Born in Martinez, California on November 25, 1914, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio was the fourth son and eighth child born to Sicilian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio’s parents immigrated to America in 1898 and left behind their family in Isola delle Femmine outside of Palermo, where the DiMaggios had been fishermen for generations. Joe DiMaggio would discover his roots after retirement and visit Nettuno, the birthplace of baseball in Italy just an hour south of Rome along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Not far from Nettuno is where the historic Battle of Anzio took place, and it was there during World War II that U.S. servicemen taught Italians the game. DiMaggio’s monumental trip is reminisced in City of Baseball.
Closer to home in Chicago’s Little Italy at 1431 West Taylor Street, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is enshrined at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and the neighboring Piazza DiMaggio. These must-see cultural landmarks are the pride and joy of the close-knit community that resonate the strong sense of Italian American heritage in Chicago, Illinois. Founded by George Randazzo in 1977, the immaculate National Italian American Sports Hall of Fameincludes the Tommy and Jo Lasorda Exhibit Gallery, the Grand Piazza Ballroom, the Salvatore A. Balsamo Rooftop Terrace and the Frank Sinatra Performing Arts Center. Nearby Piazza DiMaggio was built in 1998 as a gift from the City of Chicago to Little Italy and features fountains, elegant columns and a very much beloved Joe DiMaggio statue.
Although most baseball fans read about the success Joe DiMaggio experienced on the field, rarely do they hear about the price his immigrant parents paid for a better life in America. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war and began targeting those of German, Italian or Japanese descent. The Italians were the largest immigrant group in the U.S. at the time and about 600,000 of the country’s five million Italian immigrants who had not yet naturalized were forced to register as enemy aliens. Required to carry photo ID booklets and surrender flashlights, shortwave radios, guns, binoculars, cameras and other “contraband,” Italian enemy aliens were subject to FBI raids and nightly house arrest with a curfew from 8 PM to 6 AM. Noncitizens could not travel more than five miles from home without a permit. 10,000 Italians in California were evacuated, mostly from coastal areas and sites near power plants, dams and military installations. Ironically, the half-million Italian Americans serving in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time of the crackdown were the largest ethnic group in the military. Of the 257 Italians put in internment camps for up to two years, 90 were from California. Fishing boats were seized, and thousands of fishermen lost their jobs. In San Francisco, 1,500 people–including Joe DiMaggio’s parents–were idled.
Between the Great Depression and America’s entry into World World II, people were feeling desperate and ready for a hero who personified positivity and optimism for a better future. That hero came in the form of a rising star from a poor Italian fisherman’s family. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio became one of the most accomplished, admired and respected ballplayers of all-time as well as a true American icon. Over the course of his legendary 56-game hitting streak, the Yankee Clipper unified the country while symbolizing the potential for greatness we all yearn to see in ourselves. DiMaggio represented the true American Dream and the belief that anyone from anywhere can accomplish anything if they work hard and put their mind to it. Former President Bill Clinton eloquently said, “Joe DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants, gave every American something to believe in. He became the very symbol of American grace, power and skill. I have no doubt that when future generations look back at the best of America in the 20th century, they will think of the Yankee Clipper and all that he achieved.”
Future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has been fueling the fire of the Italian baseball revolution for nearly a decade. Since joining Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the proud Italian American has had a profound effect on the growth and development of baseball in Italy. Working in tandem with Italian MLB Academy Director and Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg, Piazza has helped Italy become the superpower of European baseball in light of the recent KC Royals signing of five-tool Italian-born prospect Marten Gasparini for $1.3 million. One statistic often overlooked in validating Mike Piazza’s rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is Career Runs Created by a catcher. Based on the 1,378 Runs Created by Piazza–which ties Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk–Team Italia’s hitting coach was the BEST hitting catcher of all-time (Mike Piazza 1,378; Carlton Fisk 1,378; Ted Simmons 1,283; Yogi Berra 1,265; Joe Torre 1,259; Johnny Bench 1,239; Gary Carter 1,184; Bill Dickey 1,164; Gabby Hartnett 1,161 and Jason Kendall 1,112). Defensively Piazza was the BEST catcher of his time in handling his pitchers. In his career behind the plate, pitchers had a 3.80 ERA when he was catching. Checking the stats for all the other catchers who caught the same pitchers in the same year that Piazza did, they allowed a 4.34 ERA. With 12-time MLB All-Star Mike Piazza coaching Italian ballplayers, the BEST has yet to come for Team Italia.
