Lawrence Baldassaro (Author of the book “Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball”)

Il Baseball, perfetta metafora dei successi italoamericani

Sep 18, 2023 4284 ITA ENG

I have always thought, perhaps driven by my love for the Italian American community and the history of its achievements, that the greatest American athlete of all time is Joe DiMaggio, who belonged to that community. There is obviously no official ranking, everybody has their own, mine sees there at the top a very great Italian American.

Someone who knows much, but much more about it than I do is Prof. Lawrence Baldassaro, who on baseball and Italian Americans has written volumes unbeatable in style, detail and content. It is a privilege and honor for me to be able to interview him.

Prof. Baldassaro, welcome to We the Italians. Please tell us something about your Italian heritage and your passion for baseball

I’ve been passionate about baseball for as long as I can remember, but there was a time when I couldn’t have imagined writing a book about Italian American ballplayers, or even about anything Italian.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a home with a second- generation Italian American father and an Italian-born mother and grandmother. But as a child I didn’t fully appreciate my Italian heritage. For those of us growing up in the 1950s, there was little incentive to be ethnic. We all wanted to assimilate, even if we didn’t know what that meant. That’s why when my grandmother spoke to me in her Abruzzese dialect, which I understood, I would answer in English.

But then I went to Italy in the summer between my junior and senior years in college, and that changed everything. First, I discovered my cultural roots when I saw the magnificent art and architecture in Florence and Rome. Then I discovered my personal roots when I visited my mother’s family in Abruzzo, most of whom still lived in the farm compound where my mother was born 55 years earlier. All they knew about me was that I was my mother’s son, but they welcomed me not as a stranger, but as a long-lost son returning home.

That’s when I finally understood and embraced my ethnic heritage. And that’s when I decided to dedicate my professional life to studying and teaching Italian language and literature.

Your first book I would like to ask you about is from 2011: “Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball”. Leaving aside for a moment the protagonist of your latest book and of a subsequent question in this interview, what are the most important Italian American names that represent this legacy?

Beyond DiMaggio is the first extensive history of Italian Americans in baseball. I wrote the book to preserve the legacy of those who not only made great contributions to baseball, but whose success and dignity countered negative stereotypes and enhanced the public perception of Italian Americans.

Athletes of Italian descent have achieved distinction in virtually every American sport. But in no sport has their success been more enduring or more socially significant than it has in baseball. While doing the research for Beyond DiMaggio I discovered that, in many ways, the history of Italian American involvement in baseball mirrors the experience of Americans of Italian descent. The early players encountered prejudice, expressed primarily through ethnic slurs and stereotypical portrayal by the media. Later came greater acceptance, especially in the years following World War II. In the following decades there were fewer players of Italian descent, but there was upward mobility from labor to management.

At the end of the 19th century, when baseball was dominated by Anglo, German and Irish Americans, Italian American ballplayers were not welcome. The first major league player clearly identifiable as Italian American was Ed Abbaticchio, who enjoyed a successful nine-year career between 1897 and 1910. But he would prove to be an anomaly. By the mid-1920s only 15 players of Italian descent had played in the major leagues, most of those for brief periods, and some had changed their names to hide their ethnic identity.

Ethnic bias was not the only impediment faced by ballplayers hoping to play professionally. Most immigrant parents considered baseball to be a waste of time. Dario Lodigiani, a San Francisco native who would spend six years in the major leagues between 1938 and 1946, told me that his father was initially opposed to his son’s wishes. “You want to become a ballplayer? You’ll become a bum,” he said. But when Dario was playing for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in his first year out of high school and was making more than his dad at $150 a month, his father said: “Boy, you’ve got a good job.”

At one point his father, who knew almost nothing about baseball, even gave him a batting tip. Having heard a radio announcer say during a game that Dario had hit a popup, he asked his son what that meant. “That’s when I hit the ball under the center and it goes straight up into the air,” Dario explained. “I know what you do,” his father replied. “Put one of those inner soles in your shoe, then you’ll be taller and you’ll hit the ball in the middle.”

