In the golden age of baseball, Italian Americans led the way
By Frank Cipparone
Growing up in postwar America, October delivered three certainties – homework, Halloween candy, the Yankees in the World Series. Autumn in New York brought the thrill of the first pitch, the crack of the bat, the buzz of the crowd. Led by a nucleus of Italian-American players, from 1947-1963 the Bronx Bombers won 11 of the 15 Series they participated in. Every year was, as witty philosopher Yogi Berra famously said, “déjà vu all over again.” With the Giants in Man-hattan and Dodgers in Brooklyn competing for the hearts and minds of the city, baseball was in a New York state of mind. In that same time frame, only twice did at least one of the three not suit up for October action.
The game was different in those days. There were only 16 teams, eight in each league, none west of the Mississippi until 1958. All Series games were played in the afternoon and viewed on black-and-white TVs. As shadows lengthened it really did get late early out there. Wild cards? Divisional playoffs? You had to be at the top of the standings in your league to play in the best-of-seven Fall Classic.
Going back to the Roaring ’20s and the Murderers Row of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, first generation sons of Italian immigrants played a leading role. Frankie Crosetti and Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri, natives of San Francisco, were the lynchpins of the infield in the 1930s. Crosetti moved into coaching during the Yankees run of success in the ’50s.
The second era of Yankee dominance began with the arrival of Joe DiMaggio in 1935. The San Francisco fisherman’s boy would become the game’s most iconic Italian-American player, idolized in Italian communities nationwide. Starting with the next season he led the team to six Series appearances, five of which they captured with a combined record of 20-4. In 1941, the last peaceful year of baseball, Joltin’ Joe grabbed daily front-page headlines and the ears of millions of radio listeners by getting a hit in 56 straight games, a record still considered unbreakable. He hung up his spikes with more home runs than strikeouts, an unimaginable achievement in today’s swing-for-the-fences mentality.
In those postseason contests the Yankees faced other Italian-American stars such as ex-Phillie Dolf Camilli and Cookie Lavagetto of the Dodgers, Gus Mancuso of the Giants, and the Cubs hard-hitting Phil Cavaretta. The most prominent was Cincinnati’s Hall
of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi who won a batting title but was so slow running the bases he was timed with an hourglass.
When DiMaggio went off to war in 1943, pitcher Marius Russo and Brooklyn born Phil Rizzuto helped the team avenge the previous year’s Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Rizzuto, Crosetti’s successor at shortstop, proved to be a dependable fielder and steady hitter who would be part of Yankees baseball into the mid-1950s. He became a fixture
in the broadcast booth for 40 years, calling several Yankee Series victories, many of them punctuated by his signature “Holy cow!” to emphasize a big hit or fielding gem.
As the country returned to normal and players traded khakis for the familiar pinstripes, the Yankees picked up where
they’d left off. DiMaggio and Rizzuto’s return from service coincided with the debut of Navy veteran Larry Berra. From 1947 to ’53 they won six championships that included putting down their Big Apple rivals in five
“Subway Series.” On the losing side were the Giants’ Sal “The Barber” Maglie who drove batters off the plate with pitches close enough to give them a shave; pitcher Ralph Branca and outfielder Carl Furillo of the Dodgers, whose strong arm earned him the nickname
“Reading Rifle;” and their teammate Al Gionfriddo who robbed DiMaggio of a home run with what came to be known as “The Miracle Catch.”
In 1950 the Yankees took on the Phillies “Whiz Kids” who had knocked off the Dodgers on the final day of the season to win the pennant. Led by future Hall of Famers Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn, along with Philly’s own Del Ennis, the untested youngsters gave the New Yorkers all they could handle, losing the first three tilts by
a single run before being swept in four. It wasn’t until 2009 that they met again. In
a Series that reflected baseball’s changing demographics there were no players on either team of Italian descent.
The second game at Shibe Park went into extra innings. DiMaggio sat in the dugout smoking (you read that right), sitting next to a Philadelphia policeman whose beat included the ballpark. As he went up to hit, he handed his cigarette to the cop, telling him “Hold this for me, Frank, I’ll be right back.” Sure enough, on the second pitch from Phillies
ace Roberts the “Yankee Clipper” slammed the eventual game winning homer. Years later, after he passed away, someone cleaning out the desk of former mayor Frank Rizzo found that cigarette in a plastic bag.
For the rest of the 1950s and into the ’60s Yogi Berra established himself as arguably the most influential player in Series history, holding six records that may never be touched. Three are evidence of his impact – most Series and games played in, and most championships won. The kid from Dago Hill in St. Louis was part of half of the Yankees 28 Series appearances from 1926-’64, the one constant, a transitional figure who kept the franchise on track after DiMaggio and Rizzuto retired.
Spanning those 38 years and five decades, the Yankees World Series lineup always featured at least one Italian-American in a prominent role. Over the last 20 seasons fewer Italian surnames can be found in October box scores. Spiezio, Baldelli, Cingrani, Mussina, Descalso, Napoli and others had their moment in the spotlight, but none shone as brightly as those Yankees of the past. If they make it back this year their new sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo might face Giants’ pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, reviving a century old rivalry. Holy cow, wouldn’t that would be something!