Mike Piazza is a baseball immortal regardless of what a pack of bitter, jealous sports writers think. Everyone knows he was The Man.
“We just want to continue to draw attention to the fact that we believe baseball is marketable in Italy. We think it’s viable. We think there’s a lot of upward growth. We can produce players over there. I’m convinced of it,” said Piazza. 17-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Marten Gasparini–compared to a young Derek Jeter–and 19-year-old lefthanded-hitting catcher Alberto Mineo lead the charge of the Italian baseball revolution spurred by Dodgers scout/Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri and coaches Holmberg and Piazza.
Grazie di nuovo @FIBSpress! Had an amazing time in Veneto. Great coaches convention. Forza Italia!
International baseball ambassador Mike Piazza traveled to Veneto, Italy recently to speak to an enthusiastic audience at the 29th Annual Coaches Convention. Piazza said, “We all overteach and overanalyze hitting. Everyone has their own opinion, but in actuality–just as Ted Williams explained in his book The Science of Hitting--the number one rule is to get a good ball to hit. Gaining an understanding of the strike zone and what you can and can’t hit is the key. Simply spoken, you can’t hit what you can’t see.” Twelve years ago in 2002 Piazza met FIBS President Riccardo Fraccari while visiting Italy on a MLB International mission to help the game develop in Europe. Fraccari asked Piazza if he would be interested in representing Italy in international competition, and the proud Italian American responded that it would be privilege to play for the Italian national team in honor of his Sicilian ancestry. During a 2006 World Baseball Classic press conference, Piazza addressed reporters who questioned why he chose to join Team Italia and said, “You may not understand it, but for Italian Americans getting a chance to finally play for Italy is like a duck chick getting close to the water for the first time.” The Italians have since fared well in the World Baseball Classic, nearly upsetting 2013 WBC Champion Dominican Republic and runner-up Puerto Rico. Piazza’s influence swayed Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo to play for Team Italia alongside other MLB Italian Americans including Padres’ Chris Denorfia, A’s Nick Punto, Twins’ Chris Colabello and Pirates’ Jason Grilli. Piazza’s power of persuasion even impacted the Team Italia coaching staff as former MLB journeyman Frank Catalanotto joined the Italian baseball revolution. Team Italia’s homegrown talent held its own and contributed to the overall chemistry of the squad. Alessandro Maestri–the first Italian-born-and-developed pitcher signed by MLB in 2006 and infielder Alex Liddi–the first Italian-born-and-developed player to make his MLB debut in 2011 have benefitted greatly from Piazza’s guidance and mentorship.
Maestri said, “It’s great to have him around in the dugout. He’s like doing this for fun. He enjoys working with us… That’s why we appreciate it so much. I think he is positively influencing the program that we have. The fact that the team is winning and improving proves it. So that’s why he keeps coming back.” Liddi echoed the sentiment and said, “When you have coaches like Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto—guys who have been in the big leagues for a long time—it makes it fun just to be around them. You’re able to ask them questions and learn from them.”
Piazza has been a proponent of uplifting and preserving his Italian cultural heritage by supporting the efforts of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), George Randazzo–founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and Roberto Angotti–curator of the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibition. Piazza befriended Angotti during the two weeks Team Italia spent in Phoenix preparing for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. When Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda dropped in on Team Italia’s practice at Dodgers’ Spring Training Camp in Glendale to address the team, Roberto knew he was on the frontline of the Italian baseball revolution. Lasorda’s emotionally-driven speech coupled with Piazza’s serious commitment inspired Angotti to share the experience with others through a traveling exhibit paying tribute to Italian American baseball.
Piazza said,”This commitment I have with the Italian Federation is something I really care about. I feel a strong tie to Italy, since my heritage is there. My grandfather Rosario came from Sciacca, Sicily, to the United States and my father grew me up following the Italian tradition pretty much. I think it’s in our DNA to strive to work hard and persevere. Most our ancestors came over to the United States with just the clothes on their back. I think that was the case with my grandfather, who had nothing in his pocket to start a life here in the U.S. When we have the strength and pride of the Italian family with the support we can give one another, it builds character and allows us to achieve our true potential. I don’t think there are a lot of Italian American families that don’t have strong support behind them. I do not pretend to say what is not true, I grew up as an American boy. Now, getting older, I understand the value of my heritage and I want to give something back to Italy.”