Attention must be paid: a modern day hero passed away on May 14, 2017 in Kansas City due to complications from lung cancer. Steve Palermo not only was an excellent major league umpire, he was a true life hero.
On July 6, 1991, he was enjoying a post-game dinner at Campisi’s restaurant here in Dallas, Texas when he, along with five other men, broke up a robbery/assault in a nearby parking lot. A shot from a 32 caliber pistol struck Palermo and damaged his spinal cord. He was told he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
With a determination that defined his character, he eventually was able to walk with a cane, but he spent 26 years in constant pain. The rehab process he went through was arduous and challenging: it did not daunt his spirit.
Major League Baseball always takes care of its own – in 1994 he became a special assistant to Bud Selig, commissioner of the sport. His assignment was to focus on ways to reduce the length of games.
Prior to this unfortunate experience, Palermo had a stellar umpiring career in the American League from 1976 until 1991.
Umpiring in that era was quite a bit different than it is today: there were many colorful umps and their names were quite familiar to the fans. For example: Dutch Rennert and Satch Davidson called balls and strikes in loud, authoritative voices that could be heard throughout the stadium; Ron Luciano was eccentric, funny, and wrote entertaining books (see “The fall of the Roman umpire”); Doug Harvey, who is now in the Hall of Fame, called the game with the majesty of a supreme court justice.
There was a decided difference between umpires in the American League and the National League – because of the outside chest protectors in the junior circuit, umpires had a tendency to call a high strike and not a low one.
The National League, on the other hand, had inside chest protectors which allowed the umpires more range of motion to call that low strike. In 1977, American League officials were given the option of wearing the inside chest protectors, and Palermo was one of the first to do so.
Another big difference between the era of the 1970’s and today’s baseball is that the game has gotten a lot friendlier. Forty years ago, scorching umpire/manager arguments were a regular feature. Given the instant replay today, the number of arguments has significantly diminished.
Palermo, who had a relatively short fuse, engaged in many memorable disputes, particularly with Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles.
During this time, I was covering the Cincinnati Reds. I had frequent conversations with Pete Rose about the quality of umpiring, mostly in the National League. He thought that Bruce Froemming, Harry Wendelstedt, and John McSherry were the premiere umpires at the time (McSherry was umpiring the night Pete got his 3000th hit). While Pete didn’t have much exposure to American League umpires, he told me that he had heard that Steve Palermo had a fantastic command of the strike zone.
Palermo was never able to return to active duty, but he did throw out the ceremonial pitch prior to Game One of the 1991 World Series – this was three months after being shot. What a glorious moment that was for him and for all of baseball.
RIP Steve Palermo.
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