One word describes the Italian-American experience in American sports: Winners.
Sticking to just New York City teams is enough for major league baseball. In fact, with Tony Lazzeri on one end and Joe Torre on another, the histories of the New York Yankees and Italian-Americans in sports are virtually intertwined.
The sportswriter Allen Barra recently hailed Yogi Berra as the greatest team player in baseball history. Yogi played, coached or managed in 75 World Series games. A three-time Most Valuable Player, Yogi played on 14 pennant-winning teams and 10 World Series champions. He later managed the Yankees to the World Series in 1964 and did the same for the New York Mets in 1973. And when the Mets won the World Series in 1986, they first had to go through the Houston Astros. And who was in the dugout as a coach for Houston? The ubiquitous Berra himself.
Barra’s claim is controversial in that it places Berra ahead of his teammate, Joe DiMaggio. Along with Bill Russell in professional basketball, DiMaggio’s career as a winner represents the closest thing to perfection in this sub-lunar sphere. In his 13 seasons, the Yankees won 10 pennants, and nine World Series. In DiMaggio’s first four seasons, the Yankees won four consecutive World Series. Whenever Babe Ruth used to visit the Yankee locker room, he always addressed the players as “kid.” With DiMaggio, it was different. The Bambino acknowledged him with a “hi, Joe.”
The incredible 1921 to 1964 Yankee dynasty included Lazzeri, Berra and DiMaggio, but also Frank Crosetti, Phil Rizzuto, Vic Raschi, Marius Russo, Billy Martin and Joe Pepitone. Let’s not overlook the National League. The Brooklyn Dodgers featured 1941 MVP Dolph Camilli and 1953 batting champ Carl Furillo. Sal Maglie helped to pitch the legendary 1951 New York Giants to their stunning pennant win over the Dodgers. Three years later, Johnny Antonelli won 21 games as the Giants won the World Series. The Mets had Bobby Valentine, who piloted the Amazins’ to a pennant in 2000, a squad that included Brooklyn native Johnny Franco, Matt Franco, Robin Ventura and Mike Piazza.
In pro football, one man, Brooklyn native Vince Lombardi, set the standard for excellence during the Golden Age of the ’60s. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers methodically rolled over the opposition, winning the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968. In honor of Lombardi, the winning trophy for each Super Bowl game is now named for the man.
Finally, to the world of prizefighting, where the quest for excellence reached new heights in the career of Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champ in boxing history. Another Rocky, Graziano by last name, battled his way out of the Lower East Side to become a middleweight champion. Carmen Basilio was both a welterweight and middleweight champ. And no one can forget Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull from the Bronx, a middleweight champion and also the subject of a classic film.
We started with Yogi and let’s end with him, too. Ralph Houk, the Yankee general manager, fired Yogi the day after the Yanks lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964. The Yankees then went 11 seasons without a pennant. Call it the Curse of Yogi. In 1976, Yankee skipper Billy Martin brought Yogi back as a coach. The Bombers proceeded to win five division titles in the next six years, plus four pennants and two World Series wins. Billy knew where to go to find a winner.