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.”
It might have been a long shot last November at the Italian American Sports Museum in Chicago when Team Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza and Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo spoke about joining forces to help the Italians in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. With both Italian Americans tracing their ancestral roots to Sicily, residing in the Miami area and sharing a passion for baseball, it was apparent the more they talked that the more they found out about their commonalities. But what instantaneously brought these two even closer together as kindred spirits was their unconditional love for family and their admirable respect for their Italian heritage. Ultimately inspiring both to sport “Italia” across the chest and to give back to the game by participating in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, coach Piazza and slugger Rizzo are the true international baseball ambassadors who may one day share yet another common thread in Cooperstown
and quite possibly Rome as members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in both America and Italy.
Although Rizzo may have a long road ahead to attain the internationally recognized status that Piazza has already garnered, it isn’t the first time that the 23-year-old has had to beat the odds. While a prospect in
the Red Sox organization during early 2008, Rizzo was diagnosed with limited state classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Boston front office as well as Red Sox pitching ace
Jon Lester, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, were supportive of Rizzo in his battle against cancer. By beating this life-threatening disease, the sky was the limit
for this young man’s future. Now a cancer survivor himself, Rizzo is an inspirational role model who helps cancer patients and their families through the ongoing efforts of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation.
Initially interested in playing for Team USA but eclipsed by the stacked MLB All-Star calibre roster, Anthony Rizzo was intrigued by Mike Piazza’s guarantee for a prime time slot in the lineup as Team Italia’s slugger. “He’s just a great kid, and I think it’s just wonderful he chose to play with our team,” said Piazza. “As soon as we saw him walk through the door at spring training we exhaled.” However, if the opportunity arose to play for Team USA in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Rizzo has publicly stated that he doesn’t know which jersey he would wear–which is an encouraging sign for all believers. Piazza, who in many ways serves as his Sicilian baseball mentor, prays that he will stick with his roots and play for Italy. “It is important to have an impact guy like that with not only huge size, but status to play for Italy,” Piazza said. “If he’s finally able to reign in and stay healthy and maintain discipline and hit to all fields in Chicago, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a very productive major league hitter. I think he’s going to be big time for many years to come.”
After Team Italy defeated Mexico and Canada to advance from WBC Pool D play in Phoenix with Team USA to the next round at Marlins Park in Miami, Rizzo spoke proudly in defense of his team and chastised those who didn’t believe Italy would compete in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He said,
“No one scripted us to be where we are. But we had a lead in every game we played in this tournament. Every-one has written us off–we shouldn’t be here, this and that. I think we’ve earned the respect that we didn’t get at all in this tournament.” Rizzo conceded that he didn’t have the greatest of expectations for Team Italy, nor did he have any idea that his experience playing for Italia would be the most cherished of his career. “To be honest, I got over here, played the first couple exhibition games and thought, ‘We have good hitters, decent lineup, guys who do their job,’ and Mexico was the game of my life that I’ve ever played. It was so much fun and energetic. It was crazy.” The drama began in the ninth inning when Rizzo hit a two-run double off Mexico’s closer Sergio Romo to give Italy a 6-5 lead and ended when Italy’s closer Jason Grilli got Jorge Cantu to ground out to second with bases loaded.
Not only was Team Italy victorious on more than one occasion with their come-from-behind 6-5 thriller over Mexico and their Mercy rule 14-4 clobbering of Canada, but the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation were also big winners. Many of the Cubs personnel pledged $500 each to the nonprofit if Italy won at least one game. Chicago manager Dale Sveum joked with Rizzo saying that it was only $50, but the team has the morning meeting and friendly wager on video. All winning proceeds collected by the young Cubbie went to the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. “I made sure to text everyone with dollar signs to get their checkbooks ready,” Rizzo said. Once again Rizzo had beat the odds, but this time it benefited his charitable organization and the many families of cancer patients it serves. There was greater good than a game of baseball here. The lives affected by the good fortune of Rizzo and Team Italy far exceeded the box scores. The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation’s race for a cure to combat this deadly disease coupled with the genetic makeup and clubhouse chemistry among Italian players and coaches made for a winning combination second to none as Team Italy moved on to round two of WBC play along with Team USA at Marlins Park in Miami.