The first major star of Italian descent was Tony Lazzeri, another native of San Francisco and the son of immigrants. From 1926-37, he was the starting second baseman for the great New York Yankees teams that won five World Series, and one of the most popular players in baseball. More will be said about Lazzeri later.

In the 1930s Italian American participation in the major leagues increased dramatically with at least 54 making their debut. Some made brief appearances, but many enjoyed lengthy careers and two - Joe DiMaggio and Ernie Lombardi - would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This unprecedented influx triggered an equally unprecedented response from the media, which treated their arrival with an ambiguous attitude not unlike that which had greeted Italian immigrants since the late nineteenth century. Some saw the growing number of Italian players as a threat to the traditional domination of Irish players, thus invoking the ethnic tensions that had existed for so long between these two groups.

In 1934 Boston Globe sports columnist Gene Mack wrote that “spaghetti may soon become the national dish of the national game. Cuccinello, Puccinelli, Crosetti, Lazzeri, Bonura, Orsatti, DiMaggio and a host of other ‘walloping Wops’ can’t be wrong. The Italians are in this business to stay.” His accompanying illustration depicted 13 ballplayers seated around a table featuring a large bowl labeled “spaghetti.”

Of the players who made their debut in the 1930s, Lombardi, DiMaggio, Dolph Camilli and Phil Cavarretta became the first Italian Americans to win a Most Valuable Player Award.

It was during the years following World War II that Italian Americans reached the pinnacle of their success in baseball. At that time New York City was the center of the baseball universe. Between 1947 and 1958, the Yankees won ten pennants and eight World Series, the Dodgers six pennants and one Series, while the Giants won two pennants and one Series.

Players of Italian descent played key roles on all three New York teams, achieving unprecedented visibility and prominence. They included: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Vic Raschi and Billy Martin (Yankees); Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Ralph Branca (Dodgers); Sal Maglie and Johnny Antonelli (Giants). DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Berra and Campanella won MVP awards and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

In the years following World War II, the open use of ethnic epithets gradually decreased. But that didn’t mean there was no more prejudice. Hall of Famer Joe Torre, born in 1940, told me: “When I was growing up I asked my mom, ‘What nationality are we?’ She’d say, ‘You’re American.’ I sensed that unless you were an American, you had something to be ashamed of in those days.

As the years passed, second- and third-generation players of Italian descent were increasingly likely to be the offspring of mixed marriages, to have little or no familiarity with the Italian language, and to consider themselves, first and foremost, “American.”

This is not to say that Italian American fans did not recognize and celebrate stars such as Rocky Colavito, Tony Conigliaro, Rico Petrocelli, Joe Torre and Ron Santo. However, the media were much less likely to take note of a player’s ethnic background and, as time went on, the players were less likely to identify themselves as Italian Americans.

In addition to the ten individuals identified above as members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are three other more recent inductees.

A native of Seattle, Ron Santo overcame numerous challenges, including being diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 18, to forge a Hall of Fame career. In his 14 years (1960-73) as the slugging third baseman for the Chicago Cubs, he was a nine-time All-Star. Following his retirement, in 1990 he became the color analyst for the Cubs radio broadcasts, a position he held until his death in 2010 at the age of 70. In 2003 the Cubs retired his uniform number 10, and in 2011 they erected a statue of him outside Wrigley Field.

Complications from diabetes led to several medical procedures over the last decade of his life, including amputation of both legs below the knees. During those years we would often meet when the Cubs came to Milwaukee and, despite his many afflictions, he never lost his positive attitude and his self-deprecating sense of humor. In 2012 he was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame.

The other two Hall of Famers of Italian descent (John Smoltz and Craig Biggio) were both inducted in 2015.

John Smoltz was one of those rare pitchers who excelled both as a starter and as a reliever. He was with the Atlanta Braves for the first 20 years of his 21-year career (1988-2008). In his first 12 years he was a starter, winning the Cy Young Award as best pitcher in the National League in 1996. In 2002 he became the Braves “closer,” leading the league with 55 “saves.” He returned to the starting rotation in 2005, compiling a record of 44-24 over the next three seasons. An eight-time All-Star, he twice led the league in wins.

