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SSTN Interviews Larry Baldassaro

SSTN: Today we are here with Larry Baldassaro, Professor Emeritus of Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of a number of baseball books, including Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball (2011), Baseball Italian Style: Great Stories Told by Italian American Major Leaguers from Crosetti to Piazza (2018), and The Ted Williams Reader (1991). His most recent book is Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer.

Larry, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.

You’re welcome, Paul. It’s my pleasure.

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I was so glad to see your biography of Tony Lazzeri. What made you decide to focus a book on Lazzeri?

When I began doing research for Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball (U. of Nebraska Press, 2011), no figure surprised and intrigued more than Lazzeri. I knew a little about him, but I had no idea how revered he was by his contemporaries (both players and the press). He was regarded as one of the best players of his era, both for his skill on the field and his baseball smarts. And among the Yankee players he was second in popularity only to Ruth. Nor did I know that Lazzeri, not Ruth or Gehrig, was acknowledged as the on-field leader of the Murderers’ Row lineup, even as a 22-year-old rookie.

He was also a pioneer; the first player in organized baseball to hit 60 home runs (in 1925, with the Salt Lake City Bees in the Pacific Coast League), one of the first middle infielders to hit with power, and the first major star of Italian descent, a decade before Joe DiMaggio made his debut. Perhaps most surprising, he accomplished all this while being afflicted with epilepsy, which the public knew nothing about.

Given all of that, I could not understand why he had become a largely forgotten figure and that when he is remembered it is for one time at bat; his bases-loaded strikeout by Grover Cleveland Alexander in the seventh game of the 1926 World Series. To my mind, he is one of the greatest “forgotten” players in baseball history, and my goal in writing this book was to restore him to his rightful place in baseball history.

Tony Lazzeri was a major player on a number of great Yankees teams, but he is often overlooked because of some of his more famous teammates including, of course, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. What made Lazzeri so great?

There were several factors that accounted for Lazzeri’s greatness. Obviously one of those factors was his innate talent as an athlete. In his native San Francisco, even as a young boy he was recognized as an exceptional athlete. Fellow San Franciscan and future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin idolized Lazzeri, even though he was only two years younger. “It was Tony who booted the ball to win the soccer match, or got the hit that won the ball game, or carried the pigskin for the winning touchdown,” said Cronin.

In Lazzeri’s era it was a rarity for a middle infielder to hit home runs. At 5′ 10″ and 160 pounds, he surprised people with his ability to hit the ball so far, which he attributed to the powerful wrists and forearms he developed while working in an iron mill from the age of 15. In his 12 years with the Yankees (1926-37) only six American Leaguers, all Hall of Famers, hit more homers and only five drove in more runs.

Lazzeri’s athletic skills were complemented and enhanced by his strong competitive drive. In 1927 Paul Gallico wrote: “Tony is all temperament, fire, fight and push, a natural competitor and a natural born ballplayer.” In 1928, for example, Lazzeri suffered a serious shoulder injury that threatened to end his career at the age of 24. It got to the point where he could only throw the ball underhand. Nevertheless he begged Miller Huggins to put him in the starting lineup for a crucial September series against the Philadelphia A’s at a time when the Yankees were going through a slump. Lazzeri played and the Yankees won three of four to take the AL lead for good.

Another factor in Lazzeri’s greatness was his innate leadership ability, Even as a rookie he was recognized as the leader of the Murderers’ Row lineup that featured Ruth and Gehrig. Regarding the 1926 pennant-winning team, GM Ed Barrow wrote in his autobiography that Lazzeri “was the making of that ball club, holding it together, guiding it, and inspiring it. He was one of the greatest ballplayers I have ever known.” In his history of the Yankees, Frank Graham,. a beat writer in 1926, wrote of the rookie: “Lazzeri had the poise of an old stager and a wisdom that must have been born in him, The other players, who for so long had looked to Ruth to lead them, now were looking to this amazing busher.”

Please tell us about Lazzeri’s most famous strikeout, the one from the 1926 World Series? What was his reaction after that?

When syndicated columnist Bob Considine interviewed him in 1945 at the San Francisco cocktail lounge Lazzeri co-owned, Lazzeri told him that not a night went by that someone didn’t ask him about the strikeout. In spite of a Hall of Fame career, that one at-bat was what most people remembered. Ironically, at the time it happened no one considered Lazzeri the goat of that World Series. Game accounts focused not on his seventh inning strikeout, but on the two errors in the fourth inning that allowed all three Cardinal runs to score in their 3-2 win. The New York Times noted that “The World Series worked itself down to four short words: Koenig’s fumble, Meusel’s muff. Everything was incidental to those two errors.”

