SABR

Review: The Italian Immigrants' Game

By Larry Bonura

This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.

Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball

by Lawrence Baldassaro
University of Nebraska Press (2011)
$34.95 (hardcover); 520 pages

I know you’ve heard of Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, and Joe DiMaggio. But have you heard of Ed Abbaticchio, Lou Schiappacasse, Francesco Pezzolo, or Prospero Bilangio? If you haven’t, then you need to read this book, a beautifully written story of a particular group of immigrants to America—Italians—and how their descendants came to enter, conquer, and meld into baseball.

Lawrence Baldassaro writes that one goal of this book is to “document the many ways that the descendants of those immigrants enriched baseball throughout the twentieth century, both on and off the field.” While not claiming that Italian Americans fundamentally changed the way the game is played, he says his book “is more about the impact the game has had on Italian Americans, as both participants and spectators, in terms of their sense of self identity.”

Baldassaro accomplishes both in a richly researched and thoroughly documented work. Beyond DiMaggio matches the scope of two other essential books on the social history of immigrants, reaching the depth of Peter Levine’s Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (Oxford, 1992) and matching the sheer joy of reading provided by Reaching for the Stars: A Celebration of Italian Americans in Major League Baseball, edited by Larry Freundlich (Ballantine, 2003).

In looking beyond Joe DiMaggio, Baldassaro digs deeply into Italian pioneers from Ed Abbaticchio to Tony Lazzeri. He soon arrives at the turning point: the 1930s, when Italian American players rose to the top of the game. Next, Baldassaro writes about the postwar boom and baseball in New York during the game’s “golden age,” a time in which Italian Americans were still dominant. The 1960s are what he calls the “last Italians,” the ones still rooted in the old Italian tradition but losing their “Italianness.”

Lastly, Baldassaro describes “transitional Italians” from the 1970s, who were clearly more American than Italian. In addition to ballplayers, he also writes about those Italian Americans in labor and management as well as the executive suite.

The history of Italians in American baseball mirrors the history of Italians in America. There was much derision of the Southern and Eastern Europeans who came to America. Name calling was common throughout the early years of their entry, from Ed Abbaticchio’s first games in Philadelphia in 1897, through the end of the 1940s. Outright discrimination was not unusual. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italians were not considered white; they were often not allowed to live in white neighborhoods. Lynching of Italians for various “crimes” was not uncommon. But through it all and despite it all, Italian Americans made their mark in baseball.

Throughout the book, Baldassaro leads off with a short historical background for each section. Then he introduces an Italian player, presenting family information and ending with how the player broke into baseball. He next succinctly blends a short history of the individual as a player, tossing in quotations from his many interviews. He includes wonderful statistics, relating how a player ranked in accomplishing his baseball feats as an Italian and sometimes comparing those stats against those of other major leaguers. Here’s an example on page 72 about Tony Lazzeri:

[Lazzeri in 1927] again hit eighteen homers (third-best in the league), drove in 102 runs, raised his
batting average to .309, and stole twenty-two bases. On June 8 he hit three home runs against Chicago, becoming only the sixth man in American League history to do so. But then, it was an extraordinary year for the entire Yankee team, still considered by many to be the greatest in Major League history. Six players from that roster that won 110 games and swept the World Series are in the Hall of Fame, as well as Manager Miller Huggins and General Manager Ed Barrow.

Baldassaro presents a fair view of the how the nation responded to the influx and advances of immigrants from the 1880s through the 1940s. The 1920s saw the KKK, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and execution, and the passage of the immigration laws that severely restricted Southern and Eastern European immigration. All of these developments created an atmosphere of hostility not only toward Italians but also to other immigrant groups. Lazzeri, one of 16 players identifiable as Italian who appeared in the 1920s, was subject to vilification and called “wop” and “dago” among other terms of derision.

When reading about the success of so many Italians in the major leagues in the 1930s, one gets a clear picture of the struggle they personally had to internalize while at the same time performing the job they were paid to do. You sense the agony of leaving the security and safety of their families and making it on their own, becoming strangers in a strange land. It all makes the reader feel just how difficult it was to be an immigrant in baseball.

Following the Second World War, in which more than one million Italian Americans fought for their country, baseball cleaned up its act and began to rid itself of ethnic slurs. And when Jackie Robinson joined the majors, everyone else was “white” regardless of nationality.

Baldassaro devotes two chapters to labor and management and executives. Here he shows how Italian Americans made their mark in sports media, as umpires, as managers and general managers, and as owners. His last section is about A. Bartlett Giamatti, who gave up his prestigious position as president of Yale University in 1986 to become the twelfth president of the National League, and then commissioner of baseball in 1989. In the author’s words, “No one, I think, better epitomizes the culmination of the evolution of Italian Americans in baseball—or in American society, for that matter—than Angelo Bartlett Giamatti.”

This is an American story as well as a comprehensive study of Italians in baseball. Baldassaro conducted more than 50 interviews with players, coaches, managers, and executives—some with careers dating back to the 1930s—to put all these figures and their stories into the historical context of baseball, Italian Americans, and, ultimately, the culture of American sports. Beyond DiMaggio includes 30 photos, 165 bibliographic entries, and a fairly thorough index.

A reviewer’s job is to help guide you to a book of value, quality, insights, fairness, and, ultimately, revelations about its subject in the hope that you will be transformed. Beyond DiMaggio is one such book.

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