Monday, August 20, 2018

Books: "Baseball Italian Style"

Baseball Italian Style: Great Stories Told by Italian American Major Leaguers from Crosetti to Piazza
By Lawrence Baldassaro
Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

The contributions of Italians in baseball, especially in New York, can be seen in Yankees history from shortstops Frank Crosetti and Phil Rizzuto (who later gained fame as the team's announcer) to Joe DiMaggio to Yogi Berra to Joe Torre, who managed the club to four championships in the late 1990s; and the Mets, whose Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza is one of just two players in that franchise to have his number retired.

In the new book, Baseball Italian Style, Lawrence Baldassaro, professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, brings together the memories of major leaguers of Italian heritage whose collective careers span almost a century, from the 1930s up to today. These first-person accounts will give baseball an intimate level of the players they cheered as heroes or jeered as adversaries, as well as coaches, managers, front-office executives, and umpires.

The men who speak in this collection, including Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Ron Santo, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Tom Lasorda, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre, go beyond facts and figures to provide an inside look at life in the big leagues.

Their stories provide a time capsule that documents not only the evolution of Italian American participation in the national pastime but also the continuity of the game and the many changes that have taken place, on and off the field.

At a time when statistical analysis plays an increasingly prominent role in the sport, the monologues in this book are a reminder that the history of baseball is passed on to future generations more eloquently, and with much greater passion, through the words of those who lived it than it is by numerical data.

Phil Rizzuto.
In Phil Rizzuto's essay, he talks about growing up in Brooklyn and trying out for teams such as the Dodgers and Yankees, "I always wanted to be a ballplayer. I was like the kids today who collect cards. I read everything, every line score of every game, and I used to make little crystal sets. not many games would be broadcast on radio, but the ones that were, I'd be able to get. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes wondering if I had not been a ballplayer what would I have been? I was not one of the smart kids in school because I was always thinking, Oh boy, we'll get out of school soon and I can play ball. 

"I idolized more people on the Yankees, but only because they were more well known and they were winning all the time, and the Dodgers were not. The Yankees had a lot of Italians at that time. The name Frank Crosetti right away stuck with me, and Joe DiMaggio. They also had Marius Russo, a left-hander who was one of the top pitchers then and who lived right near me. As a matter of fact, he drove me to Yankee Stadium my first year; I didn't have a car. And naturally they had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. My uncle used to take me to see those great ballplayers.

"My first tryout was with the Dodgers, and that's when I had the problems with Casey (Stengel), who was managing them. In 1936 we had these tryouts in Ebbets Field. It's not like the tryouts you have today. They'd line you up and you'd run from the right field foul line to the left field foul line and the first fifty they keep. I was so fast I was always one of the first fifty. You get five swings and then go out and field your position. This kid who was trying to impress Casey hit me right in the middle of the back with his first pitch. I stiffened up, and I couldn't hit. I'll never forget what Casey said: 'Hey kid, listen. You go out and get a shoeshine box; that's the only way you're going to make a living. You'll never make it to the big leagues.'

"About a week later my high school coach got me a tryout with the Giants. Bill Terry was the manager, another Hall of Famer. And he didn't even let me work out. He said, 'We're looking for guys who can hit home runs.' And then the Red Sox, they were going to sign me, but they said they were looking at another kid. They had just signed this kid who lives in Louisville, and he looks like a great one, and it was Pee Wee Reese. Geez, I wanted to play with the Red Sox. I'd heard about that short left field fence and all of that. But then the Dodgers bought him from Louisville, and so he became a Dodger. So eventually I might've gone with the Red Sox, but who knows?

"Then the Yankees, they were the last ones. Whoever thought you could get with the Yankees? They had this unusual tryout for a full week. Every day you played a game and different situations would come up. They'd ask you to bunt, to hit-and-run, try to steal, and you'd play third, you'd play second, you'd play short. And I just happened to have a great week; I couldn't do anything wrong.

"I was working in Bush Terminal, factory work, and I was getting $15 a week. They said, 'We've got a team in Bassett, Virginia, and we'll give you $75 a month.' Now, I had never been away from home. When I had to leave to go there, my father, because they didn't give you any money, no bonuses, or anything, he pinned a $20 bill to my undershirt. I'll never forget how beautiful the train ride was, riding through Washington and Richmond. We stopped at Richmond and I had my first taste of Southern fried chicken and grits and all that. So then we got to Bassett. No don't forget, I've never been away from home. I got off the train and there's nothing there. I said, 'Where the hell is the town?' There was a drugstore, a post office, and a diner. That was the whole town and I couldn't believe it. And it was very hilly. They used to say, 'This is a very unusual place. All the cows, their front legs are shorter than the back legs so they can climb.' And I believed everything they told me. The people were so nice, but they couldn't understand me with my Brooklyn accent, and I couldn't understand them with their Southern accent.

"My rookie year in 1941 was unbelievable, with DiMag hitting in 56 straight and Williams hitting over .400. That's when I saw my first live president. We opened in Washington and the history was that the president used to throw out the first ball. DiMag told me, 'Now look, don't get too close 'cause people get spiked, they dive for that souvenir.' They had to help Roosevelt stand up and he threw the ball and everybody dives for it. I mean these monsters. I didn't come close to it, but I tried, just to see the president. I didn't think I'd ever see a live president."

Baseball Italian Style is a book that shows the heart of America's pastime and connects generations seamlessly in a way no other sport can.

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