By Christopher Ott
One Saturday in 1970, 18-year-old Dave Pallone sat watching a baseball game on TV. A shoulder injury had put a premature end to his dream of being a pitcher, but Boston Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy asked a question that caught his attention: "How would you like to be an umpire?" Gowdy was talking about the Umpire Development Program in Florida, and after Dave Pallone called to find out more about it, he suddenly knew what he wanted to do.
"When I told my dad and my mom that I wanted to go to umpire school," Pallone recalls, "my father hit the roof. He said, 'I just spent all this money for you to go to school!'" -- the teenage Pallone had just completed a six-month course in computer programming -- "but my mom knew that this was what I wanted, and it was her words that kept me going." As they drove to the Ted Williams Baseball School in Lakeville, Massachusetts, for preliminary training, Pallone remembers that his mother told him, "I know this is what you want, and I know that you'll make it.'"
By the time he turned 19, Dave Pallone was umpiring professional games in the minor leagues. "It was the first time in the history of baseball that they had such a young person as an umpire. They knew that they were going to expand and were gonna want more baseball umpires, so they were planning ahead."
Pallone made it to the major leagues in 1979, but he had a secret: in the middle of a high-profile career in the world of professional sports, Dave Pallone was gay. And when the wrong people found out about it in 1988, they forced him from baseball. As he wrote in his 1990 autobiography Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, "Baseball had really found me guilty... of being gay." No one in professional baseball had come out before Pallone, and no one has since.
Life "Behind the Mask"
Today, Dave Pallone lives in Denver, and he sat down recently to talk to Oasis about being gay in the world of sports, as well as his work as a speaker for schools and corporations about issues of diversity.
"I knew for sure that I was different or I was gay when I was 16, 17, 18, 19," he says, but he adds that he knew almost nothing about what it meant except that he should keep it quiet. In baseball, things got worse. "Getting into this macho world of baseball, there was just no way I could ever let anyone know that I was gay."
In Behind the Mask, Pallone describes the beginnings of his secret gay life. In one moving story, he describes how he sat alone, unacknowledged, in the back pew at the funeral for his lover, Scott. No one in Scott's family knew about their three-year relationship when Scott was killed by a drunk driver in 1982. But in the mid-80s, Dave Pallone came out to a few trusted colleagues, and eventually he even told his secret to then-president of the National League Bart Giamatti.
In 1988, however, Pallone was forced to come out from behind his mask in a much bigger way. The National League dismissed him for allegedly having sex with a minor, even though the charges against him had already been found groundless and the District Attorney in charge of the case had dropped the investigation. Pallone believes that the real issue was his sexual orientation. Referring to others in professional baseball who had been disciplined lightly, he asks in Behind the Mask, "How could they allow people who were guilty of breaking laws to continue their careers, but then turn around and force me out for being innocent?"
In his work today, Pallone confronts the anti-gay prejudice that kept him in the closet and which eventually cost him his job. When speaking at schools, he says, "What I try to emphasize is that yes, there are athletes who are lesbian and gay in professional sports, in college sports and in high school sports, no matter what the sport is. People have to understand that."
When asked if he thinks the often-cited estimate that 10% of the population is gay holds true for athletes, he suggests that the numbers aren't what's most important. Instead, he tells coaches, "They need to start thinking, 'Well, I might have some gay people on my teams or in my high school or in my university, and I have to deal with that. And dealing with it is understanding that if I say anything detrimental toward a gay person, I could be hurting one of my own people.'"
Pallone says that one of the questions he is asked most often today is what advice he would give to young athletes about coming out.
"For a young person, I think the most important thing is that they have to be true to themselves. They have to wake up every morning and look themselves in the mirror. I mean, it's hard enough to live the one life we get, but it's very difficult to live two, and that's what you end up doing. When you're in the closet, you end up living two lives."
Pallone does believe, however, that everyone should confront prejudice of any kind.
"No person, whether they're an athlete or just a regular college student, should ever come out of the closet if they are not ready for that. But they should always stand up for what they believe is right. Even if they are straight and they hear someone saying something bad about a lesbian or gay person -- or any other kind of person, any person whatsoever -- they should stand up and say that is not a good thing to be doing. At least if you do that, you are not condoning the things that are gonna hurt you in the future, whether you are straight or gay.
"I use something that happened to me. When I was younger, living in the projects, there was one black kid that lived there, and one day we ganged up on him and started throwing things at him. I remember standing there watching it happen and saying to myself, 'I don't have to worry about this, because it will never happen to me.' But discrimination did happen to me. I lost a career. It came around and hit me in the face. In a way, what I did at 10, 11, and 12 years old came back to hurt me at 36. It does come back around. That's how I feel about it."
The Corporate Closet
Pallone also speaks at corporations about gay issues in the workplace. Although corporations traditionally resisted openness about homosexuality almost as fiercely as the world of sports, Pallone says things are changing. "Most of the corporations now are changing their attitude toward about discrimination of any sort. Not only are they worried about lawsuits, but they're worried about the bottom line. The bottom line is productivity, and they know that when everyone in a work force gets along, their bottom line is going to be better and their productivity is going to be better."
He also finds that his background as an umpire gives him credibility in the world of business. "By the time my presentation is over, people who might have been tough to start off with are rethinking their ways of discriminating. [Having been an umpire] gives me a lot of credibility. It puts us -- no pun intended -- on a level playing field. You know, major-league baseball is a billion-dollar business, and I dealt with it. I dealt with 50,000 people every day and millions of people on television, and so it does give me that credibility. And because I'm more straight-acting than what they may have as stereotypes for gay men, it makes a difference. They don't fear me right away."
Even though Pallone now makes a living speaking about gay issues, he believes that some of the gay-rights movement's top-priority goals are misplaced. He especially emphasizes the importance of helping gay young people to deal with their sexual orientation.
"We as a community at times don't think of the most important things. The suicide rate for gay teenagers is so high, and we do not do as much as we can for them. We worry too much about having the right to get married, the right to serve in the armed forces, the right to march in the St. Patrick's parade. I mean, all these are well and good, but I don't think they should be a high priority.
"People say, 'Don't you feel you should be able to get married?' Well, yeah. But if you're gonna ask me do I want to be able to get married or do I want to have protection at the workplace, and I could have one or the other, I'm gonna go for the workplace. Or if you come to me and say, 'What's more important, getting married or saving a kid's life?' well, I don't think there's any choice there."
When asked about gay teen suicide -- a 1988 US Department of Health and Human Services study found that gay adolescents commit suicide at two to three times the rate of heterosexuals -- Pallone says it is something that is always on his mind as a speaker. "I talk about gay suicide every time. I'm gonna be speaking at the University of New Hampshire in September, and one of the stories that I will bring up is about a young man who was 17 years old who had everything to live for: star football player, gonna go to college, was loved by everyone -- and he hung himself. What did he hang himself for? We don't know, but why does a 17-year-old hang himself? Think about it. If he was dealing with his sexual orientation -- I don't know for sure, but I think that's what happened -- we have to address that."
Pallone's focus on gay youth has to do with what happened shortly after he came out publicly: he began receiving what would eventually amount to nearly 70,000 letters. One of the first letters revealed something that almost seems a reenactment of the way that Pallone's own life was changed by something he saw on TV. "A young man told me that I stopped him from committing suicide because he saw me on television. I knew right then and there that this was going to be my focus for the rest of my life, and my way of giving something back to the community."
Christopher Ott is a freelance writer in Denver.