It’s unlikely that strikeout would have haunted Lazzeri for the rest of his life had it not come at the hands of one of the game’s all-time great pitchers. In fact, ever since 1939, when the Hall of Fame opened, visitors have been reminded of the strikeout by this note on Alexander’s plaque: “Won 1926 World Championship for Cardinals by striking out Lazzeri with bases full in final crisis at Yankee Stadium.” It’s the only plaque in the Hall on which another player is named for a failure. Today, of course, Lazzeri’s plaque hangs only a few feet away.

The Yankees have had numerous great second basemen including Del Pratt, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Bobby Richardson, Willie Randolph, Robinson Cano, and now D.J. LeMahieu. Where does Lazzeri rank among them?

I don’t feel qualified to give a definitive answer to this question. However, Lazzeri’s statistics put him at or near the top of the list of all-time Yankees second basemen as of the end of the 2019 season. He was first in hits, triples, rbis, and on-base percentage and second in eight other offensive categories.

Also, In his 2001 book, Few and Chosen: Defining Yankee Greatness across the Eras, Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford selected the top five players at each position. Lazzeri was his number one choice at second, ahead of Joe Gordon, the man who succeeded him.

We’re a Yankees blog, but, my father’s favorite player was Ted Williams. Please tell us about your Ted Williams biography.

My book on Ted (The Ted Williams Reader, Simon and Schuster, 1991) was not a biography but a collection of articles from newspapers and magazines as well as book segments that covered his entire career and beyond. Among the writers included are Red Smith, Donald Hall and John Updike. An updated and revised edition, Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life, was published by Northeastern U. Press in 2003

Please share a great Ted William story.

I had the pleasure of meeting my boyhood hero at his home in Hernando, Florida on December 29, 1992. Ted was now 74 and had suffered a couple of minor strokes. I could see that he was moving more slowly, but he was still the same old Ted Williams: feisty, outspoken, inquisitive and, above all, enthusiastic. We sat in matching easy chairs in his living room. Ted was wearing white tennis shoes, tube socks, blue chinos, and a blue polo shirt. As he sat in his chair he would often affectionately pat Slugger, his Dalmatian that sat by his side.

Our conversation ranged from baseball to his children to politics to conservation. When I asked what he thought about the future of baseball, he said: “I’ve got to be optimistic. I don’t see anything but it going up year after year.” He even spoke about attempts to stock the Connecticut River with salmon. Someone who didn’t know Ted Williams might wonder why this guy, sitting there in his Florida home, would even know about stocking the Connecticut River with salmon. Beyond the fact that Ted had long been recognized as one of the world’s great sport fishermen, he was simply an infinitely inquisitive person who knew about a lot more than one might expect of a baseball player.

Ted had campaigned for George H. W. Bush in New England, and both he and the president had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at that summer’s All-Star game in San Diego, Ted’s home town. Following the game, he and his son, John Henry, had flown to Washington on Air Force One and spent the night in the White House. I asked him if he had slept in the Lincoln bedroom. “Yeah,” he said.. “I thought it was a big deal, until I found out that every asshole in America has slept in the Lincoln bedroom.”

He then told me how the president had proudly shown him his collection of fishing reels and trout flies. “He opened the drawer of a dresser, and it was filled with reels, and then he opened another drawer and that one was filled with flies. He was real down to earth. If he was sitting there,” he said, pointing to a nearby chair, “he’d make you feel as comfortable as I hope I’m making you feel.”

We went into his den where one wall was covered with photos, as well as a boxing glove autographed by Rocky Marciano. There were several pictures of Ted from his days in the service, and photos of him with former teammates. “The longer you’re out of the game, the more you realize you played with some great guys” he said. He was especially proud of the photo of him and Jim Thorpe: “There was a hell of a guy.”

Our conversation lasted about an hour and a half, and he couldn’t have been more engaging or cordial. He was no longer the temperamental firebrand he had been as a young player feuding with certain members of the Boston press. They say you shouldn’t meet your hero since he or she could never live up to the image you’ve created in your mind and your illusions will be shattered. No illusions were shattered that day as the greatest hitter who ever lived was concerned about making me feel comfortable in his home.

Fantastic. I love when our heroes turn out to be that…heroes. How great it was to read about what a kind person Ted Williams was to you.

Thank you Larry for spending this time with us today.

I wish you continued success, always.


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