The Post-Journal

'Joe League' Nalbone Will Miss Legislature

MAYVILLE - As a Chautauqua County legislator since 1969, Joseph P. Nalbone, D-Jamestown, has seen more foul plays and argued more rulings than most baseball umpires.

And Nalbone should know. He was a baseball umpire prior to his baptism into politics in 1930, when he became a Jamestown Democratic Committee member - a position he has held ever since.

Before that, debates about candidates and high taxes were the furthest things from Nalbone's mind.

Instead, he was part of the reason fans clapped fiercely or booed loudly. That's when the 80-year old legislator was known as "Joe League," the umpire behind home plate that he remains in nickname and spirit.

He was 19 years old in 1928 and fresh out of barber school, which he attended at the urging of his parents.

"My father said, 'I'm going to make something out of you yet.'" said Nalbone, the elder statesman of the Chautauqua County Legislature.

Drawn to Jamestown by the prospect of his first job as a barber, Nalbone moved here from his hometown of Adrian, Pa. He was asking 35 cents per haircut or shave while dreaming of being a professional baseball player, he said.

"I idolized baseball players. I always was a dreamer," he said.

His ability, however, did not match his hopes, he confessed.

"I was a junk pitcher - I could throw a good slider, out-curve, in-curve and sinker, but no fastball. I gave it up because I had no fastball and no power at the bat," the five-foot, eight-inch, bespectacled legislator said.

In early 1930, he moved from his Jamestown barbershop to the classroom of the Bill McGowan School of Professional Umpiring in Washington, D.C. The decision was prompted, he said, by his boss' refusal to let him moonlight at more than one game a week while working as a barber.

The class A and B Jamestown Municipal league games started at 6 p.m., "but my boss wouldn't let me out. That got me mad."

The worst of it, however, was facing his parents, who - while raising his seven brothers and one sister - footed the bill for his barber school training.

"My mother said, 'Do you know how we had to scratch to send you to school? Your father is going to kill you.'

"I said if I didn't quit, I would die anyway," Nalbone recalled.

He pursued a career as the judge of balls and strikes and did so at parks throughout the country, he said.

Whether it was a group of Little Leaguers or college-educated, semiprofessional players, it didn't matter, Nalbone said. He umpired whenever he got the chance.

Those were the days when fans whizzed tomatoes and other assorted garden produce at inconsistent or indecisive umpires, he said.

"The fans were brutal," Nalbone said. "Most all of my games there were problems when my partner got hit with tomatoes. One game, he got hit by a tomato and said, 'The hell with this' and quit and I don't blame him.

"I never got hit because I was the most consistent. I had knowledge of the rules. I had good judgment and eyesight," he said.

Nalbone's umpiring career peaked in 1941, when he was appointed a regular umpire rather than a standby in the New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League. For $35 a shot, he umpired 50 games over the five-month season which required him to follow the players' buses to Batavia and Hornell, as well as to Bradford and Erie, Pennsylvania.

All the while he kept a job as a crate-builder in the shipping room of the Kling Factory in Falconer, he said.

It took only one conversation with his wife - minutes before leaving for a semipro game in Batavia - for Nalbone to give up the career that had become a part of him.

"I am very disappointed in the way we are living." Nalbone quoted his now-deceased first wife as saying. "Both children have the measles, the fuse has just blown, the washing machine is broke and I don't know what to do."

He repeated her words with watery eyes.

"I went into a corner and cried when my wife said the kids were sick. As much as I love baseball, I turned it down for the love of my family," Nalbone said as a teardrop ran down his face.

In 1942, he returned to being a standby in the league, a position he held until his retirement from umpiring in 1984.

He said he knew it was time when a fiery line drive from a batter barely missed him at second base, nearly retiring him from life, he said.

"There was a time that my reflexes couldn't tell me to go to the left or right, so I went to the ground," he said. "After that, I decided to quit. I could've gone on, but I didn't want to get hurt."

Nalbone, a grandfather of 18 had been widowed twice and was married to his present wife, Concetta Palermo in 1984.

Now, with the slightest hint of interest from a listener, he will delve into play-by-play descriptions of tense games in which he screamed out strikes for the game's then-rookies - and recalls them by name - Dan Mattingly, Pete Rose, Sparky Lyle, Whitey Ford, Ben Ogilvie, and Wade Boggs.

In 1962, he was hire as a cabinetmaker at Crawford Furniture. He retired from there at age 68.

Nalbone, who maintained his ties with baseball as the County Grape Belt Baseball League vice president, after 20 years as its president, still bears the features timeless of an umpire - the stiff military-style mustache and one eyebrow raised higher than the other, probably from years of judging 90-mile an hour pitches and out-of-bounds hits.

"I miss umpiring," he said. "When you do something for so long, it gets in your blood.

"It's just like politics," he said. "It's a sort of feeling that you're the person out there who is running the game."

In 1969, after nearly 40 years as a Democratic committee member, he made his bid for a seat in county government. He was elected one of 37 supervisors - a government body that that has been replaced by a system consisting of a county executive and 25 legislators.

Reviewing his 20 years in county government, Nalbone mentioned his key role in bringing Cummins Engine Co. to Lakewood as his favorite memory.

Just as important, he said, have been the countless friends he made throughout the years.

"Once you serve 20 years, you meet a lot of people," he said. "As a Chautauqua County legislator, you help a lot of people. I know I'll miss it."

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