Gerald R. Gems (Writer)

I campioni dello sport, veri eroi della comunità italoamericana

Oct 18, 2015 1585 ITA ENG

Sport is a very important topic in our trip around the US looking for how, when and where Italians have left positive contributions to the growth of the American society. Sport champions are often true heroes, especially in the US: and some of those heroes have been Italian Americans, inspiring a strong and justified sense of pride in those fellow Italians who didn't get the same positive consideration in everyday life.

Prof. Gerald R. Gems has written a very interesting book about this topic: "Sport and the shaping of the Italian American identity". He is the perfect guest to talk about this, and we welcome him on We the Italians

Prof. Gems, in your book you analyze the role of sport in the formation of the Italian American identity and then through the decades. Please tell us something more about this.

When Italian immigrants came to the USA, (mostly between 1880-1920) they had no sense of an identity. Italy had only been liberated from foreign powers after 1860 and although the country was nominally united under Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Piedmont, most people, especially in the Mezzogiorno and Sicily, did not see themselves as Italians. Their loyalty was not to the new government, who they perceived to be just another occupier and tax collector; but to their families and paesani in their villages.

When they migrated to America, they did not yet see themselves as American, and the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans (WASPs) who were the vast majority of the American populace did not accept them as Americans. The WASPs, in fact, saw the southern Italians and Sicilians as an inferior people, unworthy of becoming American citizens. Such Social Darwinian racial stereotyping would continue for decades, and even today, the perception of Italians as gangsters lingers in American movies and television shows.

My book analyzes how the migrants from Italy first developed an Italian identity in the USA, and the role of sport in that process. Italians and American citizens began to celebrate Columbus Day as a festive holiday; but the Italian migrants adhered to their linguistic dialects, their own foods, their own forms of recreation, such as bocce ball or card games and dances, their ancestral lifestyles, and their Catholic religion, which set them apart from American citizens and often ostracized them and excluded them from the American mainstream society.

Laws required the children of the immigrants to attend school, where they were introduced to the English language, as well as American sports and games in their physical education classes. Italian peasants lived a very physical life, tending to their crops and their animals in Italy, and their physicality found expression in sports and games. It was one area where they had an equal opportunity and could challenge the Anglo beliefs in racial superiority. One of the first winners of the Boston Marathon was the son of an Italian immigrant. Dorando Pietri, the famous Olympic marathoner of 1908, then came to the USA to challenge the best runners in distance races, and he attracted fans who had come from different regions of Italy, who then started to perceive themselves as Italians. In 1912 another Italian migrant, Gaston Strobino, who had become an American citizen, won the bronze medal in the 1912 Olympic marathon, which signaled the beginning of a transition in national identity.

Boxing was another sport in which physical prowess enabled Italians to excel and the first world champions start to appear in the World War I era, displacing the Irish and Jewish fighters who preceded them. But World War I also challenged national identity as Italians who migrated to the USA and even their children were still considered to be Italian citizens, who could be and were drafted to serve the Italian military. Many others voluntarily returned to Italy to fight, while others entered the American army as national identity remained in a liminal state, not fully one or the other.

Mussolini continually nurtured an Italian identity by sending emissaries, such as Italo Balbo and others to the USA, establishing Italian language schools in Catholic parishes, and appealing to Italian Americans for financial aid in his imperial endeavors in Africa.

It was not until Italians adopted the American national game of baseball that they gained greater acceptance in American society.

Which were the most popular sports among the Italian Americans, and why is that?

While distance racing was an early favorite, the second generation promoted their Italian American identity through the American sports of baseball, football, and basketball. Some of the boxers fought under aliases to disguise their Italian ancestry, and the first Italian baseball star Anglicized his name, for which his father disowned him. Many Italian parents saw sport as a frivolous activity, when children should be working and helping to support the family; but they changed their minds when their sons who became professional athletes brought home more money than they made working. When Willie Pep (Papaleo) presented his father with his winnings from a boxing match, the overjoyed father told him to see if he could fight two times the next week. Others won enough money to buy homes for their parents and provide a better life than they could ever have hoped for in Italy.

Boxing in particular fit the physical lifestyles and mental dispositions (habitus) of Italian peasants. It was an individual sport that required strength, toughness, stamina, and self-discipline, all qualities characteristic of their lives in Italy.

Baseball, however, became the sport which most assimilated the Italians into the American culture. They came from a communal society which emphasized the family first; while American culture promoted individualism. Baseball enabled them to merge both perspectives: as all nine players had to work together when playing defense, just like their family, if the team was going to be successful; but when on offense each player acted as an individual when he got a chance to hit the ball. Like the American capitalist economic system, the player (or worker) who produced the most as an individual got paid more than the less productive ones. The game also taught respect for authority that American bosses cherished. Many Italians who had to endure foreign imperialists, landlords, and their harsh supervisors, adopted radical political views as communists, socialists, or anarchists, views considered antithetical to the American capitalist and democratic systems. In baseball they learned that if one argues with the umpire (the referee or boss of the game) he could be expelled from the game (or the workplace).

Italian players had been participants in the American game of football since the late nineteenth century, and an Italian led all college players in scoring as early as 1915; but very few Italians had the finances to attend college. There athletic prowess increasing earned them athletic scholarships (free room and board, tuition, and books in exchange for their athletic services) to the universities and providing greater social mobility to graduates. As the professional football league became more prominent after World War II and surpassed baseball as the American national game in the 1960s, Italian players became among the best in the professional ranks.

