Behind the Mask

updated 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN A JOB IN WHICH BEING REVILED IS the norm and excellence usually means anonymity, baseball umpire Ron Luciano achieved the near impossible in his 11-year career: fans adored him. The 6'4", 300-lb. Luciano lumbered into the American League in 1969 and cast off the traditional dour air of the man in blue. He called runners out by cocking his fingers, pistol-like, and gunning them down and roared ball-and-strike calls to the heavens. "When I started, it was played by nine tough competitors on grass," Luciano once said. "By the time I was finished, there were 10 men on each 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." With his showmanship and a blunt glib-ness that produced four memoirs—including the best-seller The Umpire Strikes Back—Luciano fit perfectly into baseball's glitzy new world. Says his friend, newsman David Rossie: "His work was an extension of his personality. He was constantly exuberant."

Or so it seemed until Jan. 18, when Luciano, 57, made his final call with such somber deliberation, poisoning himself with carbon monoxide as he sat in his 1987 Cadillac in the garage of his wood-frame house in his upstate hometown of Endicott, N.Y. Some who knew him couldn't comprehend the contradiction. Said local police detective Nicholas DiNunzio, a cousin of Luciano's: "Whatever happened at the end was not Ronnie."

Yet in a deeper way, plainly it was. Those closest to Luciano knew there was a dark side to his personality. "He was far more sensitive than people thought," says broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who in 1980 helped engineer Luciano's two-year stint as an NBC baseball analyst. "I wasn't surprised he was so depressed. When he left umpiring, I think he lost a big chunk of himself."

In fact there was considerable sadness in Luciano's life. His father, Perry, the immigrant owner of a workingman's tavern, died of lung cancer when his son was 11. Luciano's mother, Josephine, now 92, took charge of the place, and he was reared by his older sisters Barbara, now 70, and Dolores, 59. Hefting beer kegs gave Luciano a body that helped make him an ail-American football tackle for Syracuse University in 1958, but injuries cut short any thought of an NFL career. His 1975 marriage to Polly Dixon, a TWA flight attendant, lasted less than two years. They had no children.

Surprisingly, even Luciano's glory days in the '70s—when he called the '74 World Series and seemed to be constantly bumping chests with feisty Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver—gave him little joy. "Ronnie never really loved baseball," wrote David Fisher, coauthor of Luciano's books. "He had not been a fan growing up.... He never cared too much about the solemn traditions."

Overly exuberant as a baseball commentator, Luciano never got the hang of soundbites, and his NBC career fizzled in 1982. In the mid-'80s, an Endicott sporting-goods store he owned went bankrupt, though book sales and the banquet circuit kept him solvent. As an autopsy would later show, he was physically in fine health. He had girlfriends after his divorce, but romance, his sister Dolores says, "didn't seem that important to him." He had lived with his mother and his widowed sister Barbara Walton.

Those closest to Luciano believe the turning point came in 1990, after he checked his mother into a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease. "He was overprotective of our mother, almost childlike," says Dolores. Luciano fed and bathed her himself for years, she says, and eventually "he went through a kind of guilt that he wasn't able to take care of her anymore."

Luciano's nephew Kevin Walton says that in late 1994 his uncle began treatment for depression. Apparently it wasn't enough. Luciano arranged his end carefully. He waited until his sister had left to visit relatives in Denver. He took his dog, Billy, to a kennel and paid the bill in advance. He asked a hunting buddy, Ricky Stefano, 27, to visit his home at 3 p.m. "to help move things in the garage" on the day he planned to die. In one of the several notes he left behind, Walton says, Luciano apologized to Stefano for the ruse but explained he wanted to spare his family the agony of discovering his body.

In the garage, Luciano had carefully laid out his will, tax forms and notes to his relatives. Though his family won't reveal the exact contents of the notes, Walton says they did not describe his depression in depth: "He said, 'There's nobody to blame for this. It's just time for me to leave.' " Dolores says that Luciano always "made his personal decisions alone" and adds, "I think he felt his work was done. He'd given us everything we could ask for emotionally, spiritually and financially. I think he felt the time had come to move on."

GREGORY CERIO
ANNE LONGLEY and TOM NUGENT in Endicott and ALLISON LYNN in New York City

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