Secret Behind The Mask : A Former Umpire Discusses One of His Life's Tough Calls: Being Gay and in Pro Baseball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You've got to have the guts to be hated." --Bette Davis quoted in the preface to "Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball" Dave Pallone was one of the most hated umpires in the history of major league baseball.

He joined the majors as a "scab" during the 1979 umpires' strike, made headlines after an infamous scrape with Pete Rose in 1988, and once became so angry at the St. Louis Cardinals that he ordered the entire bench into the clubhouse.

In his memoir "Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball" (Viking), which hit the book stores this week, Pallone writes: "I was willing to be controversial and disliked."

He still is.

In "Behind the Mask," Pallone reveals that he is gay, and he writes about the stringent measures he took, during his 10 years in the major leagues, to hide his homosexuality. He writes that he had a brief affair with a player during that time, and that he knows several others players now in the majors who are gay.

He does not name names. "I do not believe in 'outing,' " Pallone said. "It's not my role to tell anyone on Earth how to live their life, because I don't want anyone telling me how to live mine."

But Pallone himself was outed during an investigation of a male sex ring in 1988. Even though no charges were ever filed against him, the baseball establishment, he claims, forced him out of the game simply because he was gay.

"My book is about a little boy who dreamed of being in baseball, got his dream, and then had it taken away from him," said Pallone, 38, as he settled into a sofa in his sparely furnished Marina del Rey apartment. Given his reputation, it's no surprise that when he talks about his experiences in baseball, his anger is apparent.

But so is his love for the game. On one shelf of a living-room cabinet, behind a sliding-glass panel, are about a dozen neatly arranged, signed baseballs, each on a little pedestal. Nearby are framed pictures, the most prominent of which is of Rose getting the hit on Sept. 8, 1985, that tied Ty Cobb's mark of 4,191 career hits.

Pallone is in that picture, too. He was the home-plate umpire that day.

"Dave Pallone had some career," he said with a smile, "but all those years I couldn't be myself. I couldn't be the Dave Pallone I wanted to be."

The legendary hothead of umpires folded his hands across his chest. "I think I had the guts to be hated. But I didn't have the guts to be true to myself."

Pallone didn't grow up with dreams of one day becoming an umpire, but an injury to his shoulder in high school put an end to his hopes of playing pro ball.

He didn't even consider a career as an ump until, in the summer of 1970, he was watching a baseball game on television and heard an announcement about the Umpire Development Program in St. Petersburg, Fla.

His father, to whom "umpire" meant "bum," was not crazy about signing the permission form Pallone needed to enroll. Pallone writes in the book that he pleaded with his father, "Dad, it's a way I can be in baseball and maybe have a future, too."

But the future for umpire candidates was--and is--about as bright as the future for young opera singers: the aspirants are many, the paying jobs few. In 1971, when Pallone applied to the umpire program, there were almost 1,200 other applicants. Only 60 were accepted and of those, only 30 eventually got jobs in professional baseball.

Of those 30, only three, including Pallone, made it to the major leagues.

It did not seem likely, however, during Pallone's eight grueling seasons in the minor leagues, that he would ever make it to the majors. He gained a reputation as a hothead early on. Indeed, Pallone would throw a player out of the game for showing the slightest sign of disrespect.

"I learned early that baseball players will take advantage of you if you let them," Pallone said. "They will eat you alive."

But he admitted that on many occasions, he overreacted. "I had a temper that was second to none, I guess. It had a lot to do with the turmoil I was going through in my double life."

Pallone realized in high school that he was attracted to other men. But, as he recalls in the book, the thought that he was homosexual was so alien to him that he made no contact with the gay world while he was in the minors. "I had not been to a gay bar," he writes, "I never thought about it, didn't know if they existed, wouldn't have gone if they did."

Finally, in 1978, when he was in Puerto Rico to umpire in a winter baseball league, he became romantically involved with a man he met while jogging on the beach.

His first gay affair was brief; shortly after they met, Pallone was fired from the Puerto Rican League for not being available to officiate at a game where he was listed as the substitute. Pallone, who was in Boston on a brief vacation on the day of the game, chalks it up to an honest mix-up.

After the firing, the minor leagues did not offer him a summer contract. Pallone would have likely been out of the game for good, except for a bit of baseball history that changed his life. During the 1979 season, for the first time ever, the major-league umpires went on strike.

Pallone said he agreed with the aims of the strike, which mostly had to do with wages. At the time, a first-year umpire in the majors was making less than $18,000 a year. But when the call came for him to go into the big leagues as a substitute, he felt he would never get the chance again and he accepted.

If he thought the pressure was unbearable in the minors, it was a square dance compared to what was to come. The players, he felt, tried to take advantage of his situation, challenging many of his calls. "They were trying to show that I didn't deserve to be there," Pallone said. "I had to show them and the fans that I would not take their crap. I had to be in control of the game."

During one game in St. Louis he felt so under siege after a controversial call that he cleared the Cardinal bench, forcing all but the starting nine, manager, coaches and trainer into the locker room.

When the union umpires settled their strike and returned, things only got worse. The umpires considered Pallone, and the other seven umps hired during the walkout, to be scabs who prolonged the strike. Most of the veteran umps would speak to new hires only when absolutely necessary. The union men would not stay in the same hotel, and they spent their own money to rent cars so they would not have to ride to games with Pallone in the crew car.

Except for one four-year period, when Pallone was teamed with two sympathetic umpires, he was isolated inside his dream profession.

At least he was coming to terms with his personal life. In late 1979, he fell in love with a college student he calls Scott (several of the names in "Behind the Mask" are aliases). Their relationship gave Pallone great solace at a difficult time.

