On April 30, 1988, one of the most famous rhubarbs in modern baseball history took place at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium when Reds manager Pete Rose and umpire Dave Pallone engaged in an unceremonious scuffle — or perhaps they didn’t, since Pallone insists that although Rose pushed him, the scratch under Rose’s eye was not inflicted by Pallone’s finger but by Rose himself in the locker room. The truth may never be known, but we make it 5-1 that if Pete covers the incident in a subsequent autobiography (his third? fourth?), he’ll have a different story.
In any event, the incident is one of Behind the Mask’s two big selling points, the other being Pallone’s homosexuality and his claim that after 10 years of steady if unspectacular service as a major league umpire, he was, in effect, dismissed for it. (His name had been brought up in a so-called ”teenage sex ring” scandal in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but his involvement in the case never went beyond his being questioned by the local DA.) Pallone’s dismissal is a blot on the record of baseball, probably the low point in the short reign of former commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, who also banned Pete Rose from baseball — an irony Pallone doesn’t seem to appreciate. Readers who want to know why Pallone didn’t challenge Giamatti’s decision in court will not find the answer in this book.
Behind the Mask isn’t bad baseball writing, though it’s doubtful that many readers are buying it for that reason. The accounts of life in the minors seem accurate, and they are certainly vivid, while the passages on the education of an umpire are better than anything in Ron Luciano or Eric Gregg’s books. Pallone is the first ump-turned-author capable of making the reader see a game from his unique viewpoint, and he is probably the first ump to describe in detail the humiliating experience of blowing a call that changed the outcome of a game.
That said, Behind the Mask is self-serving and self-justifying; its purpose seems not so much to discuss Pallone’s career as an umpire as to help create a second career as martyr and gay-rights spokesman. Pallone entered the big leagues as a scab during the 1979 umpire’s strike and, amazingly, seems genuinely puzzled that several of his fellow umpires should continue to hold that against him. Pallone’s rationalizations for scabbing are about what you’d expect: The major league scouts didn’t give him a ”fair shake,” minor league salaries and working conditions were appalling, ”I might have died on the vine for ten more years (in the minors),” etc. It never seems to occur to him that conditions were equally bad for all striking umps, especially those with families to feed.
Pallone claims that one of his reasons for writing his story was ”to convey to heterosexuals the terrible scrutiny gays in public life are under, and how vulnerable we are to prejudice in society.” Fair enough, but Pallone hardly qualifies for service as a consciousness-raiser. ”I wanted my story to be known,” he said recently on the Donahue show. ”It’s important for young gay men and women to have role models.” Well, Pallone may be famous, but precisely why is he a role model? His flimsy rationalizations for betraying his fellow umps undermine Behind the Mask long before he comes out of the closet — or the locker room. C