Former MLB umpire Steve Palermo dies at 67

Ben Walker, Associated Press

Mention the name of Steve Palermo around baseball and those who worked with him, knew him or had only heard of him usually bow their heads, lower their eyes and simply nod.

An umpire with Hall of Fame potential, all cut short on that summer night in Texas a long time ago.

Palermo, whose accomplished career ended when he was shot trying to break up a robbery in 1991, has died. He was 67.

Major League Baseball announced Sunday that Palermo had died. Palermo, who lived in the Kansas City area, had been ill with cancer.

“I remember when he came up,” Hall of Famer George Brett said at the Orioles-Royals game. “Obviously, it didn’t take him long to be respected as one of the finest umpires in the game.

“At the time of his unfortunate shooting in Dallas, trying to save some girl, he was definitely regarded as probably the best umpire in baseball. It’s very sad,” he said.

After a rapid five-year ascent through the minors, Palermo broke into the majors late in the 1976 season and joined the American League staff the next year. He worked the 1983 World Series, the playoffs several times and an All-Star Game.

On July 7, 1991, Palermo was having a late-night meal in Dallas when two servers who had just left the restaurant were mugged. Palermo chased the attackers and was shot, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Told he would likely never walk again, Palermo worked hard at his rehabilitation and made it to the mound with a cane to throw the first ball for the 1991 World Series opener at the Metrodome.

Palermo took the same approach on the field.

“You got to be tough, you got to be strong,” longtime umpire Tim Welke, who praised Palermo as a mentor, recalls him saying. “He would say, ‘If you got to bark at someone, know more than that manager or player is hearing it. There are guys in both dugouts watching and listening, and they’ll remember that.”

Don Denkinger already was an established American League umpire — this was before MLB merged the AL and NL staffs — when Palermo arrived.

Even then, Palermo was confident. Some said cocky, in fact. He liked it to be known that, unlike most every other plate ump, he didn’t work with an indicator, the hand-held clicker used to keep track of balls, strikes and outs.

“He was proud of his abilities,” Denkinger said, “and rightfully so.”

Denkinger and Palermo together worked the 1978 AL East tiebreaker game at Fenway Park. That’s Palermo in the tape, heading toward the Green Monster and pointing fair on Bucky Dent’s famed home run.

Palermo also had a soft side.

He sometimes told the tale of watching a young Baltimore pitcher warm up for his major league debut in 1988, facing a strong Boston team. Palermo could sense the newcomer was jittery.

So just before the start, Palermo walked toward the mound to offer a new ball, along with some advice.

“You just get that first pitch close, I’ll call it a strike. And then we’ll get this game going” is how Palermo liked to tell the story. Check the boxscore from Curt Schilling’s debut and it’ll show his first pitch, to the great Wade Boggs, was indeed a called strike.

After Baltimore’s 9-8 loss in Kansas City on Sunday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter reflected on his friend.

“I’ve known Steve for a long time. My first year in the big leagues, he treated me like a 20-year veteran. I’ll always remember that,” he said.

“Steve was a very honest man. I appreciate his bluntness. He helped me along the way. He helped a lot of people, umpires, coaches, managers. He’s as talented an umpire as I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Royals manager Ned Yost was a backup catcher when he met Palermo. In later years, Palermo would often drop into Kauffman Stadium to talk ball.

“As a catcher, some umpires are horrible to work in front of. They don’t want to talk. Steve was always good about being able to talk and discuss pitches. If you thought it was a strike, he would always engage,” Yost said.

“After the accident that left him paralyzed, he worked so hard to get back. He was a huge resource for us here for umpire things. We would see Steve all the time. He’s just a class guy, somebody we’re going to really, really miss.”

Palermo, the plate ump for Dave Righetti’s no-hitter at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox on July 4, 1983, became an MLB umpire supervisor in 2000.

“Steve Palermo was a great umpire, a gifted communicator and a widely respected baseball official, known in our sport for his leadership and courage,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said.

And, Brett pointed out, Palermo could be pretty animated, too.

“You can get on YouTube and pull up Steve Palermo and arguments and Earl Weaver has a couple of really good ones with him,” he said.

“It’s kind of ironic we’re playing the Orioles today. Earl is no longer with us and neither is Stevie and right now they’re probably having another one up in heaven.”