By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President
Since pitcher Cy Young first shouted out these two words to begin a baseball game in 1905, this iconic American phrase has been used by every home plate umpire to start every baseball game for the past 114 years.
Baseball, which began in our country well before the Civil War, has been an important part of America’s social fabric for the better part of 200 years. Baseball’s popularity became so immense in our country that it was commonly referred to as America’s favorite pastime.
As unusual as it may sound, the game of baseball would ultimately play a very important and critical role in the evolution and acceptance of Italian immigrants and their children into American culture and society.
About 4 and a half million Italian immigrants arrived in our country between 1880 and 1920. The vast majority of them were from the impoverished regions of Southern Italy.
Because of their religion, dark complexion and inability to speak English, they were regarded as unwanted foreigners and were treated harshly and often violently by the White Anglo Saxon Protestants who ran the country.
The immigrants were forced to live in poverty in isolated neighborhoods, were forced to accept the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs, and were subjected to abuse, ridicule and violence.
Here are but a few of the tragic events that depict how terribly Italian immigrants were treated. The largest mass lynching in American history occurred in 1891 when 11 Italian immigrants were beaten, shot and hanged in New Orleans.
Other lynchings followed. In 1921, the WASP establishment in America sent a clear message to all Italian immigrants when they orchestrated the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston, and thereafter Italian immigrants continued to be ostracized and humiliated by being treated as enemy aliens during WWII.
So how did the game of baseball help Italian immigrants overcome bias, prejudice and hardship to become accepted in America? Italian-American baseball players, especially those who became stars, were the first important group of Italians to obtain celebrity status in America.
Beginning in the 1920s, 21-year-old Tony Lazzeri became a star playing on what many experts believe to be the best baseball team ever. This Yankee team, known as Murderers’ Row, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. But it was the young Lazarri who was considered the team’s leader. This was the first time people throughout America saw an Italian-American celebrity as someone they admired.
But the most important Italian-American baseball player ever, and without doubt the best known Italian-American celebrity, was the great Joe DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe, also known as the Yankee Clipper, played for the New York Yankees for 13 years. During his outstanding career, he won 9 World Series championships, was a 13-time All-star, won three Most Valuable Player awards, won two batting titles, won two home run titles, and set what many experts consider to be the greatest sports record of all time when he established his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
During the streak, DiMaggio had a .408 batting average, hit 15 home runs and batted in 55 runs. He was the talk of the entire country, as everyone rooted for him to continue the streak from game to game. Americans became obsessed with DiMaggio. Joe became a national hero, and that was wonderful for Italian Americans. Joe conducted himself as a gentlemen and role model not only on the field but off the field as well. Joe DiMaggio created a very positive image for Italian Americans with all other Americans.
Lazzeri, DiMaggio and other great Italian-American baseball players such as Yogi Bera, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy LaSorda, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza all helped to erase the ugly biases and prejudices other Americans harbored toward Italian Americans.
League Park, Cleveland, July 16, 1941 – Joe DiMaggio slides under tag of Tribe catcher Gene Desautels to give Yankees a 2-0 lead in first inning. Just moments earlier DiMaggio singled off southpaw Al Milnar to extend his hitting streak to a record 56 games in New York's 10-2 win pic.twitter.com/5yFS3BkNLU
— Old-Time Baseball Photos (@OTBaseballPhoto) May 7, 2019
In addition to changing the way other people felt about Italian Americans, baseball also helped change the way Italian Americans felt about themselves.
The fact that some Italian American ballplayers could attain celebrity status gave Italian immigrants, and their children, both a sense of pride and a feeling of hope. Pride that some of their own people could attain positions of respect in America and hope that they and their children would also be able to fulfill their dreams in America.
Ultimately, baseball — perhaps more than any other American cultural institution — helped Italian immigrants and their children overcome bias, prejudice and hardship to become fully assimilated in their new homeland.