Play Ball! A New Season Opens: Italians in Baseball
The history of America is intertwined with the history of baseball. The game itself has become one means of measuring the society that surrounds it. Since 1897, over 500 Italian Americans have played major league baseball. Some on the game’s greatest players and some that aren’t well-known share the Italian heritage. The Italian Tribune would like to pay tribute to these athletes and we are compiling an Italian American All-Star Team. We would like you, our readers to send us your suggestions.
As with any list, there will be clear and obvious choices, such as the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio in Center Field, but then there are some really tough choices. What about the best catcher? There are four Hall of Famers for that position – Ernie Lombardi, Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella. Not an easy selection!
One of the spots that Italian Americans have excelled in is that of Manager. Yes, we took that into account as well. From a time in which ethnic slurs regularly accompanied the names of Italian American players in newspaper stories, the sport and society have evolved to a point where Italian Americans, once underrepresented in baseball, have become preeminent in the managerial ranks. Whether it was the Baseball Writers Association or the Sporting News, Italian Americans have garnered the Manager of the Year Award 18 times since 1980, that’s more than 25% of the time!
With names like Tommy Lasorda (two times Manager of the Year and in the Hall of Fame), Joe Torre – twice picked as the top manager and also Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa – Hall of Famer and four times Manager of the Year. He did so with three different teams and Hall of Fame. In more recent years, there’s Mike Sciossia (three times Manager of the Year for the Angels), Joe Maddon (three times Manager of the Year with two different clubs). Then there’s Terry Francona, Joe Girardi, Billy Martin (for the A’s, not the Yankees) and Larry Bowa – each was Manager of the Year a single time. Let’s not forget Bobby Valentine who did not win while he managed the Mets, but surely could have. Yes, there will be quite a discussion about the best pick for manager. And while we are not allowing a spot for the Commissioner’s office, at the very top of the game there was Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, the grandson of an Italian immigrant laborer. He received a doctorate in comparative literature from Yale University, became the president of Yale and later was president of the National League. He became Commissioner in 1989, but died of a heart attack after just five months in office. He established himself as the most intellectual Commissioner in the history of the game, a man who wrote of the game with unmatched eloquence, “The concept of home has particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another.”
During our research into Italian Americans in Baseball, we have covered more than a century of players, but as late as the 1920s, Italian Americans were grossly underrepresented in the national pastime. From the first Italian American in the big leagues – Ed Abbaticchio, who was a short stop/second baseman for the Phillies beginning in 1897, to the present day – Joe Maddon (whose family name was originally Madonnini), Manager of the Year for the Cubs in 2015.
The research for our list uncovered some relatively obscure facts. Did you know that Joe Tinker of the Chicago Cubs famous “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” double play trio (immortalized in the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”) – was of Italian extraction?
The first Major League team that gained an impact from Italian American players were the New York Yankees, and while we think of many players coming from the East Coast and Midwest, it was a player called Ping Bodie who was the inspiration for a lot of players coming from the West Coast. Ping was a feared hitter in his day. His nickname came from the sound made when his fifty-two-ounce bat crashed into the “dead” ball of his era. Bodie, whose real name was Francesco Pezzolo, had a considerable career. In 1918, Ping was traded to the Yankees. When Babe Ruth arrived from Boston following the 1919 season, he was Ping’s roommate when the team was on the road. He is well remembered for his response to a question about what it was like rooming with Ruth, to which he replied,”I don’t room with him, I room with his suitcase.”
San Francisco was the primary home for a significant wave of Italian American baseball players. Following Ping, there arrived West Coast player Tony Lazzeri to the Yankees, followed by Frank Crosetti – also to the Yankees. And then in 1936, one of the greatest of all time, Joe DiMaggio from San Francisco, joined the Yankees. Joe’s talent and performance were so transcendent that they defeated prejudice. DiMaggio and singer Frank Sinatra became the two most popular Italian American celebrities of the mid-20th century and DiMaggio had a great impact in changing the public’s perception of Italian Americans, primarily because he embodied the qualities that America most valued in a man – hardworking, poised and well-spoken, but underneath it all, a competitor that gave his all – all of the time. Perhaps Yogi Berra said it best regarding his years of playing on baseball’s dynasty, “People used to say the Yankees won a lot because we led the league in Italians.”
By the way, DiMaggio’s brothers, Vince and Dom also made it to the big leagues. Dom, always in the shadow of his older brother, was likely the most underrated player of his era and retired with a .298 batting average. The Little Professor was a seven-time all-star and still holds the Boston Red Sox record for his 1949, 34-game hitting streak. Ironically, the streak was ended on August 9 by an outstanding catch made by his brother Joe.
Opening Day has been a time of celebration for many Americans for generations. Whether it was in New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis or Philadelphia, during the 1920s through ‘til present day (and in many more cities), regardless of what the calendar says, Opening Day heralds the beginning of spring.
Once again, we’d love to hear from you. Who do you believe should be represented on an All-Italian American Baseball All-Star team? In the upcoming weeks, we will be featuring players from different positions and different eras and hope that you will enjoy our look at our national pastime.