The book: “Baseball Italian Style: Great Stories Told by Italian American Major Leaguers from Crosetti to Piazza”
The author: Lawrence Baldassaro
How to find it: Sports Publishing, 292 pages, $24.99, released March 6.
The links: At Amazon.com, at the publisher’s website.
A review in 90-feet or less: Mike Piazza says on page 204:
“My dad said he would be called ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ when he was a kid,” “and all the Irish kids would want to fight him, and he would try so hard to assimilate himself to be an American. Then when he grew up and started losing that ethnic identity, he would strive to be more Italian.
“I remember, this Italian Amerian group gave me the Brian Piccolo Award. At the banquet, I was giving a little bit of history of my family and I said I’m only half Italian, my mother is Slovak. There was this deafening silence over the crowd, and my dad said, ‘Why did you tell them that?’
“I said, ‘It’s your fault; you married a Slovak.’”
In what could have easily come off as something perpetuating stereotypes or cultural chest-bumping, Baldassaro manages in his assembling a collection of first-hand stories of more than 40 players, managers, umpires and a couple of GMs to dig a little deeper about each of their Italian roots, what it means to them and how it shaped their attitudes about life, kinship and how the game should be played.
Baldassaro, a professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, started this as a project related to his 2011 book, “Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball,” and realized he had interviews amassed along the lines of Lawrence Ritter’s 1996 oral history project, “The Glory of Their Times.”
“Just to be clear: readers should not expect to find dreamy reveries of the timelessness and sociological significance of baseball,” Baldassaro writes in the introduction. “To be sure, there are, on occasion, nostalgic reminiscences of bygone days. But by and large, the narrators provide a dispassionate look into the game as they know it.”
And all seem to have a Joe DiMaggio worship-related story along the way.
The lineup is impressive.
For those with Southern California ties, there are the usual suspects from Joey Amalfitano to Barry Zito, with Tommy Lasorda, Mike Scioscia, Ned Colletti, Joe Torre, Jim Fergosi, Al Ferrara and Bobby Valentine thrown in.
For those going back to the playing days of the 1930s – Frank Crosetti, Phil Cavarretta or Nino Bongiovanni – up until Anthony Rizzo or Joey Votto of modern day, you can read how the times changes through generations in how they identified and then perhaps never thought much else about their background when it came to the giant melting pot of baseball. To some, playing for Italy in the World Baseball Classic was the highlight of their professional career. That’s interesting considering how Lasorda explains things as he remembers them as a kid.
“There were some people in town who changed their names,” Lasorda says on page 66 – not mentioning that fellow Pennsylvania native Joe Maddon, the former Angels coach and current Cubs manager, was originally from the Maddonini tribe.
“Some of them did it when they came over because a lot of times the immigration people misjudged their names, and they wrote what they thought it was. And that was the name the had to stand by. But there were a few people who changed their names because they didn’t think they could get in anything, which was true. They couldn’t speak the language, they took the dirty jobs. They would make the sacrifice, but they were making it for their families. They knew their children could grow up to be anything they wanted to be. So they took the slop jobs … But we had all the pride in the world in our name. Our name was gold as far as we were concerned.”
Torre says he once remembers asking his mother about his ethnic identity. “I asked mom, ‘What are we, Neapolitan, Calabrese?’ (and) she’d say, ‘We’re American.’ I sensed that unless you were American you had something to be ashamed of in those days and it was sad in retrospect.”
Bobby Valentine says he thinks his original family name was “Valentini,” but “I never looked at people as either Italians or Latins or whites or blacks. I just looked at them as who they were. … I don’t characterize people like that.”
Says Fergosi, on page 94: “I didn’t encounger any prejudice … ‘Dago’ or ‘wop” (was) mostly an endearing term. One time, Bud Furillo, who was a sportswriter for the Herald Examiner, had a headline about me, ‘Super Dago,’ and he caught a rash of criticism for that. Growing up in California, it was different because there was not a lot of prejudice towards anybody.”
Some of the stories are more heartbreaking, others very sweet and sentimental.
When Joey Amalfitano recalls he had to go find his father down at the San Pedro fishing port to bring him home so he could sign his first big-league contract with the New York Giants, he remembers also taking his father back to work and asking in broken English how much money was agreed upon. “I told him, ‘$35,000.’ He looked at me and said in Italian, ‘Isn’t this a great country?’”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Take it along with you to Valentino’s in Santa Monica and leave it as a tip for the waiter.