Italians In Major League Baseball – The Thirties
By Andrew Paul Mele
Italians would begin to make their mark in the majors in the breakthrough decade of the 1930s. In 1920, two percent of all players in the majors were of Italian descent. By 1941, the number had increased to about eight percent, the bulk of the growth coming in the thirties. Italians at the time however, were still the subject of bias and ridicule. In an October 11 article in the New York American on the World Series victory of the Cleveland Indians, famed writer Ring Lardner suggested that the City of Cleveland may want to turn Columbus Day into a holiday of their own. "Up to now," he wrote, "Columbus Day has been celebrated mostly by wops..."
But the Italians began an assent on the majors nonetheless. One of the most renowned players of that or any era was Ernie Lombardi of Oakland, California. It was a breakthrough decade and Old Snooz was a breakthrough ballplayer. His peers considered him one of the best hitters of his era. His .306 lifetime batting average was built upon ten seasons of hitting .300 or better in a seventeen year career. Lombardi was the first Italian American to win his leagues' Most Valuable Player Award.
In retirement he operated a liquor store in San Leandro, California and seethed in his resentment at not being named to baseball's Hall-of-Fame, an honor he believed he deserved. So did a great many others. In 1981, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their study, The 100 Greatest Players of All Time. He was selected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1958 and honored by the Reds with a statue along with Cinncy greats Joe Nuxhall, Ted Kluszewski and Frank Robinson in 2003.
When the electors in Cooperstown finally enshrined Lombardi in 1986, the big catcher had been dead for nine years, but in all likelihood he was there to revel in his long overdue honor.
Earnest Ralph Orsatti joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1927 and in short order became a charter member of the wild and zany Cardinals of the era known to history as the Gashouse Gang. But the politically incorrect times left their mark on Italians. Noted as something of a fashion plate, Ernie bought his clothes on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and was often referred to in the press as the Dashing Dago or the Hollywood Wop. In addition to those labels, Orsatti was also noted as a competent chef. His brother was the owner of a popular Los Angeles restaurant and Ernie, on occasion would whip up an Italian dinner for his teammates and their wives and girlfriends. Popular with his mates, they included baseball legends Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, "Ducky" Medwick and the great Dizzy Dean. When he played in the Pacific Coast League in the late thirties his teammates included George Pucinelli and Rugger Ardizoia. Rugger was one of the few Major League players born in Italy; his home was Oleggio in the Piedmont Region.
The epitome of the rough and tumble Cardinals of the 30s, Orsatti also worked as a stunt man and double for the movie comic Buster Keaton. He hit .306 in nine big league seasons, all spent with the Cardinals, and was an outstanding defensive outfielder. Orsatti, the tough little Italian of the St. Louis Gashouse Gang ran a flower shop in Los Angeles in his retirement years. Ernie died in 1968 in Canoga Park, California. He was 66.
There was no mistaking the heritage of Nino Bongiovanni. Another of the West Coast Italians, Nino was born in 1911. When he passed away in 2009, "Bungy" was 97 years old. After beginning his professional career with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast league, Nino was credited with hitting safely in 43 consecutive games in 1934. He blamed a sportswriter who took two hits away from him with his official scoring in game 44 for preventing him from going on to completing a 56 game streak as he hit in 12 more games. Drafted by the Reds, Bongiovanni spent two seasons in the majors, 1937 and 38 where he appeared in 68 games and hit a collective .259.
One the problems he encountered was with his manager Bill Mckechnie. Again, the bias of the era was evident in Nino's treatment. "I didn't like him because he didn't like me," Nino said of his manager. "He used to call me Dago, which I didn't like." Not willing to complain, Bungy just let it pass, but it stung.
Back to the minors, Bongiovanni ended his pro career with Stockton in the PCL where he hit .319 in 46 games in 1949. His minor league career average was .303 over fourteen seasons.
Italian Americans were beginning to make their mark in baseball as well as all fields of endeavor and from this point on they would never have to look back.