By: Mark Sommer
Life in the United States during the first half of the 20th century was difficult for Italian-Americans, who had darker complexions, curlier hair and were Catholic. They were subjected to bias and discrimination in employment, education and housing, making it hard to assimilate.
Italians were stereotypically portrayed as organ grinders, fruit peddlers and knife-wielding criminals, and referred to as “dagos” and “wops,” occasionally even in daily newspapers. Some of the ill treatment was notorious. Lynching used in the South to terrorize African-Americans didn’t spare Italians, with 11 immigrants strung up on a single day by an armed mob in New Orleans in 1891. Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in a 1921 trial that received world-wide attention, were railroaded into the electric chair despite recanted testimony, sparking protests in major cities throughout the United States and Europe.
The ascent of the Mafia, which had a foothold in Little Italy for decades, and of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy from the mid-1920s to the ’40s, also made Italians suspect to many. Despite comprising the largest ethnic group to serve in the U.S. military during World War II, Italian-Americans, along with Japanese- and German-Americans, had to register as “enemy aliens” with the U.S. government under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942. It called for the compulsory relocation of 10,000 Italian-Americans and curtailed the movements of 600,000 nationwide through travel and curfew restrictions.
That’s where baseball came in. The country’s national pastime played a key role in helping Italian-Americans feel accepted in the country. The sport provided national heroes they could be proud of and who enhanced their own sense of self-worth. Joe DiMaggio, who came up to the New York Yankees in 1936, was baseball’s first Italian-American icon.
Related: The Return of Rocky Colavito
“DiMaggio’s success allowed Italian immigrants to feel they were being accepted in America, and that their children could succeed here,” said Basil Russo, who grew up in Cleveland’s Italian community. “DiMaggio became a national hero during his 56-game hitting streak, and that did wonders for Italian-Americans. After DiMaggio retired, Rocky Colavito assumed that role among the greater Cleveland Italian-American community.”
Russo, a retired judge and attorney, and national president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, said it’s impossible to overestimate how important Colavito was to Italian-Americans in Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio. “During the late-’50s and mid-’60s, Rocky was the best player on the Indians and arguably became the most beloved player in team history,” Russo said. “But Rocky was much more than that to the Italian-American community. Rocky was a class act. He comported himself both on the field and off the field in a very professional manner and in a very dignified manner. That was one of the reasons why the immigrant generation became so attached to him. They admired him, and felt he created a favorable image for Italians throughout the country.” Continue reading at RockyColavitoBiography.com.
Italian Sons and Daughters of America members will get $5 off when purchasing “Rocky Colavito: A Biography of Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger.” Simply enter “The Rock” in the promo code field to receive the special discount.
Featured photo credit: Sherwood Harrington (screenshot)