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Italian Americans in Baseball
By LAWRENCE BALDASSARO
University of Nebraska Press Copyright © 2011 Lawrence Baldassaro
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ed Abbaticchio
In one of the first stories on Joe DiMaggio to appear in a national publication, Quentin Reynolds, associate editor of Collier's magazine, recounted the following exchange among baseball writers covering spring training in 1936: "'He says you pronounce it Dee-Mah-gee-o,' one of the sports writers said gloomily. 'That's a very tough name to pronounce and also tough to spell,' another added. 'DiMaggio sounds like something you put on a steak,' one writer said in disgust."
That same spring, following several letters from readers offering the correct pronunciation of the DiMaggio name, an editorial note pointed out that in a recent interview with a New York Times reporter, DiMaggio himself said that "if there is any further argument on this point he will have to change his name to Smith."
From the time Italian Americans first appeared in the Major Leagues, sportswriters and typesetters were baffled by their names. Compared to the more familiar Anglo-Saxon and Celtic names that dominated baseball rosters, Italian names seemed long and confusing; they did not trip off the tongue like "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Both phonetically and culturally, their foreign-sounding names set Italians apart, a reminder that they were somehow not quite as American as those who had come before them.
Since so many Italian immigrants changed their names precisely to be less "different," it is impossible to identify with absolute certainty the first Major Leaguer of Italian descent. There is no question, however, as to who was the first to have a significant career. Between 1897 and 1910, Ed Abbaticchio spent all or part of nine seasons playing for Philadelphia, Boston, and Pittsburgh in the National League. And for one year at least he was one of the highest-paid players in baseball. In many ways he was atypical of the early Italian American ballplayers who would follow him in the Major Leagues, most of whom would be second-generation sons of unskilled working-class immigrants who came to the United States after 1880.
Unlike most of the Italians who would immigrate in later years, Abbaticchio's father, Archangelo, came to America out of curiosity, not necessity. Born in 1842 near Naples, where he became a well-established and prosperous barber, Archangelo was convinced by a sea captain friend to sail to the New World. He arrived in 1873, at the age of thirty-one, almost a decade before the large wave of Italian immigration would begin. His initial curiosity turned to desperation when his money was stolen in New York City. Armed with a letter of introduction from his uncle, a priest in Naples, he made his way to St. Vincent's Monastery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There, with the help of the local Benedictines, he was able to open a barber shop. A shrewd businessman, he soon had a chain of shops and began to acquire property, including a tavern/hotel. By 1875 he felt secure enough to bring his wife and four children to the United States.
The first of four additional children to be born in America, Edward James Abbaticchio was born in Latrobe on April 15, 1877. At a time when only about 5 percent of Americans even finished high school, Abbaticchio received a master of accounts degree in 1895 from St. Mary's College in North Carolina. His education would suggest that he was preparing for a career in business, but he chose instead to be a professional baseball player. For the son of Italian immigrants baseball was a most unlikely and unpromising career choice in the 1890s. Nevertheless, after playing semi-pro ball in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Abbaticchio, a twenty-year-old five-foot-eleven, 170-pound infielder, began his Major League career with a brief three-game stint with the Philadelphia Phillies in September 1897.
Even before he appeared in his first Major League game with the Phillies, Abbaticchio already had made his debut as a professional athlete, but as a football player. In 1895 the town of Latrobe fielded what is generally acknowledged as the first professional football team in the country. Abbaticchio was its star fullback and kicker, earning fifty dollars a game. According to coaching legend Fielding Yost, Abbaticchio also made a historic contribution to football: he created the spiral punt. Yost claimed that he saw Abbaticchio kick the spiral in Latrobe, learned the technique from him, then taught it to his kickers at the University of Michigan. Abbaticchio, who continued to play football until 1900, was not only in all probability the first Italian American to play in the Major Leagues, but he was also the first two-sport professional athlete.
In 1898 Abbaticchio appeared in twenty-five games for the Phillies, but it would be five years before he would return to the Major Leagues. In 1899 he played for Minneapolis of the Western League and in 1900—the year the circuit changed its name to the American League—for Milwaukee, where his manager was Connie Mack. He then spent the next two years with Nashville in the newly organized Southern League.
There is ample evidence that Abbaticchio was highly regarded by knowledgeable baseball people of that era. In 1901, the year that the American League declared itself a major league, the legendary Connie Mack became manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, a post he would hold for fifty years. In 1902, Abbaticchio's second season with Nashville, Mack sought to lure his former Milwaukee infielder to Philadelphia. On June 11, he sent Abbaticchio a telegram: "What can your release be secured for and what salary do you want?" Abbaticchio, who was making $250 a month in Nashville (the league limit at the time), declined Mack's offer. A Nashville paper reported in 1901 that Abbaticchio was the highest paid player in the Southern League, adding that "Abbaticchio comes of wealthy parentage, and plays the game merely because he loves it."
