We The Italians | The Italian American stars in US sports: Baseball 1 of 2

The Italian American stars in US sports: Baseball 1 of 2

The Italian American stars in US sports: Baseball 1 of 2

  • WTI Magazine #89 Mar 16, 2017
  • 232

Joe DiMaggio was the greatest, but he was not the first neither the last; hundreds of Italian Americans and some Italians pursued like him the dream of a better life by hitting a ball. DiMaggio came in with an incredible impact on the lives of the American people, on the pages of glossy magazines: he was a modern star, the new hero of the Land of Opportunity of the rich and of the immigrants, the new LIFE icon. In the newsreels the children of the Italians born in the suburbs who spoke the new language correctly were saying: "I have never seen before an Italian of great success, he is our hero."

The streets, then people and hard work, the suburbs and then a few boys, a ball and a bat, with the dust of the slide. It was baseball's comfort.

He had come a long way, the son of a fisherman, from the games in the streets to the district team sponsored by an olive oil Rossi, from the first dollars with the Seals to the Yankees' call. And then the Streak, the World Series, Marilyn and the Hall of Fame...

The "Ancestors"

Batty (Edward James) Abbaticchio, Apulian roots, football player (Feilding H. Yost credited him as the inventor of the spiral punt) before turning pro baseball player. Between 1897 and 1898 he played with the Philadelphia Phillies, and later in Boston (1903-1905) and Pittsburgh (1907-1910). His baseball was mostly in mid-table teams, except for 1909 when his Pittsburgh Pirates. He played 855 games in the Major League for 8 seasons, earning the respect of his companions and even a complaint for damages by a woman, knocked out by a ball he hit during a game. 

Ping Bodie (real name Francesco Pezzolo), a surname borrowed from the homonymous mining town in California where his father was employed, began in the semipro team of the San Francisco Seals, in the Pacific Coast League; later he moved to the Chicago White Sox (1911-1914) and then to the Philadelphia Athletics (1917) and later to the New York Yankees (1918-1921). At the end of his career, he returned to California and started working as an electrician in the world of cinema. He worked in the Hollywood studios for more than 32 years, sometimes even as an extra. 

Eppa Rixey, born in Culpeper, Virginia, the son of a banker, in light of some genealogical research appears to have been a descendant of a Riccardo Riccia arrived in the same state in the second half of 1700. There is no trace of this connection on his official profile on the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He played left-handed pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies (1912-1917, 1919-1920) and with the Cincinnati Reds (1921-1933). He participated in the First World War and graduated in chemistry.

Let's not forget Babe Pinelli (born in 1895 Rinaldo Angelo Paolinelli), a third baseman and then referee in the Major League, who played with the Chicago White Sox (1918), the Detroit Tigers (1920) and the Cincinnati Reds (1922-1927). 

The paisà were ready to leave a mark. They would do that in the next two decades.

The Thirties and Forties

Michael "Push 'Em Up Tony" Lazzeri began to have success in the Pacific Coast League with the Salt Lake City Mariners: 60 home runs and 222 points at the end of his first season. That remarkable start gave him his nickname, with the contribution of an ... "injection" of good spaghetti cooked by restaurateur Tony Roffeti "just to bring it up" and make him a hell of a batter.

The following year, Lazzeri was already in New York City with the Yankees and became the first real Italian American star of baseball; from 1927 to 1932 Lazzeri will beat a higher average then .300 (.324 in '29) and will be one of the protagonists of the famous "Murderer's Row" of the team. For seven seasons, Lazzeri realized at least 100 RBIs and, for at least 4 of them, he recorded no less than 18 home runs. On May 24, 1936 he set a record in the American League remained unbeaten until 1961: 11 RBIs in a single game. Third best player of the Major League in '28, 5 wins out of 7 participations at the World Series, he ended up inducted into the Hall of Fame. He died young at the age of 43 of a heart attack, in his Frisco.

Chicago's Second base Oscar "Ski" Melillo played in St. Louis and Boston from 1926 to 1937 and, after retiring, he began a twenty-year career as a coach culminated with the World Series in '48.

Ernesto "Ernie" "Bocci" Lombardi broke into the world of baseball also in the Pacific Coast League, dominating for three years with an average beat rate of .377, .366 and .370. In 1931 he went to the Brooklyn Dodgers; in the Big Apple Ernie started not that good and, in the March of '32, he was traded to Cincinnati. With the Reds Lombardi returned to dominate the dish, becoming the only major receiver of the Majors in the '30s and' 40s to also excel in a batter role. He won two batting titles in '38 and in '42, he participated 8 times to the All-Stars Games and to 2 World Series. He also is in the Hall of Fame.

Ernie Orsatti's parents were both born in Italy, then emigrated to California. The young athlete started to excel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. From '27 to '35 he played with the St. Louis Cardinals as first base, batter and left-handed pitcher. He did 4 World Series and won two of them (1931 and 1934) and after retiring began his second life in show business.

Adolph "Dolph" Camilli, also born in San Francisco and raised in the Pacific Coast League, in 1933 passed to the Chicago Cubs to land the following year to the Philadelphia Phillies.

From '35 to '37 he realized at least 25 home runs per season; in 1939 he went to play for the Dodgers and participated to two All-Stars games, as team captain. To end his career he returned to PCL in California and, later on, he worked as a scout for the Yankees.

Phil "Philibuck" Cavarretta, originally from Chicago, arrived in Major League with the Cubs winning the pennant and the title of MVP of the American League in 1945. After his long career with the home team (1934-1953) and then with the Red Sox (1954-1955) he was also a coach until the first half of the seventies, and he is the last still living athlete to have played against Babe Ruth in a match of the regular season (May 12, 1935, Chicago Cubs - Boston Braves).

Frank Crosetti here is another Frisco who played for the Seals and then arrived in New York. He played for the Yankees as a shortstop from '32 to '48, with two All-Star Games (1938-39) and another 20 years as a coach; in the two roles he won 17 World Series from 1932 to 1962!

Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto, born in Oakland, California in 1912, went down in the history of the national pastime for "The Cookie Game", a play in the ninth inning that helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1947. He previously played three years in Pittsburgh with the Pirates (1934-1936), later with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the years 1937-1941 and then in 1946-47; among those two biennium, the 4 long years of World War II with the US Navy. He ended his career becoming a coach with multiple experiences, from California to New York and then to Washington.

Philip "Scooter" Rizzuto debuted with the Yankees in 1941, replacing another Italian American at the end of his career (Crosetti). He became part of an incredible team, capable of winning five consecutive World Series between the late forties and the early fifties. Scooter also participated to five All-Star Games. After retiring, he became the official announcer of the Yankees and later a radio broadcaster and a leading sports TV host. He arrived later to  the Hall of Fame: but better late than never.