How many dreams come true in Pittsburgh?
On Friday, April 6, 1979, a 27-year-old man from Waltham, Massachusetts crouched behind Pirates catcher Ed Ott and prepared to call balls and strikes in Three Rivers Stadium in his first game as a big league umpire.
Whether the first pitch from Bert Blyleven was a ball or a strike has long been forgotten.
What is irrefutable from that day is this: Dave Pallone pulled his mask over his face, and he left it there for the next 10 seasons.
Pallone was a big league umpire but he wasn’t, in the eyes of some. He was an opportunist or he was a scab. He was part of the fraternity yet he wasn’t.
You think that’s some confliction? You have no idea.
Pallone, for 10 big league seasons, was two people.
There was the tough, talented umpire Pallone, who toiled in the minor leagues for eight years before getting his chance in the wake of the infamous big league umpires strike of 1979. There was the guy who wouldn’t be shoved out, despite atrocious and reprehensible treatment by his so-called brethren who looked at him and saw scab.
Then there was the “other” Dave Pallone—the one who told bold-faced lies regularly. The one who didn’t want anyone to know what he was really up to. The one who lived in daily fear of being found out.
That Dave Pallone was gay.
Actually, both Pallones were gay. But only one of them let anyone know it. The other lived as a straight man, pretending to have girlfriends and telling illogical falsehoods at even the most innocuous questions.
“Hey, what did you do over the weekend?”
Pallone might have lied—might have given you a whopper of a fish story, to keep himself cloistered in the closet. He might have rattled off a laundry list of things he had done—some involving members of the opposite sex. And all would have been a bunch of horsepucky.
Pallone led that double life for 10 big league seasons (1979-88).
“You lived in daily fear that you’d be found out,” Pallone was telling me over the phone, his easy accent still tinged with New England.
Pallone is 58 today. He’s a diversity trainer and motivational speaker. He preaches a message: always respect yourself, and others.
Ironic, because for years, Dave Pallone tried to run away from who he was. And he didn’t always respect himself.
“I knew I was different,” he says. “But it wasn’t until my first sexual encounter with another man, in Puerto Rico when I was 25, that I knew for sure.”
It was a bittersweet discovery. Pallone had finally solved his mystery, but he didn’t dare tell anyone.
Besides, there was a career dream to pursue.
Pallone told me that he was watching Curt Gowdy announce the MLB “Game of the Week” one Saturday afternoon, circa 1969. Sometime during the broadcast, Gowdy read a promo, soliciting young men to consider becoming umpires.
“It was like he was talking to me,” Pallone said. “From then, I wanted to be an umpire.”
His sexual orientation providing a constant, confusing backdrop, Pallone set out to be a baseball arbiter. He did the bush leagues and rode the buses, just like the players in the low minors. He ate the bad food and slept in the dirty motels. He was just like the guys with the gloves and bats—he was waiting to be discovered.
For his umpiring.
After the Puerto Rico encounter, Pallone would have been mortified to have been discovered as anything else.
The double life was on.
Pallone kept getting promoted for his umpiring. By 1978, he was entrenched in the International League—a Triple-A circuit just one step below the bigs.
Then the big league umpires went on strike.
It began in spring training, 1979, and there was no agreement by the time the regular season dawned.
Pallone was one of the umpires plucked from the minors to fill in.
It was his chance to fulfill his dream of rendering judgment on a big league diamond. He knew there’d be fallout—especially when the strike was settled and Pallone was one of the handful of umps who stayed.
“Scab” is an awful, sneer-inducing word. But in organized labor parlance, it fit Pallone like a glove. By accepting a full-time assignment to stay in the majors, Pallone in essence became a union buster. Of all the lines a man can cross, a picket line is among the most perilous.
When the “real” umpires returned after their labor dispute was settled, Pallone hunkered down. He knew it would likely be Hell for him.
He was wrong.
It was worse.
“There was absolutely no camaraderie,” Pallone said. “If I asked for help, like on a checked swing, they’d turn their back to me. They wouldn’t even walk out onto the field with me.”
This childish, overtly disrespectful treatment continued, Pallone estimates, for at least his first three seasons in the majors. It got better after that, but for his entire 10 years in the big leagues, he was never truly accepted—although Pallone’s three years spent on a crew with Bob Engel and Paul Runge (1983-85) were the least stressful.
And oh yeah, there was that double life thing happening, too.
It was so ironic—Pallone was ostracized, but not for what he feared would be the reason: the revelation that he was gay. If his fellow umpires only knew!
Dave Pallone kept wearing his mask, kept looking over his shoulder. At any moment he’d be found out. How long could a man keep such a secret?
Pallone made an analogy for the straight man. He likened it to being at a perpetual party, drinking underage, and living in constant fear that someone would find out that the ID you had was fake.
Yet Pallone pulled it off, year after year. Not once did he think of quitting—not when the other umpires treated him like excrement. Not when paranoia threatened to engulf him.
“This was my dream,” Pallone explained. “I worked hard to be a big league umpire. I wasn’t going to be driven out.”
Until the day that he was.
It wasn’t true, Pallone said then and says now of a story that was reported in 1988. It wasn’t true that he was part of some prostitution ring involving young men and boys. The facts agreed with him. The law absolved him.
But the damage was done. He had finally been “outed” as a gay man.
Major League Baseball paid him to leave. Never before had one of their men in blue been a confirmed homosexual. After some soul-searching, Pallone took the money and ran.
Ten years and out.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t taken the money, and I had fought (baseball) in the courts,” Pallone told me. “But that would have been very costly and taken a very long time.”
He came out with a book, “Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball,” in 1990. Shortly after leaving the game, he started on the speaking circuit.
Today, Pallone estimates that his speaking engagements are “60/40—60 percent college campuses, 40 percent corporate stuff.”
He talks of diversity and the respect thing and will lighten things up with some funny anecdotes about baseball.
Pallone and his partner, Keith, live in Colorado.
He doesn’t have to lie about that anymore.
Dave’s website is www.davepallone.com