Italian professor’s book remembers one of baseball’s greats

Before Joe DiMaggio ever donned a Yankees uniform, Tony Lazzeri was swinging for the fences. A Hall of Famer and a gifted athlete, Lazzeri wore five World Series rings by the end of his career.

You’ve probably never heard of him. You might have heard of his teammates, though – baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Lawrence Baldassaro wasn’t familiar with Lazzeri either. “I knew he was in the Hall of Fame, and I knew he played for the Yankees, but I never had researched him in depth,” Baldassaro admitted. “When I realized what a major figure he was in his own time and what he accomplished, I thought, his story has to be told. This is too important a figure not to have his achievements chronicled and put into historical perspective.”

So, Baldassaro did just that. His new book , Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer, was released in April by the University of Nebraska Press. The launch was hosted by Boswell Books , and featured a panel moderated by Tom Scheiber , the senior curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The writing challenge

Baldassaro is an emeritus professor of Italian and the former director of the Honors College at UWM. He retired in 2008 after 36 years of service, and he still connects with the university as an instructor in the School of Continuing Education and as a donor who supports the Honors College.

He’s also a baseball fan and loves Italian American history. He’s authored several books on the subject, including Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball (2011). It was during his research for that book that he learned about Lazzeri’s achievements. Not only was Lazzeri an amazing player, Baldassaro found, but he was working against a medical handicap.

“He was afflicted with epilepsy. Every day, he lived with the uncertainty of whether he might have a seizure,” Baldassaro explained.

Epilepsy may have contributed to his death; Lazzeri passed away at age 42 after a fall that may have been the result of a seizure. Whatever the cause, Lazzeri’s early death made Baldassaro’s writing process challenging. As he was researching, Baldassaro reached out to Lazzeri’s relatives and descendants, but there was no one left alive who actually knew Lazzeri himself.

But they had the next best thing.

“Lazzeri’s immigrant father, Agostino, kept scrapbooks of Lazzeri’s career starting from his first years in the minor leagues. (Lazzeri’s) grandson in Oregon invited me to go there and look through these scrapbooks,” Baldassaro said.

He also relied on newspaper clippings from the era. He had to take them with a grain of salt – journalists of the time routinely embellished their stories, and Lazzeri was notoriously reluctant to grant interviews – but the papers revealed the ballplayer’s storied career.

A forgotten legend

Lazzeri was born on Dec. 6, 1903 to Italian immigrants living in San Francisco. At 18, he was signed to the Pacific Coast League, just a step beneath the majors, where he began setting records. In his final year with the Salt Lake City Bees, Lazzeri marked 222 RBIs and 60 homeruns, a feat that had never before been accomplished in the minor or major leagues, until Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927.

Despite his stats, major league teams were reluctant to sign Lazzeri because of his epilepsy. At the time, Baldassaro said, the condition was not wellunderstood and there was enormous stigma attached. And there was the matter of his heritage.

“A lot of teams didn’t want to sign Italians at that time. There were all the stereotypes: They were hotblooded, they were prone to criminality,” Baldassaro noted. Before Lazzeri, only 15 Italian Americans had been signed to the majors.

But the Yankees took a gamble after management learned that Lazzeri’s seizures tended to happen in the morning, so he would be free to play afternoon games. His career took off.

“So, in 1926, there was a 22-year-old rookie playing alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That in itself was amazing. But here’s what’s more amazing: In those days, major leaguers didn’t welcome rookies,” Baldassaro said. “If some kid comes up, he’s there to take your job if you’re a veteran.

“For whatever reason, Tony Lazzeri not only was accepted by his teammates, he was respected by them to the extent that as a rookie, he was acknowledged by the media and the general manager as a leader of the team on the field, like a captain. That’s unheard of, especially on the Yankees.”

Lazzeri played second base at a time where middle infielders generally didn’t hit for power. In his 12 years with the Yankees, Baldassaro said, only six other American League players hit more home runs than Lazzeri, and just five drove in more runs.

“So, he was one of the elite sluggers of his time,” Baldassaro said.

An American influence

Lazzeri becomes even more impressive when you consider American culture and politics at the time, Baldassaro said. As Lazzeri was dominating the minor leagues, Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Act, severely restricting Italian and other southern and eastern Europeans from immigrating to America. As Lazzeri moved up to the majors, the most famous Italian in America, Al Capone, was tightening his grip on the city of Chicago.

“So Italian Americans, who for decades had been belittled, all of a sudden had this 22-year-old kid who was being cheered and admired by millions of Americans. That instilled a sense of pride in these people,” Baldassaro noted. “He was the first to draw Italians into baseball.

“Moreover, it is difficult, I believe, to overestimate Lazzeri’s impact in countering negative perceptions of Italians. As the antithesis of all the stereotypes that had been lodged in the public consciousness for many decades, he helped change the way they were perceived by others.”

Lazzeri’s legacy was cut short by his death. Thanks to his reluctance to grant interviews and his larger-than life teammates, Lazzeri faded into history, despite his accomplishments and achievements.

Baldassaro hopes his book can help change that.

“I’ve never written a biography,” he said. “I felt a great sense of responsibility to this man, to get the story right and to do him justice, and hopefully, perhaps, restore him to his rightful place in baseball history.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science