Italy took an early 4-0 lead against the 2013 WBC Champion Dominican Republic. Rizzo contributed offensively with a walk and run scored, but the Italians fell short in a heartbreaking
5-4 loss. Facing elimination versus WBC runner-up Puerto Rico, the left-handed slugger drove a three-run double into the right center field gap to put the Italians up 3-0 in the fifth inning, but Puerto Rico came back to lead 4-3. Rizzo walked in the top of the ninth to represent the game-tying run, but he would be left stranded. Team Italy made Italian baseball history by advancing to the World Baseball Classic second round where they nearly upset the 2013 WBC Champion and Runner-Up. Baseball fans and family in Italy could not be more proud of Team Italia’s performance in front of an international audience. The Rizzo family is originally from Ciminna, which about 30 miles southeast of the capital of Palermo in Sicily. Anthony Rizzo’s great grandfather, Vito, came over from Italy in 1905 on
the Prince Albert and went through Ellis Island. Rizzo’s father, John, remained in contact with his brother’s brother-in-law in Sicily throughout the WBC tourney. John Rizzo said, “They have a small core of baseball fans. It’s like a cult thing.” It won’t be a cult for long as baseball continues to be gain popularity among Italy’s youth. Having won back-to-back European Baseball Championships, the Italian national team has attracted the country’s finest athletes. Analogous to Chinese hero Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin’s contributions to the growth of basketball in China, Italian-born Alex Liddi and Anthony Rizzo are now baseball icons in Europe.
With every Team Italy win came its fanaticism. It was no coincidence that the merchandise booths at Phoenix’s Chase Field had sold out of of t-shirts and jerseys before Italy’s game against Team USA. The onslaught of Italian youth sporting RIZZO proudly on their back has only begun. Just as he has become of the face of the Chicago Cubs franchise, Anthony Rizzo has become the backbone of the Italian baseball revolution supported by Mike Piazza. When the 12-time MLB All-Star catcher becomes the first Italian American to be inducted into both the American and Italian Baseball Hall of Fame, the stakes for Anthony Rizzo to repeat history will set the tone for a Team Italia reunion.
Who would have guessed that at least 454 Italian
Americans have played baseball in the majors
since 1897? The San Francisco Bay Area produced many of baseball’s pioneers and originated the
sandlot playing field in the 1860s. In fact, the
earliest West Coast games were played downtown
on a sandlot where San Francisco City Hall stands today–nearly a century before the Giants and
Dodgers arrived in 1958. So it’s most appropriate Italian Americans at Bat: From Sand Lots
to the Major Leagues, a lavish documentary
exhibition of baseball memorabilia celebrating
the vast contributions of Italians Americans to
baseball, be on display for FREE in Reno, Nevada
at the magnificent Arte Italia through May 19th.
Located at 442 Flint Street, Arte Italia is open
Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 PM
(www.arteitaliausa.com). The chronologically-
arranged exhibition was originally curated by
the Museo Italo Americano, the Italian American Museum of San Francisco, which explains why
there is a strong emphasis on Bay Area teams. However, it plays out perfectly for the climactic
finish to the showcase: an autographed cap
and jersey worn by 2012 World Champion
San Francisco Giants’ lefty starter Barry Zito,
who won the opener of the 2012 World Series.
