Growing up in Massachusetts as a Boston Red Sox diehard, Larry Baldassaro never cared much for the New York Yankees. He saw the team’s famous Italian-American ballplayers—Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra—as enemies rather than heroic kinsmen.
“I didn’t like them because they were Yankees,” he said. “It didn’t matter they were Italian.
“I hadn’t developed a strong sense of ethnic identity at that point even though I grew up in a house where my mother and grandmother spoke Italian all the time.”
It’s safe to say Baldassaro, a professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, thinks differently today.
His first full-length book, “Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball,” will be published this month. He says the “social history” is the first comprehensive study of its kind, chronologically documenting the progress of Italian-Americans through the 20th century and into today.
“This is not just a celebration of Italians in baseball … I try to put the history or evolution of Italian-Americans in baseball in the broader context of Italian-American history as a whole,” he said.
The book’s release caps off more than 12 years of research and writing and decades of cultural studies.
From baseball to Italian studies
Like countless other Italian-American boys raised in the mid-20th century United States, Baldassaro saw baseball as not only a social, athletic activity, but as a key link to his identity as an American.
“When I was a kid, there wasn’t much importance placed on being ethnic. You wanted to be American,” he said. “One of the best ways to become American was baseball.”
He played little league, high school ball and one year as a semi-professional in western Massachusetts, he said.
Eventually, he wound up at Union College in Schenectady, New York. During the summer following his junior year, he traveled to Florence and Rome. He also paid a visit to his mother’s relatives in Abruzzo.
“These were people I had never met. But they welcomed me with open arms as if I was a long lost son who had come home,” he said. “And that really made quite an impression on me.
“I discovered my roots … both in the sense of culture but also family. And I was hooked.”
He returned to the states and received graduate degrees in English and Italian from Indiana University. He eventually returned to Italy as a Fulbright Fellowship scholar at the University of Bologna.
Ultimately, he finished his Ph.D. and landed a job in UW-Milwaukee’s Italian program. His knowledge and passion for Italian studies continued to grow with every passing year, and his love of baseball had never faded.
A UW-Milwaukee colleague, a professor of comparative literature, was editing the Journal on American Culture’s academic studies of sports. He and Baldassaro talked baseball constantly.
And in fall 1981, Baldassaro’s article on his boyhood idol, “Ted Williams: The Reluctant Hero,” was published. Since then, he has authored numerous articles and edited three books on baseball.
In 1991, he began writing for Brewers Magazine.
For Baldassaro, the work has provided an opportunity to combine his academic and personal interests. And he’s not the only intellectual enjoying such work, he said.
“Baseball and sports in general used to be dismissed as popular culture and not something that serious academics would write about,” he said. “But for many years now, there have been a lot of serious studies about sports and especially baseball, by academics.
“It’s taken much more seriously than it used to be.”
Going well beyond DiMaggio
“Beyond DiMaggio,” represents the pinnacle of his work, he said. He began researching in 1999, spending two weeks in Cooperstown, New York as a scholar-in-residence at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
There he had access to two full time research assistants and extensive records on every player to ever compete in the major leagues.
Baldassaro went into the project with certain expectations, but said he was truly amazed at all he discovered.
“I think the reason you write anything, and especially a book, is because you want to learn something more about a subject that really interests you,” he said. “If you don’t have that interest and passion, it’s going to be difficult to maintain the process all the way to the end.”
In his case, the process involved interviewing more than 50 players, managers and other historic Italian-American baseball figures and traveling to San Francisco, Florida and Minnesota.
“I would never have imagined it would take me 11 years when I started,” Baldassaro said with a laugh.
“The fun was the interviews,” he said. “Talking to these people, that was the best part of the research process.”
Angelo Guiliani, a former catcher for the Minnesota Twins, Joe Torre and Mike Piazza were among his favorite interview subjects, he said.
“Beyond DiMaggio” includes a forward written by Dom DiMaggio.
Baldassaro’s colleague from Brewers Magazine, Mario Ziino, said the book is a thorough, complete publication.
“That way it’s written, it gives you a flavor of what America was all about,” he said.
“Not only Italian-Americans, but baseball historians in general will enjoy (it),” he said. “(Baldassaro) has a very vivid writing style that’s easy to read. It’s a book people should have in the library if they’re historians of the game.”
For more information or to purchase the book, visit www.beyonddimaggio.com.
Baldassaro will do a book signing at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., on March 31 at 7 p.m.