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

June 22, 1990|DAVID COLKER | 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.

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