ENDICOTT, N.Y. - Ron Luciano told a friend last year he had checked himself into a hospital and was examined for depression early in 1994. The friend was startled.
Not because Luciano seemed to be the most fun-loving, funny, happy-go-lucky extrovert on the face of the earth. This friend knew for years - just as Luciano's family and many other friends knew - the self-deprecating jokes, the exaggerated stories of his life as a major-league umpire, the raconteur character he became - was a facade. It was a barrier built and diligently maintained to keep safe distance between himself and the millions of people he entertained as an umpire, NBC color commentator, author and speaker.
Ron Luciano was an introvert.
The friend wasn't stunned that Luciano was unhappy, but he was surprised that the level of depression was so deep. And he was startled to be the recipient of such personal news. Burdening friends with bad news or personal problems was something Luciano almost never did.
"I remember telling him, `That's the start of getting better, Ronnie,"' said the friend, who asked that his name not be used. "He was so private, I know how tough it was for him just to tell me that."
Apparently, Luciano told almost nobody else he was so depressed. And he never let on his depression had worsened. Last Wednesday, in the one-car garage of his pale green-sided home in this upstate village, Luciano affixed a black hose over the tailpipe of his brown
Cadillac, started the engine, closed the windows and climbed into the car.
He was found at 3:50 p.m. by a friend, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ron Luciano was 57.
Other than the admission of depression a year ago, Luciano offered no clues as to why he killed himself. But even in how he carefully planned his suicide, Luciano thought of everybody else first.
Police found several written pieces of information left by Luciano. One was a note for his two sisters, Dee Jester and Barbara Walton, with whom he lived. Luciano also left a request for specific funeral arrangements. He clearly marked his 1994 tax receipts, insurance policies, will and other financial paperwork.
He even left his dog, Billy (named after Billy Martin), in a nearby kennel, and paid the bill in full.
"He never wanted to burden anybody," said David Fisher, the New York City author who collaborated with Luciano on four books. "This was the only selfish thing he ever did."
"There was no definite answer or reason," said his nephew, Kevin Walton. "As far as we know, and we don't have all the facts, there was no incredible depression. Obviously, we don't have the answers."
Luciano was a hero in Endicott. Everybody knew him and loved to say hello. He was 6 feet 4, 300 pounds and easily recognizable. Even before his major-league umpiring career (1969-79) or his two-year stint on NBC's "Game of the Week," he was a big man in town.
He was a standout football player at Union-Endicott High School, an All-America offensive lineman at Syracuse in '58. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but his brief NFL career ended in the early '60s.
He became a teacher, then took a front-office job in the Detroit Tigers' minor-league system. But he quickly saw umpiring as a way to stay on a ballfield. It took him five years to make the majors and begin his legendary battles with Martin and Earl Weaver.
"It's easier than a room full of 12-year-olds," he used to say when asked why he became an umpire.
Luciano and his sister lived with their mother, Josephine, until several years ago. That's when Josephine Luciano, who is in her 90s and suffers from Alzheimer's disease, was placed in a nursing home. Her condition deteriorated and for the past year or two she stopped recognizing her son. Still, he visited her daily. He took her to lunch. He talked to her. She was the most important person in his life.
"He probably took (her deteriorating condition) harder than anyone ever realized," said Cosmo Parisi, another friend.
Luciano was married once, for less than a year in 1974, to an airline attendant from Chicago. Their hectic lives made their time together during his baseball season nearly impossible. During the offseason, they couldn't agree where to live. She didn't want to move to a small town like Endicott. He didn't want the big-city life of Chicago.
Luciano opened Ron Luciano's Sports World in the late 1970s, a sporting-goods shop north of Binghamton. His sisters oversaw the operation, but unscrupulous employees ran the business into bankruptcy.
In the early '80s, after his NBC contract was not renewed and he began a career as a best-selling author, Luciano filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. He lost his umpire's pension in the proceeding, but emerged having paid off his creditors.
"He overcame obstacles his entire life," said Joe Garbarino, Luciano's accountant since the '60s.
The autopsy showed he was in great shape for his size and age. So why did Ron Luciano kill himself?
His best friends don't know. His family doesn't know. Neither do his business associates, the police nor the coroner.
Perhaps his mother's condition frustrated him worse than anyone imagined. Perhaps his constant struggle to lose weight bothered him more than he led anyone to believe. Perhaps he was unhappy he never found another serious romantic relationship.
Or maybe he simply grew tired of living, of wearing the mask that prevented others from seeing what was beneath the happy face.
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