The exhibit’s co-curator, writer and historian Lawrence DiStasi of Bolinas, has loved the game since rooting for the New York Yankees as a child and playing baseball in the streets of Connecticut. In addition to writing all the text panels for the exhibition, DiStasi weaves together ideas, stories and statistics to depict the Italian American experience. There is a timeline of the years 1845 to 2012, which includes historical points of baseball and Italian immigration into the United States–and most importantly when those two histories intersect. The exhibition highlights several decades: the early days of redefining cultural stereotypes, transcending national barriers in the 30s and 40s, improbable triumphs of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the pride of the modern era, and a dominant presence in the Hall of Fame. Joe DiMaggio is the coveted star of the exhibition, and his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is accented by DiStasi’s text panels which document each hit recorded in the “Dimag-o-Log” that SF Chronicle ran in the Sporting Green every day. Joe DiMaggio, along with his brothers–
Dom and Vince, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, Babe Pinelli, Ernie Lombardi, Rugger Ardizoia, Billy Martin and Jim Fregosi are among the celebrated Italian American players with strong baseball roots to the Bay Area.
Undoubtedly Italian Americans have made important contributions to the game, but
perhaps just as poignant is the profound
effect baseball has had on the Americanization of Italians. Faced with Italian-born parents who opposed his participation in pro baseball and regarded the sport as juvenile as well as not the wisest career choice–Ed Abbaticchio, probably the first person with an Italian surname to play professionally in 1897, was offered a hotel by his father if he would stop playing baseball. Despite the temptation, the ballplayer refused the bribe and pursued his passion for the game. However, some could not withstand the pressure and caved in to discriminatory bias and the constant ridicule sports writers bestowed upon Italian names. Among them was Francesco Pezzolo, who chose a California mining town as his name-sake and became Ping Bodie–the big league center fielder who played from 1911 to 1921.
Italian Americans at Bat: From Sand Lots to the Major Leagues traverses the U.S. cultural landscape and documents an ethnic group’s rise from adversity by celebrating its triumphs in breaking into a sport dominated by English, Irish and German immigrants. However, even the game’s greatest stars had to contend with deep-rooted prejudices and stereotypical misnomers. A May 10, 1939 Life magazine cover story on Joe DiMaggio was laced with gross innuendos: “Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair
slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”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. Lawrence DiStasi, author of “Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II”, reports that 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. “The opportunity to showcase the adversity and accomplishments of legendary Italian American baseball players is one we welcome and relish,” said Kristen Avansino, President and Executive Director of Arte Italia. “For them, it was a way to integrate into the American way of life,” added Arte Italia Program Director Annie Turner. The exhibition brings home
the message that baseball allowed Italian Americans to assimilate into popular culture:
“This most American of sports became a quick way to counter that negative immigrant identity as an outsider.” Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Rocky Colavito, Roy Campenella, Ron
Santo, Carl Furillo, Joe Caragiola, Sal Maglie, Tony Conigliaro, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Mike Scioscia, Ken Caminiti, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Mike Napoli and
former Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bart Giamatti are just some of the legendary Italian American baseball ambassadors that have etched their names into U.S. sports history forever.Italian Americans at Bat: From Sand Lots to the Major Leaguepays tribute to their contributions, and those of over 400 others who have left their unique imprint
on the game. Currently on display in Arte Italia’s upstairs Michelangelo and Leonardo
da Vinci galleries are vintage jerseys, a plethora of memorabilia–including classic baseball cards and autographed baseballs, press clippings of career milestones, an interactive
touch screen computer database featuring memoirs, stats, and career highlights of
Italian American players and 14 World Series Championship managers as well as
over 200 archival photographs of some of the greatest moments in baseball history. With game one of the WBC Semifinals beginning Sunday evening, March 17 at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, fans have plenty of time to see the Italian Americans at Bat Exhibition at Arte Italia. You might even find Team Italy downstairs eating an inspirational pre-game meal prepared by Master Chef Paolo Sari, who has created three distinct regional menus reflecting the culinary traditions of Joe DiMaggio (Sicilia), Tony Lazzeri (Toscana) and Frank Crosetti (Lombardia). Buon appetito! Forza Italia!! Forza Azzurri…