Of Italian heritage on his mother’s side, he said of his maternal grandmother, who lit candles and prayed every time he pitched: “She was a full-blooded Italian, the greatest cook in the world, and I loved her to death.”

Craig Biggio was an anomaly in the free-agent era of baseball, spending his entire 20-year career (1988-2007) with one team, the Houston Astros. But within that one team he was an extraordinarily multi-talented player. In his first four seasons, he was a two-time All-Star as a catcher. He then moved to second base, where he was an All-Star in five of his first six seasons and won four Gold Glove Awards. Then, after 11 years at second, he made yet another smooth transition by playing center field.

His hitting was no less impressive than his fielding. In 2007 he became the 27th player in major league history to record 3,000 hits, and he is the only player to reach all these milestones: 600 doubles, 250 home runs, and 400 stolen bases. The Astros erected a statue of him outside Minute Maid Park in 2003 and retired his uniform number 7 in 2008.

When I spoke with Biggio in 2005, I asked what motivated him to continue playing after 18 seasons. “Just the game itself,” he said. “You get to compete against the best players in the world, and I cherish that.”

Italian Americans have gained prominence off the field as well…

Yes. While it is true that in the latter decades of the 20th century fewer players of Italian descent were entering the big leagues, at the same time they were experiencing upward mobility in baseball, moving into management positions, as on-field managers, front office executives, and owners. Since 1981, for example, ten managers, three of whom (Tommy Lasorda, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre) are in the Hall of Fame, have taken their teams to a total of 24 World Series, winning 15 of them. Torre was also a nine-time All-Star as a player and served as Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer from 2011 to 2020. And, in 1989, an Italian American was named to the game’s highest post, Commissioner of Baseball.

No one, I think, better epitomizes the evolution, and social significance, of Italian Americans in baseball, or in American society, for that matter, than A. Bartlett (“Bart”) Giamatti. His father, the son of immigrants, earned a PhD at Harvard and was a professor of Italian at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Born in 1938, Bart was passionate about baseball and was a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan.

After attaining a PhD, he taught comparative literature at Yale, where he established a solid reputation both as a teacher and a scholar of Renaissance literature, focusing on the influence of Italian Renaissance writers on English literature. Then, in 1978, in the same city where his immigrant grandfather had worked in a factory, he was named president of Yale at the age of 39, the youngest ever to hold that post.

In 1986 he gave up that position at one of America’s most prestigious universities to become president of Major League Baseball’s National League. He had captured the attention major league officials by writing eloquently about baseball’s role as the quintessential American game.

Then, on April 1, 1989, he was named seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Within two generations, the grandson of an Italian immigrant had risen to the pinnacle of America’s national game. Not gifted with the talent to play the game, Giamatti found another way to realize the dream of becoming a major leaguer that he shared with so many of his generation.

Sadly, he died six months later, victim of a heart attack at the age of 51. But even though he had little chance to prove what he might have accomplished, his love of the game, demonstrated both in his defense of its traditions and his eloquent celebrations of its meaning, were enough to convince many of his unique status in the game. New York Times columnist Ira Berkow speculated that Giamatti, “this most cultured and civilized and warm and generous and witty man... might have become the best baseball commissioner we’ve ever had. He had brains, sinew, and the best wishes of the game.”                                                                                     

For Giamatti, the ultimate fan who saw in the game he loved a clear expression of the national psyche, baseball became a metaphorical expression of the American Dream, not as material fulfillment but as a spiritual quest for home. In fact, the significance of his impact on baseball is not just that he rose to its highest office, but that he was also one of its most passionate and articulate exponents. He understood better than most the nature and significance of the immigrant experience, and he wrote about it eloquently. “The basic rhythm of baseball,” he wrote, “the going out and the subsequent quest to return home, is part of the plot of the story of our national life, the story of how difficult it is to find the origins one so deeply needs to find. The concept of home has a particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another.”

A few of the individuals portrayed in Beyond DiMaggio found unimaginable fame and fortune by playing baseball. Most found more modest success. But they all had one thing in common, in addition to their ethnic heritage; they all made a living playing the quintessential American game, a game that for many was the very symbol of the values and promises of the country to which their forebears had immigrated.

