understand why a former All-America tackle and pro football player who now spends his odd hours watching birds and reading Shakespeare's tragedies is even working as an umpire. The 6'4" Luciano, whose weight fluctuates between 250 and 270 pounds, started as a two-way tackle on a pair of Syracuse University bowl teams. Drafted No. 2 by the Detroit Lions in 1959, Luciano suffered a serious shoulder injury when Big Daddy Lipscomb bowled him over in the College All-Star Game and barely survived three injury-riddled pro seasons.
Seeking a new athletic interest, Luciano became a minor league umpire in 1964. Four years later he graduated to the American League, and his problems with the authorities began almost immediately. At five one morning the chief of Luciano's umpiring crew happened to spot the rookie roaming around the roof of a hotel carrying a pair of binoculars. The word quickly went out: "Luciano's a Peeping Tom."
Confronted with the charges, Luciano explained to the crew chief that he was an ornithologist. The only birds that the crew chief knew were the Baltimore Orioles, so Luciano invited him to tag along on one of his regular 5 a.m. expeditions. "Still he didn't believe me until I showed him a catalog of my sightings and then identified such birds as a house sparrow, a marsh wren and a thrasher," says Luciano, who raises about 80 quail and 50 chukar on his farm near Endicott, N.Y.
Besides studying birds, Luciano also reads constantly. "I majored in math at Syracuse but took a lot of literature courses," he says. "I don't understand Shakespeare's sonnets at all, but I follow his tragedies. I like the mean characters, people like Macbeth's wife. Hey, you've got to be a masochist to be an umpire, right?"
On the field, Luciano likes to put on a little drama of his own. He is a rebel, an individualist and, now that Emmett Ashford has retired, perhaps the only umpire in the game who makes a theatrical event of a routine out. American League umps are supposed to work from behind second base, but Luciano frequently stands National League-style between the pitcher and the second-base bag. American League umpires are never, never supposed to talk to their partners or to the players during the breaks between innings, but in a game last week there was Luciano walking over to speak with Second Base Umpire Art Frantz. Oops, there went Frantz, walking away from Luciano. "It's all right for Ron to do these things because he's single," Frantz says. "But I've got a wife, four kids and a mortgage. The more people who don't know my name, the better."
"I need the identity," Luciano explains. "It is hard work trying to stay awake during a 9-0 game."
These antics are usually followed by "Dear Mr. Luciano" letters from the president. "I'll never forget one of those letters," Luciano says. "Tommy John was pitching for the White Sox against the Orioles and accidentally dropped the ball behind him during his motion. He completed his delivery, and as a joke I called 'steee-rike' on the batter. The batter, Don Buford, was aghast. He looked at me as though I was crazy. And out on the mound John was falling all over himself with laughter. I changed the call to 'no pitch," of course, but John couldn't stop laughing. He walked the next three batters, gave up a double and was taken out of the game. He laughed all the way to the showers." Then-League President Joe Cronin did not appreciate the humor and sent Luciano a registered letter the next day.
He could have sent Luciano one on almost every play, since the huge umpire never simply calls a man "safe" or "out." He gestures wildly, dancing on one foot and waving his hands in all directions. "I get excited," he says. "The other umpires claim I should be demure, and they're always telling me to stop jumping around. I can't. I get involved. That's me." One night Luciano gave an "out" sign at home plate by pumping his right hand a dozen times. "I was so carried away that I never saw the ball rolling to the backstop," he says. "Fortunately, someone pointed to the loose ball and I changed my call."
Although he is now in his sixth season of umpiring, Luciano does not expect to make it his career. "I'd like to get into baseball administration," he says. "As an umpire I never get the winning feeling I had as an athlete. Umpires can never be up, but we can get down. Our day never comes. We can't redeem ourselves after missing a play. No wonder I have an ulcer."