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"Baseball Is America" -- An Interview With Lawrence Baldassaro About Baseball and the Italian-American Experience

With his latest book,, Lawrence Baldassaro offers a profound analysis on how baseball links to the Italian-American experience.
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Lawrence Baldassaro, professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconcin-Milwaukee offers with his latest book, Beyond DiMaggio, a profound analysis on how baseball links to the Italian-American experience. Publishers Weekly, the international news website of book publishing and bookselling writes about Beyond DiMaggio:

Lawrence Baldassaro explores the role Italian-Americans have played in America's pastime. He offers a straightforward "chronological history of the evolution of Italian Americans in professional baseball" from Ed Abbaticchio, who made his debut in 1897, to such recent players as Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio. Baldassaro is going beyond recapping careers and doling out statistics by exploring deeper topics like the circumstances that made Northern California (birthplace of the DiMaggios) a hotbed of Italian-American hardball talent. He analyzes such sociopolitical factors as how discrimination and family obligations limited the number of Italian players in the first third of the 20th century, and how the changing perceptions of Italian-Americans led to a postwar book of ballplayers whose last names ended in vowels. Baldassaro brings a great deal of affection and merriment to his storytelling--whether he is replaying Cookie Lavagetto's and Al Gionfriddo's exploits in the 1947 World Series or exploring the sporting and cultural significance of Joe DiMaggio.

Baldassaro dedicates his book to his four immigrant grandparents, "for their courage and their gift of opportunity."

1) Please, explain the impact baseball had on your life and when did you discover the passion for the game?

I've been passionate about baseball for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid in the late 40s and early 50s, just about everybody played baseball; it was the undisputed national pastime in a way that is hard for most people to imagine today when there are so many other leisure activities available and several other sports have become wildly popular. I can't explain why I felt so strongly about the game at such an early age; it just came to me naturally. As for the game's impact on my life, I began playing on a team when I was ten and continued through high school, one year of college, and one year of semi-professional baseball. Playing the game simply gave me great joy and I never felt more comfortable or engaged than I did on a baseball field.

I also think baseball was one way for me to identify with American culture. I grew up in an American home. My mother and her mother (who lived with us) were both born in Italy, and my father's parents were Italian immigrants. Although we didn't live in an Italian neighborhood, most of our family friends were Italian. My grandmother would speak Italian to me, but I would answer in English. At that time, people my age did not want to be "ethnic"; we wanted to be American, whatever that meant. Outside the home, my world was American, whether in the street playing with my friends or at school. And because baseball was the American pastime, the game itself was a symbol of American values. In fact, since the turn of the twentieth century, journalists and sociologists had been touting baseball as a symbol of the American melting pot.

2) What is the secret of its success?

Baseball is one of the oldest and most enduring social institutions in America. It became immensely popular in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War. Therefore, its history is richer and deeper than that of any other sport. And more than any other sport, baseball links generations. It's a game that's handed down from father to sons and, more recently, to daughters as well. I inherited my love of the game from my parents (see answer to question #15), and I passed it on to my son.

3) Why is it not catching on in other nations like soccer is?

Baseball has not caught on everywhere, but it has become immensely popular in two parts of the world: Latin America and Asia, especially in Japan. In fact, Latinos now make up about 20% of all players in Major League Baseball, and the percentage is higher than that in the minor leagues. And the growing number of Japanese players who are coming into the Major Leagues are reported on by large numbers of Japanese journalists who report on them throughout the season.

4) How long did you research Beyond DiMaggio?

I began serious research in June 1999 when I spent two weeks at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as a scholar in residence. In the course of my research over the years, I interviewed more than 50 players, coaches, managers and executives.

5) Have you written a baseball book before?

I began writing about baseball in 1980. My first book, which I edited, was The Ted Williams Reader, published by Simon and Schuster in 1992. I then co-edited The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity (Southern Illinois U. Press, 2002) and edited Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life(Northeastern U. Press, 2003).