At the end of the 1902 season the Boston Beaneaters of the National League purchased Abbaticchio's contract for $1,200, and from 1903 to 1905 he was a starter at both shortstop and second base. Then, even though several teams were anxious to sign him, the twenty-eight-year-old infielder suddenly retired from baseball after the 1905 season. According to a Pittsburgh Post story of January 2, 1905, Abbaticchio's father offered to turn his hotel over to his son on condition that he never play baseball again: "His father has always been opposed to his playing in the big leagues and has stipulated that the hotel will revert to him if the well-known short stop ever again dons a league uniform." It is not surprising that his father, a successful businessman, was opposed to his son's chosen career. Abbaticchio, after all, broke into professional baseball when it had not yet gained widespread respectability and ballplayers were generally regarded by the public as undisciplined rowdies. Whatever the reason, Abbaticchio did in fact retire from baseball after the 1905 season to run the hotel in spite of Boston's efforts to resign him.
Connie Mack was not the only big-name manager who wanted Abbaticchio in his lineup. John McGraw, whose Giants had won the 1905 World Series, tried to lure him out of retirement in 1906. McGraw and Giants president John T. Brush both went to Latrobe in an unsuccessful attempt to sign Abbaticchio. It is possible that Mack and McGraw so eagerly sought Abbaticchio for more than his proven ability as a ballplayer. Both managers were actively seeking to improve the image of baseball, and one way to do that was to recruit college-educated athletes who would presumably bring new prestige to the game by raising the level of decorum. The most famous example is Christy Mathewson, the blond, blue-eyed alumnus of Bucknell University who, as the star pitcher of McGraw's Giants, did more than anyone else to enhance the reputation of professional ballplayers during this era. Abbaticchio, Mathewson's former rival in professional football, was likely viewed by both managers not only as a valuable ballplayer who would improve their respective teams on the field, but also as a well-educated gentleman with a college degree who would help better the reputation of both his own team and the game as a whole.
Abbaticchio turned down all offers and announced that if he were to play again, it would be only for the Pittsburgh Pirates, apparently for business reasons. State law required that the owner of a liquor license could not reside outside the state for more than three consecutive months. By playing for the Pirates, Abbaticchio could stay near his hotel and retain his liquor license. So anxious were the Pirates to secure the rights to Abbaticchio that they sent three frontline players to Boston in what would today be considered a blockbuster deal. Claude Ritchey, the Pirates' starting second baseman; outfielder Ginger Beaumont, who had led the National League in hits from 1902 through 1904; and pitcher Patsy Flaherty, who had won twenty-nine games for the Pirates in 1904–5, were all traded for the rights to Abbaticchio in December 1906.
Not only did the Pirates trade away three players for their new second baseman, but they also gave him what was at the time the extraordinary salary of $5,000. To put this figure into perspective, consider that three years later, in 1909, the average Major League salary was under $2,500. In that year two of the greats of that era, Christy Mathewson and Nap Lajoie, made $6,000 and $7,500 respectively. It is even more remarkable that in 1907 Abbaticchio was being paid $800 more than teammate Honus Wagner, who had been a Pirates star since 1900. Wagner, the "Flying Dutchman," had led the National League in hitting in 1900, 1903, and 1904, and in 1906, the year before Abbaticchio joined the team, he led the National League in batting average, doubles, runs, and total bases. The scales quickly tipped in Wagner's favor, however; after holding out, he was given a $10,000 contract in 1908.
Abbaticchio's salary for 1908 remained at $5,000 but not because he hadn't lived up to Pittsburgh's expectations in 1907. He was the starting second baseman, forming the double play combination with Wagner, and drove in eighty-two runs, tying Wagner for second place in the National League. Abbaticchio was the regular second baseman again in 1908, but his offensive production slipped as he hit .250 and drove in sixty-one runs. In that year the Pirates, Cubs, and Giants were involved in one of the closest pennant races in history, and Fred Merkle's base-running blunder, ever after known as "Merkle's boner," led to a one-game playoff in which the Cubs beat the Giants.
At the end of that season, eleven days after Merkle's boner, Abbaticchio himself was involved in one of the more bizarre controversial plays in baseball history that supposedly lost the pennant for the Pirates, who finished one game behind the Cubs. The incident occurred on October 4, in the last game of the season, in Chicago before 30,247 fans, which Sporting Life termed "the largest crowd that ever witnessed a base ball contest in America." With the Pirates trailing the Cubs 5–2, Abbaticchio came to bat in the ninth inning. The traditional account of the story has Abbaticchio hitting an apparent grand slam against the Cubs—which would have won the game for the Pirates and given them the pennant—only to have home plate umpire Hank O'Day overrule the base umpire and call the ball foul. When a fan subsequently sued the Pittsburgh team, claiming that Abbaticchio's drive had hit and injured her, her ticket stub allegedly showed that she had been seated in fair territory.