Why Joe DiMaggio, more than any other, has become the symbol of these talented Italian American baseball players?

One of the most recognizable and popular men in mid-20th century America, Joe DiMaggio was celebrated in song and literature as an iconic hero. Following his death in 1999, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring him “for his storied baseball career; for his many contributions to the nation throughout his lifetime; and for transcending baseball and becoming a symbol for the ages of talent, commitment and achievement.”

But first and foremost, Joe DiMaggio was a ballplayer. He was the undisputed leader of New York Yankees teams that won nine World Series titles in his 13-year career that ran from 1936 to 1951, with three years lost to military duty in World War II. He was three times the American League’s Most Valuable Player, and he holds what many consider to be the most remarkable baseball record of all, a 56-game hitting streak in 1941. As the son of immigrants, he was the embodiment of the American Dream.

In the eyes of his contemporaries, Joe DiMaggio was universally considered the best player they had ever seen. Even his arch-rival, Ted Williams, said “he was the greatest baseball player of our time. He could do it all.” For former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, DiMaggio’s life “demonstrated to all the strivers and seekers - like me - that America would make a place for true excellence whatever its color or accent or origin.”

One of those rare athletes who transcended the world of sport, DiMaggio has been called by more than one writer the last American hero. When he died, his enduring status as a cultural icon was confirmed by an outpouring of adulation which few public figures, in any walk of life, could evoke. His death was front-page news in every major newspaper and was covered extensively on television newscasts and specials. As one Brooklyn native put it, DiMaggio “epitomized an era when, for a lot of us, baseball was the most important thing in life.”

Two of Joe’s brothers also had impressive major-league records. Vince, the oldest of the three and, like Joe, a center fielder, was a two-time All-Star in a ten-year career. Dom, the youngest, was a seven-time All-Star center fielder for the Boston Red Sox. I had the opportunity to meet Dom in 2002 when he was an invited guest at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Not only did he accept my request to interview him, he even invited me to sit with him in the VIP section at the All-Star Game. Of all the major leaguers I have met over the years, none was more engaging, intelligent, or eloquent than Dom. I will forever be grateful that he agreed to write the Foreword to Beyond DiMaggio.

Before there was Joe DiMaggio, there was Tony Lazzeri, as your latest book says: “Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer”. Please tell us about him

I admit that until I was working on Beyond DiMaggio I knew very little about Tony Lazzeri other than that he was a Hall of Fame second baseman for the great Yankees teams of the 1920s and 30s. When I learned that he was one of the most celebrated ballplayers of his era, I felt like I had discovered a buried treasure and decided to make an effort to restore him to his rightful place in baseball history.

In the 12 years that he played for the New York Yankees (1926-37), at a time when baseball ruled the world of sports and was a major social institution, Tony Lazzeri was one of the game’s biggest stars. A key member of the Yankee dynasty that won six pennants and five World Series over that span, he was lauded by his peers and the press as one of the best and smartest players of his era. Legendary sports columnist Red Smith called him “as great a player as ever lived. In all his time with the Yankees there was no one whose hitting and fielding and hustle and fire and brilliantly swift thinking meant more to any team.”

A San Francisco native born to Italian immigrants, Lazzeri was signed by the Yankees after he hit 60 home runs in 1925 for the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League, the first time that number had been reached in the history of organized baseball. The next season the 22-year-old rookie second baseman was in the Yankees starting lineup alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He immediately emerged as a star, finishing second to Ruth in RBIs and third in home runs in the American League.

One of the first middle infielders to hit with power, during his time with the Yankees he was the third most productive hitter (after Ruth and Gehrig) in their legendary lineup, driving in more runs than all but five American League players and hitting more home runs than all but six. He also set marks that neither Ruth nor Gehrig reached; he still holds the American League record for RBIs in a single game (11) and was the first player (and one of only 13) to hit two grand slams in one game.

