Book pays Italian-American players homage
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.
So it should be no surprise that this is the primary narrative force in a book of considerable scholarship on one significant portion of baseball ethnicity, "Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball." It is written by Lawrence Baldassaro, professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Baldassaro, a native of Massachusetts and a Boston Red Sox fan of the first order, has written numerous baseball articles and was the editor of "Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life." He researched this latest book for 10 years, and the profound finished product was clearly worth the effort. It must be said, though, that the historical record that Baldassaro develops here clearly shows that the first Major League team that gained an impact from Italian-American players was, in fact, the New York Yankees.
Or, as Yogi Berra states the case on the jacket of the book: "People used to say the Yankees won a lot because we led the league in Italians. All I'll say is there's a real good history of Italians in baseball, and this book has excellent history."
Well said as usual, Mr. Berra.
Baldassaro suggests here that the Italian-American experience in baseball mirrored the general experience of Italian-Americans in society. And in a larger way, the playing population of Major League baseball over time mirrored the American experience of "ethnic succession," beginning with the Anglo-Saxons, followed by the Germans and Irish, the northern Europeans, and later, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
Italian-Americans, Baldassaro writes, initially encountered prejudice and negative stereotypes in baseball -- just as they did in larger society. As late as the 1920s, Italian-Americans were grossly underrepresented in the national pastime.
"For them the professed democratic ideals of Major League Baseball were enacted slowly and sparingly," Baldassaro writes.
When many other Americans of that era thought of Italian-Americans, the names that may have come to mind included those of Chicago mobster Al Capone, or of Sacco and Vanzetti, two working men of leftist political beliefs sentenced to death for murder in a heavily politicized trial, the outcome of which remains controversial to this day. But in the case of baseball players, eventually democratic impulses prevailed, as did the talent and the will of the Italian-American players.
San Francisco was the primary home of the first waves of Italian-American baseball players. The first one was the player known as Ping Bodie, whose real name was Francesco Pezzolo. Bodie had a considerable career, but he may be best remembered for his response to a question about what it was like rooming with Babe Ruth on the road: "I don't room with him, I room with his suitcase."
But then came Tony Lazzeri, to the Yankees. And Frank Crosetti, to the Yankees. And again, from San Francisco, to the Yankees, in 1936, one of the greatest of all time, Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio's brothers, Vince and Dom also made it to the big leagues. The late Dom DiMaggio wrote the foreword for the book.)
Joe DiMaggio'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, but as Baldassaro contends: "DiMaggio had a greater impact in changing the public's perception of Italian-Americans, primarily because he better embodied the qualities America most valued at the time. Both were the best at what they did, but what DiMaggio did as an athlete was more important to more Americans than what Sinatra did as a singer."
From a time in which ethnic slurs regularly accompanied the names of Italian-American players in newspaper stories, the sport and society evolved to a point where Italian-Americans, once underrepresented in baseball, were preeminent in the managerial ranks. As Baldassaro writes, between 1998 and 2009, six were named Manager of the Year: Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Joe Maddon (whose family name was originally Madonnini), Larry Bowa, Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi. There were more, of course, prominently including, Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers, of whom Joe Torre's brother, Frank, once said: "Lasorda would like all the managers in baseball to be Italian."
And at the very top of the game, there was, as Commissioner of Baseball, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, the grandson of an 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 and died of a heart attack after just five months in office. But he established himself as the most intellectual Commissioner in the history of the game, a man who wrote of the game with unmatched eloquence as in: "The concept of home has particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another."
That is the essence of this marvelously comprehensive book, this immigrant experience and this game. There are countless stories of Italian-Americans in baseball in this book, but they all share not only a common heritage but also the experience of participating in what the author justifiably calls "the quintessential American game."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.