While this colorful account has appeared in several publications, it has proved to be inaccurate. According to information compiled by Mike Kopf for Bill James's The Baseball Book, the hit was a double, not a home run; the ball was hit not into the stands but into an overflow crowd standing in the outfield; and no record has been found of such a law suit. The only thing that is certain is that the Pirates did not win the game or the pennant.
The following year the Pirates bounced back and won the World Series, but Abbaticchio, now thirty-two years old, lost his starting job and became a utility player. His career ended in 1910, when, after appearing in three games for the Pirates, he returned to Boston, playing in only fifty-two games. He continued to run his hotel in Latrobe until 1932, then retired to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he died on January 6, 1957.
The Name Doesn't Fit
Ed Abbaticchio played in an era when Major League rosters were dominated by players of Irish descent. In September 1906 Timothy Sharp wrote the following in the Sporting News: "The foundation stone, superstructure and even the base ball roof is as Irish as Paddy's pig.... The finest athletes in the world are Irish and it is due to the predominance of the Irish in base ball that the American nation's chosen pastime is the most skillful in the world."
Abbaticchio's teammates on the 1908 Pirates team bore names like Shannon, Clarke, O'Connor, Kane, and Leach; only his surname stretched beyond two syllables. From his early days in professional baseball Abbaticchio's polysyllabic name posed problems for sportswriters, who spelled it in a variety of ways. In one game story in a Nashville paper it appeared as both "Abbatticcio" and "Abbittico." Abbaticchio was also the first in a long line of Italian names to fall victim to box-score shorthand; in the box scores of his first three Major League games, his name appeared as "Abbatchio."
Writers soon resorted to abbreviating his name to "Abby" and "Batty." Nicknames are an integral part of baseball lore, ranging from the merely descriptive (Three-Finger Brown) to the whimsical (Dizzy and Daffy Dean) to the derogatory (Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart). While not exceptional in themselves, "Abby" and "Batty" obviously mask Abbaticchio's Italian origins and may indicate that some compromise of his ethnic background was a necessary condition of his acceptance in professional baseball. At the very least, they suggest a need to anglicize Abbaticchio's identity at a time when fans and the media were not yet accustomed to seeing Italian surnames in the box score.
Newspapers continued to identify Abbaticchio as both "Abby" and "Batty" during his Major League career, and one of those nicknames even became the legal name of one of his three sons. Edward, a physician who taught at Yale, anglicized his surname to Abbey. According to Abbey's son, Edward F. Abbey, the doctor changed his name while a medical student at Georgetown because he thought he would have a better chance to succeed in American society without the burden of a long and difficult surname.
Apart from abbreviating his name, the press paid little attention to Abbaticchio's ethnicity. There were occasional references to his Italian background—he was a "son of sunny Italy" and a "son of Caesar"—but for the most part his nationality was ignored. On one occasion, however, Abbaticchio's presence on a Major League diamond raised an interesting question for one Boston newspaper. On June 7, 1903 (Abbaticchio's first season with the Beaneaters), the Boston Sunday Journal ran a story under the headline "Boston May Contribute to Italian Supremacy in Baseball." The story began by posing a sociological question: "Does the entrance of an Italian into baseball presage another great ethnological movement such as has taken place in the American labor world?" The anonymous writer then wondered if Abbaticchio, "believed to be the first Italian that ever played in a major league," might be the "forerunner of the movement" and if Boston was to be "the headquarters of the movement," as if to suggest that Abbaticchio was the standard-bearer of an organized plan to infiltrate baseball. Noting that while a decade earlier "the large majority of laborers seen in the city streets were Irish" but now "the majority are Italians," the writer posed yet another question: "Will the Italians supplant the Irish on the diamond as they have supplanted them with the pick and the shovel?" The writer then revealed his real concern with the broader implications of "Batty's case." With ever-increasing numbers of Italians ("the most clannish of all the nationalities that emigrate to the United States") settling in Boston, the city "grows more Italian every year."
It is revealing that the appearance of a single Major Leaguer of Italian descent would prompt such a story. Though the piece is ostensibly about the implications of Abbaticchio's arrival for the baseball world, the issues and questions it raises reflect the growing nativist concern with the rapidly increasing numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, in particular the Irish-Italian tensions that existed in the large urban centers of the Northeast.
Excerpted from Beyond DiMaggio by LAWRENCE BALDASSARO Copyright © 2011 by Lawrence Baldassaro. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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