Documentary Looks at Baseball Through the Italian-American Experience

“Next to religion,” President Herbert Hoover once said, “baseball has had a greater impact on our way of life than any other institution.”

For generations, the sport was America. It started in the late 1800s, drawing Irish immigrants or first-generation Americans from the Emerald Isle. As the country grew in the 20th century, it drew the immigrants and sons of immigrants who worked in mills and mines. In 1947 – in the days of segregated armed forces and while “separate but equal” remained the law of the land – it integrated. And in the 1950s and 1960s, it started drawing players from Mexico and Central and South America.

And as the country drew Italian immigrants, so too did the game, from the DiMaggio brothers in San Francisco to men like Rocky Colavito, one of the most popular athletes in Cleveland in his day, whose trade is still regarded by some Tribe fans as when it all started to go wrong.

On March 28, a documentary, “A Celebration of Italian-American Baseball,” will be screened at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. The movie will be shown at 7:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion by the movie’s director, Roberto Angotti, author Scott Longert and SABR researchers Joseph Wancho and John McMurray. Tickets are free, and can be gotten here.

Angotti is a Southern California native, and most of the other screenings of the film will be on the West Coast, but he made it a point to have a screening in Cleveland – not just because of the Indians’ history of Italian-American players, but because it’s also home to filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo (whose debut film was “Welcome to Collinwood” and who made it a point to film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in Cleveland).

Angotti received a $7,500 grant from the Russo brothers to make the movie. He was a film major in college, but spent most of his career as a disc jockey and manager for musical acts (he wrote liner notes for box sets by UB40 and Sublime). He’d made a couple music documentaries, but this topic is new to him – at least professionally.

“I worked with the music industry, but I always loved baseball,” he said.

Angotti grew up a Dodgers fan – the team managed at the time by Tommy Lasorda. And although it’s a topic he researched for years, he really made the film in 90 days after getting the grant, traveling with the Italian team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic to get interviews.

One of the things Angotti was fascinated to find was how many players used baseball as a way to transition into other careers – coincidentally in the movie industry. Johnny Berardino, who played for the Indians in 1940s, went on to become an actor, most known as Dr. Steve Hardy for 30 years on the soap opera “General Hospital.” (He remains the only person to win a World Series and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) Ping Bodie – born Francesco Pezzolo – worked as an electrician for movie studios and had a busy gas station not far from the San Francisco Seals’ ballpark. And Lew Fonseca went into movies himself – for Major League Baseball.

“Baseball bridged the gap,” he said. “It’s our entry point into America.”

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