6) Please explain the connection between baseball and the Italian-American experience?

Not only for Italians but for other immigrant groups as well, baseball was one of the ways newcomers to America learned what it meant to be American. As I mentioned above, journalists and sociologists liked to identify baseball as a major force in the acculturation of immigrants and their children. In the book I quote Ralph Fasanella, the well-known primitive painter born in New York in 1914 to Italian immigrant parents. He said, "We [Italians] were foreigners. We were the ginzos from the other side, and the only thing that made the connection was the baseball game. Baseball was America." I know that in the case of my grandmother's brother who came to the U.S. as a teenager early in the 20th century, he was able to relate to non-Italians primarily because he was a baseball fan; that was his passport to acceptance in America.

In the case of Italian American players, their success, beginning with Tony Lazzeri, a star for the Yankees between 1926 and 1937, instilled in first and second-generation Italian Americans a great sense of pride. I maintain that Lazzeri and later Joe DiMaggio did more to enhance the public perception of Italian Americans than anyone else before them.

7) Would you mind explaining the "spiritual quest for home" and baseball and is it still valid today?

Here I borrow from A. Bartlett Giamatti, who gave up his position as president of Yale University to become president of the National League and then Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He wrote: "For what is baseball, and indeed much of the American experience, about but looking for home? The concept of home has a particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another." I suspect this concept is still valid for those who come to America in search of a new home.

8) You are describing in detail the discrimination Italian-Americans had to endure in the 19th century. Are there still resentments against Italian-Americans?

Certainly the kinds of discrimination that Italian Americans encountered on first coming to America are no longer evident as Italian Americans have largely assimilated into mainstream culture. However, Italian Americans are still subject to the more subtle bias evident in the ongoing media depiction of them as mafiosi (e.g, The Godfather and The Sopranos) and dim-witted "greasers" (The Jersey Shore).

9) How would you describe the contemporary immigrant experience to the U.S. from, for example, Mexico?

I really don't feel qualified to comment on this with any expertise.

10) How do you explain the Italian-American success in baseball?

I don't think there is any specific explanation for Italian American success in baseball that sets them apart from those in other ethnic groups that found success in professional baseball. By the early 20th century, when Italian Americans were coming to America in large numbers, the children of German and Irish immigrants were dominant in Major League Baseball. Like those who came before them, Italian American boys were driven to succeed in baseball because it was one of the few avenues open to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

11) Is baseball still an integrating institution in U.S. society?

Yes, but there are still obstacles. Unlike previous players of ethnic backgrounds who grew up in the U.S., foreigners coming into baseball today are those who immigrate directly from their native countries specifically to play professionally. As I said above these are primarily Latinos and Asians. They face numerous barriers such as language and cultural differences in trying to adapt to their life as professional players and to American life in general. An excellent depiction of these difficulties is the 2008 film Sugar, which depicts the struggles faced by a Dominican player trying to make it in the minor leagues in America.

12) How do you believe is the Italian-American culture viewed by contemporary/young Italians back in Italy?

That depends on their upbringing and their awareness of life in America. Those who are well-educated and/or have relatives in the U.S. probably have a better understanding of the range and depth of Italian American culture, being aware that most Italian Americans have college degrees and at least some measure of economic success, and that some are artists and writers, etc. Other Italians with little if any connection with Italian Americans are probably more influenced by the American television shows they see in Italy (e.g, Happy Days and others) that portray Italian American culture in a less flattering way.

13) What impact did baseball have on your family?

I inherited my love of baseball from my parents, both of whom were fans. (As I said above, one of the appeals of baseball has always been its ability to link generations.) Actually, my Italian-born mother, who came to America when she was four, was even more of a fan. I suspect that for her, as for so many, baseball provided a way to feel more at home in America. Also, when my father was growing up in New Hampshire, one of his brothers was a star baseball player in high school.

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