But it ended in a tragedy. In 1983, Scott was killed when his car was struck by a drunk driver. Pallone's grief was multiplied by the fact that he had kept the relationship secret and he felt he could not discuss his loss with anyone.

But the relationship did bring him to an acceptance of his homosexuality. Eventually, he quietly began to strike up friendships with other gay men and to date.

His career continued on its contentious path until the 1988 season. Then the roof really fell in. On the night of April 30, at a Mets-Reds game in Cincinnati, the score was 5-5 in the top of the ninth with two out. Pallone called Met hitter Mookie Wilson safe at first on a wide throw and Pete Rose, manager of the Reds, was out of the dugout like a shot to protest the call.

Tempers flared and Pallone eventually threw Rose out of the game. Nothing unusual about that. Then, when Pallone's back was turned, Rose pushed him. It wasn't a big push, but manhandling an ump in any form is one of the most serious infractions in baseball.

The fans, who worshiped Rose, went nuts, throwing everything from beer bottles to a large boom box onto the field. Pallone writes that he feared for his life, although the other umpires in the game refused to halt play.

The incident was the talk of the sports world over the next few days. Rose defended his actions, saying Pallone had poked him near the eye before the push. (In his book, Pallone strenuously denies this.) But Pallone said he respects Rose for not fanning the fires of public fervor against him. Rose was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying, "Hey, Dave's a very good umpire. He just made a mistake."

Nonetheless, Pallone received numerous death threats and hate mail.

In a landmark decision for baseball, commissioner Bart Giamatti suspended Rose for 30 days (the longest suspension doled out since 1947) and fined him $10,000 for the shove.

It was not widely known, before Pallone wrote about it in his book, that Giamatti also fined Pallone $100 for losing his cool during the Rose incident. Pallone, who adored Giamatti and thought of him as a father figure, protested the fine. He said it should be higher, and they agreed on $1,000.

Pallone poured out his heart to Giamatti at that meeting, telling him that his legendary temper was a result, in part, of the fact that he felt he had to live a double life. He told Giamatti he was gay.

Giamatti, Pallone writes, didn't even flinch. He told Pallone: "I am not concerned about it--as long as it doesn't interfere with the game, itself."

Two months after that meeting Pallone was back in Giamatti's office and this time, the atmosphere was far less friendly. The umpire was told that his name had come up in a police investigation in Upstate New York. Shortly thereafter, Pallone found out it was an investigation of a gay teen-age sex ring.

Giamatti asked him to quietly take a voluntary leave while the investigation continued and Pallone reluctantly agreed.

In the book, Pallone writes that he told police he had once briefly met two of the men who were being investigated for their alleged roles in running the ring. But he emphatically denied any involvement or knowledge of the operation.

The allegations hit the newspapers with headlines such as "Report Links Ump Pallone to Sex Scandal." No matter what the outcome of the investigation, he knew that his sexual orientation was now public knowledge, or at least up for public speculation.

That was distressing to him at first, he writes, and then a huge relief. "Now I don't have to hide anymore," he realized. "Now I'm free."

After several months, the investigation on Pallone was closed, with no charges filed. But he was no longer in baseball.

Giamatti refused to renew his contract, listing the alleged sex scandal and other factors, including his rating as an umpire, which was low for 1988. (Pallone attributes this to the Rose incident.)

Pallone was furious, believing the real reason his contract was not renewed was because the baseball establishment could not tolerate a gay man in the game. He does not, however, blame Giamatti, whom he believes was forced by team owners to take action.

"You have to realize he was being paid by the team owners. He was their employee," Pallone said.

"And it's just like what he said that when he talked about Pete Rose. 'No one man is bigger than baseball.' He believed it was in the best interest of baseball to have me out."

Pallone considered suing to try to get his job back, but eventually a settlement was negotiated. He received one year's salary and an additional sum, the amount of which he will not reveal.

When Giamatti died last year, his widow arranged for Pallone to be invited to the memorial service and the printed invitation has a prominent place among the other mementos in his living-room cabinet.

Pallone is now on a nationwide tour to promote the book. When that is done, he hopes to pick up a few speaking dates through a lecture agency that has signed him. "My goal is to become a good spokesperson for the gay community," he said. Some of his views, however, might offend part of that community. In the book, he is disdainful of effeminate men. "If I'm with a friend today and I see a gay man who's extremely effeminate," he writes, "I'll remark, 'I think he goes home and practices.' "

Pallone said he is not offended by effeminate men, but believes they are furthering an unfortunate stereotype. "I want to help get rid of the myth that gay men are just hairdressers, or part of the arts," he said.

But the topic to which he brings the most passion in conversation is his first love--baseball.

And Dave Pallone looks at the baseball establishment and cries foul.

"Baseball calls itself the American game," he said, "but baseball discriminates. No one is going to tell me there are not gays and lesbians who love baseball, because I know many of them and they contribute a lot of money to the game because they love it. Baseball can't say these people are not involved."

He also points out that most baseball stadiums are built at least partly with public funds. "That includes gay taxpayers who are paying for these stadiums," he said. "So how can baseball be two-faced and say, 'We do not accept gay people in our game, but we will accept their tax dollars to build our stadiums?' "

What he most wants to get across is that he believes gays and lesbians should not have to live a double life, in sports or any other walk of life.

"It's not until now, 1990, when I am 38 years old, that I can honestly be Dave Pallone and feel happy about myself," he said. "I just wish in my heart I had 'come out' when I was in baseball.

"But as for now, I've never been happier."

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