A chat with Dave Pallone, first MLB umpire to come out as gay

One thing we know for sure: Dale Scott isn’t Major League Baseball’s first gay umpire. We’re now well into the second decade of the 21st century. But in the 1980s, Dave Pallone umpired National League games, and Dave Pallone was gay. Just not publicly. And when at least hints of his sexual orientation did become public, he was fired.

Granted, Pallone had some other problems. He’d been in the middle of an incident that resulted in a monthlong suspension for Pete Rose. And during the 1988 season — Pallone’s last — he was briefly linked to a sex scandal in Saratoga Springs, NY. Pallone was never charged with any sort of crime; what evidence there was seems to have been terribly flimsy. But National League President Bart Giamatti used the affair to justify dumping Pallone.

In his 1990 memoir, "Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball," Pallone dismissed MLB’s stated rationale for firing him, writing, “These reasons were camouflage for the real reason: I was gay, and they didn’t want the publicity surrounding that to tarnish baseball’s macho image. In other words, they were prepared to sacrifice a proven, veteran umpire so they wouldn’t look bad.”

Tuesday, in the wake of Dale Scott making the headlines, I talked to Pallone, who now gives talks around the country.

“First,” he told me, “I do still believe I was forced out because I was gay. Today I read a quote from Bud Selig: ‘All of us from Major League Baseball are very proud of Dale Scott.’ That would not have been said in 1988. So I’m very happy for Dale Scott, and I’m also very happy for all the young men and women who are thinking about becoming umpires, and now don’t have to worry as much about their sexual orientation being an obstacle.”

Pallone thinks that Scott’s coming out will lead to an active player coming out, too. “I thought it would happen years ago, and it didn’t,” he says. “But it will happen soon.”

During his umpiring career, Pallone knew gay players — in his book, he wrote about being sexually involved with a few of them — and talked to them about their unwillingness to go public. “They told me their biggest concerns were about losing money, mostly endorsements, and maybe they wouldn’t have gotten the contract they should have gotten. My response was, ‘How much money do you need?’ After my book came out, one of them actually told me he’d decided to come out. Then he changed his mind.”

What sort of player could best serve the cause? “I hope it’s a player whose name rolls off somebody’s tongue,” Pallone says. “That’s what will do the most good. Not to take anything away from Jason Collins, but if you’re talking about a major star, that’s going to make a bigger difference than anything else could.”

What sort of a difference? “It’s one of the things that Dale Scott will come to understand. Yes, there will be hateful people. There will always be hateful people. But one day, someone will come up to him and say, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’

“The first time that happened to me, I was overwhelmed. It was like I’d been given this great gift, and it will happen to Dale, too. One of the gay ex-players I know is a Hall of Famer. You just hope he’s happy, living his life how he’s living it. But this Hall of Famer, he’s missing that. If he were to do it, he would be amazed. His life would be totally different.”

What does Pallone think about MLB’s current efforts? “Commissioner Selig made a huge step with Ambassador for Inclusion Billy Bean. I’m hoping that when Billy puts his plan together, they’ll realize they need someone in that role with the real power to make a change. I’m hoping Major League Baseball will continue the outreach, come into the 21st century. Why not? Everyone wants to be included, and baseball certainly isn’t going to lose any fans that way.”

As Pallone points out, at least a few of the individual franchises — he listed the Giants, the Red Sox, and the Cubs — have made real efforts to appeal to LGBT fans, and MLB could probably take some pointers from those teams.

Things might have worked out differently, 25 years ago. Major League Baseball didn’t have to fire Pallone in 1988. Otherwise, he might have been professional baseball’s first openly gay umpire. Instead he came out publicly in 1990, with the publication of his book, in which he was quite forthright about his romantic relationships. Today, Pallone is quite aware of his legacy. He also realizes that Scott has taken the next, necessary step.

“Lou Brock once said I was the white Jackie Robinson,” Pallone told me. “But next spring, Dale will be the first person on a baseball field who’s open about his sexual orientation. Who isn’t straight, I mean. Until now, when people watched a baseball game, they just assumed that every single person on the field had the same orientation: straight. But next spring that will change.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” Pallone says, “but progress is progress.”