- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

Earl Weaver on Ron Luciano: “He made a farce of the game. He shouldn’t have been on the field. He was a clown.”

Ron Luciano on Earl Weaver: “He’s about 3-foot-1. I tell him to get his nose off my kneecap.”

Maybe that was the problem: The feisty Baltimore Orioles manager took the game of baseball seriously, and the beefy umpire didn’t — at least not always. Their confrontations from 1968 to 1979 were either hilarious or horrible, depending on your own view of what used to be called our national pastime.

Luciano ejected Weaver eight times over eight seasons before the American League stopped assigning him to Orioles games because of the antagonism between the two. The highest or lowest point of this ongoing feud came 31 years ago tomorrow, when the ump booted the skipper in both games of a doubleheader — the second time before a pitch had been thrown in the nightcap.

Why? Well, as the umpires and managers met at home plate to exchange lineup cards, Earl apparently offered a few more opinions of Ron’s performance in the first game. We don’t know the exact sequence, but it probably went something like this:

Weaver: “I’d like to repeat what I said earlier, Ron. You’re blind as a fungo bat, and your mama wears hip boots, if you even know who your mama is.”

Luciano: “Earl, to quote the old song by Ella Fitzgerald, ‘It’s too darn hot.’ Take the rest of the day off.”

This is, of course, a highly sanitized version.

Nowadays most fans remember Earl Weaver, the little genius who managed the Orioles for 17 seasons in two stretches, won four pennants (1969-71, 1979) and finished with the fifth-best record (1,480-1,060 — .583) in baseball history. Earl was so full of himself at times that he almost deserves credit for a fifth pennant. The year after his first retirement, his players were so determined to prove they could win without him that they did so under the mild-mannered, self-effacing and short-lived Joe Altobelli.

For better or worse, Luciano has been largely forgotten (pun intended). He always seemed a fun guy whether as an umpire, TV analyst or author of baseball books with titles like “The Umpire Strikes Back” and “The Fall of the Roman Umpire.” Apparently, however, he had inner demons of which no one was aware. His death in 1995 at age 57 was ruled a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning after his body was discovered in the garage at his Endicott, N.Y., home.

Once Luciano described himself this way: “I was an umpire, but beneath my chest protector beat the heart of a fan.” No kidding. If that means having fun at the ballpark, he certainly qualified. The question was whether his antics fit in with the solemn image Major League Baseball wished to project.

For instance, Luciano often would render an “out” call by pumping his arm dramatically several times or delivering a mock shooting gesture, as in, “You’re dead, baby!” In fact, diminutive infielder Freddy Patek, slumping badly, once begged Luciano not to so embarrass him if he fanned again.

After Cleveland Indians third baseman Buddy Bell committed two errors in a spring training game while Luciano was working at third, the two exchanged places for an inning. The next day Luciano received — surprise! — a reprimand from the league office. Recalling the incident, Ron commented, “The Indians have never invited me back for Old-Timers Day — how quickly they forget.”

Another time, Luciano worked an entire game from center field while trying to talk Detroit Tigers outfielder Mickey Stanley, whom he liked, out of retiring.

When Chicago White Sox pitcher Tommy John dropped the ball during his windup, Luciano called a strike on the batter anyway. His dubious explanation: “I couldn’t resist the opportunity.”

Earlier, Luciano was a star football player at Syracuse and went to training camps with three NFL teams before injuries ended his career in 1962. The following year, the Detroit Tigers offered him a job as a general manager in their minor league system, but after taking an instructional course in umpiring, he decided his future lay on the field rather than in the front office.

Two years later, Luciano and Weaver met during a series in Reading, Pa., while Earl was managing the Elmira (N.Y.) Pioneers. Talk about ominous portents! Sparks flew so immediately that Luciano ejected Weaver in all four games of the series.

Luciano preceded Weaver to the majors, making it in 1968 before the Orioles fired Hank Bauer in midseason and named third-base coach Weaver to replace him. Ron’s first American League assignment was Opening Day in Washington, and naturally there was a problem. His blue umpiring outfit had been lost, but Luciano donned a black suit and worked third base anyway.

The last professional association, if that’s the word, between Luciano and Weaver came when the Orioles invaded old Comiskey Park for a series between Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox in June 1979. After being ejected because of excessive beefing — what else? — Weaver protested the game because of “the umpire’s integrity,” or what he considered the lack of it. Weaver was suspended for three games, and American League president Lee MacPhail had had enough. Luciano worked no more Baltimore games between then and season’s end, when he wisely retired.

The long Weaver-Luciano feud reflected no credit on either man or on their sport, but it was fun for the fans. In “The Umpire Strikes Back,” Luciano wrote poignantly about the changes he had seen during his years behind a mask:

“When I started, the game was played by nine tough competitors, on grass, in graceful ballparks. … By the time I finished, there were 10 men on a side, the game was played indoors on plastic and I had to spend half my time watching out for a man dressed in a chicken suit who kept trying to kiss me.”

That man, it goes without saying, wasn’t Earl Weaver.

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