Who is your favorite Italian American sport champion? Is there anecdote about him or her, that few people know, you'd like to share with our readers?

There are so many great Italian champions it would be hard to pick just one. I would have to recognize Joe DiMaggio, considered to be the greatest baseball player of his era (1936-1951), as the turning point in Italian American identity. He was a humble hero who adhered to his Italian roots, honored his parents, overcame racial stereotypes, yet won acceptance in American mainstream society, as evidenced by his brief marriage to the Hollywood goddess, Marilyn Monroe. Before DiMaggio's ascendance Italians were still viewed as a separate racial group, less than and inferior to the white race. Sociologists and anthropologists began separating ethnicity (or common cultural characteristics) from race (which was often based on skin color) between the two world wars. DiMaggio overcame racism and won whiteness for all Italians. In the process he set an enduring baseball record during the 1941 season that will probably never be broken.

Another athletic hero of mine would be Rocky Marciano, the only world heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated (49-0). Although not the biggest boxer (he would be considered a light heavyweight by today's standards) he overcame setbacks and utilized his limited skills with his punching power and toughness to reach the pinnacle of his profession by hard work and discipline. He did so during a time (1940s-1950s) when Italian Americans were gaining a major foothold in American popular culture. Frank Sinatra was a major actor in Hollywood and a singing sensation, while numerous Italian American teenagers topped the rock and roll charts as individuals or groups.

My current favorite is a baseball player for my hometown Chicago Cubs team. His name is Anthony Rizzo, and he is leading a resurgence for a team that has not won the championship since 1908. Not only is he the star of the team and the entire league; but he is a cancer survivor. He has established a charitable foundation to help children with cancer, including my afflicted nephew. In a time when many professional athletes seem to be selfish and self-absorbed, he is humble and shares his wealth with those in need.

During your research, have you found trace about one or more talented Italian Americans who didn't have the fame and success they deserved?

Yes, there were many. Some were stated above, if not by name. One in particular comes to mind. Joe Savoldi was a star football player for Notre Dame University, the best known Catholic college in the USA, in 1930. Along with fellow Italian Frank Carideo, Savoldi led the Catholic team to the national championship in 1929 and 1930. Savoldi was, however, kicked out of school when his secret marriage became known in a well publicized divorce. Savoldi then turned to professional football and professional wrestling to make a living; but he interrupted his wrestling career to serve as a spy for the United States' OSS espionage services during the Allies' invasion of Italy. Born in Italy, Savoldi had maintained his facility in numerous Italian dialects, which became of immense value to the American military.

Why is there such a big difference between the number of Italian American sportsmen and sportswomen?

While there continues to be a large gap in the media coverage of male and female athletes, women's participation rates in sport have greatly increased since the enactment of Title IX, a federal law, that insured equal opportunity for all in 1972.

The female children of the Italian immigrants enjoyed such liberation even earlier. Whereas in Italy girls were sheltered in the home and saddled with domestic chores until their own marriages, they quickly adopted to new freedoms in the United States. By 1897 Clementine Brida, better known by her married name of Maud Nelson, started playing baseball and eventually became the owner of a traveling women's team, something that would have been an impossibility in Italy. She later hired Margaret Gisolo, whose skill had won a state championship for a boys' team, fostering a protest that resulted in national proportions over the propriety of girls playing with boys in 1928. By that time Eleanor Garatti-Saville had already set a world record in swimming and she garnered two gold medals as a member of two American Olympic teams. Throughout the 1930s Italian American women competed on the American Olympic gymnastics team and numerous Italian female athletes starred in a variety of sports thereafter. The impetus of Title IX after 1972 increasingly provided many more sport opportunities for girls and women, and by the third generation Italian Americans had largely developed an American-Italian identity, no longer adhering to past traditions of sheltering girls from the public. By the end of the twentieth century, Donna Lopiano, a multi-sport star, and head of the Women's Sports Foundation, was considered to be the most powerful female sports executive in the nation.

When we talk about sport and Italy, the one word that comes to our mind is "soccer". Do you think soccer will ever become popular in the US like Baseball or Football or Basketball? And, either it will happen or not, what will be the role of the Italian American community in this?

Italians had been among the leaders in developing soccer in the United States, particularly in St. Louis, which supplied four players to the 1950 US World Cup team. Industrial teams even imported players from Italy to enhance their squads; but soccer has had a difficult time in displacing the traditional American sports of baseball, football, and basketball, which overlap and congest the annual sporting calendar. There is little room for soccer to make headway, although with the increasing number of migrants from soccer playing countries, the sport has gained a larger following and is one of the most popular among young children. This is especially true for girls due to the great success of the national women's team in the Olympics and the World Cup. European soccer matches are now televised weekly on American television, which will only help to grow the fan base.

Unfortunately, at least one Italian is seen as a villain in the growth of American soccer. Giuseppe Rossi, born in New Jersey, opted to return to Italy, eventually playing for its national team, rather than his American birthplace and then leading the Italian team in scoring at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He might have been the Joe DiMaggio of American soccer had he done so for the Americans.

Despite all the successes of Italian Americans in sport I don't think that the assimilation is entirely complete. Italian American youth often long for the past and extol their ethnic ancestry in festivals, attire, music, food, and lifestyle. This phenomenon, known as guido culture, is especially prominent in New York, the state with the most residents of Italian ancestry.

Nevertheless, the USA is a country of immigrants, and Italians have added greatly to its national culture.

You may be interested