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.
The Siculi (Sikeloi; Sicels; Sikels) were the native inhabitants of the eastern regions (including Mineo) of Sicily south of the Italian Peninsula over 10,000 years ago. The island of Sicily takes its name from the indigenous Siculi people. With its strategic location at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily is rich in its history of conquest and empire. It is a melting pot of cultures with over a dozen ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants walked her shores. Although the other two indigenous societies of the Sicanians and Elymians assimilated easily with the Greeks, the Sicels constituted a highly developed society that the Greeks respected profoundly. Despite conflict and its desire to remain autonomous, it took several centuries for the Sicels to completely assimilate and amalgamate with their Greek neighbors. Except for the Romans, the Sicels were the only predominantly Italic people to settle in Sicily in large numbers as colonists.
Italy leads all European countries in its number of immigrants to America. Beginning in the late 1800’s, poverty and natural disasters drove Italians out–especially in Il Mezzogiorno, the southern and poorest provinces of Italy. As late as 1900, the illiteracy rate in southern Italy was 70 percent. The Italian government was dominated by northerners, and southerners were hurt by high taxes and unfair tariffs on the north’s industrial goods. Southerners suffered from exploitation by people of the same nationality and religion.
Self-reliant on only themselves for mere survival, southerners had an allegiance to la famiglia (the family) and l’ordine della famiglia (the rules of family behavior and responsibility). Suffering from a scarcity of cultivatable land, soil erosion and deforestation as well as a lack of coal and iron ore needed by industry, life in the South was difficult. Southern Italy was ravaged in the early 20th century when Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna erupted and buried towns nearby. In 1908 an earthquake and tidal wave that swept through the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland killed more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone. For many Italian immigrants, fleeing to the United States was not to be interpreted as a rejection of their homeland. Instead, it defended the Italian way of life because the money sent home helped to preserve the traditional order. Rather than seeking permanent homes, they desired an opportunity to work for a living and aspired to save enough money to return to a better life in the country of their birth. Unable to earn enough to support their families in their native Italy, they were migratory laborers. The majority were young men–aged 18 to 25–who planned to work, save their money and return home. Hoping their absence would not be too long, they left behind their parents, young wives and kids. Fast forward a century later and native Italian athletes are still clinging to their roots and culture despite being lured by U.S. professional sports to homogenize into the American lifestyle. The first Italian-born baseball player awarded a MLB contract was pitcher Alessandro Maestri. Signed by Chicago Cubs scout Bill Holmberg, Maestri never pitched at Wrigley Field–even though he was a Minor Leaguer with a wicked Major League slider. However, the Cubs struck gold in 2010 when Holmberg signed then 16-year-old Italian catching prospect Alberto Mineo to a contract.Now ranked 58th behind #1 Cubbie Starling Castro in the Chicago Cubs Top Players Under 25 Organizational List, catcher Alberto Mineo has his eyes set on making it all the way to Wrigley. The defensive standout with excellent catch-and-throw skills said, “The part that I like most about being a catcher is throwing runners out at second.” The 5-foot-11, 170 pounder has strong hands and forearms which assist his receiving skills and defensive instincts. Blessed with outstanding arm strength and a quick ball transfer exchange, Mineo looks comfortable behind the plate. Exuding confidence as a first-rate catcher, opponents will need to exercise caution on the bases.
Holmberg watched Mineo develop into a natural talent from age 10 and knew early on he was special. Alberto was mature enough to accept feedback and listened to Holmberg and Maestri’s sound advice. He commented, “Both of them, they would always say to me ‘Work hard everyday because there is somebody somewhere else that is working hard to get to the Big Leagues’ and I started believing that I could sign with an American team.” Exercising good plate discipline, Mineo is a patient hitter who jumps on a pitcher’s mistake. “I always think as a hitter that I must wait for my pitch until I get two strikes,” Alberto explained. The left-handed hitting Mineo can demolish the ball with his technically sound swing, and once on base he can demonstrate great speed for a catcher.
After being signed by Bill Holmberg–who also is the pitching coach for the Italian National team and operates the Major League Baseball International European Academy at the Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia, Italy–Ronchi dei Legionari New Black Pantherscatcher Alberto Mineo began his professional career in the month-long MLB Australian Academy Summer League, where he became friends with Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim promising pitching prospect Alex DaSilva–who later moved up the competitive ladder to play for the Australian Baseball League (ABL)
2012 Runner-Up Melbourne Aces. Mineo played well in Australia (.270 batting average, 1 HR) as did his Italian mentor Alex Maestri, who was so popular that he won the 2012 ABL Fan Choice Award.
The ABL’s first Italian pitcher/catcher combo with Maestri and Mineo could become reality if Alberto has his way. Mineo commented, “I had a nice experience in Australia, where I met a lot of great players that I still remain in contact with via facebook. I would really like to play with Alex in the ABL.” The dynamic duo could possibly make their debut in the near future as members of the Italian National team under the guidance and direction of pitching coach Bill Holmberg and former Major League Baseball All-Star hitting coach Mike Piazza. Mineo has played as a member of several Italian National teams at various levels– including the 18 Under Junior World Championship in Thunder Bay, Canada. Italian National team catcher Francisco Cervelli of the New York Yankees now has Mineo as back-up.
Mineo said, “I don’t feel the pressure to be the next Italian to make it in MLB. I just want to have fun and enjoy this amazing experience that I’m living right now. But it would be really nice to play with Alex Liddi on the Italian National team…”
Alberto had an exceptional Cubs 2011 Arizona Instructional League four-game campaign with a
.500 batting average, .556 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. “The Cubs Instructional League was an awesome experience. I really like
to practice with Casey Kopitzke, the catching coordinator. I think he’s really good,” Mineo said.
“So far Cubs Spring Training is going very well. I like to work hard on the field and in the gym. It’s the best place you can go if you love this sport. A couple days ago Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster and Rodrigo Lopez came to the complex to talk to us about the right way to get to the Big Leagues, but my favorite Cubs player is still Marlon Byrd. Inspired to play baseball at age five by his father and become a catcher three years later, Alberto followed American baseball religiously. “My favorite player has always been Derek Jeter. Now it is Joe Mauer. I really like how he plays, and I also think that he’s a very professional guy,” Mineo said. Although there had been a long-time association of Italians being die-hard Cubbie fans,
the connection got even stronger when the late and great Hall of Fame Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray–whose real Italian last name was Carabina–signed on to the super station WGN Network in 1982. Although he passed on to baseball heaven in 1998, his legacy is still alive and well today as the legendary Caray’s Italian Steakhouse remains a Chicago restaurant icon. Now with Alberto Mineo in the Cubs organization, Italians in Chicago and beyond should rejoice and be thankful for their ancestors’ sacrifices years ago for the opportunities bestowed upon us in 2012. In the case of the young catching prospect Mineo–not only does he possess the natural skills necessary to become a professional ballplayer–
but he has the unconditional love and support of a dedicated team of international coaches, players, fans and family to be a true Italian baseball ambassador worldwide. Forza Italia!