In addition, Lazzeri was recognized by his peers and the press as a natural leader who possessed one of the keenest baseball minds of his era. Even as a rookie, he was acknowledged as the de facto captain of the team. Frank Crosetti, his teammate from 1932 to 1937, said: “He not only was a great ballplayer, he was a great man. He was a leader. He was like a manager on the field.” And while Lazzeri was notoriously quiet, he had a keen sense of humor; his locker-room pranks endeared him to his teammates. His hitting, leadership ability and modest demeanor also made him a favorite of Yankee fans, second in popularity only to Babe Ruth.

What makes his accomplishments even more remarkable is that he played his entire career while afflicted with epilepsy, a condition so stigmatized at the time that it was kept a secret from fans. But over time his achievements would be overshadowed by those of his iconic teammates Ruth and Gehrig and he became an overlooked figure.

But to my mind, even more than for his baseball heroics, Lazzeri deserves to be remembered for his social impact as the first major star of Italian descent in Major League Baseball. His fame and popularity in the national pastime instilled in his fellow Italian Americans a newfound sense of pride. A symbol of their own hopes of finding a home in a new land that was not always welcoming, he quickly became a hero who was honored at banquets in several cities. Following a 1927 banquet in New York City attended by more than 1,000 people, the New York Times reported that “speeches lauding the brilliant work of the popular infielder and his exemplary conduct off and on the field rang through the grand ballroom.”

Such was his appeal that he inspired a generation of previously skeptical and uninterested immigrants to connect with baseball. For the first time Italian Americans flocked to ballparks, some waving Italian flags, to cheer for the young star.

It is difficult, I believe, to overestimate Lazzeri’s impact in countering negative images of Italians. With his modest demeanor, strong work ethic and quiet leadership, he was the antithesis of all the stereotypes that had been lodged in the public consciousness for decades. It may well be that at a time of unprecedented nationwide media coverage of baseball, he did more than anyone before him to enhance the public perception of Italian Americans. Given his modest, unassuming nature, that was clearly not a role he sought, but he proved to be the right person at the right time to fill it.

Italian baseball has been back in the spotlight lately, thanks to Mike Piazza, one of the greatest champions in recent baseball history, who now coaches the Italian national team and has brought several Italian American players and prospects with the Italian national team's blue jersey. We the Italians is a media partner of the Federazione Italiana Baseball e Softball and we also had the honor of awarding Mike with our "Two Flags One Heart award" at our 2022 gala...

Not surprisingly, the further removed they are from the immigrant generation, the less likely individuals are to have a strong sense of ethnic identity. Players whose careers began in the 1970s and later still expressed pride in their Italian heritage, and some expressed regret that they had not learned to speak Italian, but they were more likely to think of themselves as “American.” But there are those who do maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity.      

None of the younger players I have met impressed me more than Mike Piazza. A 12-time All-Star in his 16-year career, he holds the record for most home runs by a catcher (396) and hit over .300 ten times. Widely considered to be the best offensive catcher ever, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. Yet for all he has achieved, I found him to be remarkably humble. I was also impressed by his awareness of, and genuine commitment to, his Italian heritage.

Piazza has long been involved with efforts to promote the development of baseball in Italy. He was part of Team Italy in the first three World Baseball Classics, as a player and coach, and he is now the manager of the Italian national team. I first met him in 2006 when he was the star of Team Italy in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Seeing him play with such enthusiasm and joy, it was obvious he was not there for personal glory, but for the pride of representing the country where his grandparents were born. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he told me at the time. “It’s important to reconnect with your roots.”

I had the chance to talk with him several more times when his team would come to Milwaukee to play the Brewers. Each time he impressed me with his knowledge of the history of Italian Americans in baseball. In 1997 he had a career-high average of .362. Amazingly, that was only good enough for third place in the league. “I really wanted to be the first catcher since Ernie Lombardi to win the batting title [in 1938 and 1942],” he told me.

In 2002 he made his first trip to Italy, where, as part of Major League Baseball’s effort to internationalize the game, he conducted clinics for young Italian players. “I’ve been back several times since,” he told me. “I’ve always looked for a bridge between the Italians who stayed and the people who migrated here. We grew up in the United States and we love this country, but we’re very proud of our ancestry, the fact that Italy is a country of historical tradition. That’s what I find fascinating.”

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